He’s curled into my side on the couch as I write this. He threads his fingers through my hair whenever we’re watching TV together. On our family walks, he’s right by my side, and if we see someone from a social distance, he’ll glue as much of his body to mine as he can and won’t let even a whisper of wind come between us.
He’s my eight-year-old son, and he’s always been a clingy kid. It’s a well known fact in my family and social circles that if I’m in the room, my son will be with me—on my lap, fingers in my hair, face in my face. It was that way before his father, my husband, died, but became worse in the days and weeks after. And since the World Health Organization, (the WHO), declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and we isolated ourselves in our home, his clinginess has reached heights I haven’t seen since he was two years old.
Before the pandemic, he’d slowly been making progress in separating from me. More and more often he’d agree to go to the sleepover at the friend’s house. More and more often he’d let me sit and chat with the other moms at a get together while he ran off to play with his friends. Even once in a while, he’d started to play it cool around his peers—barely acknowledging me after school as he ran to his friend on the playground, looking at me as if once upon a time he’d never navigated the world with a lock of my hair (the hair still attached to my head, by the way) wrapped around his finger. As sad as it was to lose some of that cuddliness, I was thrilled that he was finding his footing. And proud of him.
After a few bajillion weeks in quarantine, he’s right back to being my shadow. His fingers are often threaded through my hair. He’s sleeping with my favorite sweatshirt as a security blanket, which was the only compromise we could reach that kept him from sleeping in my bed every night. He’s here—and “here” is wherever I am.
In an interview with HuffPost, Steven Meyers, a professor of psychology at Roosevelt University in Illinois, said, “Clinginess is an instinctual response to perceived threat and anxiety. In evolutionary terms, offspring of all species are more likely to survive if they stay close to their parents for protection when danger is imminent.”
Yes. I get it. He’s looking for security, for safety. So many kids are right now. Their worlds were turned upside almost overnight, which is reason enough to seek out security. But also, the message they were told, as we canceled normal life, was: stay home, don’t go out, don’t get close to anyone not in your household. I’m not surprised my clingy son took that message to heart, and took it to mean, don’t leave an inch of space between you and anyone in your home–specifically the one adult in your home.
Don’t get me wrong. I love it. I love that I’m a safe space for him, that I can give him stability when stability is hard to come by. But it’s hard to be someone’s full time security blanket (even someone you love so much you think your heart might burst some days) because it’s impossible for any person to be constantly giving. Moms, humans, need time to themselves to replenish before they can give any more to anyone else.
I’m worried also. Separation and independence are important. Feeling confident enough to navigate the world without me is important. Being able to walk away from me without being overwhelmed by the fear that I’ll disappear in those few moments apart is crucial.
One day, we will return to something that looks closer to normal life for kids. There will again be sleepovers and friends at the playground who are shouting for him to join in. Schools will open, and he will have to walk inside, and I will stay behind. I worry that he won’t remember how to separate, or, if he does remember, that he won’t be able to separate because the independence he’d begun to develop and the confidence to navigate the world he’d begun to cultivate have disappeared. And I can’t bring myself to promise I’ll always be there—fate and luck make that promise impossible, and I don’t like to make promises that I may not be able to keep.
Which is the heart of his clinginess, I suspect, and the reason I hug him a little tighter before I ask him to give me a little space. Because he’s once again learned people can be in your life one day, and disappeared the next. In the case of pandemic world, unlike with death, the people in his life haven’t disappeared entirely—they’ve moved to Zoom and FaceTime—but the essence of the lesson he’d learned from his father’s death is the same: life changes in an instant; things aren’t constant; people leave. And it’s no wonder he wants to hold on—physically and emotionally—to me, because I’ve been the one there since even before he was born. I’m his constant, and it’s a job I take seriously, even though I know it could be out of my hands.
But the truth is, maybe I don’t have to worry. Because he’s found his independence after trauma before. After his dad died and I became the only parent he had left and he was an ever-present weight on my hip and I was sure I’d be carrying him into his college dorm room, he separated. On his own. When he was ready. He found a way to lift his chin, set his little boy jaw, take a breath, and go. Found a way to trust that I will be there in the half-hour after the game of hide-and-seek, or even the morning after the sleepover.
Which means, maybe it’s okay if right now he needs a little extra. Because when he’s ready, when he feels secure, he will again lift his chin and set his little boy jaw and take a breath and go.