June 1st, 2009
12:43 PM ET

Separation anxiety: mom's first night away from baby

By Shahreen Abedin
CNN Medical Senior Producer

Leading up to Mother’s Day this year, I suspected my husband was planning something, but I had no idea it would be by far, one of the biggest parenting challenges I would face to date.

On Tuesday the weekend before, Daddy came home and announced he and I were going on a special night on the town on Friday, complete with fancy dinner, Star Trek movie (I don’t mind admitting I’m a fan), and … an overnight hotel stay in the city, sans the munchkin.

It was to be our first time leaving him alone the entire night, and while I appreciated the thoughtfulness of my hubby’s planning, I was immediately gripped by the anxiety of letting go. We had just gotten the hang of leaving our 18-month old son with a sitter on weekend nights, but never for the whole night. I told my husband that I needed a couple of days to think about it.

The plan was that our nanny, whom we all completely love and trust, would take the little man to her home in the afternoon, and he’d stay there overnight. On paper, it was a great arrangement. She has a dog which I knew he’d love, an amazing park in her neighborhood, and although she’s not family, she loves him to pieces and we had no doubt in our minds that he would be well-cared for and have a fun time.

However, my biggest fear had not yet been addressed: He’s never been to his nanny’s house before, and he was going to wake up in a room where he’s never awoken and wonder if his parents have given him up for good. He’s not really talking yet – just a smattering of words and phrases – so how will they know if he’s anxious or scared out of his mind and just can’t say so?

I knew that sooner or later, this day would come. We would need to let the baby stay elsewhere overnight so we could have some much-needed parental down-time. Focus on our relationship as husband and wife, and put the mommy-daddy show on the backburner. I went to my trusty “What to Expect the Toddler Years” book, and felt better when I read that waiting till he was older would not necessarily guarantee it’d be easier (and in fact could be worse), and that toddlers can only learn to be ok with separation when they experience it firsthand. Cognitively, I knew that it would ultimately be good for him because the time away would be good for me, and that usually it’s the parent who has more of a problem with separation than the child.

I knew all this, and I knew that we had even done all the right things leading up to this point: we started out only leaving him at home for a short while with a sitter, then we’d be gone for longer periods at home, and now we can even take him over to someone else’s house for an evening and he has still been just fine, no meltdowns. Timing-wise, he wasn’t going through any dramatic processes like potty-training or weaning from the bottle, so we were good on that front too.

Armed with all this knowledge, I finally agreed to the arrangement. I was proud of myself for getting to this point mentally and emotionally, and I was finally starting to get really excited about the fun night out with my man, just like old times before this life of sleep deprivation, sticky hands, and crayon on the carpet.

As my son waved happily at me, blowing his sweet little good-bye kisses my way, I did cry, as hard as I tried to hold it. When the door shut, I totally bawled for a good two minutes. These were tears partly from the of fear I felt welling up again inside me, but also tears of sadness from knowing that parenting - although joy-filled for most of the ride - is also a life-long process of grieving over letting go of your child, step by step.

Our toddler ended up having a great time, by the way. And so did we, I’m proud to say. Now we’re preparing to take longer trips away from him. So I’m looking for some advice on what’s helped you get through this whole ‘letting them go overnight’ thing – any tricks that helped ease the process, any traditions that have made the experience fun and relatively painless for you and your child? I need all the help – and reassurance! – I can get.

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