Here we are, about 6 months into our separation: that time cushioning the space between today and the point of impact. The end of the marriage was sudden, meaning that it happened in one day, with little to no warning.
If I was completely blindsided by it, I had to protect my children from the shock. If I felt wounded, I covered that damage when I was with them. I remember days of hiding in my room so that my, then, 3 year-old daughter wouldn’t see me grieving, only to come out with swollen eyes and a quivering smile as I rallied them out of the house to our next daily adventure. My daughter would sometimes ask me if that was my sad face, to which I would just surrender and say, “yes.” If it was startlingly hard on me, it was just as hard on her, in her mere 3 years of exposure to this grown-up world.
That’s because she knew. She knew something. She knew her world had changed, but her little mind couldn’t grasp how. Daddy wasn’t around very much anymore, and Mommy was sad and distracted. Despite trying to convince her that Daddy was working more than ever, and despite Daddy coming around for dinners, when he could, and on weekends, she detected the shift. She and her brother stopped sleeping through the night. She’d crawl into bed with me and ask, “where’s Daddy?” “He’s working,” I’d say. Next night, same thing. For the first couple of weeks, she began waking up earlier and earlier in the dark mornings just trying to catch him before he left for “work.” What used to be evenings with Daddy became phone calls with Daddy. He no longer came home to his belongings, but rather brought his belongings with him when he visited. It was obviously different.
Still, we withheld telling her anything specific because I imagined she’d get used to the new normal. I figured she was too young to grip this adult crap. Inevitably, the less we explained, however, the more processing she had to do on her own. Among many other things, she would sometimes openly wish, at dinner, for Daddy to stay longer, even though he never left before she fell asleep. Other times, she might ask if he’d be showing up “any minute.” She started to keep me on a shorter leash, saying that she didn’t want me to go “different places.” And still, I clung to, “He’s working,” as the only response, hoping to soften the blow — better than saying, “Daddy moved out.” Better for whom, though? Her anxiety was building, sweetly and genuinely, as she tried to piece together this very scattered puzzle. And I realized that when I’d say, “He’s at work,” I did so with an air of pity in my voice towards her, and no doubt she picked up that sadness.
She was working so hard to understand, and she was just adrift. So I had to change my position. We couldn’t wait for her to simply get used to the new normal because she wasn’t getting used to it. She was analyzing it. I underestimated her, and she was telling me so. My ex and I decided to tell her the truth. We consulted our marriage counselor about the appropriate way to tell our, now, 4-year-old, and we developed a strategy that used language specific to her.
Simply put, we told her that Daddy lives in an apartment now. He lives with Uncle So&So, whom she knows very well. When she asked why, it’s because all families look different –she has a friend with 2 mommies; she has another friend who doesn’t live with her Daddy either, but rather with her Mommy, Aunt and Uncle; she has another friend who lives with both her Mommy and Daddy. For her family, she and her brother live with Mommy, and Daddy lives close by. She thought about it, and then, “Ok. Can we go outside and play?” That was it. She got her answer. It wasn’t heavy; it wasn’t dreadful or upsetting. It was truth: plain, simple and merciful truth.
She doesn’t analyze anymore. She gave it up immediately. She gets it. She’s happy. And now, when she asks for Daddy, I can answer in an upbeat way, “You’ll see him on Saturday, but should we call him now?” She looks forward to seeing Daddy, rather than worrying where he is, or when he’ll be back. She can get used to the new normal now because we finally made it normal for her.
In my desperate fear of hurting her with the truth, I was depriving her from the information she needed to move on. I was hoarding it for myself. I had moved on, and now she should be allowed to move on. Her brother was only 18 months when the marriage ended. For him, the new normal will be all he knows. And he’ll have a happy big sister to show him the way.
When we were planning our conversation with our therapist, my husband suggested that when our daughter asks why we don’t live together anymore, we could say something like, “Sometimes Mommies and Daddies are sad together.” Were we? I didn’t know that. But that can’t be our children’s problem.