She stomped out of the room, turning around just long enough to shout "I wish daddy was here and not you!!"
My heart exploded.
For a kid that is rarely in trouble and raises her voice towards me about as often as I change out my yearly calender, I was shocked.
Shocked, hurt, and shaking with anger.
I walked out of the kitchen, right past her, went upstairs, and climbed into bed. I don't know why I got into my bed, I just knew that I needed to distance myself from her before I started screaming everything that I was thinking; telling her everything about her father that I have tried so hard to protect her from over the last three years.
After laying there for a good 20 minutes and letting my knee-jerk anger subside, I came to the conclusion that what she did was normal.
Not appropriate, not acceptable, but not totally abnormal.
She gave me the equivalent of the "I love daddy/mommy more than you" phrase that at one point or another most young kids have thrown at a parent during an argument.
The Girl Child no longer loves her dad in the way that a child should, because she no longer knows him. But in that moment she was upset with me and having no other adult to turn to for support, she wished away the one the parent that was upsetting her and spoke aloud what she often keeps in silence.
She wants a daddy.
Her dad abandon her and this is going to be a long road where I'm caught trying to navigate the path of allowing her to know enough about him to understand why it's better that he is not here and yet not letting her know more than she should be expected to handle at her age. Up until now I haven't told her the truth about her father because I need to remember that he is half of her DNA. I don't ever want her to feel like she harbors evil inside her because of him and furthermore, every scientific study out there proves that bad mouthing a parent to a child is detrimental to their mental health.
But at some point she obviously needs to know the truth.
In my anger I wanted to scream and yell about all the reasons why she should feel lucky and blessed to have me, but when my rational thinking returned I had a conversation with her instead.
"Daddy left because he couldn't take care of us anymore" I explained. "He left because he was not able to love you and me like we deserved. Daddy had a lot of problems, problems that he had long before you were born and had nothing to do with you, but problems that made it unsafe for him to be around us anymore. But I love you, I love you so much that I'm working extra hard to be a mommy and a daddy, and it hurts me when you say you wish I wasn't here, because I spend all my time trying to be here for you. And if you miss daddy and you are angry at me, that's OK. We can talk about that, but in this family we do not scream hurtful things to each other. It's OK to feel hurt and want mommy to know that you are hurting, but it is not OK to try and hurt me because you are angry."
She sat there for a minute, clearly absorbing what I had just said to her, and then she asked me the #1 question that I have been dreading since the moment I realized that my husband was never coming home.
"Mommy, did daddy want to leave us?"
Deep breath Eden, you've been preparing for this.
But preparing for it was nothing like actually facing it.
Eventually, with no way out, I found myself saying in a voice that felt like it was going to crack, "yea, honey, he did. He had a lot of problems that made it really hard for him to see how great you are. It wasn't right and you deserved better than that, but daddy... he just had a lot of problems that made it too hard for him to be a daddy to you."
She looked up at me, her brown eyes welling with tears, and in a wavering voice she whispered "Mommy, does daddy even love me?"
Gathering the pieces of my shattered heart and trying to form them into words that might somehow protect her heart from breaking, I was at a loss. A million questions raced through my mind, the same questions that I've been failing to find answers to for years. What on earth do you say to a child that just wants to know if she is loved by the one who created her? I want to lie and say he loves her, to protect her from knowing that she is unloved by him — to save her from the inevitable pain that will cause, but I also want to save her from becoming the girl that seeks the love she never had from her father, in the arms of another man. I want to save that girl too.
Can I fix this?
I don't know.
I have no idea.
The only thing that I know right now, is what I know, and in that she deserves the truth.
"Honey, that's a tough question and I can't speak for your dad. Maybe he loves you, but maybe he doesn't. Either way that doesn't matter. Even if he thinks he loves you and he says loves you, it's not the right kind of love. Love can be confusing because anyone can say they love you, but do you know how you really know if someone loves you in the right way? You know they love you when they treat you like mommy does."
She looked at me, clearly wanting to understand what I was telling her, but her 7 year old expression telling me that she was having trouble grasping such an abstract thought.
"Let's play a little game" I said. "How about if you can tell me ten ways that you know mommy loves you, we can bake some cookies."
Her eyes lit up... but then she hesitated. "What if I can't think of ten ways?"
"Well," I said. "Then maybe we can still make cookies, but we'll have to come up with a few more ways while we bake them.
She giggled, wiped away her tears, and started talking.
"I knew that you loved me when I forgot my lunch box in the car and you missed part of your meeting to bring it to my school so I wouldn't be hungry. I know you love me because when I'm sick you check on me all night long to make sure I don't die. I know you love me because sometimes you work very late at night so that we can do fun things together the next day.......... I know you love me because even though I hurt your feelings you still want to be with me."
Trying not to start crying myself, I held her hands and started talking. "And when mommy loves you, how does that make you feel?"
While playing with her socks she pondered that for a minute before rattling off "it makes me feel special. I know that you take good care of me so that makes me feel happy. I know you keep me safe. You tell me I'm smart and pretty and that makes me happy too."
"So" I said really hoping that this was sinking in, "if someone says they love you but then they hurt you, or make you feel bad, or they don't take care of you, do you think they really love you?"
Slightly alarmed looking, her expression suddenly reminded me that she is only 7 years old. "So if they don't do those things but they say that they love you, does that mean that they are a liar?" she asked.
Trying to pull it back together and really hoping that she understood, I again told her the one truth that I know "love is one of those tricky words that doesn't mean a whole lot because someone can say that they love you and maybe they really do think that they love you, but unless they are doing all the things that make you feel happy and safe, then they aren't able to love you in the ways that you need. And just because you really want them to love you, it doesn't mean that it's healthy for you. If you don't feel safe, special, and happy, then that's not the right kind of love."
Still trying to remember that she is only 7, I decided that this was a good stopping point and tried to bring it all together. "So I don't know if daddy loves you, but that doesn't matter because he is not able to love you in the way that you need. You know that mommy loves you because of all the ways that I show you I love you and I think it's safe to assume that even if daddy does love you, that it's not the right kind of love. So we can be sad that daddy isn't here, and we can talk about it as much as you want, but we need to spend our time loving each other the right way and that means not hurting each other."
We snuggled for a few minutes in silence until her little voice started to speak. "Because if I try to hurt you, then I'm not loving you the right way, and that's not the way I want to love you" she sighed.
I gave her a hug, we made some cookies, and I thought about how I'm probably going to spend the rest of my life trying to get her to understand what healthy love is when all she wants is to be loved by someone who most likely doesn't love her.
That is not going to be an easy road and I'm expecting that it's going to be painful for both of us, but because I love her, really love her, I know that the most loving thing I can do for her is to be honest with her, even if it hurts.
I need to have enough respect for her to give her all the pieces in the game she is playing, and then cheer her on from the sidelines to make the right move.
Too often in life we fool ourselves into thinking that by protecting someone from a painful truth, that we are loving them better. We push financial problems behind closed doors, sweep problems at work under the rug, refuse to talk about major issues, and lock away feelings that we don't think the other person can handle.
We disrespect the people we love in the name of protection and in turn, we damage not only their ability to cope with the very real problems they are dealing with, but we damage their ability to trust us. If we really love someone, we need to respect them enough to be honest with them even when we know it will hurt.
Loving someone is proving to them that they can trust us, even when the vulnerability of letting them trust us is hard.
This road that her and I are going to walk, it's not going to be easy, but if I want to help her navigate it, then she needs to know that she can trust me to be truthful about what she is dealing with. I love her too much to make her figure it out all on her own, so I'm choosing to lay my cards out on the table, even though it hurts.
Love isn't protecting someone from the truth, it's being there for them when they have to face it.
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