x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Absence makes the eyes grow wet

Astrid is bawling and I'm not sure why. Her eye sockets are leaking. Big teardrops are trickling down her cheeks. Her voice, rarely dulcet even in calm moments, is venting forth sounds worthy of an opera singer during a sea storm.

Astrid is bawling and I'm not sure why. Her eye sockets are leaking. Big teardrops are trickling down her cheeks. Her voice, rarely dulcet even in calm moments, is venting forth sounds worthy of an opera singer during a sea storm. I try to think what could be wrong, churning over the usual suspects. She has not hurt herself because I have been holding her in my arms all the time. She cannot be tired or hungry because she has recently had lunch and a sleep. A hint of panic sets in.

Suddenly it becomes clear to me: she is missing her mummy. I did not realise sooner because the events did not follow a pattern of simple cause and effect. Lucy went for a swim at least 20 minutes ago, but it has taken until now for Astrid to realise she had gone. I try to distract her by taking her to look at some peacocks that live in the gardens nearby. Pretty soon she starts to calm down. "Separation anxiety" is often used to describe this phenomenon. Though it could easily be interpreted as a disorder of some kind, it refers to a normal developmental stage, which can begin as early as six months, but usually occurs between 12 and 18 months.

Dr William Sears, an American paediatrician and author, has observed that this behaviour reaches its peak when babies start to move more freely and easily. He believes it is a "safety check", a way to keep babies close to their parents, which is necessary because even though a baby could easily wander far from his or her parents, the baby does not have the mental capacity to fend for itself. As he puts it: "Baby's body says go - his mind says no."

Astrid's separation anxiety is reaching new heights and it is curious to see how it manifests itself in light of this explanation. In the park, for example, she will go further and further away, looking back each time before going on, until suddenly she will start to get upset. It is as if she has gone too far and lost sight of us. She sees me when I stand up and she is soon fine again. Separation anxiety is an odd but resonant phrase. The word "anxiety" gives the impression that it is a problem of some kind. When combined with the emphasis on early independence in western societies, it yells psychological disorder. It implies you have mollycoddled your baby and fostered an unhealthy over-reliance on you. In fact, it is about providing reassurance and support in unfamiliar situations. Until the concept of object permanence cements itself at around two years old, it is about reinforcing the idea that though you may disappear for a time you will always return eventually. 

I have always baulked at the idea of resorts and package holidays. It's a snobbish affectation, I know, but I dislike the artifice and insularity of such destinations. Until now, they have seemed to me to be the antithesis of travel. How times have changed. The Babyhotel in Austria, which offers to look after children for up to 80 hours a week while parents go skiing, suddenly seems quite tempting.

Of course, you could just hire an au pair or leave your children at a crèche while you ski, but in many ways it makes more sense to stay somewhere that offers the complete package. It benefits from economies of scale. As a result, it is cheaper for parents and much more fun for children who have more friends to play with in surroundings built especially for children. Babyhotels are a great idea. Perhaps there will be branches in London, New York or Abu Dhabi before long.