I didn't know where my child's sudden separation anxiety was coming from, until I did the simplest thing: I asked her.
Every parent knows the grueling sleep deprivation associated with a newborn. Despite the infinite love that you have for your child, this mind-numbing exhaustion taxes every fiber of your being. Living in a fog for what seems like years (or is years), you question how you'll even form a sentence -- let alone be responsible for another life.
So imagine how relieved my husband and I were once we had made it past our son Dylan's newborn nights, and then our daughter Jade's two years later. Finally, it was over: We had survived two babies and all the wake-up calls that come with them. We savored sliding into bed at night, knowing that we wouldn't have to awaken for seven long, luxurious hours. We were just beginning to feel rested.
But then, our sweet Jade Elizabeth started crying out again -- once, twice, sometimes even three times each night: "Maaaaamma! I want MAMA!"
Despite my husband's attempts to console our 2 1 /2-year-old, she would kick him away and continue her pleas for me. So I would shuffle into her room, and ask her what she needed. Night after night, I got various answers: "Scratch my itchy," or "Me want some water," or "Where is my Gaga?" (That would be her stuffed polar bear.)
Initially, my husband and I assumed that the night wakings were temporary, and that we'd all soon return to sleeping through the night. But they went on. And on. After about six weeks, I realized that this sleeplessness wasn't just a phase for Jade. One night, in exhausted exasperation, I said, "Why are you waking up and calling for me in the middle of the night?"
Her answer was very matter-of-fact: "I want Mama."
"Yes, I'm here," I said patiently. "I'm just in my room. I am always nearby."
"No." Jade shook her head. "Mama leave me all day."
As a working mother, I couldn't help bristling at her response. I said in my best please do not make me feel bad about working tone: "Jade, I go to work. You know that. Each week I work four days and I spend the other three days with you. You know where I am."
"No," she persisted. "I not know where Mama go. My mama leave me all day."
Her words hung in the air, and suddenly everything made sense. My increasingly curious daughter was truly spending her days (and nights) wondering where I was. She knew I went to "work" in the morning, but as far as she knew, work could be on the other side of the moon.
I immediately started to plan: We'd have a special day and she would come to the office with me. She would ride the train from the suburbs to where I worked in the city and see how I get there. I'd let her gaze up from the sidewalk at my towering office building and meet my colorful coworkers. She would sit in the very office where I have my meetings, and perch at the desk from which I create marketing campaigns, tap away at the keys on my laptop, and call her during lunchtime. She would also get to see where I'd proudly hung her paintings on my office walls.
The morning we set out together to find out "where Mama go all day," the sun was beaming as brightly as her smile. Jade was so proud and determined, sporting her Elmo bookbag in Grand Central Terminal. She absorbed every little aspect of my daily commute. Sitting on the train, she asked dozens of questions about what the day would be like. We stopped at the security desk and got Jade a badge, making her an official employee for the day. On the elevator ride -- a thrill in itself -- she wanted to press every single button, but I explained we only wanted to go to the 22nd floor today.
Our quirky receptionist greeted Jade with a smile and a lollipop. I took her on a quick tour, introducing her to all my "worker friends," as she called them. Everything fascinated her: the water cooler, our awards, the art studio. She followed me from meeting to meeting, reading her books, coloring, and creating with Play-Doh -- and the company president even made a paper airplane that we flew around the conference room. We had a glorious day. When we got home, she burst through the door to tell her brother all about "Mama's work."
And that night? Jade didn't wake up once. I peeked in on her a few times to find her nestled with Gaga with her eyes closed. There was no reason for her to awake with the unsettling fear that she didn't know where her mother was. She was secure, finally knowing exactly where I went each morning, what I was doing all day, and how I returned home to her. My husband and I collapsed into bed, kissed each other good night, and finally slept -- as peacefully as our darling daughter.
Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Parents magazine.