I recently returned from a six-week sojourn in the States, where I was caring for my ailing mother. This time was the longest I’ve ever spent apart from my young family.
Stateside was, as you can imagine, gloomy. Aside from a few long weeks spent in the hospital, my time there was overshadowed by news of the recession. I found my main solace in talking with my wife via cheap trans-Pacific phone cards and Skype video. Being able to call home at just about any time was a real boon, though I still missed my family.
Though young children are usually the ones to experience separation anxiety, I felt the same sense of anxiety while away from my family, as any new father would, and I couldn’t help but wonder just how quickly (and thoroughly) my baby would forget me. The answer to this gnawing question was revealed upon my return Christmas Eve, when I walked through the door to the sight of Marianne in our ayi’s arms.
“Look who’s here, Mei Mei!” said Ayi as I stuck my chin out to let our baby grab my beard, as per our usual custom. She reflexively obliged and clawed the tuft on my chin, but a befuddled look soon crept into her eyes, followed by an expression of sheer panic. Who was this strange, albeit familiar, leering man in black?
Then came a piercing, siren-like wail – “WAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!” The waterworks had begun. When it was apparent that Marianne wasn’t about to stop, Ayi and my wife bundled our baby away to the bedroom while I hid myself from sight.
Half an hour later when we sat down to eat, Marianne eyed me suspiciously from across the dinner table. Any approach on my part resulted in a firm turn of the torso and a desperate tugging at Ayi or Mama.
After dinner, as we sat facing each other on her play mat, Marianne’s curiosity finally overtook her trepidation. With extreme caution, Marianne once again extended her little hand for that oh-so-familiar-looking beard, though still turning away each time I leaned in. It took a few tries until she finally mustered up enough courage, and then, like a light switch, the knowledge seemed to dawn on her – “Wait a minute, I know this person.” The hesitation on her face melted away, and before long — and much to my relief — she crawled over and began bouncing in my arms as usual.
All told, it took Marianne almost two hours to remember me that first day. Over the next few days it took her a few minutes at the beginning of each day to recognize me, but those moments of doubt passed soon enough (20 minutes the second day, and five minutes the third).
Logic dictates that my baby would remember me sooner or later, but I now understand the extent to which some mothers may feel attached toward their babies and threatened by other caretakers. It’s a conflicted feeling, for sure, and quite dismaying when you find your own kid, however temporarily, thinks you’re a stranger.
Back in the States a few weeks ago I was feeling bored one day and contemplated shaving my beard for kicks. I sure am glad I didn’t.
Flickr photo published under the Creative Commons licensed content (actual blogger not pictured).