I have shared custody of my 5-year-old girl. This means she’s with us every other week – and with her dad and stepmom on the off weeks.
I miss her terribly on those weeks.
Before my youngest was born, I had the thought – though it’s completely illogical – that she might make it hurt a little less. Not that a baby could fill that big-kid-shaped hole in any way whatsoever, just that I would be so busy I wouldn’t have time to miss her as much.
But my oldest ruined that possibility by doing something totally annoying.
She went and became the best big sister a little baby could hope for.
When a 5-Year-Old Teaches You Something
Every time the baby needs a diaper change, her big sister is right by our side, getting the new diaper ready and finding where the diaper cream rolled under the bed and getting out a new package of wipes because it turned out to be a 20-wipe job.
When the baby spits up and needs a fresh onesie, my big kid runs into the bedroom and brings us one before we even have the old one off.
In the morning when we’re all running around the house like crazy trying to get out the door by 7:00 am for the kindergarten schedule that’s KILLING US SLOWLY and we put the baby on the floor for tummy time but she’s letting us know she’s not actually in the mood for that, her sister grabs Peek-a-Who† and Good Night Gorilla off the shelf and lays next to her baby sister on the floor. And she reads to her.
Seeing that makes me stop.
Realize that in my rush to pack my pump parts and put the ice pack in my daughter’s lunch and – oh no, have I brushed my teeth yet?
I’m missing it.
And Then She’s Gone
When we get home from work every other Monday night, it’s the first night without our big kid after a week of being together.
It’s so quiet.
At first, we breathe that sigh of relief that you get when you head out to date night and you realize you’re FREE and no one’s hanging onto you or spilling cereal all over the floor or asking you to explain the American justice system when it’s already past their bedtime.
But the next breath? Hurts.
The baby needs a diaper change, so I head into the bedroom and lay her down on the changing pad. But no clean diaper magically appears by my side, opened and ready to go.
A little later, she spits up all over herself and me and the cat, and I just sit there staring at the congealed milk for a few seconds until it hits me that my super helpful girl isn’t coming to my rescue this time.
It’s not just that I miss having the help, though that is awfully nice. What I miss is having another partner in raising our baby girl. I miss seeing my oldest lay this sweet foundation of being gentle and thoughtful with her sister.
And then there’s how fast our youngest is growing. One week, she was really into blowing raspberries. Now that’s over. This last week, she learned how to screech, and she especially likes to practice this new trick around about 4:00 am.
But my big kid wasn’t here to laugh with us at this crazy monkey sound.
It happened early in the week, and every day that went by, I got more and more nervous that the baby would lose interest in the screeching before her big sis came back to us.
If it had been a couple hours since the baby had last screeched, I was on Full Screech Alert, just waiting waiting to hear it again.
To make sure I hadn’t missed out on the chance to share it with my oldest.
On Wednesday last week, I surprised my oldest at school for lunch. We hadn’t seen each other since Monday morning when we dropped her off at school, starting her week away from us.
This was my first time to visit her for lunch since she started kindergarten, so I wasn’t sure how it would go.
Would she be so distracted by the chaos of 110 kids eating lunch at the same time that she’d barely notice I was there? Would she be embarrassed to sit with her mom for lunch when all the other kids were eating together?
Just before 11:00 am I pulled into the school parking lot and strapped the baby to me in the Baby K’Tan.
As I walked into school, I saw my child’s class walking single-file down the hallway, on their way to the cafeteria.
She saw me and stopped in her tracks. The kids behind her in line bumped into her.
I called down the hall. “I thought I’d join you for lunch today. Is that okay?”
A smile spread across her face. She nodded.
After I signed in at the front office, I headed to the cafeteria.
I scanned the room of talking and laughing kindergarteners and didn’t immediately see her. But she must’ve seen me. Suddenly a smiling blonde girl was in front of me, lunch bag in hand.
“Where do we go to sit?”
She pointed to a few tables up on the stage. A few other parents were there with their kids already.
We held hands as we walked over, and I asked: “Was this a good surprise?”
She looked up at me. “Yes.” That smile again.
Something I Wasn’t Meant to See
She ate her lunch while we chatted.
Nothing we talked about was all that interesting or important. (She had music that morning and was headed to computer lab after lunch.)
Still, our lunch fed my soul.
I saw her class stand up and start to line up against the wall. “I think it’s time to go,” I said.
We held hands on the walk back to the rest of her class.
She was quiet. I guess I was too.
Her classmates were lined up against the wall, so she joined them.
“Have a good weekend,” I said. “I’ll see you in just a few days on Monday!”
“Okay,” she said.
I bent to hug and kiss her and managed to avoid bonking the baby’s head into hers, which I was proud of. Before I stood back up, she gave her baby sister a kiss on the head.
Then I turned around and walked away.
But by the time I had gone 10 feet, I already missed seeing her face. I wouldn’t see it again til Monday, so I turned back to steal a glance at my daughter in her school element.
She was in the line between two other girls, and she had pulled her t-shirt up to her face.
To wipe her eyes.
Had someone stepped on her foot? Said something mean?
I closed the gap between us, and she looked up at me.
Her eyes were red, but she had been crying quietly – no sound. She blinked, and a couple more tears dropped to her cheeks.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I’m sad you’re leaving,” she said.
This wasn’t crying to get attention, as 5-year-olds will sometimes do. This wasn’t an overreaction to some minor infraction committed by another kid.
This was raw emotion, leaking out of my child.
And now I couldn’t control the emotion leaking out of me.
I blinked to clear my eyes and pointed to my chest. “Remember, you’re always in here.” Then pointed to her chest. “And I’m always in there. We’re always together in there, no matter what. Always.”
She nodded and gave me a sad, brave smile.
I smiled back.
When I turned to leave again, I headed to a spot just outside the cafeteria where I’d be able to watch her but she couldn’t see me.
As her class filed out of the cafeteria and towards the computer lab, I had to concentrate on keeping my feet where they were.
Don’t make it harder on her, I told myself.
Then just as she was about to disappear around the corner, she dipped her head down and pulled her shirt up to her eyes.
A Hard Decision When It Comes to Shared Custody
The rest of that week, I wondered if that lunch had been a good idea.
Why upset her in the middle of the school day? Lunch at school is my only opportunity to see her on the weeks she’s not with us, but maybe it was selfish of me to want that.
She came back to us this Monday night, and we were all sitting at the dinner table.
“Hey,” I said. She looked up. “Remember when Mommy visited you at school for lunch last week?”
“And remember how you cried when I left?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Maybe,” I said, wanting to stop talking, wanting to leave it at that. “Maybe…I shouldn’t visit at lunch because it makes you sad.”
“No!” she said, her face crumpling.
“But don’t you think it’s too hard?”
“I promise I won’t cry again,” she said.
“No, no, that’s not what I’m saying. You don’t have to hide it when you feel sad. I just thought maybe you would like it better if I didn’t visit.”
“No, I want you to come.” Her eyes were pink.
“Okay, I can do that.” I took a deep breath, relieved I wouldn’t have to give up my extra dose of her.
The crease between her eyebrows softened. “Can you come every week?”
I smiled and nodded. “I can come Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday. Which day would you like?”
“Friday.” She was grinning now.
“It’s a date, then. Fridays I have lunch with my girl.”
She giggled. “It’s not a date!”
So then I had to explain the phrase “it’s a date.” But I’ll take that over explaining the American justice system any day.
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Check out 3 Ways to Cope With Joint Custody and Missing Your Child and A Quick Fix for When Your Child Feels Separation Anxiety for tips on parenting after divorce.
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