Q&A: friend won’t leave daughter for a weekend

(Still taking comments for the early waking problem below. I’ll put together some common themes and post them Monday.)

Nikki writes:

"I have two good friends from college, A and S.  A is single and lives up north.  S and I are both married and live about 8 hours away from each other in the south.  S has a toddler – will be 3 in October.  A is moving to another country this fall and would like us all to get together this summer.  She and I thought it might be a good idea to get together in my city.  We think S needs a vacation so we decided to offer to pay for her ticket here.  Her parents live 20 minutes away from her and I know they would be more than delighted to keep their granddaughter for the weekend (her husband "can’t handle" keeping her alone – this is a whole other issue I won’t get into).

However, when we presented S with this scenario, she freaked out.  She says there’s no way she can leave her daughter for 2 or 3 days, that she still wakes up in the middle of the night and calls out for her.  S says that her parents won’t be able to handle her for several days.  Now I have witnessed firsthand that her daughter is a high maintence child, but she’s not that bad.  She also goes to daycare 3-4 days a week so she doesn’t spend every second with S.  S wants us to come to her city instead, but frankly neither of us wants to make that compromise again (we’ve been through this before).  S and her husband are constantly fighting and since she never wants to leave her daughter we end up spending the whole weekend sitting around her living room or doing only toddler-friendly activities.  As an added complication, the timing of the visit would overlap the beginning of my first injectible/IUI cycle (which we’ve been planning since March) so there’s no way I’m going anywhere.

Are we being unreasonable to ask S to leave her daughter for the weekend?  A wants me to call her and try and persuade her to come, but I don’t want to make her feel guilty.  A and I are getting together no matter what, but we would love to find a way to include S.  Any suggestions?"

Let’s just get my bias out of the way here: I’m not a mother who finds it easy to leave her children overnight. El Chico was 2 1/2 before I was away from him overnight, and he was with my husband. (I would have left him with my husband earlier even though El Chico was still nursing, but the opportunity never presented itself.) So I’m definitely not one of those people who say "You need to get away!" as a cure-all, and I sympathize with people who just don’t feel ready to leave yet.

Also, I hope no one misunderstands some of the things I’m about to say about S. I consider myself toward the attachment side of the parenting continuum despite Dr. Sears (who irks me to my very core). But as anyone who’s spent any time with the attachment parenting (AP) crowd knows, AP can sometimes be an excuse for women with problems they don’t want to deal with to pour all their energies into their kids as a way to disconnect from other things. (To me this seems like the flip side of the workaholic father who uses work to disconnect from his family.) For the majority of people who lean toward it, AP is a healthy way to nurture their children and promote a close family, but it can also be an easy excuse for people who are looking for one. (There’s no direct evidence that S is practicing attachment parenting, but you don’t often see non-APers claiming that no one else could handle their preschooler overnight.)

It sounds like S has some things going on that aren’t necessarily healthy. I understand that her daughter is high-needs, but a 2 1/2-year-old should be comfortable enough with her father and vice versa that the two of them could hold down the fort alone together for a few days. Especially with some assistance from grandparents who live so close (and probably see the girl often enough for her to really know them well). I’d understand her reluctance to leave a baby or toddler, but a 2 1/2-year-old is old enough to see a weekend alone with Daddy or her grandparents as a treat.

I wonder if S is a little depressed, or if she’s gotten into that really bad pattern of putting all her identity into being The Mother. 

The first few months of being a mother are so strange and difficult and disorienting. Everything you thought you were before is on hold while you spend 24 hours a day serving a tiny creature who can’t even talk to you. At time you feel like your worth is only measured by the quality and quantity of the milk you make. To say you’re having an identity crisis is putting it mildly.

Most of us give in (eventually) to the confusion and strangeness and just wait it out until things start to make more sense and we refocus into improved versions of ourselves–our old wonderful selves, but with a harder core and softer edges. Some women, though, can’t deal with the ambiguity and throw themselves face first into the role of The Mother. They have to be perfect at everything having to do with mothering in general and caring for their child(ren) in particular, or else they don’t feel like they have any identity left.

So they need to feel needed by their children, and they assume the role of gatekeeper between their children and partners. These are the moms who never use babysitters even if it means they have to miss things they’d love to do, who don’t allow their partners the time and space to make mistakes with their children, who are the ones who have to put their children to bed every single night through age 5 because "no one else can do it." Instead of nurturing their children so the kids can be free and work toward independence, they keep themselves in business (of being the only ones who can care for their kids) by keeping their children too close and not allowing them the chance to test their own freedom.

Is this what’s going on with S? Well, I don’t know her personally so it would be ridiculous of me to say it is. But a lot of this description sounds like that could be what’s going on. Is S legitimately responding to her daughter’s higher needs? Or are the high-needs of the daughter and S’s overmothering feeding on each other and preventing normal and appropriate steps toward separation? Is her husband just an asshole who doesn’t want to have to spend a weekend alone with his kid? Or did S convince him over the last few years that he can’t "handle" the girl because no one can do it as well as she does? Would her parents be overwhelmed by having the girl for an overnight and two days? Or would S be overwhelmed that her daughter would be fine without her for a short time? If S was gone would her daughter freak out if she didn’t come when she called for her in the night? Or would the daughter sleep through, knowing there was no need to call?

This is all idle musing, of course. There’s nothing you can do to help S’s marriage, and probably nothing you can do to help her get some perspective on herself and her relationship with her daughter. (If she is in The Mother mode she’ll discount anything said by someone who isn’t a mother yet.) I do think you owe it to S (or at least the way your friendship used to be) to try to convince her to come spend the weekend with you. Maybe she could come just for one night, even. If you have a good relationship with her mother you could call her and try to enlist her help to conivnce S to come. But it sounds like you’re also going to have to accept that it may just not be possible for S to allow herself to be off duty for an overnight trip, and that has nothing to do with you and A and everything do with S and her own conflicts.

I hope that she can find her way back to you and A once her daughter is older. I hope that she and her husband can work through whatever mishegas they’re inflicting on each other. (If you wanted to be passive-aggressive you could anonymously send them a copy of Harville Hendrix’s Getting The Love You Want, which is the best plan I’ve seen for couples to help themselves out of crappy patterns. I highly recommend it for anyone having partner trouble.) And I really hope that your first injectible/IUI cycle is your only injectible/IUI cycle and that you have a spring baby.