Healthy Mind

‘I Expected To Deal With My Baby’s Separation Anxiety—I Didn’t Know I’d Have To Manage My Own’

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Photos: Getty Images/ NoSystem Images
I sat cross-legged on the tile floor, trying to negotiate my baby’s arm through her onesie sleeve. “We don’t actually need to go,” I told my husband, who was leaning on the doorframe. I was dressed and ready, but I still hadn’t decided if we were going to use the stand-up show tickets I bought months ago. Perhaps we’d get to my in-laws’ house (our babysitters for the night) and decide to have a quiet dinner there instead. It wouldn’t be a real date, but at least I wouldn’t have to be away from the baby.

In August 2020, I gave birth to a baby girl, and I spent a lot of my COVID-19 lockdown on the couch, nursing her every couple of hours. With all that time planted in front of the TV, I got into Netflix stand-up comedy. I watched John Mulaney’s specials at least twice, enjoyed some Seth Meyers, and re-watched Ali Wong. But I kept coming back to Taylor Tomlinson. Her sex jokes and embarrassing dating stories might not be typical new-mom fare, but I watched her shows late at night when I was tired, spit-covered, and just needed a laugh.

So when I got an email advertisement for Tomlinson at a nearby venue a year later, I was thrilled. After adding the fear of COVID-19 germs into the mix of new motherhood, I hadn’t had a date night or a cocktail in more than a year. I bought two tickets.

Recently, however, I started believing that if my daughter and I were separated, something terrible would happen. In the days leading up to our date, I scared myself by thinking of everything that could go wrong while my husband and I were out—late-night drunk drivers, fires, and active shooters danced through my mind. I wanted to be prepared to run if there was an emergency. I put on jeans and closed-toed shoes, just in case we did end up going.

Even if my body could've soaked her up like a sponge, she still wouldn’t have been close enough.

Hours before the show, I found myself sweating and fighting tears. The realization that I’d have to leave my baby at home for hours made me feel like I’d swallowed an explosive device. My daughter was right beside me, sitting on the floor, pounding away at her baby piano, and yet I felt like I couldn’t get close enough to her. Even if my body could've soaked her up like a sponge, she still wouldn’t have been close enough.

Later that night, my hands shook as I strapped my baby into her car seat. I was terrified, but at the same time, I felt like if I didn’t go, I’d be stuck home forever. I’d be giving in to what my therapist suggested might be adult separation anxiety disorder (ASAD), a condition characterized by an adult suffering from extreme fear or anxiety of being away from loved ones, such as a child, partner, or even a pet.

Typically, people think of separation anxiety as a developmental stage for children, which is generally outgrown by age three, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, adults can experience a similar condition. Of course, separation-induced jitters, teariness, and worry often occur when new parents separate from their kids, but there are signs that you’re dealing with something more serious.

In the weeks leading up to our date night, I went back and forth between using the standup tickets or not. I’d think about how much fun I’d have out with my husband, pumping myself up with the promise of new jokes, table service at the club, and maybe even making out with my husband in the car. Excited, I’d head into my husband’s home office (aka our bedroom) to tell him our date night was on. But after a few hours imagining car crashes, violent robberies, and bombs, I’d sulk back in, the baby on my hip, and tell him I just wasn’t ready.

The symptoms I was experiencing—frequent and unfounded thoughts that something terrible would happen if I left my baby—are hallmarks of ASAD. And if anxiety and panic persist for longer than six months in adults, or interferes with daily functioning, the American Psychiatric Association says it a sign of adult separation anxiety disorder. The Australian Psychological Society also says that ASAD can have lasting effects, and severe sufferers experience headaches, nausea, difficulty sleeping, and nightmares.

Even though no one knows for sure what causes ASAD, the Mayo Clinic suggests that anxiety disorders often start after a traumatic event or a significant transition, and the past year and a half undoubtedly brought some stress. Between financial difficulties, being pregnant and alone during the lockdown, caring for a baby without the support of friends or family, it had been a tough year. Perhaps my ASAD hadn’t shown up out of nowhere. More than likely, it’s an effect of stress during this sensitive time.

And I’m not the only one dealing with challenges right now. In the early days of the pandemic, unemployment numbers skyrocketed from 6.2 million in February 2020 to 20.5 million in May 2020. About 40 percent of U.S. adults reported anxiety or depressive disorder symptoms during the pandemic, up from about 10 percent in 2019. And as of this writing, there have been more than 700,000 Covid-19 deaths in the United States alone.

Even without a global pandemic, as many as one in 20 adults may suffer adult separation anxiety disorder in their lifetime, according to Vijaya Manicavasagar, PhD, an Australian psychologist who pioneered ASAD research. We don’t know whether the stress of the pandemic could increase these numbers or worsen existing cases, but Devora Kestel, the head of the World Health Organization’s mental health department, predicts we’ll see a surge in the severity of mental illness in the future—and if adult separation anxiety disorder is among the conditions people will face, then we need to discuss it more openly.

Eventually, we got to my in-laws on date night, and I handed my bouncing, smiling baby to her grandparents. Then, my husband and I snuck out while the opening song to Lilo and Stitch muffled the sound of the front door locking. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a stomach ache most of the evening, and I’ll admit that I made sure my husband and I were the first ones out of the theater when the show was done. Still, it felt good to go out, have a cocktail and laugh a little.

That night wasn’t the end of my separation anxiety. With COVID-19 variants circulating (and my baby still unvaccinated), we rarely leave the house. Since that night at the Improv, I’ve enjoyed a couple of sprints to the grocery store and one or two happy hours with my mom, but I’ve never been gone more than an hour. I still feel the pains of separation anxiety whenever I leave the apartment, but I’ve been working on it with my therapist little by little. I am learning not to linger on scary thoughts, and I’m working toward increased comfort by planning short outings.

Recently, I got another email advertisement from the venue where I saw Tomlinson and found myself looking through the schedule. Maybe one day soon, I’ll find my way back.

 

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