The tango

Drawn to The Song of the Lark , Karin Jurick

Drawn to The Song of the Lark, Karin Jurick

"You stayed around your children as long as you could, inhaling the ambient gold shavings of their childhood, and at the last minute you tried to see them off into life and hoped that the little piece of time you’d given them was enough to prevent them from one day feeling lonely and afraid and hopeless. You wouldn’t know the outcome for a long time.”  

Meg Wolitzer, The Ten Year Nap

. . .

I've been thinking about proximity and parenting. In the early years my closeness to my kids was primarily on their behalf. I mean, of course I enjoyed it, or at least abundant moments of it. But in the early years proximity meant their survival, safety, some element of insurance. I was enlisted to deliver these young, blooming humans to adulthood and I will admit that sometimes I sighed in the service of irrationally demanding infant sergeants and capricious toddlers whose needs sometimes felt a tad at odds--if not inverse--to my own. Sometimes the only time away from them was the moment or two in the bathroom, with a child crying and jiggling the doorknob on the other side. One of the essential tasks of that early relationship felt like a tango, with their pull for closeness and my tug encouraging a little independence in them, a little space for myself. 

These years, right now? I love them.* They are my mama payday: the wry observations and witty banter and deep conversations and giddy discoveries and big dreams and good question-y envelope pushing. I relish these times; I want to inhale those last "ambient gold shavings" of their growing years. It strikes me that, in some ways, the proximity equation has flipped for us as parents and children. It becomes our job (and our joy, usually) to seek them out: Where are you going? When will you be home?  Want to come down from your room and join the family for a while? (Of course this varies with each child and parent and there are many ways older kids and teens still seek proximity. But remember when the worst thing for a young child used to be time out, away from us? Now in adolescence typically the gravest punishment is grounding, having to stay close.)

Don't worry, I'm not in danger of embodying the semi-creepy I'll Love You Forever model of parenting (yes, it's a sweet children's book but does that part, when the mom climbs a ladder, creeps into the adult son's bedroom and rocks him at night, strike anyone else as a little odd?). It's just that both ingredients to healthy attachment and development need advocates: Team Proximity, Team Independence.  The occasional, necessary tug-and-pull tango still happens; we've just somehow, instinctively, switched directions along the way. I don't know when it happened but I sense we're dancing toward the door.

. . .

*Yes. I hear you. Though I completely love this stage, I will be the first to add that the issues and heartbreaks of this later, mid-stage mothering period are much more complex and less easily resolved than a midnight feeding or a sandwich cut on the diagonal

Secure base, activate

We've probably all heard about "attachment" by now, especially in terms of the connection between parents and young children. This concept shows up when babies are under stress and they reach out to get comfort and assurance by connecting with someone they love and trust (usually it's the mama but it can also be the dad or another caregiver). 

[To study attachment relationships, there's a classic experiment called the "strange situation" where a young child is placed in a room with a parent (typically mother) and some fun toys. Then a series of things happen, spaced a minute or two apart: a stranger comes in and sits down, the mother gets up and leaves, the mother comes back in.   While children differ widely on the specifics of their responses, researchers have found that securely attached children move closer to, touch, or glance at their mothers--their "secure base"--when the stranger comes in. They're checking in with the person they trust to make sure their safety is assured. If they're upset or stressed they go to their "secure base" for comfort and security.]

Remember Dumbo and his mother? That's some good secure base seeking right there:

While the attachment research is mostly centered around younger kids, I've noticed (very unscientifically, mind you) that it exists in older kids and teens when they're under stress as well. I'm convinced that we're still their secure bases; it just shows up differently! The stresses are less frequently about physical safety but more often about emotional and social and academic security.

For instance: secure base texting. Sometimes--not always--I'll get a text in the middle of the day from one of my kids: a test has gone badly, someone said something mean, an injustice needs to be righted. They just want to reach out, connect, and be reassured. They want their mom.  A couple of exchanged texts and reassurances later and they're on their way again. Straight-up secure base action.

(Once I was at a conference and got a funny text from my daughter that said just this, in all sincerity:  Mom! If y=2, what's x?   One of my all-time favorites.)

Another example: secure base venting. Sometimes big kids save all the grit and stress of their day just for us. Have you noticed this?! They wear a mask of cheerfulness (hey, sometimes!) and competence and even cool all day long and then, to our utter delight, when they get home to our safe nests they vent and unload the whole mess of stress. In the process, quite often they feel better and we feel worse. They need someplace safe, a secure base to do this. You're it! Consider it a high compliment.  (And if you find yourself getting sucked into the stress of it all, go ahead and call your secure base and then carry on.) 

Have you noticed this phenomenon or is it just me? Where else have you seen it happen? I'd love more examples to support my theory so please chime in...