My daughter, who is five, sat with slumped shoulders at our kitchen table. She was in her snowman PJ’s, swinging her legs sadly. This was not like my kid. She’s the one standing on a stool next to me at the kitchen sink peeling carrots or doing dishes. She’s the one dressing up our dog, Sadie, making elaborate sleeping arrangements for her. But this night, she was slumped at the table, looking like the loneliest child on the planet. I was wiping down the counters—cleaning up after the holiday party we’d had with friends.
“What’s up, pumpkin?” I asked, scooping her onto my lap.
“I don’t know.”
“Are you sad?”
“Yes,” she said, leaning her head against my chest.
“I don’t know,” she said again. This was not my kid. At all. This is the kid who tells her teachers who flushed too much toilet paper down the toilet at school. This is the kid can tell me where I left my keys. She’s the one singing in the backseat, the one who chats up firemen, who climbs the highest on the play structure.
But tonight she had lost track of her feelings, and alarm bells were ringing in my ears.
“Did you have fun at our party tonight?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Was anyone mean to you? Did someone say something?” She shook her head, no.
“Then, what is it, love?” She shrugged. Tears welled up in her eyes.
I raced through the list of possibilities– mom style.
Not enough to eat? Nah, she ate a whole drumstick and all of her green beans. Tired? Well, sure, but not beat. Coming down with a bug? I felt her head, cool, normal. Not enough gifts? Everyone got gifts, she had plenty. Did I say something? No– amazingly– I had held it together the whole evening.
Then it hit me– all of the adults who had come over with kids that night had been couples. We were the only solo family in the group. Come to think of it, most of the people we regularly hung out with were paired off, and my kid was having the revelation that we were different. It didn’t sit well with her. She remembers life with a mom and a dad in the house. Now, a year later, being shuffled from house to house was taking its toll. My heart wrenched.
“Is it because daddy’s not with us?”
“Do you want to call daddy?”
“You can always call him,” I suggested, not having the faintest idea where he was. “You know he loves you more than he loves anybody, right?”
“You know I love you more than anybody. You know you are the most important person in my life. That you are my light and my love.” I rocked her in my lap. I held her head to my heart. I waited.
“Why can’t daddy live with us?” There it was.
“Well, my sweet,” I breathed, be brave, be strong, you can do this. “Some people live with mommies and daddies in the same house,” I paused. She knew what that picture looked like. “And some people have mommies and daddies in two houses, like us.
That’s just the shape of our family. It might not look like what you saw with your friends tonight, but it’s fine. We’re fine. Daddy loves you. I love you. You get to spend time with both of us.” I rocked her a minute more. “Do you want to call daddy?”
She nodded. He answered. She asked him to come over. And, miraculously, he did. Somehow, he and I put our contentions aside for a half an hour, while she showed him her toys. And when he said goodbye, she hugged him mightily, closed the front door, padded into the bathroom, brushed her teeth, and then got into bed. I told her a story about a brave little girl, who was not like everyone else, but was so very loved. I wished her a good night and told her she was going to ride rainbows with Sadie into her sweet dreams.
As I got ready for bed, I looked in the mirror and decided not to berate myself for something I couldn’t change. My life hadn’t turned out the way I’d wanted it to; my marriage had fallen apart. “I’m doing the best that I can,” I told myself. “We all are.” Then I remembered something an old woman I knew had said to me years ago: “You know, darling, nothing is perfect. Nothing. We try. We do what we can. Let me save you some grief– stop trying so hard. Everything is exactly the way it is. It is what it is.” I cried for a few minutes in the bathroom, and then– feeling the wash of relief that tears bring–I vowed to call some of my solo mom and dad friends the next day to make plans.