There’s always a rat in separation

Here in this neighborhood of bloggers I’m surrounded by teachers and task masters of the first order when it comes to grammar, spelling, syntax, what have you. My very best friends are picky,picky,picky. I have this secret (and I guess, fairly narcissistic) fear that Jane and Bonnie, for example, send each other little tee-hee, tsk,tsk e-mails about the endless parentheses marks and ellipsis over here. That’s just a prelude to saying it’s all their fault I haven’t written anything of substance lately 4 AM and I don’t really give a damn that TypePad’s spell check still, after almost two years, wants to change ‘blogs’ to ‘blokes’. After all, should I be held to a higher standard than Typepad?  I know I punctuate ridiculously. Parenthetically, this post is all Wende’s fault.

Years ago, when I was an outstanding young star in my field (it’s true. I was. I’ve been modest about my professional achievements here and they mostly predated Google and my crowning achievements, those two lovable plagues I call my children. More on them in Chapter II…) I learned to spell ‘separation’ correctly from my mentor, Selma Fraiberg. Yah, yah, you are too young but The Magic Years stood right up there next to Baby and Child Care as the definitive readable work on the early years; Spock did the body and Fraiberg did the mind and spirit. Selma said to me, "There’s always "a rat" in separation" and, even at that early age, that resonated in me. I was 23 years old and she was proofing a paper I wrote that would eventually become a chapter in one of her books. It was on separation anxiety in blind infants and I would ultimately make $13.10 quarterly for 2 years in royalties on my contribution. (As a completely pointless aside, Rich is likely to get a signing bonus for a book offer that will equal a year of my highest salary. I haven’t figured out how I feel about that yet. Suffice it to say that we have been rewarded differently for our contributions to humankind.)

Prior to writing that paper, I had studied the literature and attended conferences with many of the experts on separation anxiety. Bowlby was first and then Melanie Klein and Anna Freud, on to Barry Brazelton, Marshall Klaus and John Kennell (a kind and brilliant man who had the worst comb over ever. I saw him swimming laps at a hotel pool where we were presenting at a national conference and that hair sort of went swimming along side him). The theory was that there were three types of attachments in infants and young children and two of them were doomed to emotional failure (which they would most likely drag forward with them, like so much miserable flotsam and jetsam, into later life).

You had the securely attached model child: this was Baby # 1, who safely made the transition to "out of sight, not out of mind and they’re so swell I want them back, NOW, and if I cry, they will come in just the right amount of time to give me both reassurance and a little nudge towards secure independence and it will be CONSISTENT, so that I can rely on it and feel safe and confident and loved in my world. Forever and ever. Amen" (Was Melanie Klein ever this coherent at 4 AM?)

Baby #2 was not attached much at all, because his mommy and daddy had to chuck him in a baby nursery in the English countryside while they stayed in  London and contributed to the war effort. A decade or two later, substitute foster care or any variation of institutional care. In the 70s there would be huge arguments, played out in the Sunday NY Times, between the Gloria Steinems and the Selma Fraibergs, as to whether this could be extended to include children chucked into full-time daycare at three months of age so mommy would be free to self actualize in the work force. Now that many mothers must resort to daycare for their babies, the discussion, with variations, rages on and we are looking at Gens X, Y and Super Y to see the outcomes, in all their permutations. Does 20 plus hours of interactive media each and every day count as institutional care? Anyway, Baby # 2 failed to grow and thrive, remained listless and lagging behind in all aspects of development as rotating shifts of caregivers bathed and fed and plunked her back in her crib. Very sad. Curiously, we discovered, not always irrevocably so. As rotating caregivers were replaced by primary caregivers, babies sometimes bounced back, caught up and we found that they, too, could maybe become successful babies. (The 70s also brought debate and then recognition that this ‘primary caregiver’ could be daddy, too, or maybe a special nanny or grandparent. Could an adopting primary caregiver be as good as a birth parent caregiver? That would be the ridiculous debate of the 80s, when I hit my professional stride and gave expert testimony at a sensational trial that ultimately ended before the Supreme Court of the United States. The memorable sound bite from that media circus was "Blood calls to blood." Give me an f-ing break. Meanwhile, babies demonstrated that they knew the obvious answer to the definition of "parent" even if the courts didn’t.)

Enter Baby #3. Wednesday’s child. This is the child who is neither securely attached or lethargically un-attached. This is the child who, God help her, is "anxiously attached". In the realm of attachment disorders this is the big kahuna. Every psychoanalyst’s dream (a dying breed). This child doesn’t know who’s coming or going when or where. This is the poor rat child who intermittently gets a reinforcement to his calls for help or reassurance and the response is tied less to his needs than the emotional needs or constraints of his caregivers. These are the children who have Mommy Dearest tending them. Life is one big serendipitous crap shoot. Maybe she’ll come or maybe she’ll shoot crap crack. Maybe he’ll give me a bottle or maybe he’ll hit the bottle himself. ( I’m on a roll here, but darn, if I’m not getting sleepy again.)

Back in my early years as a student under the creme de la creme of teachers and then, as a young but thoughtful psychotherapist, I spent a lot of time considering the whole notion of attachment and separation in human relationships. At first, like most young psychologists, I thought about it as a way of understanding myself (starting in Psych 101, we were all our first and, if we’re lucky, best patients. Then we might possibly go on to consider and help somebody else.). Eventually, I came to appreciate that many of us, through the circumstances of life, struggle with terrible inconsistencies in our relationships. It’s endemic, except to a fortunate few. Obviously, not all to crippling extremes, but it’s not the exceptional person who finds themselves miserably dysfunctional at some point along the way.  And then, as wonderfully resilient as the human spirit can be, fortunate folk find a way to mend and heal and move forward.

Okay, now I’m in a space where I can fall back asleep. This first chapter has been a short course on theory. Chapter II could be an illustration from, say, some person’s own life experience with the ups and downs of separation anxiety. I could make a commitment to posting that here within the next couple of days but, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m so inconsistent it’s not amusing. But I probably will, depending on how I feel. I already wrote it, in my head.
Good book recommendation: A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena de Blasi. One woman’s brave foray into an unlikely relationship. Includes recipes.

McCloud spent his earliest months securely attached to an elderly woman who loved him very much. Then they both got placed into institutional care facilities, not the same one. Then Rich adopted him, loved him very much, but traveled and left him alone frequently. McCloud responded anxiously by peeing around a bit and becoming slightly, ah, large.  Now that he has two caregivers and one is always available to fill his bowl, he lives life as a cat free of separation or attachment disorders. He even feels free to board Friday’s Ark. Mccloudsun

17 responses to “There’s always a rat in separation

  1. I love this stuff! Bring on chapter 2.

  2. I found your post very interesting and some parts of it applied to my own childhood.

    The kitty looks like it has learned security now and contentment. Looking at that sweet sleeping face makes me want to catch a little cat nap myself. Watching a cat going to sleep is to me like taking a sleeping pill.

  3. Hopefully you have better luck getting the posts written in your head out on the internet than I do. I’m looking forward to the next installment…

  4. Oh, my. Your beginnings are the things of my fantasy life. Or, my fantasy life at 15. Only, it wasn’t Psychology I was interested in. . . take a wild guess my direction. Heh.

    This is amazing. And I’m with everyone else, I can’t wait for chapter two. This stuff, truly is the stuff of memoirs–although I will always contend you are far too young to be writing those yet. But, perhaps, you could concede to the “early years” memoir?

    And don’t you dare pull this down!

  5. I am so glad I dropped in the morning. Pretty weighty, but a fascinating narrative. It does reinforce my notion of how difficult life is and yes – we are a resilient species, though you bleed for children who really didn’t get a break.

  6. I’m pretty sure my kids fall into group #1. I hope. A very interesting read. I’ll be looking for more.

  7. The doctor is IN!!

    I enjoy being overly attached to you, Good Doctor. Moreover, ’tis thrilling to be mentioned in the same sentence as our Beloved Professor.

    A rat in the house may eat the ice cream, too, you know.

    I could spend 1,000 days in Venice staring at THE TEMPEST by Giorgione and trying to understand its sublime symbolism. Analyze that, if you will.


  8. Lovely photo!

    There was something about baby attachment on NPR yesterday! The whole looking to parent for comfort when they return vs. pulling away as indicators of long-term emotional health.

    Couldn’t it just be a personality thing too? My girl has never needed much physical comforting, but my son thrives on it, craves it. Can’t see how I parented them that differently.

  9. A very great Chapter 1. I took Psych 101 hoping to figure myself out. Unfortunately, it didn’t help! I thought I would major in psychology and fix everyone. That didn’t happen either. I wound up in an anthropology class that focused on early humans and evolution. I’ve been fixated on our collective, ancient sense of self ever since. I’ve got a stone-tool mind the 21st century.

  10. The reward system does have a strange skew to it.
    I think about the young offduty policeman in Utah who left his pregnant wife to confront and stop a murdering mall shooter.

    His pay puts him in the lower middle class, yet celebrities who contribute nothing bask in megadollars.

    He’s priceless to me, too bad society doesn’t think so.

  11. “as wonderfully resilient as the human spirit can be, fortunate folk find a way to mend and heal and move forward.”

    I love that statement. I think I’ve been one of the fortunate ones.

  12. So glad McCloud has a happy home now!
    He’s a beauty 🙂

  13. I was feeling random, non sequitur. Then I looked up “non sequitur” and found that it means:
    1 : an inference that does not follow from the premises; specifically : a fallacy resulting from a simple conversion of a universal affirmative proposition or from the transposition of a condition and its consequent
    2 : a statement (as a response) that does not follow logically from or is not clearly related to anything previously said.
    The first definition sounds like it was written by a lawyer and it made my head hurt to decipher it so I choose the second one.
    Yes, I am feeling non-sequitur. So here goes.

    I love this description of the separation anxiety and I have always wondered why all kids don’t show it… what happens if a child doesn’t fit into any of these. Nyssa was never anxious to be away from me, still isn’t.

    Thinking about this made me wonder if separation anxiety doesn’t really start with the adults… it seems you and I and several others were consumed with angst when our daughters went off to college a hundred million miles away and then found it totally unnecessary to call us every day…sigh. Could it be the parental separation anxiety being transferred to the baby?

    I think you should write a book… wait, are you telling us that this is the beginning…..we are in on the ground floor? Yeah!

    Hello McCloud. Who knew you had such a hard time before you met Sophie and Vicki…. sleep well dear fellow.

    There was a “rat” in our garage but he went after the dog biscuit and it was on the big trap and …. SNAP… that was the end of him. Does this count in any way?

  14. Very interesting, Vicki. I appreciate your inconsistency but I’d like to hear more about Separation Anxiety. Seems my daughter had a dreadful case of it in her early years but grew up to be quite independent. More info, please. I’m impressed with your background and knowledge.

    And don’t listen to those who comment on grammar and syntax – it’s your blog and you can say it anyway you want! I try to follow the rules but I’m so darn tired most of the time, I really don’t care! When I was new at blogging, I always previewed my comments before I would post them. Now I don’t look back and go for it.

  15. Really fascinating, vicki. I took Psych classes in college (back in the dark ages) as electives and enjoyed them greatly, but my professor was ancient and not terribly effective. As an adopted child, I have had separation issues (I wouldn’t call it anxiety) all my life. I’d really love to know more about it.

    McCloud has beautiful stripes.

  16. That was fascinating, particularly because we have um, consistency issues related to parenting. Not that I’m shooting crack or he’s hitting the bottle, but we’ve found over the years that we have moods, personal tragedies, and deadlines; we get sick, we get tired, we get angry and the upset spills over into our other interactions, and we just don’t react to the same behaviors the same ways every time. I think everyone does that to some extent, but there’s no denying that our kids have a few problems. So yes, please Chapter II, because this stuff is really really interesting, both theoretically and practically.

    And yes, I also took a few psychology classes in college, and loved them, but couldn’t help noticing that psychologists have to spend more time at school than I really wanted to commit to.

  17. You are still an oustanding star in your field, Vicki.

    And trying to follow these decades of debates on separation anxiety makes my head spin, confirming once again that my fuzzy momma brain can’t handle academic debates anymore.

    So glad for McCloud is feeling firmly, consistently, and firmly attached.

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