Every Thursday morning, Laurel, my 10-year-old daughter, gets ready for school and packs a suitcase to take to her father’s house. She’s a sensitive kid who is very attached to her possessions; having two separate sets of things in separate houses doesn’t work for her.
Especially important are her stuffed animals. She believes these animals are real. The world to which they travel each night on magic wings is so key to Laurel’s security that the animals went into therapy with her for over a year. They were rowdy and bold, angry and frustrated, at a time when she denied having any feelings at all. Each session, they peered over the rim of the sand tray, watching her pour water into holes she dug mechanically with the same wooden dowel.
I don’t want to be unfair to Duane. In some ways my ex-husband is a good father. He has a spirit of adventure, and kids enjoy his company. Unlike so many dads, he has not given up on her. It helps, of course, that his girlfriend’s son is the same age and goes to the same school as Laurel. Duane likes people to see what a caring dad he is.
The problem is, Duane lacks empathy. For a while, he decided that only so many animals would go back and forth. He made the selection himself by tossing the animals toward the open mouth of Laurel’s suitcase. The ones that made it in got to travel back to my house.
He was unable to comprehend my daughter’s feelings of distress when he did this. When he finally stopped, it was out self-interest rather than compassion. He can’t stand it when people around him don’t act happy. If doing what he wants is important enough, he’ll block the other person out. But most of the time, he adopts a strategy of appeasement.
Life at my ex’s house is crowded with activities, people, events, celebrations, outings. There is not a single moment for reflection. When no one else is there, Duane immediately gets in his car and drives three blocks to the nearest coffee shop, so he can be stimulated by the conversation and activities around him. I know that because Laurel finds it reassuring. She looks for his car whenever we drive past. It’s usually parked out front.
Thus, when he tossed the animals indiscriminately into her suitcase, Duane wasn’t being deliberately cruel. His disregard for her feelings simply reflected the emptiness of his own inner life. He assumes that if our daughter’s room is full of things, the way his day is full of activities, then she must be satisfied.
Among other things, this assumption has led to problems with custody transitions. Although she is desperate to go see Duane, Laurel anticipates the packed schedule of her visitation periods anxiously. She becomes fretful and hard to please. She has racing thoughts and insomnia; she holds on to me for dear life.
And when she returns from her dad’s, she is exhausted. After frantically demanding that we do a half dozen or so things at once, she gets a headache. She collapses on the couch or needs an early bedtime. She has become sick four times after an extended weekend visitation with Duane this year alone.
Because she also feels an urge to detach emotionally from me each time she makes the transition, I spend a good portion of my time with a kid who desperately needs me but who really thinks I’m lame. “You smell,” Laurel tells me. “Are you wearing that dress again. I don’t like the way this tastes. Your laugh is weird.”
When Laurel heckles me like this, I have a tendency to react poorly. I yell at her. I lecture that she needs to respect me. I go to my room and give myself a time out. Because it feels bad to have a kid who treats me like this, I get reactive and engage in power struggles even knowing the underlying issues at work.
I also do a lot of listening. Perhaps the thing that’s the hardest on me about custody transitions is the sheer volume of information I get about the other house. I am not one of those curious, Facebook-lurking exes. If I heard nothing about Duane, his girlfriend, her friends, her child, my former mother-in-law, and my former friends, I would be delighted.
The information I hear accuses me. It says, “You are not the fun parent.” It says, “You cannot protect your child from yet another disappointment.” It says, “You will never be as fortunate as Duane.”
The stuffed animals are also fortunate. Their world is full of everything a child could want — amusement parks and holiday fun, stage performances and water slides, a kitchen full of delicious food. They fly back to Laurel’s bed every morning and fall asleep, resting up for the next big adventure.
“Tell me what they are doing tonight,” Laurel says. She knows them better than I do, and for the past year she has been writing down the same old stories in a notebook rather than insisting on new ones. What she really wants is for me to stay with her a few minutes longer.
So I invent a new flavor of ice cream or a song that they learned the night before. It’s not my best effort. I’m still hurt from her acting out and guilty about the fact that I can’t be a better mom.
Fifteen minutes after I close her bedroom door, Laurel is up. I think she has insomnia, and I feel wary. I still have several hours of work left to finish before I go to bed. This time, though, she has made something, a stenciled drawing on construction paper.
“It’s for you,” she says. I tell her I love it and tack it to my bulletin board. She gives me a long hug. My child has flown to see me at last, I think. Thank goodness. I’m glad to have her back.