This Divorced Mom’s Biggest Mistake

For a minute, I didn’t understand what she said. The words just hung in the air, jumbled and meaningless.

“I want to stay at Daddy’s. I don’t want to be here tonight.”

I couldn’t quite catch my breath.

My six year-old daughter Lottie sat watching me absorb what she’d just said. A lone tear escaped the corner of her eye and rolled down her soft little-girl cheek.

“What?” I asked when I could breathe again.

“I don’t want to stay here. I want to go to Daddy’s. I want to stay there,” she repeated.

I wish I could tell you that I didn’t react. That I looked across the faded blue kitchen table and told her I would support her in any choice she made, and of course she could spend the night at Daddy’s. She could spend as much time as she wanted with either of her parents and in either of her two homes.

The truth is, I’m not that good.

I could feel the warmth creeping up my neck. The lump in my throat came out of nowhere, making my voice strain and catch as I responded.

“Why? Aren’t you happy here with Mommy? You just came from Daddy’s house.”

She looked away. “I know. I miss him.”

“Won’t you miss me? This is our time. Why do you want to be with Daddy? Is it because he lets you watch TV? Or stay up later than Mommy does? You can tell me. I won’t be mad.” The words spilled out, tumbling one over the other and landing in a heaping pile of desperation on the table between us.

Lottie shrugged and looked away.

I didn’t understand. She’d just spent five days with her dad. She’d transitioned home well, and we’d just finished an unremarkable Saturday lunch. Why would she want to leave me?

My heart was racing, and my breathing was fast and shallow. It was happening. I was losing my girl. I had carried this secret fear for years, this worry that one day Fun Dad would win out over Responsible Mom, and it was happening today. I was scared and ashamed and overwhelmed by emotion.

I looked up and saw my three children staring at me. They watched my chest rise and fall and my face flush. They had heard the catch in my throat. I excused myself and retreated to my room, the sobs starting as I closed the door.

Fast forward to several hours later, and my sweet six year-old was holding firm. Her daddy picked her up, and I watched her leave silently. I didn’t trust myself to talk. I put the boys to bed and cried myself to sleep.

She called the next day and asked to stay another night. The same thing happened the following night. Four days passed with Lottie at her dad’s on what should’ve been my time. Her father reported that she was cheerful and engaged and not talking about this strange scheduling situation, except to ask to stay with him.

On the fifth day, she came home to me. Her father and I agreed to put Lottie in counseling before deviating from the schedule again. I called and booked an appointment for the following week.

I nearly threw up before her first session. I was sure she’d tell the counselor some terrible truth about life at Mom’s house and she’d be off to Dad’s permanently. I’d lose my girl. She walked into the counselor’s office and I sat in the waiting room alone.

What I learned when the counselor called me back into her office shocked me.

Lottie was happy at my house. She felt safe and loved and wanted. Lottie was happy at Daddy’s house. Lottie knew Daddy was getting married soon and worried he might forget about her. So she thought she’d better spend some extra time at Daddy’s. She knew she could ask Mommy because Mommy was always telling her that she could love both parents and be happy at both houses.

What I heard next broke my heart.

Lottie wasn’t planning to choose Daddy’s house ever again. Mommy got so sad when she asked that she didn’t want to hurt Mommy like that again. She would take care of Mommy by not asking for things that hurt Mommy. She figured she better take care of Daddy too, and not ask him for anything that might hurt him.

Our six year-old sat calmly on the counselor’s couch holding my hand and detailed her plan to override her own need to ask for her parents’ help because it might cause us pain. She was putting her natural and normal needs to spend varying time with her parents second to her mother’s ego.

That wasn’t okay with me.

I told her the truth: Mommy will always support what she needs, even if for a minute, it hurts Mommy’s feelings. I told her that what would really hurt Mommy’s feelings was knowing her little girl was afraid to ask for help.

She didn’t believe me. She said she did, but what she did over the coming weeks and months told me otherwise.

Lottie began to watch me carefully. She’d hear me clear my throat and quickly ask me if I was okay. She’d tell me she loved me if she sensed me getting frustrated about any of the normal every day mom frustrations we all face. During family movie nights, she’d smile and laugh at a funny scene and then look over at me to make sure we were all having fun.

She tried not to need me as much. She’d squash her own emotions about her annoying brothers or a disappointing grade at school with a quick “it’s nothing, Mommy. I’m okay.”

My daughter became my caretaker, editing her own thoughts and emotions in favor of mine.

I was so focused on my own experience, my own fears and worries, that I forgot to take care of my little girl.  My biggest mistake was losing sight of my job as her mom. I inadvertently asked her to take care of me, a job that is much too big for a six year-old child.

And the worst part? When Lottie chose to stifle her own experience and elevate mine, editing her emotions and catering to me, I really did lose my little girl.

We are in a different place now, having talked through this many times over the last couple of years. It took work to get here. I had to prove, over and over, that I am comfortable with her loving each of us. Today, Lottie knows that my priority is her health and happiness, and she really is free to move between homes and parents. It’s that freedom that has given her happy heart back to me.

This Mother’s Day I’m sharing this story to remind divorced mothers that a happy child who openly loves and accepts both parents and homes is a precious gift.  Don’t worry about where you rank in relation to everyone else in your baby’s tribe. Let her babble on endlessly about fun at the other house and people she loves and fun things she’s done. She’s giving you a window into her life, and it’s hard to get back if you accidentally close it.

Happy Mother’s Day, from one banged up learning mama to another.

By | 2017-05-10T08:24:44+00:00 May 9th, 2017|Coparenting, Divorce, Our Bunch|

6 Comments

  1. Diana Verbeck May 9, 2017 at 10:32 am

    Thank you for sharing this. While not quite the same, I watched as my 15 yo son slowly take up residence at his dad’s for a year (upside…he literally lives about 3 blocks away). I knew he wasn’t happy at our house, with his “new” step family (he’d been with us for 3+ years at this point), but it was definitely a punch to the gut and at his age, with no formal custody agreement or child support (like $0), at his age, I couldn’t justify putting up a fight and hope that at some point he would find his way back, even on a semi-regular basis. After a year, he is slowly coming back around and staying more often and longer, and we have gotten to the point where he will have a schedule with us and with his dad. I feel I did the right thing with him by not forcing and I think he has more of an appreciation for what he has at our now than he did before. And for that, I am thankful!

    • Kate Chapman May 9, 2017 at 11:18 am

      Diana, what a gift you gave your boy. Such patient, unconditional love. You’re a she-ro and my role model.

  2. Kathy Miller May 9, 2017 at 11:14 am

    Kate–
    Thank you for sharing this. I truly think that the fear of one of our children seemingly or actually choosing the other parent is the ultimate nightmare for so many divorced parents. I experienced something similar this spring. I was sitting in an airport after the end of a girls trip and saw that my therapist was calling. My 17-year old son and I both see her, and I knew that he had an appointment while I was gone. I answered and could tell from her tone of voice that she didn’t want to make the call. She said that he wanted a joint a meeting and would Monday work. I said yes and asked her if he was wanting to stay at his dad’s. ( We share 50/50, but I had noticed Will becoming more withdrawn and distant.) She said that he had some things that he wanted to talk to me about and that the way I reacted would be important for our relationship. Naturally I started crying and cried for both legs of my flight home. I fell sobbing into my husband’s arms when he picked me up. Waiting until the next afternoon for our appointment was agonizing.
    We were both sitting in the waiting room–trying to act naturally (failing miserably). When we got back to our therapist’s office, he started talking. He wanted to stay at his dad’s during the week and see me on weekends. His reason was that his dad’s is closer to his school and it made things easier. Then it came out that he was angry at my husband (we have been married 3 1/2 years) for calling him out on some snarky behavior that he had directed at me. He said he was feeling like he didn’t belong at my house anymore. He has 2 older siblings who are in college. His brother had just left in the fall which left him as my only bio-child with 3 younger step-siblings at our house. The younger kids, by virtue of their ages (14, 11, 8) do require more parenting attention.
    I listened while he speaking. He broke down in sobs and was clearly in so much pain. All I could see was my baby choosing his father over me, but I made myself let him finish. This was the child who had, seemingly, been the most accepting of my remarriage and of my husband. They bonded over a shared love of sports and Netflix shows that don’t interest me. Will helped my husband coach the younger two kids’ basketball teams. I couldn’t understand.
    When he finished, and it was my turn to talk, I told him that I loved him and that there was nothing that he could do or say that would change that. I told him that my job as a parent is to teach him and nurture him in a way that would enable him to leave me. I told him that he will leave me. He is supposed to leave me. Mark (my husband) will not leave me. He has my back and protects me in ways that no one ever has. And that is what he supposed to do. That being said, I told Will that he was my child and that I fought for him his entire life and that I will continue to fight for him. (He was a preemie; had health issues as a child and was out of school for half the previous year as we addressed other health issues.) I reminded him of all of the ways that I had supported him, advocated for him, and gone to bat for him. I told him that he was worth all of those things and more. I let him know that it was ok to have issues with people and stay and work through them. There were many tears–even from our therapist–and we came to the decision that he would continue the 50/50 arrangement that we had in place.
    He often asks if he can stay at his dad’s when play practice runs late or if he has to be at school early, and I always say yes. Like you, I have told my kids, and try to show them, that I am fine when they are at their dad’s–and that their relationship with his just as important as my relationship with them.
    He needed to hear from me that he was important and worth fighting for. The balancing act between siblings and the fact that his bio-sibs were gone was causing him to think that he didn’t have a place at our house. We have been much more diligent about prioritizing time with each other. I am happy to say that things are much better.
    When I remarried, I had visions of a Brady Bunch-esque life with our six kids. The reality is so different. But it’s worth slogging through the hard in order to show all of the kids that they are loved and valued. (Having an Alice sure would be nice though!) I truly appreciate your blog and the things you share. It helps to know there are others who are on this journey as well.

  3. Karly May 10, 2017 at 11:51 am

    Dear Kate,

    I feel so moved reading your heartfelt, vulnerable, compassionate story. I have made many of the same mistakes, and the same repair, with my own children – ah, yes, to help them understand it is not their job to take care of a parent’s feelings.

    I understand the desire to be the parent you wish to be – and the pain of not always being able to do so. And I also understand the yearning and courage that moves us forward, into ‘the better angels of our nature.’

    In companionship on the journey,
    Karly

  4. Stefanie May 11, 2017 at 5:57 am

    What an incredibly touching and wonderfully written article… just incredible – wow!

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