I frequently sit with parents who exclaim that they no longer recognise themselves since they became parents, that they’ve lost sense of who they were before this life changing event. This is not to say that they resent or regret their parent role, this is more about wondering who they are now and who they are to each other as a couple now that they are parents.
Nothing shocks me more than when a parent tells me that they haven’t been away from their children overnight in 3-4 years…this is not a one off story either! Not only is this not in a parents’ best interests but it is not in the child’s best interests either.
The first 6-8 months of your child’s life is known as the co-dependent stage of development, a time when your child has not yet internalised that they are a separate being to their Mothers and when they look into their eyes, baby simply sees himself reflected back, when they see love reflected in their Mothers eyes they learn that they are loveable and will seek to repeat that pattern in future relationships. This is a time when your child does need as much of you as you can give in terms of physical presence.
At 12-18 months your child begins the transition from object to people permanency…and this is when you must begin to give them distance, space and the opportunity to miss you! This starts at object permanency with your baby throwing their spoon off the highchair (for example), you pick it up, they throw it down again, you pick it up, they throw it down and so this dance continues until you snap and saw “I am not picking that up again” BUT from your baby’s perspective this experience is like magic and is an important milestone because when the spoon disappears they believe it no longer exists, when you make it reappear time and again they gradually begin to internalise that even when they cannot see the spoon, it still exists…object permanency! This is replicated with teddy bear disappearing behind your back “where’s teddy gone” and quickly returning “oh there he is”, and onto peek-a-boo whereby they disappear for you and reappear again. It is important that this concealing and discovery is quick as otherwise it can be quite anxiety provoking for your child, peek-a-boo is every couple of seconds as to be “gone” for too long would frighten your child.
From this stage they are ready to move towards people permanency, when you leave a room initially you cease to exist for them, they might cry when you go and become very excited when you return clinging to you for reassurance…equally they may resent the feeling your being gone caused and in order to defend against it happening again behave as though they don’t care when you come back and punish you for a time, but they do care! It is important to get some skin to skin contact at the point of reunification, a hand, a stroke of the face, a hug, a kiss, whatever works as this is a sensory reconnection and is calming and containing for the child to reassure them that you are back. Their people permanency process should begin with you leaving a room for a brief period of time, build up to leaving house for couple of hours and then they will be better prepared for a more prolonged absence such as a full day at crèche.
Even after the 18 month stage when they have a better grasp on the fact that you exist even when they cannot see you it is good for children to see their parents have a life outside of them, to see you go and come back, it is reassuring for them, particularly in the long-run.
So, far from feeling guilty about leaving your children to go out, it is something you should do for your children! Check out my Fridge Notes section for Top Tips on Parent Time Out.