Leaving my toddler alone for the first time


My darling daughter Radhika,You can’t read this right now because you have barely started reading. You have just started recognizing some simple words like “go,” “my,” “mat,” “sat,” but this letter has many words you cannot read yet. More than words, it has feelings you don’t recognize yet.

This past weekend I flew to your uncle’s house to surprise him on his 50th birthday. It was the first time I was away from you for this long. 36 hours to be precise! Two full days and one night. This was the longest we were apart from each other. Prior to this, it was only about the 6-7 hours separation during daytime after which you would come back running in my arms. So this was a big deal for all of us—you, me, and your dad (his biggest concern was how he was going to make your hair!). Dad and I had decided that a surprise visit would be a nice gift for my brother and your dad had very enthusiastically booked my tickets.

But as my departure came closer, we were both getting increasingly nervous. You had fallen sick starting on Monday and I had to leave on Friday. We both kept praying for you to recover completely by Friday. You did your best, but you were still coughing and sneezing a bit by the end of the week. Imagine my guilt!

On Thursday, as I folded your laundry in your room, I cried a little. You were taking a nap and for the first time, I wanted to wake you up so that we could play together a little longer, so that I could hear your voice (and your constant singing) a little longer, and so that I could hug you a little longer. But I didn’t wake you because you needed the rest. So I tried to redirect my emotions into something more productive—like making a mental list of things to remind dad about before I left.

There are two types of cheerios in the house, but you only eat this one kind. You want to wear your favorite orange dress every day because it twirls the most, but no, you cannot wear the same clothes every day. You get cranky when you are sick and I try to lift your mood by doing silly things, singing funny songs, or dancing like a mad woman. You laugh and forget what was bothering you. “Distract, don’t dwell,” I needed to tell dad. When you cough at night, I wake up each time to comfort you—just to say a few soothing words and to give you a sip of water. You probably don’t need those things, but I do it anyway.

Dad is a deep sleeper and he sleeps through it all. I made a mental note to remind him to wake up—”Please, for me, to not let her feel that I wasn’t there.” You get your sleeves wet when washing your hands at school and I worry about you being cold because of that. Another note to remind dad to fold your sleeves up before dropping you off at school.

Out of a thousand things I wanted to tell him, I probably told him ten that night. And he probably only heard the first three and then switched off. I was nervous, but I also knew that I didn’t need to worry too much. I tried convincing myself that your dad cares for you just as much as I do, even though his way of doing things is different. And that’s just fine.

You and dad came to drop me off at the airport on Friday morning. All through the car ride, I kept re-listing the “things to remember” for dad, and he happily kept brushing me off, “We will be fine, don’t worry.” He had his own list of reminders for me: what to do in case Wi-Fi didn’t work at the airport (I wasn’t bringing a print-out of my boarding pass), that dinner would be provided during the longer legs, to make sure to take naps because I hadn’t slept well the entire week because of your cold, blah, blah (yes, I also tend to switch off after the first three)….And then I realized something. Of course, you were going to be fine! I was leaving you with a guy who was saying all the things my father would have said if he was dropping me off at the airport.

If he cared for me just like my dad would, then undoubtedly he was going to take good care of you. We were all a little tearful as we hugged and said bye, and I stood there at the airport sidewalk for a few minutes watching you guys drive off.

Inside the airport, as I went about the process of boarding a flight, it felt strange. I was traveling alone after four and a half years. It felt as if I had forgotten my luggage at home, or as if I had forgotten to wear my shoes. No stroller to push, no little hand to hold, no one to watch constantly. I thought I heard your voice many times. Every time I saw a little girl walking with her mother, I smiled and thought of you.

Then I saw a girl wearing a Peppa Pig backpack and I almost broke into tears. And I thought to myself a million times, “Why didn’t I just bring her along!” I must have called dad ten times until the flight took off to check on you, to ask how you were when he dropped you off at school, to make sure he relayed all my points to your teacher, to make sure he didn’t have any important meetings or calls that day just in case…

And then the flight took off. I said a little prayer to God to take care of you and sent you all my love from the skies above. Thankfully, the person sitting next to me felt like chatting and he told me more than I needed to know about life on a petroleum refinery in Qatar. I had forgotten what it was like talking to fellow passengers during flights, especially about topics far removed from child-raising. It was a pleasant distraction and I found that the anxiety of leaving you was gradually overcome by the excitement of surprising my brother.

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