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 6-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 as part of our usual 50/50 shared custody arrangement. 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 6-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 6-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 6-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.
I share this story to remind divorced parents 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.
Kate Chapman is a mom and stepmom to six children, ages 8-15. She writes about her modern-day Brady Bunch adventures at This Life in Progress. Drawing on her extensive experience as a coach and a background in psychology and sociology, Kate addresses the tricky topics of divorce, coparenting and blended families. Follow Kate on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for support and inspiration.