My daughter has a lovey. A’s is a baby blanket, basically, with an animal head in one corner. And like all loveys – whether it’s a stuffed animal, a blanket, or some hybrid of the two – it comforts the baby the way the primary parent or caregiver does. Its texture and smell evoke that important person and calm the baby down. My daughter uses hers to keep me with her, even when I can’t be there in person. The lovey is me. That’s why I should’ve started to worry when she began gnawing at the corners.
I was very young when I first fell in love with babies and decided I wanted to be a mother. (I’m in the photo above in the groovy 70s rainbow jeans with my cousin Jessica.) But I didn’t actually become a mother until I was 45, which gave me a lot of time to imagine what kind of mother I’d be. In those long, exhausting, isolating days of parenting a newborn, I’d talk to myself. It probably sounded like the pep talk an Olympic athlete might give herself before stepping into the stadium: “You’ve been training for this your whole life. Now go on out there and have fun.”
And we did have fun, my girl and I. Almost everything we did, almost everywhere we went, we were happy and in synch. Even when she was tiny, I didn’t struggle to figure out what she wanted. I was responsive to her needs, sensitive to her changing mood, attuned to when she needed to be energized and when she needed to be soothed. And she calmed me down, too. I’ve always been the most comfortable, the most confident, the most “me” when I was alone with her.
For two wonderful years, we lived inside a bliss bubble of mutual regulation. Other people entered our bubble, of course – her dad, other family, other caregivers. But it was mostly us. There was an invisible thread between us at all times. We used the thread to communicate “you are loved” and “you are safe” and to absorb those ideas and translate them into self-esteem and a sense of security.
The lovey had always looked and smelled pretty rough. Like most kids, A hated when we washed it. But now the corners were in tatters. A was the one tearing at it like a tiger cub tearing at the carcass of a wild boar. Yet she seemed dismayed to see how her beloved looked in the cold light of day. One time, she got a chunk of it stuck between her teeth and squawked for me to get it out. When I showed her the little piece of blue fabric that I yanked out, she seemed genuinely surprised to see it. The only explanation I can come up with is that she’d gone into a fugue state, unaware of her actions.
Our bliss bubble seems to have burst. A can’t stand the sight of me some days. She tells me I’m not allowed to walk through the room she’s in. After I’ve had my coffee in the morning, she complains about my bad breath. She slams doors in my face, says she wants “me time.” She’s furious when I won’t pick her up and carry her when I’m already carrying lots of other things. It’s not all the time. I still get snuggles and kisses. But some days, she’s furious at me just for existing.
This has been the most painful part of parenting so far. I’m not going to lie. But then I remind myself that she’s separating from me. There was no way we could stay in that bliss bubble forever. She’s got to go to school and other places without me. This is natural. This is healthy. The timing is perfect. And because she doesn’t have the faintest idea how to sit me down and break it to me gently that our dynamic is about to change, she separates from me with a flurry of insults and a thousand little rejections. This is how my little girl grows up.
Based on: Assesment and Treatment of Difficulties in Mother-Infant Attunement in the First Three Years of Life: A Case History. Beatrice Beebe, Ph.D. and Phyllis Sloate, Ph. D. 1982.