When Mom Has Separation Anxiety: Learning To Let Go As Your Child Gets Older

The day before my five-year-old had to get on the bus for summer school, we rehearsed what would happen with her toys. The mermaid Ariel stood in for my daughter, her doll Stella represented me, and my husband was Panda. We used blocks to build the bus stop and decided that the couch would be our house. A pink Hello Kitty tin worked well as the bus.

I told my daughter that I would not be getting on the bus with her, but there would be grown-ups at the school to help her to her classroom once the bus dropped her off. She nodded and looked at me with her earnest dark brown eyes of hers, but I wasn’t sure that she understood that she’d have to do this alone.

“You may feel nervous or scared, but I know you can do this,” I told her.

I was talking to myself as much as I was talking to her. The only thing I knew about summer school were the letters I’d received with her bus route, classroom number, and teacher’s name. I contemplated driving her the first day and walking her to the classroom for my own peace of mind, but I nixed that idea: she cried whenever I dropped her off at preschool, and I didn’t want the separation anxiety to continue in kindergarten. Still, was it safe to let a five-year-old go off on the bus by herself? Seeing as hundreds of other kids were doing the same thing this summer, I assumed, “yes.” But a larger question loomed in my mind: Could I let her go?

The last time I felt anything close to this was when I left Zora with our nanny when I went back to work. Since then, I’d dealt with her feeling sad and anxious about leaving me. Now I was the one having trouble letting go.

Then I remembered a conversation I had with a woman whose children were grown. She told me that childhood is a series of endings and beginnings. I remember the sadness I felt when I stopped breastfeeding my daughter. Sure, no more nursing bras and middle of the night feedings, but I felt a pang of sadness that we wouldn’t share that special quiet time together. Or when she passed that infant stage of constantly wanting to be held and transitioned to constantly crawling and exploring, only checking in with me occasionally with a quick glance over her should or touching her fat little hand on my knee before toddling off again.

The first morning of summer school, my husband and I walked our daughter down the hill to the bus stop. I mentioned to anyone who would listen that I felt odd sending my child on bus to a school I’d never seen. My husband narrowed his eyes and shot me a look warning me not to let on to Zora that I was nervous.

“But I know that even if Zora is nervous that she can handle this new situation,” I added.

Bus #714 arrived a bit late. Zora turned to me, her forehead wrinkled, her lips pursed. “I’m going to miss you, Mama.”

“I will, too, but I know that you are going to have a good time,” I told her.

As the bus pulled away, I could her crinkled face in the window with tears streaming down her cheeks. I blew her a kiss and began the walk home with my husband.

“I can’t believe we just put her on a bus and sent her off like that,” I fretted.

The school bus passed us just as we neared our condo. From inside, I could see Zora waving goodbye.

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