CHILDREN / The growing pains of separation: Many women leave good jobs because they cannot bear the anxiety of leaving their babies, says Beverley D'Silva

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WHEN Sonia Wesley returned to her job as production editor of a magazine, four months after the birth of her son, she says she still pictured herself as 'someone who never wanted to be at home with the kids'. But since then, leaving baby Jay, and his brother Alex, aged two, in the arms of her childminder and setting off for another nine hours away from them has become increasingly difficult. The pain of separation has, she claims, turned her into 'a woman who is living on her nerves'.

'I worry about my sons constantly,' she says. 'Not normal anxieties, such as them falling down the stairs. It's more horrendous, more insidious, somehow.' She tells of travelling to work one morning when she had a vision of them being thrown down on to a railway track. 'I stood up, in a sweat, before I realised it had been a hallucination.' Even so, it haunted her all day and by that evening she had decided to give up her job and go freelance. 'It is a solution for now,' she says.

Sonia, 28, is suffering from what she calls 'separation anxiety', a term more commonly used to describe the condition suffered by babies deprived of their mothers. But research in the United States suggests that the suffering is not one-sided. Anxiety, guilt and difficulties with maternal bonding are an increasing problem for women who must spend time away from their babies, especially those under one year old. Anecdotal evidence here suggests that many women suffer in silence.

Hilary, 32, returned to her job in market research seven months ago, when her daughter, Cassandra, was three months old. 'If anything, leaving her gets harder. If she cries when I go, I feel awful all day. I can't talk to my colleagues about how I feel. I don't think it would be professional, and I doubt that they would be interested, anyway, even though I'd talk about Cass endlessly, left to my own


'I realised the only way round my misery was to lose myself in work. But my body kept wanting to express milk. It was like a physical reminder of how I was betraying my role.'

Hilary says her anxiety became focused on the childcare. 'It was the young nanny's first job, and everything had been arranged at the last minute, so she had had no chance to familiarise herself with Cass. Even though the nanny had two years' training, more experience than I had, I worried that Cass was losing out.' Despite her previous ambitions to become a director at her company, she now plans to work only three days a week. 'I've decided to jog along for the moment, to put my career on hold. Emotionally, I have no alternative - even though I know it is more for my benefit than for Cass's'

Juliet Hopkins, principal child psychotherapist at the Tavistock Centre in London, says that such anxiety is 'inevitable, a throwback from our four million years as hunter gatherers. It is a protective impulse, and most mothers of children under three are likely to have them in mind constantly.' The centre runs a counselling service for parents of children under five. They often get referrals from doctors of mothers about to return to work. 'This is commonly a time of crisis. The mother's anxiety frequently manifests itself as problems in the children, for example in sleeping difficulties. The mothers often realise the problem lies with them: in their anxious state, they are putting their babies down in a tense way. And some working women keep their babies up later than they should, in order that they can spend time with them.'

Hopkins cites the clinical experience of paediatrician Berry Brazelton in the US, who discovered a high level of 'physiological disturbance' in mothers who had to separate from their babies in the first year, and a higher incidence of infection in the babies. Other problems may occur in maternal bonding. 'Some women have trouble committing to their babies fully: it is a self-defence mechanism to spare them from pain because they know they will have to separate.'

Anxiety is less likely to be a problem in mothers who return after their baby is one year old, she says. 'The Swedish system, where parents may take up to 18 months' leave, is an ideal we might seek to adopt.' But she adds: 'This is not a problem that generally requires therapy. Talking feelings through is often enough.'

Dr Sheila Rossan, a lecturer in psychology at Brunel University, recommends a gradual return to work, building up from two hours a day. 'This also helps mothers build confidence in the childminder,' she says. Dr Rossan believes first-time mothers are more likely to suffer greater anxiety: 'They feel the physical wrench most. But it's important to remember that the problem is short-term, and it is exacerbated where the baby is under two, when it appears most helpless and can't verbalise its needs. Things get easier after that age.'

Vicky Frampton, 38, does not fit Dr Rossan's 'first is worst' theory. She has two daughters aged 19 and 18, and 14 months ago she had a son, Joseph. She stayed at home with the girls, but returned to her teaching job at Swansea College when Joseph was four months old. 'I leave Joseph at the college creche but I never visit during the day. That would mean separating twice and it breaks my heart each time I leave him. The day I had to tear his little arms from me I broke down and had to hide in the loo, sobbing. Joseph had apparently been quite happy the moment I was out the door.' Vicky says she only feels comfortable when she can see the creche from the classroom. 'It is harder with him. I know how brief babyhood is. I'd work part-time but there are no positions available.'

Nor does author Rosalind Coward's experience support Dr Rossan's view that as the child gets older the anxiety eases. She has a son, now aged seven, and daughter, four. 'I never got over the trauma of separation. It was the main reason I gave up a well-paid job as a lecturer. By the time my son was two, I was completely preoccupied with him. Mothers have a sense that unless their baby gets 24-hour attention, it won't survive. I suffered 18 months of awful anxiety before I decided that if I was going to spend so long away from my child, the job had to matter more. I gave it up.'

Having gone freelance, Coward wrote Our Treacherous Hearts (Faber pounds 14.99), which looks at the reasons why many women give up their (often high-powered) careers for the traditional role of mothering. She found anxiety at separation a common problem in the women she spoke to. 'Many were suffering double guilt: they felt they were failing their career and their child, too.'

Coward sees a solution in better childcare facilities and the official registration of nannies and au pairs (an issue highlighted by the abduction of six-month-old Farrah Quli, taken by a woman answering the mother's advertisement for help). 'One of the main problems is that childcare in the UK is so individualised,' she says. 'Finding a nanny is a real trauma. When I went to Lambeth Council for guidance, I found them totally unhelpful.'

According to Coward, problems with 'untrustworthy' minders were often cited by the women she interviewed as a reason for anxiety. Dr Rossan, herself a mother, shared such fears. 'When I went back to work, I left my son (now 16) with a retired nurse. She was a warm, competent, loving person. But I still wondered whether she was beating my child. I knew I was being irrational. But it upset me enough to make me inefficient at work.' Coward says: 'I heard few cases where minders really turned out to be untrustworthy. The 'bad' childcare excuse often masked a fear that the minder would be loved more than them. Other women were responding very deeply to a neediness they perceived in the child. It was often the first time they had been really indispensable to another person.'