Annie is just 24 months old, she is doing well and has started to attend nursery for the first time. This new world, which she skips into every Friday morning, is widening her experience and challenging her internalised world. From her mother and her father, to the wider world of other children and other adults, Annie is coping with the change and skipping over the transition bridge on a regular basis.
Annie has a mother and a father who have lived together since before she was born. Annie has grown between these two beloved creatures on a daily basis, moving between one and the other as each appears upon her radar, with the surety that comes from an attachment which is secure. Annie has lots of time with her mum, who gave up work for the first 18 months of her life and also lots of time with her grandmother, who took over looking after Annie on a daily basis when Annie’s mum went back to work. In the mornings, Annie skips over the transition bridge to spend five hours with Nanny and in the afternoons she skips back to spend the rest of the day with her mum. Each evening and every weekend, Annie’s dad appears on her radar screen and sometimes, she skips happily over the transition bridge to go on an adventure with this beloved man in her life. Annie’s internalised world is stable and steady and all is quiet upon her radar screen.
The quiet space between Annie’s mum and dad gives Annie peace and allows her to concentrate upon doing all of the things that she needs to do in order to learn and grow and enjoy her world. This quiet space is born of a fluid and interchangeable daily routine, in which sometimes, surprising things happen. One day, for example, Annie wakes up to find that it is her dad who is making breakfast and her dad who is taking her over to be with Nanny. Annie’s dad explains that this is because her mum is not feeling very well. The space around Annie remains calm and quiet however and so her internalised radar also remains calm. All is well, the grown ups who appear and disappear in her world have everything under control.
Over time however, Annie begins to be disturbed by some crackling on her radar screen and although she does not know why, she feels uncomfortable and upset. Her dad, who used to appear each evening, begins to appear randomly in the daytime as well as in the evening and her mum, who used to be very calm, is now quite snappy with Annie. The transition bridge doesn’t feel so easy to skip over in the middle of this noisy environment and Annie begins to feel under attack from some very new feelings. These feelings happen as she sits in the car on the way to Nanny’s house as mum and dad shout at each other. She starts to feel whirly feelings inside and doesn’t want to go over the transition bridge to Nanny’s house when they arrive, no matter how calm Nanny is, Annie keeps looking back at mum and dad and feeling the whirly feelings. She starts to feel distracted by these feelings and begins to cry, they hurt and frighten her.
One day daddy does not appear on her radar screen anymore, neither in the evening or during the day and not at weekends either. The noisy atmosphere has become a heavy fog and mum doesn’t have much time for her anymore. The transition bridge, when she goes to Nanny’s house, is far too difficult for her to cross, no matter how much time that her mum and her Nanny spend persuading her its ok. Nursery, by now, has become a place so terrifying and overwhelming that she no longer goes there. Nappies, which she has started to move out of, become something necessary again. Annie seeks refuge in her mother, who, for much of the time, seems to be the safest person to hang on to. Annie sychronises herself with her mother’s moods so that her internal radar quietens again and she can cope with the world. Her mother is good at keeping things calm.
One day her dad is at the door, Annie is surprised and very pleased, she skips off over the transition bridge and out on an adventure with her dad, they have a grand old time and Annie is in heaven as they swing high on the swings and roll down the grassy bank. She has missed her dad, though she does not know how to express that, so she gives him lots of cuddles and sits on his knee and kisses him a lot.
When they back to the house though, dad doesn’t come in, he stands on the doorstep and the noise in the space between her mum and her dad suddenly becomes very very loud. Annie’s internal radar can barely cope so bad is the disturbance. She runs up to her room and hides in her play tent until her dad has gone. Her mum comes in and sits her on her lap and tells her everything is ok her dad has gone away now, don’t cry. Annie is confused, she was upset because of the noise between her mum and dad, not because of her dad. But being only two and unable to explain that, she settles down and goes to sleep and dreams about swinging up high on the swings and laughing.
The next weekend her dad appears at the door again. Annie does not know how long it is since she last saw him but skips happily over the transition bridge again and sets off down the path. As she does so however, a shadow of a memory passes over her as she turns and waves and sees her mother looking very unhappy. Annie’s internal radar immediately goes into hyper alert, she is confused again, her mother looks unhappy, the noise on the radar starts up, she pulls away from her dad and runs back.
Annie’s dad comes after her and kneels down, he says very quietly to her that they will go and play on the swings again and eat ice-scream, she liked that last time didn’t she? Annie nods and looks up at her mum, who remains looking unhappy and holds her hand. Eventually, after a lot of persuasion, dad prizes Annie’s hand from her mother and picks up Annie and they set off. That afternoon, Annie’s radar is picking up something and she is to preoccupied with the way that this makes her feel to enjoy the swings and the ice cream, today she doesn’t kiss her dad and hug him in the same way, her dad wonders what is going on.
On return home, the noise in the space between her mum and dad is deafening and Annie runs straight up to her room to get away from it. This time she sits in her play tent and will not come out when her mum comes up to see her. Her mum tells her she will do something about it so that she is not unhappy. Annie does not know how to tell her mum that it is the noise between her mum and dad that is causing the problem, that night she does not sleep very well, her internal radar will not quieten.
The following week Annie’s internal radar remains on alert and she is constantly preoccupied by the way it makes her feel. The transition bridge from her mum to her Nanny is too difficult for her to cross now, she is too scared of the whirly feelings that come up each time she tries to leave her mum. This weekend her dad comes to the door but the whirly feelings are so bad that she cannot even go to the door to see him. Her dad goes away. Annie is left alone with her mum who cuddles her and tells her that everything will be ok. Annie feels a new feeling inside, it is a flat and heavy feeling. She stays quiet all day and will not eat her lunch.
It is six months before Annie sees her father again, in the period in between the last time she saw him and the next time, her mother has refused to allow her dad to collect her. Her mother says that this is because it is too upsetting for Annie. Her father says its because her mother is influencing Annie to feel anxious and upset. Annie still goes across the transition bridge to see her Nanny, although she doesn’t feel quite so happy when she does these days. Nursery is far too difficult for her and her mother has given up trying to persuade her to go. Annie does not really remember her dad when she is asked about him by a lady who comes to see her. She says that she loves her mum and her Nanny and is happy.
When the lady asks her if she would like to see her dad, Annie is puzzled, she does not know who her dad is. The lady watches one day as Annie goes into a room to see her dad. The lady writes things down as Annie cries when she sees her dad. Annie wants to run up to her dad, she does remember him, all the feelings that she felt about him come rushing up, she remembers laughing and swinging high on the swings and the smell of his coat as he cuddled her. A memory of something quiet and safe surrounds her father too, but at the same time, so do those whirly feelings that scare her and so, instead of running to her dad she runs outside the door to her mum. Annie cries, she doesn’t want to feel those whirly feelings. Annie’s mother says to the lady that this is how things are. Annie’s dad looks sad but Annie doesn’t see that, her mum takes her home in the car.
Annie does not see her dad ever again. When she is nineteen she goes to look for him but does not find him. He died when she was twelve but no-one told her. Annie struggles with loss and guilt and shame. She finds relationships difficult and does not trust her feelings. When she is 22 she enters therapy, the first year of which she spends mostly in tears, grieving for the father she feels responsible for pushing away.
Annie’s story is one of a series of true stories that I have been gathering recently. Annie is now 23 years old and struggling to understand the past and the feelings of guilt that erupt as she tries to confront the reality of the loss of her father. Annie is now estranged from her mother, her Nanny died when she was seventeen. Annie feels alone in the world and is angry about that, Annie wants to know why there was no-one there to help her or her mother and father cope with separation. Annie is a casualty of the past forty years, when the consistent message that we have been fed is that children cope and all that matters is that children do not live in poverty. Annie’s struggle is testament to the reality that family separation hurts children and, as in Annie’s case, leaves them feeling fractured, frightened and alone. Annie leaves me wondering, when will we ever learn?