By Michael Rice
Several years ago, when I had become a first-time parent, my son of age 4 was going through that stage of development that Judith Viorst refers to as Separation-Individuation. Chris had already learned the first separation stage when he learned how to walk and was able to go where he wanted to go and not where others wanted him to go. He had also learned a few years prior how to say “no” to indicate his own wants. Yet he was still not very much aware that he needed his parents in order to survive. He wanted to test his independence.
One night, as I was putting him to bed, he said something, which I don’t precisely recall, that indicated that he wanted to go out in the world on his own. It was just a matter-of-fact statement he made and not one of defiance or anger. I played along with him and asked, “Are you sure this is what you want to do?” In his little boy voice and a nod of the head in replied, “uh huh.” So I got his little travel case out of his closet and he and I began to pick out the clothes he thought he might want to pack for his trip out into the world. He was very serious and seemed determined to follow through on his desire to find his own way in his own world.
We headed for the front door. It was night so I turned on the porch light and opened the door. Continuing to play along, I said, “Be sure to let us know where you will settle down and if you need anything, just ask, okay? Write or call us when you find work.” He stepped out into the darkness and I closed the door behind him yet keeping an eye on him where he couldn’t see me.
He looked around without looking back and it began to dawn on him that he had nowhere to go and no way of getter anywhere. He sat down on the porch stoop next to his little suitcase and just looked out into the darkness for several minutes. At the same time, I was struck with a terribly sad emotion relating to exactly what he must be feeling at this moment: Fear and the sudden realization that he didn’t have anyone to help him as he looked into the dark abyss that awaited him. He was alone. . . a dreadful feeling for a very young child. I was feeling it too. He was learning that he wasn’t quite as separated and individuated from his parents as he thought. And I, too, was realizing that I was feeling the fear of becoming separated from him . . . and not willing to do so.
I opened the door and said something to the effect of, “It’s pretty scary out there isn’t it?” He agreed and I said, “Why don’t you come back in where it’s not so dark and scary. I’m glad you came back.” He came back in the house and we went back to his bedroom and I got him ready for bed and tucked him in. I was sure glad to have him back home even though I knew he wasn’t going to go very far.
While it has been over 35 years since this happened, I remember it like it was yesterday. In fact, I couldn’t help but recall the emotions I had at that time while writing this story. A lump came up in my throat and tears welled up in my eyes.
Several more stages of separation-individuation occur in development that includes adolescence, college/military, and marriage and families of their own. While it is true that our children grow up too fast, the best memories tend to be those that we have from the early years with them. Those memories and our children are marvels to behold that will always bring joy and recollection of happy and loving times.