Kids expect their parents to explain a lot. And they expect us to have an answer every time they ask the question why. Give me a scraped knee or a bruised elbow, and I can work some first-aid-mama-magic. But abstract ideas and emotions are trickier, so when my kids are struggling with friends or failure or family uncertainty, it’s hard to find the right words. Especially because what I don’t say is equally as important as what I do.
My oldest daughter only lived with her father from birth toalmost two. My youngest lived with him for fewer than six months before we moved out. Do either of them really remember this? Do they remember how it felt? Does that part matter as much as what has happened since then? Since 2012 they’ve seen him weekly, sometimes more, sometimes less. He hasn’t put them to bed since then and, because of his decisions or mine, he’s missed many other big and little moments in the last six years.
But he does the best he can to be a man they can respect and love. They see that and they love him fiercely. And that’s what I want for them.
However, that’s one of the things that makes full-time single parenting hard. I can’t be their dad when he’s not around. Sure, I can fix toilets and put them on my shoulders; I can make dinner and build bookshelves; I can give them all the advice and love in the world. But I can’t be him. And sometimes that’s the only thing they want.
As I was climbing down from the top bunk after tucking one of my sweet girls in recently, she whispered sadly, “Mommy, I miss Daddy.” I stood there on the ladder, took a deep breath, and leaned in to give her another kiss. Would this be a night where she sobbed uncontrollably for what seemed like forever? Or a night where she insisted on sleeping with me? Or a night where after giving her feelings words she was able to drift off to sleep peacefully?
I’ve had many chances to try to get this moment right with both of my girls, and though I haven’t mastered it, I have gotten better.
What don’t I say? I don’t say she doesn’t need to cry about it. I don’t say that it breaks my heart that I made a decision that brings her so much sadness. I don’t say I’m sorry. I don’t tell her that that leaving was a good decision, a necessary decision. I don’t tell her not to miss him or not to grieve for the life she imagines she could have, because I grieve for the same thing.
What do I say when she says she misses daddy? I tell her I know she does, that I wish it wasn’t so hard, that if I could change things I would, but this is how it has to be right now, and that he misses her, too. It is all true. I tell her I’m here if she needs me to hold her, and I always will be. I tell her that I, too, hope that one day she can do the things with her dad that her other friends do with their dads. And I tell her that I love her.
As difficult as it is, I have learned to let my girls live in their sadness when they feel it. I allow them to cry, be angry, wish, and pray. Because in letting them feel their feelings, I give them permission to own them and I give them room to grow into the people they are meant to become.