As a parent and teacher, I am more than aware of the importance of positive attachment between the child and the primary care-giver. Having worked in both mainstream and specialist settings, I have worked with children who have chronic attachment disorder and for whom, therapeutic intervention is paramount. Positive attachment is a crucial part of development and for us, separation anxiety has only really cropped up for our children when they were around 8 months old. This is the classic age for separation anxiety as identified by John Bowlby in his seminal work in the 1950s. According to Bowlby, specific attachment occurs at around 7 – 9 months when babies identify with a specific attachment figure who they know will provide comfort, protection and security. When separated from this single attachment figure, babies will become unhappy and scared (separation anxiety) until he/she learns and understands that the adult will come back. All kids go through this phase and I can remember emulating psychological studies by placing ours in the middle of the room and leaving to see if they cried. Luckily they did which meant that they had developed a positive attachment. Myself and Mr Brown patted ourselves on the back, we were doing OK!
I did not think that I would be coming back to attachment theories when my child was 10 years old or questioning a need for separation. For the last 5 months, Felix’s independence has been snatched away from him. At an age when he should be developing a greater sense of self and identity, he has been thrown into an adult world where he has been unable to make any real decisions for himself. His choice of play, new friends, social interaction of any kind has been closely monitored and directed, due to the limitations and restrictions of having leukaemia. This is something that I have been acutely aware of and the reason why, in one of the few weeks he has had a chemo break, he has gone to school. This wasn’t an easy decision to make, my inner monkeys were having a right old debate about it. One was arguing that he should have some fun because of the rough old-time he has had lately. The other was stating that he needs independence and time with his friends. Then another monkey piped up, you need to detach from him. That last monkey was right and had highlighted something I hadn’t really wanted to pay attention to. This was as much about me as it was about him. I needed to let him go for a bit, loosen the reins, let him start taking risks again. And so the process of detachment has begun, and boy it’s hard.
Felix is absolutely fine going back to school; in fact he is buzzing to be back. I am so grateful to everyone at the school for how they are supporting him – the kids as well as the staff are doing everything they can to make him feel welcome and at ease. And it’s working. I, however, am pacing the floors. Detaching is hard. Here’s an example: Felix goes to school for a couple of hours, it is a lovely day, the sun is shining, the dog needs a walk. As I get all the bits together, I am smiling at how liberating it feels to take the dog for a walk, in the sunshine, on my own. Off we trot towards the river, a nice and steady walk, wishing the other dog walkers a “good morning” as we pass; I’m almost whistling at how pleasant it is! Then, I lose the moment and I start to think. I had been walking for 20 minutes, if the school phoned now it would take me 20 minutes to get home and another 10 minutes to get to school to collect him and then obviously take him to hospital … panic set in with a passion. That was it, I turned back and hurried home, checking my phone every two minutes until I was safely ensconced back on the sofa until it was time to collect him. I breathed a sigh of relief. This is just one example, but there is a general theme when he is at school, that I am finding it hard to let go. I haven’t quite got the nerve to get my roots done just in case I get called and I’ve got bleach on my hair. I can’t even bring myself to go to the beach for an hour because of the 2 miles distance.
I know it’s ridiculous and I know that when he is not with me he is with an adult and he’s safe. My rational mind knows this but I still have hospitals, urgency and life-saving treatment at the forefront of my mind. It is this I need to address, I need to challenge and change my mind-set. A visit to the school I teach at this week helped. It reminded me of who I was before this all happened and gave me a glimmer of hope for the future. We still have two months of intense treatment before any real separation or detachment can start for real but I’m glad that this break in treatment has encouraged me to recognise these feelings in a subtle way before I have to do it for real.
When we consider the side effects of childhood cancer for the children, siblings and parents, attachment and detachment has to be considered. These side – effects destabilise features of positive attachment; as a parent I know must provide comfort, protection and security yet in the context of a cancer diagnosis the parameters have changed. It will soon be time to think about and reset those parameters to enable Felix, myself and the rest of the family to continue to thrive and grow. I can’t wait!