A Primer on Separation

Debbie Urbanski

For C.
These are the notes I wish I had when I had you.


If you wish to abandon your child in the woods, even if temporarily and in fair weather, such as on a particular sunny afternoon in August, you have some options. You can use the actual woods, such as the woods where, in a haze of anger directed toward you but also at my life, I left you behind that day for hours, or you can choose a more metaphorical setting, such as the woods you find in other people’s stories, made up mainly of fir trees, which are usually a stand-in for loss. A good reason to leave your child in the actual or metaphorical woods is to teach them a lesson. Do you remember what you learned that day? Maybe you don’t remember because I was angry and you were hysterical. An abandoned child in the woods will be the most hysterical the first time around. The first time will be the hardest for the parent too, though it grows easier with practice.

If a child becomes abandoned in the woods because of you, it is not all doom and gloom. Most likely, when alone, wandering among the ferns, your child will find something else, something other than you. Such as a cottage made out of gingerbread and peppermint sticks! Such a cottage can’t always be a terrible thing for a child to find. Or a replacement? Something better than you. I don’t know what you found that day in the woods because, when I came back for you, you refused to say a word, but your sweatshirt pockets were bulging. It was obvious you had begun to hide something from me.


In order to increase the metaphorical distance between you and your child, try maintaining separate lists of beliefs.

What I believe in: life on other planets, God, the world’s approaching end, correspondence, the return of phone calls, guest rooms, forgiveness.

What you believe in: distance, elopement, grudges, glasses half-empty, long-term therapy, secrecy, the disposability of family.


Why not take your (forthcoming) child on an adventure for which you are not adequately prepared? I have never done this myself but it seems easier and maybe more enjoyable than some other things I have done. Ideas include taking a trip around the world on a sailboat when your children are young and also sick. Or you can take your child on a journey to a remote and expensive place like Greenland from which you do not have the adequate funds to return.

Disposability, yours

The key is to prepare your child to live without you. It will have to happen eventually so I would suggest beginning early when they’re still babies. The first step is to take your child out of your bed and put the child in the nursery in her crib (or will it be his crib? Have you found out what you’re having yet? The reason I know is your husband mailed me a postcard). Then when she cries in the middle of the night, let her cry for a while. That will teach her how to self-soothe and it will also teach her the inevitability of loss. Another example, once your child is older, is you force them to cross the street without holding your hand. Do this over and over. If they ask to hold your hand, whether it is before crossing the street, or while in the middle of the street, or afterwards, tell them no, they do not need to hold your hand anymore. Eventually they will stop asking. You will be learning something important too: you will not always be necessary to your child. Another example is believing you have found God when your child can not find God or doesn’t want to find him. Another example involves breastfeeding (see “nursing,” below).


It’s important to understand that such drama, our drama, as I’ve described in some other stories, does not continue on forever in one’s life. It can’t unless a person wishes to self-destruct. I did not wish to self-destruct. Let’s say, instead, that eventually I grew bored with mothering though it was probably more of a distancing. I told myself I don’t care, and then you know what, I didn’t care, and my anger at you went away, which I think was what everybody wanted.


Your father and I have had discussions, because that is what people like us do in middle age, and it appears he no longer believes in an afterlife. He used to but he doesn’t now. I think he blames me for this. The fact I lost you, which snuffed out any faith he might have had.

“That means when you die, you’ll lose her forever,” I warned him, and you know what he did? He threw his empty plate onto the floor in the kitchen and when the plate didn’t shatter, he tried again, a second and then a third time. It’s difficult to break porcelain on a wooden floor.

I plan on seeing a lot of you after we pass on. Never mind what you believe. I plan on walking with you, arm in arm, around the gardens up there in perpetuity, and it will no longer matter whether you choose to pick up the phone.


Last spring, I felt like it was time for something new—a new and expressive hobby!—and after several wrong turns, I decided to try my hand at writing stories.

There are many benefits to writing. It takes up very little storage space and you can do it anywhere. You can write at a desk. You can write in bed. There is a certain intimacy to the act of writing which I love, like someone is sharing a string of secrets with me, like someone is whispering them right into my brain. It has been a long time since someone shared a secret. Every story I write happens to be about the same thing. Motherhood and loss. I wonder why. Though in all my stories it’s the mother who leaves her child behind, not the other way around.

I’ve shared the stories I write with a few people, including your father, who finds my choice of subject repetitive. He has said, “Okay, we all get the point. People lose track of their children. People like us. I get it. Sad. But can you write about something else? Like how about a resurrection! Like can you actually imagine, using your imagination, a relationship that’s been resurrected. Now there would be a story people want to read.”

Improvement, self

In the evenings, when I’m not writing stories, I have begun to reread old Oprah magazines, all of which contain useful instructions about how to change one’s life: learn Mandarin! Draw self-portraits! Make your own nut butters! Begin a gratitude journal!

I started such a journal last week. It’s supposed to help me appreciate my life. Most of what I’m grateful for happened when you were a child, despite everything else that happened at the same time.

My entry for yesterday: when you were little, one day you thought I wasn’t looking, so you snuck off on tiptoe into a field beside the playground. You were so quiet like you were about to do this forbidden thing. All you did was pick the flowers. I think they were flowers and not weeds. How do you tell the difference? You wanted to pick every one so I let you. I thought you were making me a bouquet.


If you imagine something you haven’t lost, compared to something you have lost, is it possible you might love the things you’ve lost more than the things you still have? This is what your father says I am doing: loving what I’ve lost. He does not find such a quality admirable. “I am standing right here in front of you,” he says, waving his arms at my face. I wonder if losing something might be a form of love. What I’m trying to say is that the whole time I thought I was making the correct choices.


You, running away. The ends of your hair. Your red swimsuit, ruffled at the back. Running along a beach or somewhere. Your yellow hair lifted by the wind. Water, waves upending, and you turned very small, legs pumping against the sand.


I always assumed I would breastfeed you for a very long time. I have no idea if this strikes you as unusual or even repulsive, but in my circle of friends, mothers breastfed their children for as long as the child wanted, three years old, four years old, it didn’t matter. They were that devoted. Only after your second birthday party, an extravagant affair with a circus theme you probably don’t remember, your father informed me that the nursing had gone on long for enough.

“She needs more than you shoving your breast into her mouth every time she throws a tantrum,” your father said. Understandable in a way: why must I be the only one you needed? I should go away for the weekend, he told me. “Go somewhere fun with your friends!” your father said, like he was giving me a gift, not understanding how I had loved nursing you those first two years. Partly this was my fault. “She’s like a parasite,” he said often in the beginning after you latched on, as you greedily patted my stomach with your hand, and I played along with it, letting him pity me as I pretended to be disgusted, or when I complained about my sore red nipples. Though actually it was the best part of my day, the part when you forgot about the dragon mobile above your crib, and you forgot your father hovering impatiently in the doorway, or the nanny waiting for you downstairs. You would look up at me and I became your world, your whole world. I wish you could remember feeling this way.

I went away with my two friends to a spa near the lake, where we put on strappy dresses and sat at the bar, and I don’t think anyone looked at us. My breasts were overly full that evening and again in the morning, but I had packed a hand pump, and I sat in the bathroom, with the shower running, emptying the milk out of each breast and dumping it down the drain.

“There was some crying,” your father said when I called but he also said he handled it. He wouldn’t tell me anything more. When I came home, my face raw from the treatments I had underwent at the spa, I expected to find you weepy and damaged and ready to cling to me. But in fact you appeared fine. Out in the front yard, you and your father were rolling a glittering ball back and forth to each other.


You have to figure out what is the line between paranoia and preparation, then you step over that line. This technique works well in many situations, such as a concern over the rising sea levels, or a belief in the eventual collapse of our infrastructure, or a need for cleanliness and order, or a fear that you are in the process of losing your child.

Protection, fail at

There were two wild dirty children running around that day at the park, the one with the tunnel slide that you loved. I didn’t think anything of them, that they could be a danger in any way, because they belonged to a mother who looked respectable enough, or so I thought, with her cell phone and her suntan nylons. I was sitting on the bench beside the water fountain daydreaming about a story I planned to start once we returned home, a story about a mother who leaves her child behind and goes off flying into the sky. Either the mother sprouted wings from her back or she would take a spaceship, I wasn’t sure yet. The sky that day was so complicated and crowded with birds. Every so often I scanned the playground to check on you. One time I looked and you weren’t there.

“Charlotte?” I called. “Charlotte? Charlotte!”

I wandered the grounds, poking my head into all of your favorite hiding spots, behind the fallen tree, under the climbing wall, until I heard scuffling from inside the tunnel slide, and one of the wild boy’s dirty legs emerged. “Charlotte?” A moment later you slid out and looked at me. I didn’t recognize the expression on your face. There were scratches on your arms and the backs of your hands. Your shirt was ripped along the bottom hem and when you noticed the rip, when you looked down and became aware of it, that’s when you began to cry. I held you for a while but you were screaming into my ear so I set you down on the bench and kept my arm around your shoulder. The other mother got off her cell phone and asked what happened. She apologized and then smiled at me knowingly. I never found out what they did to you because you never told me.

Realism, early introduction of

This includes revealing how Santa Claus was never an actual person; that a doll is only a doll and not a desired sibling or playmate; that the inflatable giraffe balloon I bought for you, the one you wanted to become your pet, would deflate in the near future; and that someday I would lose you and we would both have to deal with it.

Requests, unfulfilled

Tell me about the weather wherever you are.

Where are you?

When are you coming home?

When can I visit you?

Please return my phone calls.

What do you look like now?

What do you see when you stare out your window?

Will I get to meet my future grandchild?

Please send a photograph of yourself.

I want to know what you look like now.

Will I see you again?

Appendix A. One of the Stories I Wrote That Takes Place in the Future

This was the 82nd story Grace had heard from these people, if you could even call what they told her stories, as what they told her didn’t usually have a proper middle or end. This particular story concerned some missionaries who visited a village, “it was over there,” said the storyteller, pointing, and the missionaries said you villagers must turn over your children or your water will sour. So most villagers turned over their children, though some hid their children deep in the wells instead. When the missionaries returned, they said, “Thank you, your children have been very useful. What will happen next is a great person of about this height will arrive, and if you all do what this person asks, your whole world will get better. Your world will turn into the world of pictures.”

“What pictures?” Grace asked.

The storyteller ignored her, and the story continued on for much longer, until, in the story, two sisters climbed out of a well and ascended the mountain over there, where they froze to death overnight.

“The end!” the storyteller announced proudly, passing around his hat, into which the crowd dropped shiny turquoise stones. It was beginning to depress her, how in these people’s stories the children were either dying or going away. She asked the storyteller what really happened to all those children, and who were the missionaries. The man shrugged. “Well,” Grace said, “I, for one, would like to hear something that’s not a story. What about the land over there that looks dug up? Or the systems you have in place. Tell me about your agriculture.” She pointed to the fields, then to her ear, then to the fields again, and at this the storyteller nodded, as if he finally understood, and he began a new story about a boy who was set on fire then the boy turned into a cloud. Grace recorded the story in her book as this was what she was trained to do. The assumptions behind her work: that every story held a grain of truth, and she needed to gather many grains of truth from these early pioneers so no one would repeat their mistakes.

They would only speak in stories to her.

 What happened to you, she wanted to ask, though this was on the list of forbidden questions. When you left, you took the brightest people with you. You were going to create a paradise. You left us with a copy of the plans. Is this really it? This the best you could do?

On a practical level, all this meant hand cramps and afternoons of boredom, as these people feared technology—these people whose ancestors once traveled across the galaxy in fancy ships, much fancier than the ones Grace herself rode on! They now believed angry ghosts resided in electronics.

A month into her stint, she began to do the things everybody knows you are not supposed to do. Like counting down the days by drawing lines in the dirt with a stick. You are not supposed to do this! Or missing one’s children. You are not supposed to do this either. She knew very well her son and daughter had moved on, having settled in with their host families, or maybe they had passed away by this point, lost in the way time warps during long distance travel. When she closed her eyes, she saw what you aren’t supposed to let yourself see when you are an impossible distance from home with no hope of returning: what had been her last glimpse of them, her youngest, distracted by a shadow of a fleeing bird, while her older son glared distrustfully at Grace as she boarded, everybody pretending, perhaps unconvincingly, she wasn’t to be away for long.

This was supposed to be her dream job. She had worked very hard to get it.

In the village, there was a pack of children but they were kept hidden from her, as if there were suspicions she might snatch at them. She had a feeling something could be wrong with them, something shameful and strange, but she never got a good enough look to tell, though she did record this observation in her notebook. Maybe something wrong with the children? She only caught glimpses of curls or a bare rough foot, though if she left sweets, or what these people considered sweets, really just roots drizzled with a kind of sap, if she left a pile of these roots at the edge of the clearing, then at night, when the moons came out, the children would creep into the bushes and begin to eat, their delicate beautiful hands grabbing at the food. They must have known she was watching them yet they didn’t run away.

They made her turn over her notebook before she left. Her protests were only for show, in case someone up there was studying the feeds. She left in the rains, a not unusual detail as it was often raining, the gray dirt stuck to her boots. On the ship, when she told the team her notes were gone, that in fact she could remember nothing of worth, the experts at the table acted dumbstruck. Then the questions began, their voices rising and angry.

It was obvious her career was ruined.

“Explain yourself!” they demanded.

Even years later, even now, she could not totally understand her urge to keep those people’s stories secret, at the expense of her future, other than there had been something private and uncomfortable and probably true in what they told her. Like when, in the early mornings, in her old life, she used to hold her daughter and there was the feeling of secrets being exchanged. Like when her daughter one morning said she dreamed her mother was leaving, only not on a ship, but riding a bird, and Grace, instead of promising I would never leave you, she asked questions as if the dream was real, such as what was the bird’s color, and did anybody look happy.

Appendix B: Another Story That I Wrote Which Takes Place in the Future

There must have been a mistake. This is what you, pausing at the ramp, think at first. So much time away doing what someone thought needed to be done, and now you’ve returned only to find they’ve set you down in the wrong place, where nothing looks familiar. The women behind you, dressed like you in the silvery uniforms of transport, are pushing to get off the ship. The only reason you disembark is because you have to, but at the bottom of the ramp you step aside, letting the others rush by, stalling in hope of a correction, for some official looking lady to rush out from behind the brass band, tapping at her screen and shaking her head in apology. Oh not you, not here. We were supposed to bring you home! Such a lady does not appear. It is snowing a light snow (it was not snowing when you left), a grainy snow out of a gray sky (the sky was not gray when you left). “Welcome home,” says your daughter, at least you think it is your daughter, at least that is what her name tag says, once you finally emerge from the last checkpoint into the tart and oily air. When you left, Eva had not even been a year, and now she is old. Older than you, at least, with wrinkles between her eyes. Which should not be a possibility yet it is.

With one hand, Eva leads you away from the cameras and the volunteers trying to hand you steaming drinks. Bouquets are being trampled on the ground under your boots, and someone else squeezes your shoulder, and a reporter wants to shake your hand. People are treating you like some hero because that’s the story being told about everyone on your ship. It is a better story than what actually happened, as people tend to like stories about heroes. Holding Eva’s other hand is a child in pigtails, Liza, said to be your grandchild.

You are part of the first women combat force sent into space to fight a war that should have been as exciting as the wars in those old intergalactic novels. Those in charge assumed your team would do nothing terrible out there, because all of you were women and some of you were mothers, including, like you, mothers of infants, and it was assumed nothing terrible would be done to you in return. None of this turned out to be true. When you first saw the recruitment ads, you had been nursing Eva in the glider in the middle of the night, an unlikely stance for a future hero to take, but there you were. The ad showed a mother like you, only this mother wore a tank top that glinted in the sun, and in the ad, the mother tossed her baby to another woman then gazed skyward, lifting her empty but strong arms, the implication being those arms were capable of much more than holding a child.

There are so few heroic stories told about mothers and now you know several reasons why this is the case. The first reason is that, during a war, mothers will become like anyone in a war. You were the one who turned off the cameras early on, knowing there should not be a record.

How do you find your way back home if everything has changed? The roads, which used to be safe, clearly aren’t now, congested with solar vehicles which might be up to something, and the child trapped with you in the back seat can not stop crying because she doesn’t know who you are. Expressions you don’t recognize rage across her little face. Fear? Bewilderment? You suggest to Eva that you should be the one driving. Eva pretends she doesn’t hear you. Instead, as you scan the droughted fields for wires, or ghosts of red wires, or birds that look like ghosts, your daughter babbles on about the neighbors’ dogs, and how old Mr. Nelson attempted to build a cedar deck but nearly sawed his arm off. The comfortable violence of yard accidents. Eva is using a cheery voice either for Liza’s sake or your own. “You have missed a lot,” she says and the words hold some accusation. She tilts the rearview mirror until her eyes meet yours and she tells you old Mrs. Whitehouse finally passed away after a stroke and guess who was the only one in the neighborhood to bring over a casserole. She does not speak about herself or how she had to bury both your parents without you. Neither does she bring up the war, as if the war was just a story told once by some other people, a story that does not need retelling. You are starting to get the feeling not all of it was real or none of it. On the other side of the window it’s already getting angry out there. The air keeps hurting itself with the cold and the wind which pretends to be calm and then it isn’t.

Eva tells you that Bev Tulane’s dog got run over by a water truck. “That was one stupid dog,” she sighs.

At what used to be your parent’s home, streamers are twisted around the entire length of the banister. There are balloons in the foyer, and a sign in the front window made up of smiley faces and stars, and shadows are hanging off the gutters of the roof like ghosts. The shadows are new but you aren’t surprised to see them. You’ve heard of such things happening when people like you come home. When the shadows see you, they move frantically, with jerky motions, making scary faces, or whatever that is. One shadow takes the shape of the creatures you saw from the ship. You pretend not to remember who this particular creature is or what would be done to it. Liza finally stops crying as she remembers there is to be a small party with punch served in fancy glasses. The child wants to know if you like the color pink, and do you like balloons. She asks, rather shyly, if you like the sign in the window. When she offers you a tentative smile, it feels like she has given you an armful of flowers.

The decorations were Liza’s idea. “You should be proud of her,” Eva says. Then, after a pause, “Tell Liza you’re proud of her.”

“I’m proud of you,” you tell Liza.

Your daughter pours you more punch. There is a lot of punch, an entire crystal bowl of it. She is wanting to stand very close to you and to constantly touch your arm. She looks like she has a lot she wishes to say. You take a step away from her and ask is it okay to shut the blinds.

Later, after you feign tiredness, Eva leads you upstairs to the bedroom where you used to sleep, the first door on the right. You stop in the doorway. The room no longer looks like yours. The walls are mauve now and buzzing with mildness. There are sheer curtains on the windows instead of the yellow blinds. Your old posters above the bed have been replaced by black and white panoramas of the New York skyline, a city which has nothing to do with you, which maybe is the point.

“I want you to know, I think it’s a really brave thing you did,” Eva says, sitting on the edge of your bed. “You thought you could leave the world to make it better.”

You wonder what kind of stories they have been telling her.

Like a failed life boat, the bed starts sinking under the weight of its optimistic new pillows, so you have to pull Eva off of it.

The shadows enter this room as well. Or the ghosts. Whatever they are. The translucent woman, still in uniform, who hops into your closet and shuts the door. The creature who collapses, hyperventilating, onto the carpet. You take it such figures are everywhere, whether you see them or not, winding their fingers around your hair, like they may not let go this time. Outside the sky sags under a low cloud cover as if it may snow forever, hiding everything you came back home to find, such as the person you used to be, and your old life, and your child.

There had been one woman on the ship who refused to leave. “I am not leaving,” this woman had shouted, clutching onto her harnesses, but if you learned one thing up there, it’s that it doesn’t matter what you say you will or won’t do. The woman’s family assumedly was waiting outside with all the other families, including what was left of yours, huddled below on the patches of burnt grass, some of them holding up signs covered in red hearts. From the hatch of the opening, you had watched a wet snow fall, like a decoy, upon their shoulders.

Appendix C: a Quiz

  1. There is a trolley barreling down a track. On the same track, your current or future child is tied down to the track with a secure thick rope. To your right is a switch, which would divert the trolley down a different track, onto which there are a thousand other children also tied down with rope. Do you:

A. Throw the switch
B. Do nothing
C. Lie down on the track beside your child
D. Run away and pretend you were never there

  1. This is the same situation: the trolley, the track, your child tied to the track, only this time you are standing upon a bridge above the track. There is a large man beside you. If you push the man onto the track, he is large enough to stop the trolley, thereby saving your child. (You are not large enough to stop the trolley.) Do you:

A. Push the man off the bridge
B. Do nothing
C. Jump yourself even though you will not be able to stop the trolley
D. Ask the man to jump

  1. Now you are on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. The situation is not good. I don’t know which ocean it is. That detail isn’t important. The problem is there are too many people with you in the lifeboat. The boat holds five people and there are six of you, including your child. Do you:

A. Push someone other than your child out of the lifeboat
B. Do nothing
C. Jump out of the lifeboat yourself
D. Push your child out of the lifeboat

  1. It is a windy day and you walk outside without a hat to find numerous letters scattered around the sidewalk. Half the letters are addressed to people you don’t know. A quarter of the letters are addressed to your daughter. The remaining letters have your daughter’s name as the return address. None of the letters are addressed to you. Do you:

A. Open all the letters
B. Throw every letter into the garbage
C. Write your daughter a letter you will never mail
D. Leave the letters where they are on the ground and you walk away

  1. Imagine a house is on fire. There are many people in the house but you can only save one of them for some reason. Unfortunately your child is in the house as well on the second floor. You can see her in the window. She is banging on the glass trying to get your attention. In the other rooms, you can see additional people who, it is made clear, are very important and they will go on to change the world. The kind of people who will someday secure a peace treaty in the Middle East or find the cure for Ebola. You are not sure what your child will go on to accomplish. Most likely she will touch nothing more than her own life. At a certain age, she will move far away to a place you assume is pretty but you aren’t certain because you’ve never seen a picture of her house. What do you do?

A. You enter the burning house and sit beside your child
B. You save one of the world changers
C. You save your child
D. You run away and pretend you were never there


Your answers are worth the following points.

A: 1
B: 5
C: 1
D: 5

20-25 points: Congratulations, you are ready to begin the process of separation.

11-19 points: Don’t worry. You will be ready soon.

0-10 points: Review this primer. Try again.

Debbie Urbanski is a writer living in Syracuse, New York. Her stories have appeared in Interzone, Terraform/Motherboard, Cicada, the Kenyon Review, and the Sun. Currently she is at work on a linked story collection concerning aliens and cults. Find her at debbieurbanski.com or on Twitter @DebbieUrbanski.