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The 5 Stages of Separation Anxiety (as experienced by Mom)

Of all of the emotional twisters a toddler can rain down upon a mommy, separation anxiety might be the head-spinningest of all. It’s totally normal, of course: In fact, melting down over a parent’s departure is a sign of healthy toddler development, as they start to learn A), Mommy is a separate person from me, and… wait a minute… B) this means that Mommy could leave me!

No wonder they lose their minds.

My own toddler used to shriek in the window when I went out for the mail. He’s also pound on the door when I ran to the car for the last bag of groceries, and he’d throw himself on the floor outside the bathroom door when I take a shower.I get that it’s normal, but man was it a nightmare.

Fortunately, his meltdowns didn’t last forever… and neither did mine. Here’s how I experienced my son’s separation anxiety:

Stage 1: FEAR

The first couple times I left my son when he was around six months old, his freakouts lasted the whole time I was gone. I’d dramatically tear myself away to the horrible sound of his cries and the sitter/grandma/spouse’s reassurances that everything would be fine—yet the entire time I was away, I was unable to relax. Oftentimes I actually hallucinated that I could still hear him crying… And then I’d return to find that, indeed, he was still crying. Sometimes he was even shaking, doing those gasping-for-air sobs, and I’d start to lose it, too. My eyes would well, my boobs would swell, and I would spend the rest of the day soggily apologizing to him. It was the height of drama, and it infused every separation with a potent dose of fear. Just the slightest quiver of his perfect little chin was all it took for me to become consumed with terror that it would happen again next time. (And indeed it would.)

Stage 2: PRIDE

Eventually, I began getting reports that my kid’s wailing would subside soon after I left; so I began to stress less about leaving him. And soon enough my fear gave way to… an eeensy weensy little bit of pride. Yes, this may be twisted, but I experienced a faint swelling of my chest the many (many, many) times I walked away to the sound of him shrieking, “Mommmeeeeeeeeee!” I must be a good mommy! I’d think. Like, a really good mommy! He loves me soooo much, maybe more than anyone has ever loved anyone! 

Stage 3: HEARTBREAK

The first time I left my son and he didn’t cry at all, I was initially relieved. But the relief was tinged with sadness. I was proud of him, but this milestone kind of represented the end of an era, too. “The next thing I know, he’s going to be driving and having sex!” I wailed to my husband. It was one of those weepy parenting moments where I was acutely aware of how quickly time passes and how fast they grow, and I was totally overcome with the bittersweetness of it all.

Stage 4: ACCEPTANCE

And then, before I knew it, leaving without enduring the Apocalypse became our New Normal, and I was at peace with it. All that earlier stress and sadness was replaced with a grand, unfamiliar mellowness that settled over me. He knows I’m coming back, and *I* know he’s going to be okay while I’m gone… Wait a second; this is a little bit magical. Daycare drop-offs became infinitely less eventful, and my blood pressure became considerably less elevated.

Stage 5: FREEDOM

So you mean I can go to work or for a run or out to dinner or to happy hour or to a concert or to the gynecologist or to the store or to get my haircut, all by myself?! OHMYGOD MEET ME AT THE BAR!



Shannon Kelley lives in Santa Barbara with her son and husband. Her work has appeared in Elle, The Washington Post, and The New Republic, among others; her book Undecided was an Amazon bestseller (Women, Business). Tweet her @Shannon_BKelley.