Travel & Parental Separation Anxiety
Okay, help?! I’m a teacher who decided it’d be great to take her students on a trip across the country over spring break! I’ve done this before, and it went great. However, you know, I kind of forgot that I didn’t have a baby last time I did it. AND, I decided that maybe it’d be a great idea for my husband and daughter to have some in-law bonding time while I was gone, so I decided to buy them tickets and they’re flying to see Grandma and Grandpa!
Yay! Excellent! Everyone is thrilled (especially Grandma and Grandpa) and now… well… I’m realizing that it’s 9 days away from my baby (she’s 18 months btw) that I have never left for longer than 12 hours EVER. And I’m starting to freak out. Anxiety through the roof – is she going to be okay? Oh no, they’re traveling via car and plane in March when the weather can be crappy – and omg is my baby going to be okay without her Mama? It’s double anxiety of A) I’m away for the toddler and B) The toddler and daddy are traveling, too.
I’m starting to think the toddler will be fine (she’s pretty easygoing and daddy will be there, so she’ll be fine without Mama for a week)… But I don’t think I will be?
Any suggestions on how to deal with this anxiety? I know you’ve spent some nights away from your kids due to work when they were little. How did you cope after the first few days of glorious WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED SLEEP HOW HAVE I MISSED YOU!!!? My husband is suggesting that maybe a counselor or other health professional might be a good idea, but I’m being resistant and stubborn and would rather see if maybe I can deal with it myself first. I feel like I’d be wasting their time for something so minor.
So I’m going to hold off on addressing the whole “first time traveling away from toddler” thing and zero in on your last two sentences. Which I think are really the important part. (Especially because SPOILER ALERT: Your toddler is going to be just fine.)
I have struggled with anxiety…pretty much my entire life. Anxious kid, anxious teen, my 20s were practically just one long existential crisis fueled panic attack until I finally found the right fit with a therapist. Now, a decade later, I admit I could probably use a refresher course on my coping skills, as once again I would describe certain aspects of my anxiety “intrusive” and bordering on “actively impacting my life and coloring my choices.”
So those are two things you need to ask yourself. Is your anxiety about this trip “intrusive,” as in, it pops into your head when you’re doing other things, keeps you awake at night, etc.? Are you able to discuss the trip with your students without feeling nervous/sad/scared? Are you able to shut down the string of worst-case scenarios or do they just keep escalating and jumping to new extremes (i.e. guilt over nine days away –> long-term bonding/developmental issues with your daughter, or bad weather in March –> everybody dead in a plane crash)? Are you aware when the scenarios tip over into irrational/crazy unlikely but still can’t stop playing them out in your mind?
That’s intrusive anxiety, and while it CAN be self-corrected with the proper coping skills (which vary from person to person, hence why a good counselor/therapist can help with a personalized plan), it can also fester and grow and move into the “actively impacting your life and coloring your choices” territory. And that’s when anxiety can really hold you back or just mess a lot of things up. (Turning yourself upside down and inside out to avoid certain triggers, missing out on work or social opportunities, self-medicating with drugs/alcohol, getting sick from lack of sleep, etc.)
Since you at least never float out the idea that you’re considering canceling the whole trip, that’s a good sign! I definitely think you should go on this trip and so should your husband and daughter. I think it’s a terrific idea for everyone involved. I can’t personally speak to how I coped with anxiety about being away from my babies when I traveled, because believe it or not, THAT was never a source of anxiety for me. I love being with my children but also deeply appreciate my time away from them, either overnight trips or just a nice regular date night.
But since you’ve never been apart from your daughter for longer than 12 hours “EVER” (or to use your more guilt-focused language, you’ve never “left” her for longer than that), I’m going to armchair therapistize here and say that this parental separation anxiety existed waaaaay before this trip came up, to some degree or another. I’m also going to guess that you’re a nervous sort of traveler in general, and that’s why this trip is causing an honest-to-God freak out — it’s hitting you in two of your trigger areas. That’s ROUGH. I totally get that.
Like, I have regular old generalized anxiety, plus a very specific anxiety about making phone calls. (I had a tendency to misdial phone numbers as a kid due to a number-based dyslexia and got yelled and cursed at by a woman who thought I was crank-calling her on purpose, when all I was trying to do was call my mom.) If I’m not mindful, these two can be a damn near debilitating combo. If a phone MIGHT result in me getting bad news, or being reprimanded, or saying something stupid, and I can literally spend hours trying to figure out how to get out of making that phone call. (And naturally I can come up with reasons why I’ll get bad news/get reprimanded/say something stupid with pretty much EVERY PHONE CONVERSATION ON EARTH.)
In the end, my anxiety won’t stop escalating until I sack up and make the phone call. I know, right? Ground-breaking. Confronting your fears! Even the stupid irrational ones! It works! If your daughter was the one with separation anxiety my advice wouldn’t be to “never ever leave her side,” but instead I’d recommend regular, successful separations and reunions to help her fully understand that Mama Leaves And Always Comes Back.
BUT. Sometimes we need help getting to that confronting point. Sometimes we need a coping strategy and some life skills. Journaling, list-making, meditation, deep breathing, a mantra or three — whatever lets you work through the feelings and recognize them for what they are. (Valid vs. irrational, realistic vs. needlessly pessimistic, etc.)
I can’t say whether your husband is right and your “through the roof” anxiety really is at a level that would warrant some therapy. But in my personal experience, when a truly supportive loved one is making that particular suggestion, it’s minimally worth seriously considering. Spring break is what…a month, two months away? Is your anxiety getting steadily worse as the trip gets closer? Can you picture yourself being “okay” once you’re on the trip or are you genuinely worried about your ability to cope and focus on your job and students?
I realize this column is like, 99% just me asking YOU questions, but heyyyyy that just so happens to be one of my personal anxiety coping mechanisms. I ask myself questions, one after another, until I get to the root of what I’m really freaking out about. Which often ends up being so weirdly irrational or inconsequential that there’s nothing to do but laugh it off. Other times, the questions help me more accurately gauge the severity of the anxiety, and whether it really is something I can tackle on my own.
Here, I’ll pretend to be your brain, asking you for REALISTIC answers to some possible worst-case “what ifs”:
Will my daughter forget about me over the course of nine days? She is not a goldfish, so probably not. Will she enjoy her time with Daddy and Grandma and Grandpa? Oh my God she’s going to be soooo spoiled. Will she miss me? Who knows, she’s a toddler with a squishy sense of time, but highly unlikely to spend a full nine days weeping over a photo in the corner. Will all the travel logistics go off without a hitch? Well, we’ve all seen Planes, Trains & Automobiles so no promises there, but realistically and statistically this trip poses zero danger to my family than driving to work every morning. Am I a bad mom for taking a work trip away from her? Gurl, don’t even start with that noise. Will I miss her? Yes, of course, and that will suck. But I’ll have plenty of distractions and other duties to focus on, will do my best to stay active, eat well, and get plenty of sleep to keep my emotional state healthy until we’re reunited. Which will feel so good.
(Great! Now your brain got that song stuck in MY brain.)
It’s really okay to be like, “ugh, I actually kinda wish this trip wasn’t happening because in hindsight I don’t like the idea of being away that long.” I’d say that’s a pretty even-keeled response. But it sounds like you’re miles above that level for your husband to make the therapy suggestion. If you’re suffering from anxiety, that’s NOT A MINOR THING. That’s literally what a therapist is there for. Don’t feel ashamed. Don’t mash your fears and worries down because you think they’re stupid — they just tend to grow back, even bigger and uglier.
Your trips are going to be FINE. But I mostly want to make sure YOU’RE fine during the weeks leading up to the trips. It’s really okay to admit that you’re not, and talk to someone who can help.
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