I received an email this week from a man who wanted to share with me the insights he had gained from my work. He felt he now had a better understanding of an event that happened in his early childhood, when he had been distressingly separated from his younger sister for a short time, due to medical reasons. Ironically, his story of distress made me think about the holiday season, now in full swing all around us.
We normally think of Christmas, or Hanukkah or Solstice or whatever form of Winter Gathering we celebrate, as a time for bringing together family and friends. This is the story we tell ourselves about the true meaning of the season, reinforced by countless television commercials and images of smiling children’s faces. Such advertising pulls at parents’ heart strings, because we adults want to provide children with a magical holiday season.
But the nature of family life today is such that the holidays are a very busy time. In the midst of all this togetherness, there is also a lot of inevitable separation.
Given today’s divorce rates, many children must negotiate separation from one parent in order to join the other one. Sometimes children in the same household will be separated in order to achieve visits, because they don’t share the same set of parents. Unusual childcare routines may need to be put into place for parents who need to cover the school holidays while they are at work. Looked-after children may be returned from foster care for a stay with birth-family members, although they have not recently experienced extended visits. There are any number of reasons that separation can become a part of the holiday season for children.
We adults can see the bigger picture, and the benefits that the separation is intended to bring. With our ‘big-picture’ planning hats on, it becomes easy to overlook the ‘little’ experiences of young children. That is exactly what my correspondent’s story made me reflect on, even though his story is more than 60 years old, and describes a situation that contemporary hospital practices would no longer allow.
“I was recalling when my sister and I went to hospital with chickenpox. I guess I was about 4 years old and my sister maybe 3. We were close throughout our childhood. I was the protective big brother, but immediately we got into the hospital, we were separated. Fortunately they put us in adjacent isolation rooms, and our bed heads almost touched, with just a large plate glass separating us. Although we couldn’t hear each other, we could “touch hands” through the glass, and know we were together. Then, a few days later, I woke up and she was gone.
Every time I asked, “Where is my sister Ginny?”, I was told that I didn’t have a sister “Ginny”, but that my sister “Virginia” was in another room. I recall protesting that I didn’t have a sister called “Virginia”. It was probably nearly a week before I saw my mother, to tell her that they had taken Ginny away, but I never saw my sister again until we left hospital together, probably several weeks further on.
When you are 4 years old, everyone looks different after several weeks, let alone being isolated from your family and not able to protect your sister. I was convinced for months (maybe years) that my real sister had been taken away and we had been given someone else. It became a family joke throughout my childhood.
My sister never seemed to suffer any anxiety through this separation, perhaps because she was younger, or perhaps she was treated differently, or perhaps, unlike me, she didn’t keep asking questions that annoyed the nurses. Now, when I try to remember and reimagine it, I can clearly see my sister through the glass plate, with us “touching hands”, and I can still feel my distress at finding her gone. That’s more than 60 years later and it still hurts. It is really powerful, what happens for children.”
I repeat: contemporary hospital practices would no longer support a 4-year-old being separated from his parents for a period of a week or more. Part of this change has occurred as a result of John Bowlby’s theory of attachment, which he developed in the 1950s as a way of highlighting the trauma being caused to children by standard hospital policies. We would now regard the practices described in this story as cruel and unacceptable.
But here is my key point: In the late 1940s, these adults weren’t trying to be cruel. They saw themselves as doing something that benefitted the children. They were trying to keep the children healthy and safe, in the midst of a serious chickenpox outbreak. It would, understandably, not have occurred to the nurses that their standard hospital practice, for a stay which lasted ‘only’ a couple of weeks, would have had a traumatising effect on a youngster – an effect so traumatising that its effects would still be felt 60 years on. Indeed, I expect that the “annoyed” nurses, who had themselves survived the traumas of World War II, might well have jeered at the idea that children needed ‘mollycoddling’. They might also have felt affronted by the implied criticism of their care routines. This ‘offended’ and ‘disbelieving’ response is certainly the reaction that the Robertsons experienced when they made their 1952 films about children’s traumatic hospital stays.
The story told in this courageous email reminds us of the deep importance of relationships. It tells us about the need to pay serious attention to our children’s attachment needs, and to reflect on how we help them to manage separations when they do become necessary. Human beings are one of the most social mammals on the planet. We are dependent on relationships for our mental, emotional, and physical health. Young children are still growing the neural connections in their brains that will enable them to cope, in the future, with experiences of separation and loss. If we adults want that coping to be achieved with ease and confidence, then our children need us to be sensitive to their distress.
It is understandably easy for us grown-ups to miss seeing the world as our children see it, especially when we’ve donned our big-picture planning hat, in the hope that we will be able to create a magical holiday for our youngsters. The gift they really want is the same one that we all want: to have our feelings heard and respected. And when those feelings involve fear and loss, then they need the extra gift of reassurance.
My thanks to my correspondent for letting me share his story so widely.