About a month ago my husband and I decided to separate. It’s the hardest decision of my life and the most painful. I’ve had to watch my daughters’ delicate hearts suffer and I’ve been unable to give them any answer they can truly grasp or accept. Don’t get me wrong. Ninety-five percent of the time we go about our days as usual, brave faces on and smiling. But hovering just beneath the surface is a wound that still bleeds.
When we broke the news, both girls were initially unfazed to the naked eye. Their father and I prepared as best we could, scouring the Internet and library books for the best language to use and the positive angles to highlight about their imminent new normal.
Not your fault, we love you, not your fault, two of everything, not your fault, a lot will stay the same, not your fault, we love you, lots of special time with each of us, not your fault.
We shared with them all the “right” things to say. They nodded, asked what would happen to our brand new puppy, then went off to color. For a split second, I foolishly believed it would be that easy. Five minutes or so after they left the room, I went in to see if they had any questions. And then the floodgates gave way. For the next hour and a half I cradled my babies as they sobbed. Questions were lost in their breathless, teary mumbles. No words of comfort from me soothed them. Finally, I massaged my oldest daughter’s foot and pulled out a book to read.
As I rubbed her toes and read that book, I was struck by the power in that moment. Would she hate foot rubs for the rest of her life because she would associate them with heartbreak? Or would they be a way to calm her as it did at that moment? Would she cry every time she read the particular children’s book we were reading through tears? Those tiny actions seemed to have more impact, provide more comfort than any of the words I had used minutes before.
While we said all the right things, that’s precisely where we went wrong. Words failed us. Sure they gave a name to what was happening but the warm fuzzy of “not your fault, we love you” fell on deaf ears once we ripped their security blanket out from under them. More than words they needed to be shown they were still safe, loved, and part of a family.
In the days after, I held onto the power of those tiny gestures that comforted them. I observed. I listened. I realized how much more we could have done. We did our best and I’m proud of how we handled it but given the opportunity to do it again, I’d add a few kind gestures to show them what our words could not.
I’m no expert, far, far from it. Like the woman who kindly apologized at the news of my separation and then again for not knowing the right words, I’m navigating this territory for the first time. I have no idea what words I’m supposed to be using. But I’m no stranger to kindness, to rituals, to actions that comfort. Here are a few things I wish I had thought of before sitting down with our daughters. Some I have implemented, others are in the works. None are of my devising; they’re completely inspired by my daughters’ needs and what they’ve shown me their hearts need right now to heal.
After lunch on the day we broke the news to our daughters, my oldest found a photo of her father holding her as an infant. She carried it around the entire day and the next. It was a reminder of happier times. My youngest, being second born and all, could find no pictures lying around the house of her infant days. I took an hour to find any and all pictures I could of us as a family and of each of them alone with myself and their father. I sent them to be printed and within the hour we were holding 100 pictures in our hands. My daughters have looked at those pictures everyday since. They have a stack of favorites. Some are tucked under their pillows. It’s on our agenda to get a small photo album for on the go comfort. What’s happening now shouldn’t diminish the importance of their past.
One day my ex had to give us a ride and suggested we go out to breakfast as a family beforehand. The idea had never occurred to me but as soon as I mentioned it, my daughters lit up. It was a wonderful reminder that we’re still a family. Some of you going through a separation might think it’s madness to go out to eat with your ex, but if it’s amicable, then I don’t see why not. We won’t be doing it all the time but it might become a special occasion habit. My girls are begging for a movie night so this ritual might take on different forms as long as we’re doing something together.
My oldest is enamored with lockets. After putting together the photos for them, she’s been begging for a locket to put a photo of myself and her father. It’s officially on the to do list. It’ll keep us close to her heart.
My youngest will sometimes get hit with a wave of sadness, missing her father and the way things were. I never tell her to stop crying or to think about how great things are now. I believe in being where you are so I try to honor her feelings by helping her remember what she misses. Sometimes I’ll tell a story about her younger self, other times I’ll ask her to tell me three things she really misses. I’ve found it incredibly helpful to have a plan for when my girls find themselves having a tough moment. Storytelling heals.
A Phone Call Away
Just because one parent moves out doesn’t mean they can’t be a part of their child’s daily life. A friend of mine is currently separated from her husband and they have a schedule that flip-flops who has the kids on certain nights. On her off nights, she loves to Facetime with her kids to say goodnight. It’s being there without being there.
Inspired by my daughters desire to keep happy memories close at hand, I’d like to create for them a memory box with more than just photos but tokens of special days or events. I have tickets from a trip to The Nutcracker, a program from another show, a trinket from Disney on Ice, movie ticket stubs from the many movies we’ve gone to see. It’s something they’ll hopefully turn to when their hearts need it. It will also be something to add to as we create new memories in our new family structure.
In hindsight, I wish I had come to the table with all of these in my arsenal when we broke the news. Really, though, I needed to see through my daughters’ eyes how significant these tiny salutes to our family are. We don’t get a do over. But we can move forward knowing we need more than words to make it through tough times. In everything, words are never enough.