I remember one of the first times we left L. with a grandparent when he was a baby. He seemed chipper enough when we left, gazing after us with big eyes, but when we returned he took one look at us coming through the door and burst into tears.
Wise Dr. Sears, who I always turned to in times of parental confusion and early child-rearing angst (and oh, were there many moments), assured us that a strongly attached infant/child will cry when the parent returns because it's only then, only at that moment when he sees and smells and touches his mother or father again that the attached infant/child realizes what he missed, in very deep and primal ways, and that missing the parent was a small and necessary but also terrible tragedy in his young life.
I thought last night about how much of that early child-rearing wisdom we used to turn to so often still holds true across the years. T. was a mess at bedtime after her first day back at school and I was inclined to be impatient--trying to snatch fifteen minutes of work on the laptop upstairs while L. showered, but fielding constant tearful pop-ups from T.; there is nothing like getting your train of thought constantly derailed to make a parent grumpy--this parent, at least. It dawned on me, while walking her back to bed for the fourth time, that T., usually so easy and sunshiny, was sad and bothered by something. Instead of gently but firmly tucking her back in, as I had been doing, I realized she needed more from me. I stretched out next to T. in her bed, and we quietly watched her night light revolve slowly in the dark, casting cheery shadows on the far wall. She snuggled close to me, and buried her face in my neck.
"I missed you at school today Mama," she said, breaking my heart on the spot.
Then, as if my heart breaking once weren't enough: "I missed the smell of you."
And she nuzzled my neck, the way she might have when she was very little, and I returned home from work; the way I nuzzled her neck when she was a baby, drinking her in, absorbing who she was, imprinting her smell on my memory.
"I missed you too T.," I told her. "I missed the smell of you."
In fact, missing T. had been a necessary but terrible tragedy in my life that day; something I hadn't even fully realized until that very moment.