Abby’s sixth birthday is coming up in the middle of February.
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?”
This conversation left me with three questions:
- My 5-almost-6-year-old didn’t know the definition of “honest”? Oops.
- 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?
- 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.
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.
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
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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