From Daycare to Afghanistan

From Day Care to Afghanistan

by Susan Downing

My son Michael started day care when he was not quite a year old, and he spent every day of his first year in the company of either one or both parents, with a few hours here and there being tended by his grandmother, my mother.  At first, I didn’t feel totally comfortable leaving him with her.  Like all new mothers, I feared that my own mother, despite having far more child-raising experience than I, might not really be competent to care for my precious infant.  And so, when I was away from Michael, or Mikey as we called him then, and still occasionally do, I would always feel a little tug of anxiety.  As soon as I got home, I’d ask my mom for every possible detail of how the two of them had spent their hours together.  I didn’t want to miss anything. But gradually, after leaving the baby with her a number of times, I stopped worrying that something would go wrong in my absence and settled into a calmer frame of mind.

When Mikey started going to day care for a few hours a day, I didn’t cry at the door when we’d say goodbye the way he sometimes did, but in the course of the day, I would find myself wondering how he was doing: how long he’d cried after I’d left, whether he’d eaten enough, whether he’d napped, and so on.  And it didn’t matter that the woman who took care of the infants was the most wonderful care-giver you could ask for.  I would still sometimes worry.  After all, one hears horror stories about day care providers…  But before long, both of us grew accustomed to this new stage of life.  It got to the point where Mikey would barely wave goodbye, because he would rush off to play with his new friends as soon as we got to day care in the morning.  And I was also no longer plagued with worries about him.  We’d adjusted.

Almost 24 years have passed since those first day care days that were marked with tears and anxieties, and in these years, Mikey has moved through all the stages that come with growing up: from day care he went to kindergarten, from there to a new school in first grade, then a new class and new teachers and new friends each year, all the way up through high school.  Each new school year came with its own anxieties. Would the teacher be good? Why did they separate him from his closest friend this year?  How hard would AP English end up being?  Which colleges should he apply to, and where would he get accepted?

The day Mike’s dad took him out to Chicago to get him settled into his college dorm room was a tough one for me.  It was a little bit like leaving him with my mom for two hours, or dropping him off at day care for four hours or school for 6 hours, but it felt like a much bigger transition.  He’d be living far away, I wouldn’t see him every day, and I had absolutely no idea who all these people were he’d be living and studying with.  If something went wrong, getting there would be a lot more complicated and take a lot longer than driving down the block to the day care center.

But after the initial period of adjustment, once again, I settled into the new state of things. I think it was because by that time, I’d had 18 years of practice at making these transitions.  It wasn’t that I’d become casual about them or that I didn’t care what happened.  Not at all. It’s just that over time, with practice, I’d gradually and improved my ability to remain calm in the face of longer and more intense forms of separation.   I started out being able to tolerate that separation calmly for only a couple hours at a time before missing him or becoming a little worried.  Then I grew able to see him off peacefully for the morning, then for the whole day, then overnight, and finally, for the entire college term.

I was lucky that he moved from stage to stage rather slowly, because that gave me time to settle in after each transition, and find my equilibrium, instead of feeling constantly caught off guard.  If, say, he’d started day care one week and then I’d had to go away on a month-long business trip the next, I’m sure I would have been a mess, one giant bundle of maternal nerves and sadness.  But that isn’t the way it happened.

Certainly, one reason I was able to remain calm in the face of each of these transitions was my growing confidence in Mike’s ability to take good care of himself.  By the time he went off to Rome for the fall of his junior year in college, I trusted his good sense and intelligence enough that I was spared sleepless nights worrying about how he’d survive on the other side of the world.

But the other reason for my equanimity was that I’d had all those years of practice, repeatedly seeing him off and having enough confidence in his safety that I had been able to develop the habit of not worrying excessively.  Or obsessively.  I learned to redirect my mind, from worry to more positive thoughts.  It wasn’t that there was never anything to worry about, objectively. There was always something I could have freaked out about, had I chosen to: he lived in Hyde Park in Chicago, for heaven’s sake, and Rome is full of crime, and planes sometimes crash, don’t they, and what if he’s riding with someone who’s been drinking… There is never not a list of things that can go wrong.

That was certainly the case last year, when Mike was going through the Marines’ Officer Candidate School – followed by The Basic School and the Infantry Officer Course. All of last year, he was under more pressure than ever before in his life, in more danger.

And that’s precisely why I am so grateful that over the years I’d been able to develop that habit of not freaking out. Although we had less contact with Mike last year than ever before, because he was often unable to call home for weeks at a time, I got used to that, too.  The slight worry I felt at the beginning of the new stage settled down and I was once again able to approach the situation with calm.

I say habit, and I talk about developing that habit, because being able to respond with calm in the face of uncertainty is not something that comes naturally to us. It takes consistent practice and effort to develop such a habit.  When the Buddha sat down beneath the Bodhi tree, vowing not to get up until he was free of suffering and misunderstanding (see Jeff’s post from last week,) he was able to respond with calm and equanimity to everything he experienced that night because of his years of practice.  He hadn’t gone straight from the palace life to the Bodhi tree.  After leaving the sheltered life of the palace, he spent years training his mind and developing his insight into the world around him.  And that practice and insight enabled him to face the destroyer of worlds with equanimity.

Now, at first glance, seeing my son off – first to day care and then to each subsequent step on his path – may seem to have little in common with the path the Buddha followed.  But in fact, it is only a difference of degree of intensity.  The Buddha succeeded in part because he had developed the ability to hold his mind perfectly steady and calm in the face of distracting and destabilizing circumstances.  And although my level of equanimity can’t yet compare with the Buddha’s, I feel I am following in his footsteps: I engage in a practice that enables me to develop a steadily growing ability to meet the challenges I encounter in life without totally losing my bearings.

I described the transitions I’ve gone through with my son precisely because they are very every day transitions, familiar to all of us. And the calm it takes to make it through them without falling apart comes with continued, conscious practice.  Each time a new, more intense challenge comes our way, we have the chance to gauge how well we’re doing beneath the Bodhi tree of our everyday life.  But more important, we have the chance to make good use of each new challenge and strengthen our habit of responding with calm and equanimity.

Along with my whole family, I’ll soon have the opportunity to strengthen my calm and equanimity even more, because this fall Mike’s battalion will be deploying to Afghanistan for six months. And while he’s facing destroyers of worlds there, we at home will be facing our own version of them, supporting ourselves and each other by relying on the precious habits we began developing back when the biggest worry we faced seemed to be whether Mikey had gone down for his nap while I was out for the afternoon.

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