Finding a healthy separation 2.0

“Healthy separation.” I spent the better part of my decade-long career in residential summer camping touting the importance of a healthy separation for children and parents. When kids have a chance to exercise their muscle of independence, they learn their limits, their capabilities, and their resiliency. During phone calls with nervous parents, I’d often tell them that sending their child away to summer camp was as much a growing experience for them as it would be for their children and that being apart is a learned behavior that takes trust, practice, and reassurance that a reunion is inevitable.

As parents, we spend much of our time building that “independence muscle”. From the first time we leave our children with another family member or babysitter to the first time we leave them at daycare, school, a playdate, a sports practice, or camp, we lengthen the tether just a bit more. For years, ever time I left my kids with anyone else, I always told them “Mommy always comes back.” I said it through a tearful goodbye at my very first daycare drop off ten years ago and it stuck. I’ve said it countless times. The kids can parrot it back to me without thinking. If I ask them “what does mommy alway do?” they’ll shout “Come back!” 

But over the course of this last year, that tether of independence shortened significantly. From those first “stay at home” orders to transitioning to Zoom school to navigating a new normal, our kids have gotten used to being home (and with us and each other). Today, on day 381 since they last set foot in a classroom, our kids went back to school in person and I found myself excited for them (and us!) to have some distance while silently mourning the loss of the constant togetherness this year forced upon us in one of the most beautiful silver linings ever.

Today, on our first day of in person learning after a year at home, we put healthy separation on full blast. While my 4th grader all but ran ahead of us and my 2nd grader nearly skipped with excitement, my kindergartener’s grip on my hand got tighter and tighter as we rounded the final corner to campus. By all counts, it was not the way a first day should go. There was no classroom tour, no parent meet and mingle, no gentle goodbye and careful tiptoe away. Today, we ripped off that “healthy separation bandaid” like one that’s been stuck to your skin for too long and takes an extra hard tug to get off.

With no parents allowed on campus, our girls had to get themselves to class — that alone is a simple task, yet one we would typically never enable on a “normal” first day of elementary school. As we watched the three of them walk away, the kindergartener’s steps slowed and her quiet nerves became audible sobs (from across the parking lot, no less). With no parents allowed on campus, there was nothing we could do but watch and wave, lift an encouraging “thumbs up” and will her adrenaline and bravery to overtake her anxious anticipation. And with six feet of distance required at all times, there was little her teacher could do either except offer her encouraging words. 

As I cried on my husband’s shoulder, the power of this year of togetherness came full circle. There, from across the parking lot, we watched our daughters support their baby sister. We watched our fourth grader tell her it would be okay and show her where we were standing. We watched our second grader hug her sister, dig her stuffed animal out of her tote bag, and bend down with hands on her sister’s shoulders to give her an eye-to-eye pep talk. My own anxiety and heartbreak at not being able to comfort my daughter was quickly replaced by heartwarming pride that our girls had taken care of each other. 

We’ve told our three girls often and since they were very young that their sisters are their first friends and that we expect them to take care of one another. And today, they did just that. They exercised that healthy separation muscle, together. When I picked up my youngest from school, she came running across the grassy entrance and into my arms. The first words out of her mouth were “I had a hard time at first, but then I got used to it.” There it was — case in point — our reunion combined with her resiliency, capabilities, and independence. Healthy separation.  

Psst… I had to label this post “Finding a Healthy Separation 2.0” because I’d already used the healthy separation title once in a blog post seven years ago. After all, the more things change, the more they stay the same…

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