I once walked our daughters to see a puppet show a half block from our county fair’s barns where Jane and our oldest prepped his lamb to “show.” I waited only ten feet outside the puppet show door to easily collect them at the end. Antique engine noise distracted me for no more than a few seconds. However, my chest tightened when I turned back to see the show almost emptied out. I could not breathe; the crowd crushed me, trapped me and hid my little girls! I checked inside the puppet theater. The attendants knew nothing.

The security officer looked like he thought I’d lost it. “Have you checked the barns?” I thought he was crazy! I’d waited just outside the door, how could they have gotten past me unnoticed? They had to be right here! My shirt was soaked with perspiration and I was almost exhausted after the short, frantic attempt to find them at the puppet show site. I moved through the crowd toward the barns, very conscious of the security guard’s presence near my elbow. How was I going to help Jane deal with this? What could I possibly say? I remember almost nothing of what happened next except seeing both girls there with their mother and brother.

My mother used to fall out in a dead faint at the end of frightening events. I don’t think I fainted, but I can’t remember anything except minute details of the time at the fair before I saw the girls. I was in the grip of the loss of my precious daughters.

We attach to certain people we spend time with, especially those who care for us. Separation in relationship presents one of the most disruptive problems we face as humans. At birth father, mother and child begin the dance that leads to attachment and inevitably to separation and an early, mild version of my experience at the county fair. Baby gets hungry and cries. Parent or parents arrive to feed. Baby and parents calm. Parents return to their room for a brief respite before the next cry. Baby notices disquieting SOMETHING. Whether it’s a frightening shadow or a pungent, sometimes prickly presence, baby now wails. Parent (or parents) rush to the rescue and provide safety and comfort. Fairly consistent sensitivity and responsiveness by caregivers or parents creates a permanent bond.

At some point, no one can really explain exactly when, the baby just needs the parents to BE there. You can see it most clearly when you, a stranger, enter a room occupied by a mother and child. An invisible force instantly pulls that child as close to mother as possible. After a few moments of relaxed conversation, the child feels safe enough to venture a few feet from Mother. Who knows what the kid is thinking, but he returns to his mother quite quickly if you make a motion to stand or even adjust yourself in your seat. Baby will finally venture across the room to let you touch a toy in his hand. If your motion is too quick, he will spring across the room to mother and may even cry a bit. He is attached to her and not you. With growth, the presence of the parent’s voice in the next room is enough to comfort, but during the early months the child seems to need to see the parents. Discomfort with separation persists and every new separation experience requires a process of adjustment until early adolescence when most begin to explore for themselves, adopt their own peer supports and emotionally separate from parents.

Mother and Father did their own dance when they first met. One day someone notices you or something draws you to ask a person out for coffee, an extra study session or who knows what. The attachment may actually develop away from each other. We mentally spend time with the other person, furthering the bond. During distracted moments one starts to think about how to ask the other out and about imagined outcomes, planning the best time, place, and introductory sentence leading to the question. Tension builds anticipating the moment. “I can’t blow this or they may say, ‘Yuuhk!” and never want to see me again.” Such imagined brushoffs rarely occur and first dates usually succeed. The bond that we create may never grow past friendship or one may have to live with disappointment, but even so, attachment happens. I still miss friends we moved away from whom I’d known since first grade back in Texas. I am delighted that a dear friend I’d lost after the Vietnam war recently found me.

Back to the date.

When two souls feel the same spark near the same time, fireworks burst and bells ring! A romantic attachment adds immensity to friendship. We begin to devote excessive amounts of headspace and time trying to get the other’s attention – the sound of a voice, a scribbled note, a single rose tilted against the apartment door. The imagination soars to giddy heights. New favorite songs just happen! Even the thought of being apart brings increasing distress. Couples often choose a long term relationship by default because neither really wants to talk marriage, but both MUST have the other in their life!

Allow me to share another experience. I remember two very sleepless days after receiving a garbled telegram courtesy of The American Red Cross while I was in the Gulf of Tonkin. Our first child came early. The Doctor wanted me home. It was obvious the child had problems, but the telegram was too garbled to tell my wife’s welfare. The Navy was very gracious. Military planes and a military bus carried me from an aircraft carrier near the coast of Vietnam to Oakland before our son was three days old. My thoughts raced constantly. Vivid memories persist of almost every tick of the clock, every bump in the deck as the plane took off. Tortured thoughts escorted me from the ship to the landing, and a wait at some air strip. Dark thoughts stalked me to another plane loaded with stone-faced men in fatigues who carried two assault rifles each for another less comfortable trip from a to b in Vietnam. From there to Tokyo we rode a charter plane crowded with exhausted, yet joyous men returning home after their deployment. Crazy guilt gripped me. What did I do to bring this disaster on my wife and child? Stark pictures choked my breathing. What would I find when I got home. “Am I man enough for this job? How will I survive if I don’t have Jane?” I did not share my grief, I could not. The military brought me mile by mile toward my home, but I was a zombie, tethered to my nightmares. I was completely alone though on excessively crowded military vehicles.

I rang the doorbell and heard my sister-in-law’s voice ask who was there. I answered with a sinking tone. I struggled precariously in the grip of the fear of losing my family. I could not think or reason. Then life returned. I heard “It’s Art, let him in!” My wife’s voice let me breath again.

Separation from attached friends, partners, and family creates numbing, bone deep fear. Here’s a couple points about separation to think about.

1. Interview possible babysitters in your home, or go with your child to tour a preschool or to meet kindergarten staff. You increase your child’s comfort level and help you know the people better who care for your child. Both experience fear the first few days of separation from one another.

2. Military boot trainings teach a group of strangers to become a team, a band of brothers. Without the team, no one survives well. So we all spend a significant time together in the beginning being angry and knowing the Drill Sargent or Company Commander is a %*#@. While focused on helping each other survive the DS or CC, we grow attached, become a team, some become the A Team. At the end of boot camp, I recognized what I owed Boilerman Chief Johnson and knew he was never my enemy. DS and CC alike must develop the skills of a TEAM to survive a battle scene. Fit manners and polite phrases on that canvass. Ask a vet this week how many of his fellow warriors he still remembers or talks to. I’ll bet he still remembers his Company Commander or Drill Sargent’s name. Reflect on the value of your own family: what have they helped you survive? Has a thank you crossed your mind? Follow through.

3. Has your mate lost a parent? Has one of your students lost a sibling or parent, or lost both because of a divorce dispute that forces them to see each separately now? Has a friend lost a child or partner? Are they going through a marital separation? What do people suffering a separation need? They need someone to listen and support them, not someone who “knows” how it is. Why do we take chicken to people who hurt? They need our presence when isolation and aloneness suffocates and may be lethal. You may be tempted to criticize or even direct their actions: “You’ve got to get out of that house!” Be somewhere else if that’s all you’ve got to help with. They need someone to find tissues, soup, or a sandwich.

Strong emotions also emerge when something smaller than the threat of death separates. We write more on that later.



  1. I didn’t know that fair story but I can say that having you as a father has made a tremendous impact on my life. I love you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s