Mama, come in here!
She was in the bathtub and had been singing along with a song I hadn’t heard before. Something about a broken home and a cracked foundation. But she had paused it to call to me.
I went in the bathroom and sat on the closed toilet as she said, loudly, Alexa- play The Bones again.
We listened together for a while and then she told Alexa to pause.
You know what this makes me think of?
No, Bubba, what?
She locked her hands together and pulled them apart and then locked her fingers again and did all of this three more times.
Do you know what I mean, mama?
I’m trying, bub, I’m not sure. Can you use some words, too, to tell me?
She splashed her hands back into the water and looked at me. Really focused on my eyes. Furrowed her brow a bit.
Silence for a few beats and then: It reminds me of before. You know? Before.
Then she said: Before the *breakup*.
She whispered the last word.
You know, before daddy broke up with you.
Again. That old lie burrowed deep into her version.
His old play to have been the one with the power.
To her, though, it means he’s the one who left. Yet another thing x says or does that never translates the way he thinks it will. A hole in the story where the heavy weight of truth always falls through.
I sighed softly and then asked her what she thought it would be like if Daddy moved back in.
She took a breath and twisted her lips up a bit.
Because he’s more mad now and doesn’t like you and fights all the time. He doesn’t like you at all.
Quiet for a few seconds as she stared at the patterns the soap bubbles had made in the tub water.
I’ve gotten so much better in the last year at just letting the words settle.
At quiet. At not fixing it. It can’t be fixed, anyway, in the way parents want to fix all things for our children, so just letting her feelings hover there and exist has gotten much easier with practice. Still uncomfortable. But I’ve gotten so much better at being in that discomfort.
I want him here but not how he is, you know what I mean?
I want a different daddy. But the same.
Do you understand?
I do, bubba. I do.
Since last fall when she first witnessed the true ugliness of x’s rage face in the car incident that instigated our current court case, every time x acts out in any way, she reverts to wishing we could all be a family again.
But unlike the early days when she couldn’t imagine us all apart and she longed desperately for a reunion, these desires always circle around wanting x to be different so we can all be together in some fantasy version of our family that never existed.
The very same fantasy version I thought we were in when I uncovered the lies.
The same fantasy version I spent years trying to find and then, finally, mourning before leaving – the fantasy I believed in that was the source of my most unbearable pain in 2019.
I understand. I really, really understand.
Three days before this bath, x had cried – poured tears – during his first visitation after our temporary orders for supervised exchanges.
Our exchanges are now happening at a supervising facility even though we have other options because x would not communicate with me about it and kept insisting we didn’t need them. Despite telling the court for over a year now that the issue is the conflict I create at pickups and drop offs and that’s why he’s been asking to meet at a police station for over a year now.
He cried to her as she was trapped in the car with him that the place was awful and she shouldn’t have to come there at all.
He took her to Grocery Outlet and bought bread and peanut butter and jelly (which she does not like) and made her a sandwich for dinner even though he had a week to prepare.
He told her all he could do was feed her in the car and help her with her homework there since they were forced to go to that place.
(I guarantee he had a change of clothes from work for heading to band practice so he is actually capable of packing stuff up in advance and his visits are over two hours long so there’s more than enough time for dinner).
She didn’t tell me any of this until bedtime on the night after that visit. It usually takes her a day or two to process the hardest stuff enough to be able to talk to me about it. To be able to form words and questions. To untangle the emotions he creates enough to know what to ask.
She said he had water all under his eyes and must have been crying all day about it.
Yet again he said, here, feel bad for me and carry this for me and be so hurt by it that your mom will bend to my will.
Of course she started make-believing a new family version of her old family again right after that visit. Of course when she heard that song about making it ok even with a cracked foundation she thought yes, this, we can do this.
She’s six and she’s listening to song lyrics like roadmaps. A musical longing she feels deep in her bones.
And then she called for me to share the song with me.
If I could only get her dad to love me, then she could have the family she wants.
I laid in bed awake that night thinking of her little kid brain and her young heart and how much she has to carry for us.
No matter how much I try to empty her arms of our bullshit every day, he piles more and more for her to hold.
She shouldn’t have to be the old soul she has become.
After tucking her in, I went to my bed and sat still and pleaded with my brain to forget it all, even if just for one night.
I used breathing techniques to interrupt the loops in my brain. The circle of words that always ends up with her carrying the heavy, heavy weight of things he should never, ever ask her to carry.
Ruminating isn’t unique to survivors of emotional abuse but it is one of the hardest things to break free from after living with someone who doesn’t listen to anything you say unless it helps them manipulate you.
I rerouted the sentences. I told myself that I can’t fix this feeling for her. I said out loud, he will do this. Always. Be the counterbalance for her.
I was up too late that night.
She had said she felt like a sandwich bag, you know?
Like divorce is on one side and a judge is on the other and I’m just squished in the middle.
I do know. I do.
Squished. What a perfect word for it. I know that feeling very well, bubba.
I kept having visuals of her trapped between things and then flashes of x’s face and his fist punching the car and and the forceful push of both hands lifting up quickly, middle fingers rigid as he called me a fucking bitch through the closed passenger window of my car. Right next to our child. As she screamed. And cried.
I fell asleep at some point and the next morning, while eating breakfast, my daughter asked Alexa to play that song again.
Over and over as I got ready for work.
Somewhere between mascara and shoes, I heard the song differently.
As myself instead of through her eyes. As about her and me instead of me and x.
In the car, I put it on for her.
There are so many times in my life that a certain song has helped me through, has been the bridge between feeling stuck and moving past. Even if sometimes it seems I’m just sitting in that pain and bathing in it via the song.
When the bones are good, the rest don’t matter
Yeah, the paint could peel, the glass could shatter
Let it break ’cause you and I remain the same
I can’t override what it means for her. Her feelings are her feelings are her feelings.
I see it as one of the most incredible gifts I can give her: to let her thoughts and feelings be heard and respected and honored. Even when what she wants amounts to my worst nightmare.
What her fantasy is to me means nothing. It only matters what it is to her.
But when what she wants is impossible and hurtful – to her and to me – and so living too long in that fantasy will cripple her, I can show her how it is I find my way out of the worst things.
I can show her what it means to reinvent the world you have. Make it something beautiful even when – especially when – you can’t see that as ever possible.
This is kind of about us, bub. That’s what I keep thinking. Can you hear that?
Baby, I know any storm we’re facing
Will blow right over while we stay put
The house don’t fall when the bones are good
Yeah, mama. Like our home.
We talked about being solid and trusting each other and how we can get through all of this as long as we can talk about it and remember that we’re strong.
A large part of parenting in these situations is teaching your children how to weather the storms others try to pull them into while also weathering their own storms.
That night, at bedtime, when she first told me x had cried and so she didn’t like that place anymore, I rubbed her shoulder and told her she didn’t need to carry mommy or daddy’s feelings for us but I know she will for as long as either one of us hands them to her.
So you help your kids shed the weight. Over and over and over.
We took a hard left
But we’re alright
Yeah, life sure can try to put love through it, but
We built this right, so nothing’s ever gonna move it
Sometimes I remind myself that I built her bones, cell by cell, and so I can help her stay strong enough to help them grow and grow and grow.
Where she only sees a dead end, I can show her how I take a pencil and draw in a new passage.
How you make escape hatches when the water gets too high and you don’t know if you can breathe much longer.
Mama, come here. Listen.
I will, bub. I will I will.
And I’ll share my own song, too.
Not to replace yours.
Just to give you choices.