08 March 2011

Checking In

There is this thing that toddlers do when they start to move away from their parent to pick up a shovel in the sandbox or reach for a block that is a few steps away. They look back to make sure that their parent is watching. They check in periodically as they move farther away across the playground or park or crowded room. They look back and make eye contact. They make sure you are still there.

Emmaline does not do this.

OK. That may be somewhat of an exaggeration. But the truth is that her distance for checking in is greater than mine. Shouldn't it be the other way around? Shouldn't she get nervous before I do? She is so much smaller, after all, and the legs walking around a room must seem to her like a forest of trees. She can't possibly feel confident of her ability to navigate them and find her way back quickly to me. So how is it that she just doesn't care?

There are children who don't do this at all. They have no concept of connection to their caregiver. Needless to say, this is not what I an aiming for. And I do not mean to suggest that Emmaline is entirely oblivious. She's just a little bit so.

In a bustling corridor at Logan she will take off without a second thought, weaving along and in and out of rolling suitcases and clicking high heels. She does not care that I am right behind her. She has not looked back to make sure this is true.

Last night, in the ER, I enter a room to speak with a family about their two-year-old little boy who I have decided is well enough to go home. As the door closes slowly behind me, he bolts across the room and slips by, past his parents and grandparents, past me, past his nurse, past the half a dozen security guards loitering outside the room next to his. He makes it down one hall and turns onto another, turns again and bursts into the room where simple x-rays are shot. The technician looks up from his computer screen and the two stare at one another for a moment before he is snatched away by one of the security personnel.

This child, nearly a year older than Emmaline, has developed a sense of independence and security of attachment that certainly an eighteen month old should not possess. Am I wrong? Did she already go through the clinging phase of stranger anxiety and I simply missed it? How is it possible that she is so grown up already?

When I leave for work, she waves at the window.

"Bye," she calls out with glee and without a hint of anxiety.

This should make me happy. I should be overjoyed. For Em, playing with Nana or Papa is no different than being with Daryl or me. Does someone want to remind me that this is the point of the grand experiment? That having my parents live here, making them regular staples of Emmaline's daily schedule and life, was entirely the point? I don't need reminding. Not really.

This morning for instance, having gotten home from the ER slightly after 3am and finding myself unable to sleep until closer to 4, I experienced no pangs of guilt at not pulling myself out of bed when Em rose at 7...or 8...or whenever she got up. In fact I forgot to ask my mom about it. I heard them through the haze of a dream in which I repeatedly looked for a bathroom but never found one, realizing even subconsciously that it was not worth the effort to get up and pee. And I slept.

Later, when my feet did finally make contact with the floor, Emma was cheerful and playing. She showed me a book she was reading. She insisted upon joining me in brushing my teeth. She was delightful and obviously happy to see me, but she had not missed me during breakfast or playtime, she had not missed me one little bit.

So is her general failure to check in until she has gone half the length of a football field evidence of her personality, or is it borne from having so many dedicated caregivers. She is an only child in a household of four adults. She had never has to worry that someone might not be there to pick her up if she should trip and fall.

In the past, when I've traveled, I have always somewhat judgmentally wondered where the parents are of the children I see on the streets. Why were they not watching more closely? Why did they not care? And where was that child's anxiety at being out of visual contact even for brief pieces of time? Now I think I may have developed a completely backwards impression of the independent play I was witnessing.

If Emmaline's behavior is any indication, maybe it is simply that these children, living within relatively small and sheltered communities, don't feel the need to check in because there had never been a time when a familiar adult was not yelling distance away. Maybe this freedom in play is evidence of better and closer attachment than most American children achieve. Maybe I should have been jealous instead of puffing my chest up and feeling superior. Maybe in this, as in so many other things, I was entirely wrong.

There are certain things children are supposed to do, stages they go through in their development. 'Every child is different' is a line I use not infrequently in speaking with the families of the patients I care for when I am at work. I should have realized that every child means my child as well. She is not behaving entirely like the textbooks say that she ought to. But I need to accept that this may be a good thing, instead of a bad. Because some things, even when they are out of place, maybe because they are out of place, are entirely wonderful.

And maybe I just need to consider getting Emmaline a leash.

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