Separation Anxiety: It’s Not Just for Kids

Eight years ago, I wrote a column for the Abilene Reporter-News – a newspaper for which I still worked remotely as online content editor even though my family and I had moved from Abilene, TX to Little Rock, AR. (My blogging buddy Deana Nall used to write a wonderful, somewhat-similar column for her hometown newspaper, The Baytown Sun.) While I’m trying to take it easy on my carpal-tunnelled wrists and still try to keep up with New Wineskins editions and work on my book, I thought I’d re-post a few of mine, as she has occasionally done with some of hers. My column was called “Parenting on Purpose.”

(originally published October 18, 2002)

I’ve just returned from a three-day business trip a much more enlightened person. Now I know why parents who go on business trips bring home presents and souvenirs for their kids.

It’s not just that it’s a nice thing to do, or that the kids want and expect gifts. It’s certainly not because the kids need more stuff.

It’s guilt.

We bring home little guilt offerings with us to reduce the pouty lips and hurt feelings of the tender little hearts who had to stay in after school care instead of being picked up … who had to share bedtime story space with a sibling instead of having it all to oneself … who only got hugged and kissed and disciplined and listened to by one parent in our absence.

We’re guilty by absence. We’ve messed up their routine. We’ve disturbed their security. We’ve introduced the possibility that there actually could be a gaping hole in the family where somebody should be; a place that no one else can fill.

And we realize how big the holes in our own lives would be if not filled by those little persons.

At dinner during my trip, a young mom and grandmother were trying to encourage their rambunctious five-year-old boy to finish eating so he could go to a nearby playground. I ended a long silence with my traveling companion (who also happens to be my children’s grandmother on my side) by saying, “Sorry, Mom. I hardly know what to do at dinner if I’m not helping entertain two children.”

She shrugged and smiled: “Enjoy it!”

I could, but I couldn’t. I missed them. I couldn’t imagine what it must be like for a single parent who has to go on a business trip out of town. I only get the merest taste of what it’s like to be a single parent when Angi has to take a business trip.

On one of those occasions, little Laura – who has always had more of a challenge with separation anxiety than her brother – came and stood almost out of my peripheral vision while I was working at the computer. I swivelled the chair around to see those big brown eyes. “I miss Mommy,” was all she said.

“Me too,” I told her. I gathered her up in my lap, and we just sat for a long time, not saying anything. When the world was okay again, she went off to play.

My mom was along on this business trip for her own business: dropping off some papers of my great-grandfather’s at a university archive. He was a traveling minister in the Midwest, who occasionally took the train to preaching appointments as far away as Nova Scotia without enough money in his pockets for the return trip. But he always made it back home.

As we drove back, we wondered what it must have been like for him, and for great-grandmother left back home with the boys. Chances are, he didn’t have even enough money to bring home a trinket or two for them.

The two boxes rattling around in the back seat contained little more than that: a cheap glass chess set for new chess-enthusiast Matthew and a plastic combination-lock bank to hold all the money Laura has saved. But, of course, the expense of the gift doesn’t really matter.

It’s the guilt that counts.

Keith Brenton is the father of Matthew, 9, and Laura, 6. He and his wife, Angi, are adoptive parents. As content/media editor, he helps maintain Reporter-News Online and works at home. You can reach him by e-mail at [no longer active], but he admits he doesn’t have all the answers.

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