John and Adam longed to follow the advice of their favorite parenting podcast and teach their 18-month-old daughter Avery to play independently. But when John left her in her playpen to go make dinner, or Adam sat on the couch doing work while Avery played at his feet, they relented to her protests within seconds. They felt torn between a wish to follow what they called “attachment parenting” where they responded to her every need, and to give her space. I began working with them when Avery was an infant around their intense anxiety that something would happen to her. They navigated that first year well, getting out from under the debilitating fear. But when Avery hit toddlerhood, the insecurities returned with a vengeance. We met by Zoom; an unexpected option brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. The visit uncovered a surprising benefit of this new way of working.
Both fathers appeared next to each other on the screen, actively engaged in conversation with me about their guilt over letting Avery experience any distress as they tried in vain to follow the expert advice. Behind them I noticed a well-stocked and colorful play area. From where the laptop was placed, I could see Avery explore the toys behind them. The unusual set up allowed me to watch her while she was in a sense “alone” without being observed by her parents.
She explored her toys before landing on a large stroller meant for a doll. Rather than use it in a conventional way, she picked it up and turned it upside down. She then held it over her head, experimenting repeatedly with her strength and flexibility. I noticed the pleasure in her movements and commented on her sense of mastery. Her dads could “see” through my observations the value of giving her space for her emerging self-separate from them. The period of observation went on for about 5 minutes before she approached Adam, throwing her arms around his neck. Both dads remarked with delight that it was the longest stretch they’d experienced of her independent play. The brief period offered them a glimpse of the joy Avery found in exploration. They recognized that rather than depriving her by letting her play independently, they were supporting her healthy development.
DW. Winnicott, pediatrician turned psychoanalyst, recognized that the capacity to be comfortable alone emerged from early parent- child relationships. He described the paradox that “the capacity to be alone is based on the experience of being alone with someone, and that without a sufficiency of this experience the capacity to be alone cannot develop.” As Avery rejoined our conversation and played in John’s lap, we thought together about what facilitated her playing on her own. It seemed that they were present enough, busy with something that did not directly engage her yet still available if needed. I wondered if looking at work emails on his phone, where Avery saw fully Adam absorbed in something that was not her or being actually alone in a different room while John prepared dinner, was perhaps too much. We problem solved around cooking with a safe play space in the kitchen or work activity on paper that kept her parents from feeling completely absent.
John and Adam longed to follow the advice of their favorite expert but found themselves coming up against a fear that they were causing their daughter harm. I see this dilemma again and again. With time and space to listen to the story, I offer parents the opportunity to reframe the issue. One mother struggled to set limits because of her own authoritarian upbringing. But she came to recognize that the absence of boundaries left her son feeling anxious and out-of-control. Another resisted transitioning her two-year-old daughter into her own room because of deeply rooted feelings of abandonment in her family of origin. But when I noticed the exuberance her daughter showed using her new favorite word “mine,” she saw the possibility that her own space might bring pleasure rather than pain.
Navigating our children on the path to growing up inevitably brings a sense of poignancy on both sides. Parents treasure the sleeping baby in their arms, the school-age child playing in the back yard with friends, even the college student home on vacation. For the child, leaving the safety and comfort of parental care carries its own ambivalence. When families find their way to my practice, I often see them stuck on the loss side of the ambivalence in patterns of interaction that have gone on for months, years, or even generations. Like viewing an Escher print, our process helps to shift focus from the sadness to the joy. Parents find delight in their child’s emerging self while beginning to rediscover their own adult self not fully preoccupied with responsibility for another living being.
Typically, the process of separation of child from parent takes place both gradually and relentlessly. The pandemic put a long pause on this natural progression. As we begin to resume “normal” life many will manage re-entry without significant difficulty and get back on track. But for those with a variety of vulnerabilities, the expanse of time to live in the ambivalence may lead to developmental derailment. Whether 2, 12, or 20 these children and their families will need an extra dose of listening and support to find their way forward.