Princess bed."Mommy, please don't force me to go," my six-year-old daughter, Maia, sobbed into my chest the night before a weekend visit with her dad. She had a cold and just wanted to stay home in her room.
"You have to go," I tell her. "Your dad misses you. He wants to spend time with you." Then, we go over the fun stuff they have planned. I don't add that there is nothing I can do. Maia spends two weekends a month at her dad's house. She knows this, but it doesn't stop her from asking.
Can't you just talk to him, she'll say. You used to be married-- Maia references photos archived by my mother for her to keep as she grows up. There are shots from our wedding, vacations, past Christmases, basketball tournaments, road races and hiking trips. In them, Maia sees our messy apartments and Emma, the dog she knows as her own.
This is the only way Maia knows her father and I as a couple. She's never lived with him; we split when I was pregnant. Because of the circumstances of our split -- he was cheating with a co-worker and wanted out of the marriage -- he was not around much when Maia was a baby. Both of our families offered wonderful support, and for two years, Maia and I lived half-time with my parents.
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As Maia got older and her dad became more involved in her life through visitation, he and I figured out how to be civil for Maia's sake. Trey, my husband, whom I met when Maia was 18 months old, helped me to put past hurts aside and work with my ex. Since he had an ex-wife, he was able to understand and support this part of my life.
When Maia was younger, her dad often visited during the day. Sleepovers were difficult because Maia had a chronic cough and respiratory problems. Sometimes she would get so hysterical I'd have to go and pick her up in the middle of the night. Since she co-slept with me (for at least part of the night) from birth until five years old, it was hard for her to sleep elsewhere. And more recently she's struggled with anxiety. I trust that Maia's father loves her and would never put her in danger. But it is still gut-wrenching to know your child is sad or in pain and needing you and to be unable to go to them, to help them.
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Now that Maia is a first-grader, I feel more confident sending her on sleepovers. And most of the time, once she gets there, Maia has fun visiting a playground or a museum or just having a dance party. She sleeps in her own bed, and although she still sometimes screams and cries to avoid going, more often now she whines and argues.
I know Maia loves her dad, but I also realize she sees him as someone who takes her away from me and the family she lives with full-time. Talking to other single moms, this is a common theme. One mom said, "When I told my daughter I was going to marry my long-time partner, she said that was great and then asked if he could live in a house down the street." She expected to have a visitation-type relationship with men and keep her mom all to herself.
My friend grew up spending one weekend a month visiting her dad, who lived in a another state with his wife and child. Although they always welcomed her, when she was there, she secretly plotted to run away. As an adult, she has a loving relationship with her dad. But she said of those years during her childhood, "It was an awful feeling not to have any control -- I could say I wanted to stay in my own home, and nobody would listen."
After Maia returns from a weekend visit, she'll follow us around the house, quizzing about what we did while she was gone. For a brief time, she even enjoys her brother making farting noises with his trumpet in her ear. She actually cheers when we drive past her bus stop on the way home, saying, "I made it!" Part of her still believes she's missed school. When she does have a school function on the weekend or a friend's party or a horse show, her dad and I work around it, so she doesn't miss much. Whatever Maia imagines she's missing out on is never as exciting as what really happened: usually soccer games, grocery shopping and an occasional date night for me.
I'm glad Maia feels so grounded in her home and family. And I think the older she gets, the easier it will be for her to leave and come back, knowing everything will be exactly the same as she left it, waiting for her.
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