Earlier this week, she was acting slightly puny and sluggish. Her mother asked her if she was feeling sick. “No,” she answered, “I feel sad.”
Normally, I’d be thrilled to celebrate this development of emotional self-awareness in my child. I mean, she’s only three. That’s pretty impressive, to name her sadness after being asked if she felt sick. Seriously, that’s pretty astute! She understood that her mother thought that her behavior signified physical illness, but that she could explain this behavior was in fact due to her emotions of sadness. As if she needed to do so, she then went on to clarify that she was sad because she missed her daddy.
My usual delight in watching her develop more perceptive emotional awareness is absent, however. Well, okay, so it’s not completely absent. But it is significantly lessened. I’m sad, too; not only because I am also missing my little girl, but because of how sad she is to be missing me.
The good news, I suppose, is that this is a temporary arrangement. She’ll be moving to Charlotte full-time in a week, and her mother will be joining us a week after that. So within two weeks, the three of us will be reunited for good. I’m deeply hopeful that having both of her parents with her every day will help to ease the other disruptions of moving to a new city and a new school and a new church. I’m reminded in my sadness that what I have felt over the last month is something that many parents feel all the time. Indeed, for a great many families, the situation we have experienced is often the new norm. I’m grateful that our separation has only been for six weeks, and that I have a happy reunion to look forward to.
I worry that Curly Fries cannot completely comprehend this. I worry that when I tell her I will see her again in a few days, it will be overshadowed by my repeated absence. I worry that when we are reunited, she will not completely trust that it’s permanent. I worry about all the ways this is leaving lasting damage on her sense of safety and trust in the universe.
I have often joked, along with many of my peers and friends, that we have opened two savings accounts for Curly Fries: one for her college education, one for her therapy. I’ve often reflected on the ways that parents inevitably and inadvertently wound their children. This is a natural part of every child’s development. It’s not only inescapable, it’s healthy. Being a “good enough” parent is all about appropriately failing our children so that they can grow. That’s all well and good in the abstract. It’s a slightly different proposition when you find yourself failing your child in an ongoing fashion that you can’t immediately correct.
This transition is going to be good for my family. We have so much to be thankful for in making this change, both in the new resources and opportunities it brings, and in the resources we had to make this opportunity possible in the first place. But all growth and change brings loss and grief. I know that, but Curly Fries doesn’t. She can’t temper her sense of grief and sadness with theories about stress and life management; she only knows her sadness.
Then again, perhaps I’m not giving her enough credit. After all, she’s only three, and she knows her sadness. Honestly, I spent whole years of my life working very hard in refusing to know my own sadness. Perhaps her pure sadness, undiluted with the denial mechanisms of telescoped resolutions and hopeful projections, is the more authentic way of being. Maybe she’s dealing with this in a healthier fashion than I am.
It’s certainly a developmentally appropriate fashion for her. But it compounds my own grief about this transition. In addition to grieving the loss of my previous community and church and friends and routines, I now also grieve for my child’s loss of these things as well as grieving with her in being unable to take it away. (And then there’s the guilt for being the cause of all this grief, but that’s a different post.) Maybe I’m jealous of her for being able to experience her grief in such an unadulterated and innocent mode.
Whatever it is, I’m clear of one thing: I want to hold her. This is what I want to do when my child is sad: I want to smell her hair and hear her voice and absorb the warmth of her body as she climbs into bed with us before sunrise. I could tolerate her sadness a little easier if I could just be with her. Then I could tolerate my own sadness a little easier, too. I’m not clear on what part of the sadness is mine and what part of it is hers that I’m taking on. I’m not convinced a loving parent can ever separate the two.