When Your Big Kid Wakes You up at Midnight

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Abby’s sixth birthday is coming up in the middle of February.

When Your Big Kid Wakes You up at Midnight
Photo by Aih

This year, she’ll be with her dad and stepmom on the actual day, so they’re throwing her a birthday party and inviting her friends.

We’ll be celebrating with Abby the weekend before by hosting a sleepover. (Just Abby and one other girl. We learned our lesson last year.)

Every time the subject of her big birthday party has come up, Abby talks as if Ty and I won’t be there.

Which didn’t surprise me. Over the years since the divorce, she’s shown signs of being uncomfortable at events where both sets of parents are in one place.

But last week, I decided to be proactive and bring it up with Abby.

We stood in front of the bathroom mirror, waiting for the tub to fill for her bath. I brushed her hair back into a ponytail.

“Abby, you know your birthday party with all your friends?”

She smiled at me in the mirror. “Yes.”

“Do you want me and Ty to be there?”

Her smile slipped away. She was quiet for a few seconds and searched my face in the mirror. “Are you going to be sad?”

My little people pleaser. I said, “No, I want you to tell me how you really feel.”

A crease between her eyebrows. “It’s just that when all my parents are there, I don’t know what way to act.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know how to be.”

“I can see that,” I said. Even though I wasn’t quite sure what she was getting at.

“Are you sad?” she asked.

I smiled at her in the mirror. “No, I’m not sad.”

Then I kissed the top of her head. “I’m happy that you were brave enough to be honest with me. I want you to have fun at your birthday party, not be stressed about having all your parents there.”

She asked, “What does honest mean?”

3 Questions

This conversation left me with three questions:

  1. My 5-almost-6-year-old didn’t know the definition of “honest”? Oops.
  2. What do other parents do in this situation? Act like one big happy extended family and wait for the child to get used to it, or at least to learn how to fake it?
  3. What did she mean by she doesn’t know “what way to act”?

I mulled over the last one a lot, trying to put myself in Abby’s shoes.

And one night while I was falling asleep, I remembered another talk we had with Abby recently.

When Your Big Kid Wakes You up at Midnight
Photo by Sajia Hall

We were all sitting around the dining room table after finishing up some really freaking delicious pancakes that Ty made.

Abby said, “Are you in the same family as my other parents?”

Ty and I looked at each other.

“What do you mean, honey?” I asked.

“When I’m at their house, I’m in their family. When I’m at your house, I’m in your family. Are you guys in each other’s family too?”

I resisted the urge to jump up and scoop her up into a hug.

“Well…not exactly.” I paused. “We have two separate families. But even when you’re not at this house, you’re still in this family. And even when you’re not at their house, you’re still in their family.”

She mulled that over for a few seconds, and then she started talking about how we have seven spots for people in our SUV but only four people in our family, and how many more babies could we fit?

(She might be a little addicted to this big sister business.)

And Then I Realized

When that conversation came back to me in bed, I realized:

Abby has compartmentalized her life.

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When she’s at one house, she acts a certain way and follows certain rules. When she’s at the other house, she adjusts to that set of rules and changes her behavior to fit them.

For example, we have a “No Whining” sign in our house. She told me she doesn’t have that rule at her other house.

And this is all fine. Expected. In this situation, a child will have two sets of rules. Even within the same household, parents often have different approaches and the child has to figure out how to act with each one. Grandmas and grandpas have different rules. Teachers, aunts, uncles.

But putting Abby in a situation where she has to confront those two completely separate lives is confusing for her.

That’s why she doesn’t know what way to act.

What the Experts Say

Ty and I have met with a psychiatrist a couple times to figure out how to help Abby through this phase.

One thing she’s repeated several times is that given Abby’s age and where she is developmentally, she wants and needs stability. Repetition. Continuity.

The world is a big, scary place to little kids, and looking for stability is how they control that big, scary place.

The therapist was glad to hear about my weekly lunches with Abby because they offer that continuity. They show Abby that even on weeks when she’s not at our house, I am still her mom. I am still thinking of her, even if I don’t see her every day. I still love her.

Our Last Night

When Your Big Kid Wakes You up at Midnight
Photo by MissMessie

On Sunday nights, Abby is very open in talking about it being her last night with us. Sometimes she’s sad when she talks about it. Sometimes she’s hopeful: “But I’ll get to see you on Friday for lunch!” Sometimes it’s both within the span of five minutes.

This most recent Sunday night, I tucked her into bed, and she was more on the hopeful end of the spectrum, talking about how we’d get to see each other again in five days.

Then Ty and I collapsed into bed at 9:30 pm, in anticipation of having to leave the house at 7:00 am to make it to Abby’s Monday morning all-school assembly on time.

I was in a deep sleep when I felt a tap on my shoulder.

I thought I heard a “mommy” too, so I opened my eyes and looked at the clock. Midnight.

Closed my eyes again.

Another tap on my shoulder. I guess it wasn’t in my head.

I rolled over to face the door and saw Abby by my side of the bed.

“Mommy?” she said.

My mind raced – did she wet the bed? Does she have a fever? OH GOD, DID SHE PUKE? I started seeing images of a puke trail from her bedroom, down the stairs, and into our room.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Before bed, I feel like I didn’t tell you that I love you enough. And it’s our last night.”

My eyes felt hot, and I reached over and pulled her toward me into a big hug.

“I know you do, sweetie. I love you too.”

Then I hugged her tighter and showered her in kisses, middle-of-the-night breath and all.

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Your Turn

Share your thoughts in a comment below.

  • Lori Anderson

    my eyeballs are sweating all over the place. beautifully stated. we really, really, really need to get out for a coffee soon b/c i could sure use some time spent discussing stuff like this with someone who’s BTDT. i experience this with my oldest, too, and i often find myself scrambling for ways to talk to her about it without there being contention or bad feelings but a lot of honesty.

  • Christine Bacas Tutor

    Wow, another great piece. The divorce was REALLY hard on my middle child, Apa. She felt that she couldn’t love both sides. If she loved one side, she was being disloyal to the other. We didn’t figure this out until one day when we were ALL at the same party,and she felt awkward hugging and kissing the other side goodbye. Even though we are very open and encourage the kids to talk about their feelings (or ANYTHING they have on their mind), she won’t bring up the ex, fearing it will hurt our feelings. Poor thing. You hit the nail on the head about stability and consistency. Great idea to touch base with a psychologist. We all attend family counseling weekly, and it’s made a world of difference! XO

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  • NewNormalAdventures

    I’m newer to your blog and trying to catch up on all the past posts I haven’t read yet. I just finished laughing my way through one post and then ended up crying at the end of this one! Clearly, even with the difficulties and unsettling adjustments any kid would feel in these situations, your little Abby adores you and her time with you. It’s so cool that she went out of her way (in the middle of the night, no less!) to make sure you knew that.

    • http://idealistmom.com/ Kelly @ IdealistMom.com

      What a sweet comment, thank you. :-) I’m so glad to hear this post resonated with you…and that another post balanced out the crying with a laugh!

      p.s. Abby was just looking over my shoulder as I was reading your comment. She smiled, and then said: “I’m not little!” Haha. Stinker.

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