By Sally Stratakis-Allen
On his first day of daycare, Harry toddled off happily to explore his caregiver Jean’s toys and meet Jean’s little friends. I stood in her kitchen, feeling torn. Should the absence of drama fill me with relief or despair? All around me, children with months of daycare under their belts clung weepily to their mothers. Harry never looked back.
Then, on a bitter New England morning, after eight months of drama-free goodbyes, separation anxiety suddenly and inexplicably invades. Outside the weather is soul chilling, the kind of cold you can’t quite distinguish—are you facing the onset of winter or its last gasp? On this kind of day, only the trees provide clues: either the last resolute scarlet leaves cling hopelessly to the branches while others float gently to the ground, or else tiny clusters of pale green buds perch on the tips of otherwise bare branches. Inside Jean’s house, I pick up my Michelin baby and hold him close, trying to stave off the approaching storm.
“But I like you, Mommy,” he insists, looking solemnly into my eyes.
“I like you too,” I assure him. “You’re going to play with friends and have a good time, and then I’m going to come back and we’ll have a good time together.”
Unconvinced, he clamps his body around mine, ignoring Gracie’s offer of Kipper’s Sticky Paws. More children arrive. More mothers depart. Harry and I remain, frozen in our embrace.
As I attempt to extricate myself gently, he begins to cry and hugs me tightly. His sobs arrest the other four children—Gracie, who has found a willing recipient for her book, huddling with Ella in one corner; Christopher, pushing a large bulldozer back and forth in the center of the room; and Tess, standing by the sofa clutching a nervous-looking plastic Gumby bunny. The children, previously absorbed in their usual play, stop what they are doing to gaze, pensive and sorrowful, at the drama unfolding between Harry and me. Four sets of eyes train on us, four delicate psyches, recalling their own unwelcome separations moments before ours.
Jean approaches us and holds her arms out to Harry, but he only clamps himself more firmly around me, burying his head in my neck.
At moments like this, Jean often invites the other children to comfort the child in distress. “Christopher feels sad right now,” she’ll observe. “Can someone give him a hug?” And without fail, like pack animals responding to the alpha member’s call, the children abandon their books and their bunnies and wander over to offer their support. Earlier in his daycare career, Harry would be the one offering words of encouragement.
“Mommy comes back,” the small sage, marshalling two years of life experience, would encourage, repeating the mantra Jean and I had taught him. Then he would wrap his arms around the crying child’s shoulders, patting gently. Later, when I would pick him up, he would inform me of the day’s events.
“Christopher cried today,” he would apprise me. “He missed his mommy.”
On this day it is Harry, missing me before I am gone. I walk him over to his bag in which we packed, just this morning, a collage we made together from pictures of ceiling fans. It has the look of a ransom note. Jean comes too and proffers a stack of magazines, each collected for its promise of a Hunter Douglas advertisement buried between how-to guides on reducing clutter and features on restored Connecticut farmhouses.
“Would you like to see if there are any fans in these magazines? We could sit at the table and cut them out,” Jean suggests with the studied air of nonchalance practiced by power brokers and paparazzi. “Would you like that?”
Harry pauses, his sob fading like an echo. He frowns, brow furrowed, eyes fixed intently on the magazines in Jean’s arms. Our watershed moment has arrived. Harry will have to decide whether or not to accept this compromise: Mommy will leave, but there will be magazines. Silent contemplation ensues. Tick tock.
“Yes,” he finally decides, a small smile spreading slowly across his face.
My blood resumes circulating. Jean produces a pair of blunt, child-safe scissors. Harry anxiously clutches Architectural Digest in his two plump fists.
Having said my goodbyes, I start to back away as unobtrusively as possible. Only then do I notice the little band of toddlers forming a circle around him. Jean had followed us, and they had followed Jean. Perhaps they sought an answer to the hidden messages contained in Harry’s collages: would today reveal their meaning? Perhaps they smelled insurgency: if Harry prevailed, what might that mean for them? Or maybe they knew the outcome was already written in stone, and they came simply to show they understood. You can have hugs, and you can have Gumby bunnies. You can have Kipper’s Sticky Paws, and you can have bulldozers. You can even have pages of ceiling fans. But it still sucks when mommy leaves.
The moment of separation aches. Space filled by mommy becomes empty space then space filled with magazines and glue and snacks and the playground and an unconscious hour on the mat until daddy comes back, when the real fun gets going doing all the things mommy always says no to. But still mommy does not come back.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the ache, the 10:05 to Grand Central carries me dozens of miles away, where I will fumble with my MetroCard just long enough to miss the downtown express, drink a giant latté, teach in a cave-like library classroom, attend meetings in an intimate conference room overlooking Fourth and Broadway, walk back to the subway, admiring the city lights, the velvet blue evening sky. I will do so many things.
Until that happy moment when our lives converge again. In Daddy’s arms on the train platform, Harry watches two white circles of light in the distance, their circumferences gradually expanding. Inside that train, I have watched the landscape change as first buildings then trees drift past, anticipating the moment my foot crosses the threshold between train and platform, between other life and this life. The train glides to a halt, the doors part with a slide, and I take that step. Harry launches himself against my chest. We smile and look into each other’s eyes. And I don’t need to say it, really, because already in that embrace, the wisdom of Jean’s words pierces the dusk.
Mommy comes back.
Brain, Child (Summer 2006)
Art by Caty Bartholomew
Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.