When my daughter was younger, she struggled with the sudden changes a divorce brings. Unsure of the actual meaning, she clearly understood it was shattering her normal routine and structure. As a result it sowed seeds of fear and uncertainty I worry still impacts her today. Silly? To wonder if an event before she turned 4 could actually shape her perspectives forever is frightening. Especially since children never have any say in what occurs in their life. As parents all we can do is choose what we believe will be the best possible option to keep them safe and foster an environment of love. Staying married was never a path to that goal.
How do you honor a child’s concerns while reinforcing they don’t exist beyond their worries? As with most children of divorce my daughter’s biggest issue was fear of abandonment. That with the separation of one parent, the other parent would disappear or “ go away” as well, leaving them all alone. It took years to reaffirm that would never happen with me.
Daily mantras of, “Mommy leaves for the day, but always comes home at night,” became a routine.
As I dropped her off at camp, preschool, friend’s or family homes, we’d always repeat, “What happens when Mommy leaves?”
Her timid response, “She always come home.”
I am forever thankful I did not suffer from an accident or sudden demise causing me to break that promise.
One tumultuous year some outside issues occurred that disrupted the tenuous assurance we’d achieved. By late afternoon, every day for a week, I received a call from the nurse at camp to pick up my then 5 year old because she was complaining of a stomach ache. Every time I appeared to take her home she suddenly recovered and wanted nothing more than to eat, play and enjoy my company.
It became painfully clear she was scared. After a slow process of cajoling and cuddling and talking about anything and everything she finally shared her concerns.
By late afternoon she said her, “heart and tummy ached” for Mommy.
It wasn’t purposeful. It wasn’t manipulative. It was heartbreaking. My baby, my love, had slid back, as we all do when we feel insecure and vulnerable, that she’d be left alone. Who knew why. She loved camp and couldn’t wait for the next day’s events, but for some reason the trust we had so painstakingly established was being tested. Once again she worried whether I’d be there to pick her up at the end of the day.
Talking didn’t help.
Pulling her out of a camp she loved, with friends she bonded with, and activities that stimulated her to sit at home with a sitter or coloring in my office wasn’t an option.
So. . .what was? How do I reassure my sweetheart it’s O.K. to separate, play, and have fun because at the end of each day we’d be together?
I finally realized I couldn’t do this alone. We both had to see the truth. Taking her in my arms and holding her close, I talked about the future. I told her I desperately missed her too, so maybe the answer was for me to quit my job. That way we’d be together every minute of every day.
She loved the idea, smiling and hugging me.
But. . .I then began to explain I’d have to sell the house since I couldn’t possibly afford it.
But that was O.K., we’d just be in a smaller place and share a room. Of course we wouldn’t have our own space. . .but we’d be together all the time!
Now her jubilation stalled somewhat.
“Hmmm,” she said as she pictured that idea.
I went on to elaborate.
I wouldn’t have money for gas, so she’d have to be home-schooled and movies and outings would end. Sure, we’d both miss our friends, “but hey,” I said as I pulled her closer, we’d be together all the time, just as she wanted.
Now her excitement turned to horror as she began to see the future she’d asked for.
Her poor little face dropped and tears began to flow as she tried to understand how to get out of this scenario.
Of course, I offered, there may be another way. . .
She immediately looked up with hope and anticipation.
“We could put pictures of us in individual covers and string them on a key chain to attach to your backpack. That way when your tummy and heart aches for Mommy, you can see me, touch me and know, deep in your heart and soul I’m always there with you. That no matter where you are, however far away, I’m always there. And I’ll always be back.
She happily agreed.
That key chain of pictures was added to regularly and helped her through a lot of years. It now sits proudly on a table in my family room. Reminding us both of simpler times when a photo could bring such comfort.
It was then I realized we all need reassurances, no matter our age. A great deal of the strife and stress in our lives, relationships, and work are due to fears that we may lose everything.
In those vulnerable moments, we all need a “picture” to cling to.