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PBS's 'This Emotional Life': Now Is the Moment to Hold Your Child

Posted: 05/09/10 08:00 AM ET

Some nights, I curl up in bed with my little girl. She lays her head against my arm and grips my fingers with her tiny hand and whispers, I want you to stay here with me, Mommy.

Yes, I say. I want you to stay here with me, too.

And then I rest my cheek against the crown of her head and close my eyes and inhale the sweet, soapy smell of baby shampoo, feel the silk of her hair, listen to the whisper of her breath and I think, I want you to stay here, like this, always, curled against me, warm, safe. And I think, I want you to stay here, like this, for years and years to come, until the days when you and I no longer fit together in this wee bed, when you are grown and I am old and your arms are the stronger. When we will still find comfort in each other. When you will still be my baby, only grown.

I think these things, and I look up at the clock atop her dresser and watch as the minute hand takes one deliberate click forward. I look up at the clock and I wonder, how would it feel if I were counting these minutes? These hours? These days?

I pull her closer to me, as close as I can bring her. It is not possible to hold a child too close, I think, or for too long.

My family is losing a child. My nephew, Tanner, is dying. He has Duchenne's Muscular Dystrophy, and his death is inevitable: He will die young and our hearts will break and there is nothing that we can do to stop this. It's a slow but an inevitable loss; the hands of the clock tick forward slowly, deliberately, inexorably. We count on those hands ticking slowly; we measure their movements carefully, reassuring ourselves that the pace holds steady, that there is no leap forward, that this particular clock never advances an unnecessary hour, that our days hold ample daylight. It's a slow loss, but an inevitable one.

We are better off, of course, for the trickling pace of this loss. We have many days, many hours, with this child. Not near as many as we would like, but still: we have time to spend and cherish, time to postpone our goodbyes and to pretend that their place on the horizon will hold its distance. My sister can wrap her body around Tanner's and feel the beat of his heart and the warmth of his breath; she can brush her hand across his forehead and whisper in his ear and assert her love for him in the now and know, as surely as his hand tightens around hers, that he hears her, that he knows. But the clock ticks over her head - over his - and she counts these hours, these minutes, these seconds. Every movement of the minute-hand is a movement lost, a moment lost, one minute less in a cherished life that is measured by the clock.

This is why I hold my children so tightly, so often. Why I cling to them and let them cling to me and why I never, ever resist their embrace; this is why I have done this since they were born, and will do this until they pull away from me: because I do not know how many days, hours, minutes that I have with them. Because I have only now to experience them as attached to me. Because that attachment is so precious, and because I will only be able to sustain the memory of it, once it's gone, if I let it flourish now. Because enjoying that attachment - insisting upon that attachment - goes so far to helping me keep my fear in check, to keeping me sane. They say that attachment is good for infants, that a strong physical and emotional bond between parent and child does so much to boost that child's well-being. It is also vital to us, to parents, who need the bonding nearly as much as do our children. Perhaps more. We need it to keep us rooted, to keep us grounded, to protect us from the worst currents of our fear. We need it to insulate us from the worst effects of anxiety and uncertainty, to remind us of why we do this and why we love this, through the best of times and the worst of times and every moment in between.

I have spent the last four years telling stories about my life as a mother, about my life with my children. I have pages and pages of stories and photographs and video, of commentary and poetry, of memory, of history, of time recorded. It is our life, our love, captured in bits and bytes and preserved for eternity. It is wonderful. But it is not what I cling to when I think about separation from my children, be that separation banal (the inevitable movement toward friends and lovers and their own lives beyond childhood) or tragic (the inconceivable loss that my sister faces with Tanner); it is not what I imagine turning to for reassurance and remembrance when the day comes that I no longer have them near. What I will turn to: the memory of their touch, the memory - the set of memories - that I am constantly pressing upon my heart and my soul and my psyche, that I cling to even in the moment of its creation, in each moment that I hold my children close and breathe them in and will them to always, always be part of me, even once they're gone.

So, I have held my children close since infancy, and will continue to hold them close -- as close as they can bear. And I do this for them, because there is no such thing as being too loved or too cherished and because I want them to really, viscerally feel my love for them and to never ever doubt it. But I also do this for me, because loving them and cherishing them and viscerally feeling this love is my greatest security against the fear of losing them. And, I imagine, their greatest security against the fear of losing me. Because the closer I hold them -- the closer we hold each other -- the deeper the imprint we leave upon each other. And the deeper that imprint, the more power it has to comfort and to empower.

It is not possible to hold one's child too close, or for too long. Hold your children well.


Are you a new or expecting parent, or do you know one? Get a copy of the Early Moments Matter toolkit at www.earlymomentsmatter.org and learn about an exciting public service effort to promote early childhood attachment. Help give our next generation the best chance at a life of emotional wellness.