I was four weeks old when my mother held me for the first time and three months old when I was finally discharged from hospital and allowed to join her and my 3-year old brother at home.
It was the early 1970s and parents were not allowed to stay with their children in hospital; visitations were strictly regulated, and at the Red Cross Hospital where I spent my first few months, the head nurse actively discouraged mothers from visiting their offspring. Therefore, my primary caregivers those first crucial months of my life were nurses, rather than my mother, although she visited as often as she was allowed.
My earliest childhood memories all share a common theme: separation from my mother as she had to leave me, a toddler and a young child, in a hospital ward.
Although the separation was always temporary, I was too young to understand that, and more than forty years later I still vividly recall the image of me sitting in a hospital bed, crying with fear and anger at having been left there by my mother.
Child psychologists today widely recognise that mother-infant attachment in the first few months of a baby’s life is crucial to children’s long-term emotional wellbeing, and sure enough, I have had my share of attachment issues in life, owing at least partially to the fact that I was separated from my mother for a prolonged period shortly after my birth. Years of therapy have helped me come to terms with much of the pain I experienced as a child, although there are moments when that acute existential pain I once felt makes itself known again, such as when I visited cleft-affected babies in a hospital in Guatemala, and this week, taking in the news of migrant children being forcibly separated from their parents at the US-Mexican border.
Following public outrage in the US and abroad, Donald Trump signed an executive order yesterday to end the policy of separating children from their parents at the border – a policy that his administration callously employed in order to deter further people from trying to cross the border – but more than 2000 children have already been taken away from their parents, and there is no system in place for securing their reunification. Child psychologists have already spoken out about the life-long psychological scarring that may result from prolonged separation and detention. Others have pointed out that amongst the children currently in US custody, some have special needs, including Down’s Syndrome, and for these children enforced separation will be particularly cruel.
Comparisons to Nazi Germany, the Pinochet regime in Chile, where hundreds of children born to parents who were either detained or ‘disappeared’ were given to regime-friendly families, and the stolen generation of Aboriginal children in Australia, to name but a few examples, are not exaggerated. We would like to believe that the past won’t repeat itself, that the words ‘never again,’ mean something, but the reality on the ground tells a different story. Progress aside, we still live in a world where the truth of our common humanity continues to be sacrificed at the altar of xenophobia, racism and greed.