I’m okay with divorce, I really am. I’m a big boy now, and I like to think that I take responsibility for my choices, but I never planned on, nor was I prepared for, raising a child in what when I was growing up was called a broken home. Double household kids are as common today as spilled milk, and I’m not sure what they are calling it these days, but it is talked about with an air of acceptability that I find unsettling. What substitutes for a home with a mother and a father and a singular sense of belonging for something as fragile as a new life?
Starting out life in a toxic or loveless place can be far worse; I know that, we all do the best we know how. Psychologists now site new studies (and I’ve read them) that reveal that children of divorced parents learn better relationship skills and can become stronger and more productive people. I accept that, yet none of that matters one tiny little bit the to heart of a small child. These are the same psychologists who like to point out the rising dysfunction in young people today.
A kid can get good parenting, and know that they are loved, and that matters immensely, but it is the fractured sense of belonging that is the hurt that cannot be undone. I have always referred to my place as “home” or “our house,” but Madi still talks of Mama’s house or Daddy’s house, as though she is somewhere in-between.
People would tell me, “Don’t let it bother you, children are amazingly resilient.” I never bought that crap, platitudes for the guilty mind. With all due respect, I’ll take my reality the way my child takes it thank you very much.
The first hurdle was figuring out how to tell a three and a half year old girl that her Mama was not going to be living here anymore. I did my research and spoke to friends, and professionals, and Mama, and found the latest thing. They say tell them only what they can understand at their age, then update as they get older and ask again. It was good advice, and it worked, but the plan only addresses HOW to tell them, WHAT to tell them is the hard part. We started with Mama staying at an apartment because it was easier for late nights at work, and went from there.
It took me some time, but I did figure out, with a little help, what my job was, and it had nothing to do with anger, blame, and resentment. My job as Madi’s Dad is to LIFT. I am relied upon to support and guide in whatever my little charge came here to do, no more. Each of us comes to this world, presumably by choice, with our own unique tasks and challenges, and with our own specific destiny. It is not for me to choose or manage her path, that’s her job. This realization made single parenting one whole hell of a lot easier for me, but there are days that are not so easy, days where you just have to put your head down and do the work.
One night, after about the third or fourth iteration of the on-going explanation, Madi woke up in the dead of night screaming. I thought she had been hurt, because she got right out of bed and walked across the scary dark hallway straight to my bed, which was unheard of. Any parent knows that there are many types of crying. There are cries that say, I want, I’m hurt, I’m hungry, I’m angry, I’m sad, and more. Kids cry. It’s one of the things they do. I am as good as any at flipping the parental switch and letting them cry without a lot of emotional attachment. There is nothing wrong with crying, kids need to cry sometimes, and often you need to let them do so before you step in to help. This night, the cry was none of that, it was something altogether different. It had a sound to it that I had only heard once before from her. This sound seizes the spine and gives you a rush of hot nausea. It is the sound of human suffering, of desperate sorrow, and it is awful. And, when it is coming from your baby, it is excruciating!
Physically she was fine. It took some time before I could get any words out of her other than something about a blue frog. She had had a dream. It wasn’t a bad dream, it was a beautiful dream. I pieced together a story about a blue frog who lived near a tree. Mr. Blue Frog was her friend, and he talked to her a really long time under his tree about many things, and these things made her so happy. She loved Mr. Blue Frog, and Mr. Blue Frog loved her. They were very happy that they were friends. Then Mr. Blue Frog told her that he had to go away. He was going to the North Pole to live with Santa, and he would never be coming back. He had to go, and he would never see her again. He told her that he loved her very much, but he had to say good-bye forever. Then Mr. Blue Frog left.
If I can get her to tell me her dreams, I can usually figure out what is going on with her. This dream was a dread realization that was all too clear to me. Her little subconscious had finally figured it out, and was letting her know that her life would never again be what it was. That the two people she loved and depended on the most, did not love and depend upon each other; that the home she knew, the original place of her belonging, the place she was safe and sure and happy in was torn in a way she did not understand. Personified in this little blue frog, the force of its finality was devastating to her.
The wailing was explosive, and intense, and continuous, and always there was that sound in it. I did everything I could to calm her down; I held her, rocked her, and talked to her. Nothing made even a tiny dent. She had absolute trust in Mr. Blue Frog, and HE said he was never coming back.
Between the wails there were pleas for me to help. “Please Daddy make him come back!” “I want him back again!” Madi was missing her friend Mr. Blue Frog, but I knew what Mr. Blue Frog meant. I remember these pleas like you remember the slow motion details of a traffic accident, and every one cut. “Help me Daddy, bring him back.” “I don’t want him to go! Why did he have to go?! Why did this happen??! Why?!! Tell me!!” “I don’t understand why he had to go!” “I need him Daddy please, help me! Do something! Bring him back! “ “Tell me what to do! I need him with me! I love him! I want my blue frog back!” “TELL ME WHAT TO DO!!”
For my part, I was being lashed, and I knew I probably deserved it. If you had given me the choice then of feeling this, or having the inside of my heart scooped hollow with a rusty spoon, I’d have chosen the spoon!
The wailing and pleading and my feeble attempts to ease them went on unabated for forty minutes. I tried everything I knew to help change the outcome, “maybe he’ll come visit you at Christmas with Santa. Maybe you can dream of going to see him. I’m sure if he loves you he’ll change his mind,” but the blue frog was telling the truth, he really was never coming back, she knew it, and I knew it. Finally I just ran out, I had noting left so I gave up. That’s when the first honest words came rolling out of my mouth as I tried to hide my own tears.
“I am SO sorry Madi, I don’t KNOW what to do, I JUST DON”T KNOW what to do!”
We both just sat, numb.
Then, in a tiny, trembling voice she says, “We can write him a letter.”
“Yes, yes we can. We can write him a letter! What would you want to say in the letter?” She explained what she wanted to say, and then asked, “Can we write a real letter?”
“Sure we can, we’ll turn on the lights, go downstairs, find some paper and a pen and we will write this letter!”
“Can we put it in an envelope?”
“We will put it in an envelope.”
“And put his address on it?”
“Of course we will! Do you know his address?”
“Um, Near a tree.”
“Good enough, that’ll do.”
“And can we put a stamp on it?”
“Yes. We have plenty of stamps.”
“And put it in the mail box for the mailman to take?”
The sun was just coming up when we walked the envelope with the letter to Mr. Blue Frog to the mailbox. Every word carefully dictated, and a special card included for him to return to her when he came back, in the real world. She carefully tucked the envelope into the box and made sure the flag was up so that the mailman would take it. All things considered, we had a good day after that. She never mentioned the little blue frog again, but I have never forgotten him. Later, I pulled the letter out of the box and saved it. I have not opened it until today.
I have not forgotten these posts are about what is GREAT about having a kid, especially mine, so here goes.
Fast-forward four years to this Spring, fathers day I believe. We were visiting grandpa with most of the family there. My sister was going through a divorce of her own at the time, and when she, Madi and I went to take her dog for a walk around the block, she struck up more questions about separation agreements and house selling. Since I had been around that block several times, I was one source of opinion and advice. My sister didn’t know that I had not told Madi of her aunt and uncle’s impending separation. I was unsure how Madi would take it, so I put off telling her about it. By the time the conversation started, it was already too late so I let it run. Madi was happily at the other end of a corgi’s leash and I half hoped she wasn’t paying attention. We finished our walk and went back inside.
Later, my sister recounted to me that once inside, Madi came to her and asked her if she and uncle Steve were getting a divorce. My sister, herself worried about Madi’s reaction, told the truth none-the-less and said that yes, they were. Madi raised her arm to my sister’s shoulder, patted her, and said, “It will be alright aunt Jeanne. I know, it’s hard for a while, but it gets better.”
…And somewhere a little blue frog smiled.