Last Friday was Franny’s end-of-the-year party, held at a classmate’s house. Her teacher called me afterwards to tell me that my 10-year-old daughter had sobbed for two hours and had to be hand-held by an adult.
The gist: Franny’s best friend Josie, the girl with whom Franny had once coordinated outfits every night before school, with whom she trick-or-treated each year, with whom she saw her first concert (Katy Perry), with whom she choreographed dance performances for All-School Meetings…this girl has a new best friend.
And Franny is inconsolable. “We planned our whole lives together!” she told me later, fighting back tears.
Franny’s teacher explained that Franny’s unrequited love for Josie has led her to acquire desperate behaviors that are alienating other kids: clinging to Josie; being snarky to Josie’s new BFF; running around telling others how mean Josie and the new gal pal are being to her; public sobbing during lunch.
“Has she been getting calls for playdates?” the teacher asked me.
Some, but not as many as in past years. I had chalked this up to the school being small. One of her closest friends goes to another school, so Franny has played with her most often.
I felt embarrassed when the teacher asked, a mantra of “a good mother would have known what was going on” ping-ponging inside my head.
Franny is not one to talk about her feelings. She’s a sunny, “everything’s fine!” kind of kid. And then there’s this: I did not want Franny to have Problems. Little problems, yes, just not big ones. She was going to be the one who emerged from our apocalyptic divorce with just a few scrapes and sally forth to the lyrical future she has shared with me:
“I’m going to be a vet. My husband’s going to be a lawyer, so he’ll make enough money in case we need to put another room on the house. And I’m just going to have one daughter, Aria. Just one kid. Otherwise there’s fighting. And we’ll live here, in this house. You know, cherish the memories.”
Luca has had so many issues, and while I think he would have had the same ones if Prince and I had remained married, they might not have been so bad. Franny has been remarkably resilient, trotting back and forth between her dad’s house and mine, at age five, sharing her Emotional Intelligence strategy with her brother: “when I miss Dad, I just remind myself when I’m going to see him. And when I miss Mom, I just remind myself when I’m going to see her. And then I feel better.”
But, still, there had been signs: transient stomach aches; clinging to my arm while walking down the street; tearing up at the mildest of reprimands.
Burgeoning hormones, I told myself. And yet, I knew I was staving off the thought lurking in the back of my mind: “this wouldn’t be happening if you hadn’t gotten the divorce.”
For years, Franny’s needs had taken a back seat to Luca’s, whose rages ripped through our household and sent her to the corner of her closet, scribbling notes that she would then slip underneath the door of whatever room Luca was in: “please stop fighting.”
As the teacher described Franny’s frantic and misguided efforts to get Josie’s attention, and her inability to pull herself together when she saw Josie arm and arm with the new BFF, a wave of empathy coursed through my body.
I had spent my marriage trying to get Prince’s attention. Sometimes it worked: he would appear with a present, heap buckets of praise when an article I’d written appeared in the paper, tell me how “beauteous” I was, as if I were a portrait.
But most of the time, I stayed home alone with Luca while he zipped off to all-boy ski trips, or jaunts to glitzy locales with one of his zillion friends, or sporting events that were reserved for “important business contacts.”
Once, after going to a club with a friend, he totaled his car. When he arrived homeat 2 a.m., miraculously without a scrape, he told me he’d had an epiphany. He announced, without so much as looking at me: “I’m so lucky I wasn’t killed. It made me realize how short life is. And I need to spend more time with my friends.”
He uttered these kinds of remarks not infrequently, and they were always so confusing, interspersed as they were with the grand, showy gestures of admiration for me in front of others.
He’s done the same kind of thing with Franny. Texting her pictures of clothes he’s bought for her; calling to tell her the weekend plans, jammed with parties and fun outings. And yet: he rarely takes her on the Friday of his timeshare weekend, despite my urging. His work schedule, he says, doesn’t permit that kind of commitment.
The teacher asked me what I was going to do to help Franny come up with strategies to navigate her friendships. This was a question with only one implied, acceptable answer.
“I’ll see if I can get her some therapy,” I said. “I don’t know if Prince will go for it. But I’ll ask him.”
Surprisingly, he agreed. Perhaps because I promised to pay for it. Perhaps because he realized that years of denying Luca’s problems allowed the problems to mushroom.
So Franny will be starting therapy later in the summer, when she gets back from camp. I love this therapist. I had taken the kids to her a few times a couple years ago. She told jokes in her Boston accent, and through some kind of Master Therapist mojo got two button-lipped kids to talk.
After Prince put the kibosh on the therapy, I had one session with her privately, to get her assessment. She showed me a picture Franny had drawn during one session: a flower smack in the middle of the paper, surrounded by white space.
“That’s a very lonely flower,” she said.
My own mother was so tangled up with my feelings that I tried not to have them. So I’ve made it a point to detach, in a healthy way, from my kids’ pain because I don’t want them to feel they have to take care of me.
But it’s agonizing to think of my freckle-faced kid, my effervescent goofball with the infectious giggle and fashion panache, folding her existential angst into a tidy little package she keeps hidden inside of her.
It’s agonizing to imagine her in her teens and twenties, chasing after charismatic men that, behind the razzle-dazzle and the funfunfun, are just not that into her.
And yet. All kids have something. Girls, in particular, seem to have drama. She has to learn to work it out. It could be worse, much worse.
Last weekend I went for a jog, past one of the grand houses in my neighborhood, a rust-colored manse with blue shutters, and a well-tended front yard. A family was standing by a flower bed, their son, maybe ten, was kneeling as he weeded. He was bald, just a few wisps of hair sticking out from his head. He turned towards me as I jogged past, his face gaunt and yellow. He stared at me with that otherworldly expression sick kids have, when they’ve endured things most adults haven’t. Then he turned back to the ground beneath him and went back to yanking out weeds.
I hugged Franny when I got home. I told her we should count our blessings.
And we should. Because we have them.