“Where are you going?” a little voice asked.
“What?” I turned back against the tide of moms and dads leaving the dance studio and saw a little dancer looking up at me, bun cocked and eyes narrowed curiously.
“Where are you going?” Nosy McNoserson’s repeated. “You said you’d see Lottie tomorrow. Why aren’t you picking her up tonight?” she asked.
“Oh,” I smiled. “I’m not going anywhere. Lottie has two houses, one with me and one with her dad. We’re divorced, and we live separately. I’m dropping her off and her daddy will pick her up. She’s at his house tonight, and I’ll see her before school tomorrow.”
The little girl looked at me. She rearranged her face into a serious, thoughtful expression.
“That’s sad,” she declared solemnly.
I wasn’t surprised. This happens frequently when I speak to children about our divorce. They often don’t have experience with it, and pick up their cues from what they hear from adults or on television. Sadly, what they assume often just furthers the stigma about divorce and blended families. I’ve faced this enough that I had an answer ready.
I knelt and met my new little friend’s gaze. Lottie sat close by as I began, listening while she pulled on her slippers.
“Living in two houses isn’t always sad. It was the right answer for our family.” I said gently. “Lottie’s dad and I weren’t good married partners. We’re better parents living separately. Lottie has a big family, with lots of people who love her in both houses. She has twelve people in her tribe!”
I glanced at Lottie. Sometimes other kids’ questions bother her. Sometimes highlighting her family’s unique composition triggers her grief and sadness. That didn’t appear to be the case today.
Seconds later, she was busy naming her brothers and sisters and regaling her friend with the trials and tribulations of bathroom sharing. I turned and slipped out the door, leaving my two ballerinas chatting animatedly.
I had barely made it to the car before I started worrying. I worried she was just putting on a brave face and she might feel sad later. Maybe I should call her dad let him know bedtime might be bumpy. I pulled out my phone and hesitated. Maybe I was overreacting.
Our divorce forces Lottie to explain herself and her family in a way other kids don’t have to experience. I worry the effects of that might mark her in ways I don’t understand and can’t prevent. I worry the labels of child of divorce, broken home, and stepdaughter might be too heavy for her little shoulders to carry.
For the rest of the evening, I wondered whether I’d done the right thing by answering the question so candidly. Maybe I should’ve let Lottie answer her friend. Maybe I shouldn’t have answered at all. Maybe my mission to change how people think and talk about divorce and blended families doesn’t have to extend to little girls at ballet class.
I wasn’t at all surprised when Lottie brought the conversation up the next day on our walk to the bus stop.
“Mom? Remember what happened at ballet yesterday?” she asked.
“I do remember what happened,” I said, holding my breath for what came next. I was sure she’d spent the night turning that two minutes over and over in her mind just like I had. I was ready to help her sort through whatever feelings were surfacing.
“I was thinking about that yesterday,” Lottie said. “I forgot divorced is the word for what you and Daddy are. Sometimes I just think I have two houses.”
She continued, saying that divorce sometimes seems to mean something different when other families talk about it. Something bigger and more difficult that what she is living.
I’m only half-listening.
I spend an enormous amount of time and energy on reframing divorce for our children and our family and their friends and the world. I am wildly conscious of the stigma divorce and remarriage carry, and focused on ensuring that my children understand our family is different but not less than any other family they encounter. I work to balance talking openly about divorce and allowing that single event in our past to fade to the background.
I wonder constantly whether I’m doing any of this right. I worry and wonder and worry some more.
The day my daughter forgot the word divorce told me what we were doing was working. Even when grief surfaces. Even when I get it completely wrong. Even when it feels like a never-ending conversation. This learn-as-you-go, try-your-best-and-try-again, start-and-end-with-love adventure we’re on is keeping her safe.