“Mom?” I turned around and saw the sick look on my almost nine-year olds face. “Max is in the bag.” We were packing for a trip to the pool and I grabbed an old bag out of my closet, tossed it on the bed, and absent-mindedly told her to put the towels in it. Max is our Christmas elf. You know the one – the one with creepy eyes that follow you wherever you move and works magic for 24 days in December under the guise that he is reporting any bad behavior to Santa Claus. Well, he was in the pool bag on August 11th…
“Is he sleeping?” she asked. I didn’t know what to do. I started to laugh in order to prevent the only other viable option, which was to start crying. “Oh Sophia.” And just like that, the magic of her childish world started to fade. And my youngest became older.
The rest of the day felt heavy. At the pool, she most wanted to lay in a lounger with me. In the car, she looked out the window deep in thought. At home, she wanted alone time in her room. She told me it was hard to talk about and made her throat hurt. No doubt the result of that lump that had formed all day as she fought tears. I asked her if she was mad at me. She replied that she was mad at herself for looking in the bag.
Children will do that. They will take the responsibility of their hurt on themselves, rather than blame a beloved parent. And in these moments, we need to be particularly present. It is during these times that we most need to support our children to begin learning the lessons that in this life, things happen that are beyond our control. Bad things can happen for no reason. And being sad about life’s disappointments is the right reaction.
The revelation of the Santa Claus reality is very similar to the revelation of divorce to children. Divorce is an event that sharply and suddenly changes a child’s perspective. What they once knew about their family is disappearing and will take on a new form. With the same care and caution that we let them experience and feel the disappointment that there is no Easter Bunny, we too must approach the divorce conversation. It is a reality that must be faced and becomes a rite of passage into an adult world.
I am asked often how parents should tell their children about a divorce that will or has been filed. It varies for different ages, but universally, children are wonderfully narcissistic. They want to know how it impacts them. They want reassurance that if both parents are currently involved in their lives, that will continue. They want to know that they will still see both parents. They want to know most that they are deeply loved. The details of the divorce are meaningless. And of the highest classification of irrelevant is how hurt, angry, or depressed their parents may be.
I shielded Sophia from my sadness today. I waited until I was alone to shed the tears that had been below the surface all day. This was her day to face a truth and I let it be her day with her own feelings. It reminded me of a similar day when her dad and I revealed the divorce reality. I was present, then and now, to what she most needed from me – reassurance and love. And while the magic of her innocent world was fading, what she could not see – that I could – was the magic of her growing up.