I pulled in to the airport drop-off zone with some trepidation. My wife was travelling overseas for an important course. This meant that our breastfed baby had to travel with her too. For nine whole days, I would be alone at home with the three bigger kids. The oldest two would be fine. They would miss their mum and baby sister, of course, but they are old enough to know that days pass by quickly and people return.
The real worry was our 5-year-old. She has always been prone to separation anxiety when it comes to her parents. Recently, when I was abroad on a four-day business trip, she cried inconsolably each day, missing me. This time, the absent parent would be her mother, the one she has always clung to most tightly.
My wife was running slightly late for her flight. Thankfully, this meant that farewell hugs and kisses were administered efficiently, and with a minimum of ceremony. My wife hurried off towards departures with our baby strapped to her chest, pushing a trolley laden with car seat and bags. We had not driven out the airport gates before the wailing began. Plaintive cries were issued to the skies: “Mama, come back, I miss you. I need you, mama.”
By the time we were half way home, she was pleading: “I want to go back in time, to when Mama was still here.”
Fortunately, I knew the power of confectionary to salve even the most gaping emotional wounds in small children. The usual concerns about sugar, e-numbers and teeth would be hastily shelved, due to the pressing need to cure acute emotional distress. I stopped in town, and brought a still sobbing child by the hand into the sweet shop. Her tear-filled eyes widened as I told her she could have whatever she wanted. She chose a pack of sherbet straws. The sobbing stopped abruptly as she took them in her hand. Then, I told her she could also have a balloon. I placed it in her other hand as we waited to pay. As we queued, I heard a small voice say: “My smile is on my face again because you gave me a balloon.” I looked down, and saw that it was true.
It’s not easy being 5. You feel utterly vulnerable out in the world, especially without your parents. Yet you must bravely go to school, and adjust to its disciplines, and the new and complex social interactions of the schoolyard. You are almost a big kid, going out into the world alone with a school uniform and a bag each morning. Yet when you come home, there are still all those monsters under the bed to worry about.
As the days went by, she became increasingly calm about her mother’s absence. There were skype conversations each evening. The lack of her mother’s embrace at bedtime was eased by the methadone of hot chocolate with two marshmallows. I gave her extra time and attention too. Now that I was her only go-to person, the bond between us deepened by the day. Her older brother and sister were under instructions to be extra nice, which they were – for the most part.
We all missed the baby, and her slapstick antics, her bright smiles and her almost-words. Yet those nights of uninterrupted sleep were profoundly welcomed by my tired body. Each day, my five year old daughter seemed less upset, but she daily came to me to solemnly say, “I miss my mum”.
I would hug her and say: “Of course you do, we all do. She’ll be home soon.” Yet for me, when my closest loved ones are hundreds of miles across the Irish Sea, somewhere deep down, I still feel that they are nearby. For I still feel that warm connection of the heart, which neither time nor distance can dim.