Today Sweet Pea did not want to be without her daddy. Today she was done with this mobilization. It didn’t matter to her that the countdown has dwindled into single digit months. It was no good convincing her we are only one weather season away. Today, she was just done. She wanted him home, and now.
And I totally get it. Some days I’m going to call up Barack and Michelle and tell them that we are done with all this mess, and to
please sign an executive order sending him home, now.
I knew we were headed for the craggy cliffs of overexuberant pre-tween pain after a rapid sequence of relatively minor events left Sweet Pea helpless against her own emotions, lying in a moaning blubbery heap in her car seat. First, she realized that she misplaced a small piece of chocolate she had earned by being quiet for some excruciatingly long period of time. Apparently this is a monumental feat for her. But hey, it’s chocolate, so I was empathetic. Sympathetic, even. But then she screamed suddenly at her brother when he pulled down on her ear buds to offer her a piece of his granola bar, causing them to pop from her ears and scare the living daylights out of me. And then she graciously provided me with a ”you’re an ancient ignoramus” look when I asked what was wrong. This innocent question of mine caused her to wax philosophical and recreate her borderline nervous breakdown which she experienced because of the callous ripping down of the sign. The sign. The piece of paper that was evidently crafted by her best friend with the utmost care, but only after having been meticulously designed and masterminded by Sweet Pea. It was a sign which bore nothing – no art, no colors, no images - except the solitary and very serious warning: “Take this sign down and DIE.” Obviously, at a daycare that contains elementary-aged boys, that’s just an invitation. In fact, it’s a dare, which makes it nearly a command. But to Sweet Pea the fact that it had been unjustifiably and with malice aforethought ripped from its place of honor was a historical, capital abomination.
I looked at the pained look on her face, and wondered whether she believed someone was indeed going to die. The Preschooler and I exchanged troubled glances in the car mirrors and we all drove home in relative silence. Once inside with some food to stabilize her blood sugar, I broached the subject:
“Hey babe, what’s really going on with you?”“My daddy left again, he is still far away, and he’s not coming back for a long time, and I’m SAD!”
She was staring at me with a bitterly cold eye-lock that did not at all match the words she had just uttered. Unlike the raw emotional outburst on her birthday, this felt more like a dry prepared speech: a retort which she had been waiting to use, or maybe even one that she had used once too often. It was stale. Trite. It was locked and loaded and at the ready for just such an occasion. It was the excuse that was now driving her unreasonable penchant for self-directed drama.
I could see that it was taking on a life of its own so I tried my hardest to get to what was real. It can be painful to do that when my children are involved because it’s tough to watch them struggle. And okay, it’s also because I usually end up learning more than they do and that irks me. But this was one of those moments that called for diving straight in. It seems like I’ve been having a lot of those moments, lately.
Earlier in the day I had been reading about the various reasons litigants can’t come to agreement in negotiations, and the article concluded that it was usually fear, expressed as anger. It had me thinking. And so instead of asking what was wrong, I thought
I’d say something she wasn’t expecting. Something new and exciting …
“So, what are you afraid of?”
That question clearly resonated. The Preschooler stopped putting together the Lego Death Star and ceased breathing, waiting for her response. Her fierce laser eyes fogged over. She sat very still until her lightly sunburned cheeks were streaked with silent tears that made clean glistening trails down her dusty face. By the time she collected herself enough to actually respond, several moments of silence had passed. The Preschooler finally gasped for air.
To my surprise, she then started listing her fears.
She said she felt shy around her Daddy because he wasn’t there every day to talk. She said her heart felt empty and that seeing him wasn’t enough; she needed to be filled with his hugs and kisses. She said she was afraid that he would always wish she was still little again like when he left. She said she was afraid that he would not like the new “big girl” she had become. I put on my understanding mommy voice. This one was easy. I had this one …
“Oh honey, it’s hard for Daddy, too. It’s not the same to talk online because he’s not here but it doesn’t change how much he loves you. It probably will feel a little empty for a bit, but that will make his hugs and kisses so great when he finally comes home. And he knows you’ve grown and changed while he has gone. He still remembers. But everyone grows. He has grown, too. He loves you for who you are on the inside, no matter what.”
This list was painfully familiar. I heard my own words. Dammit! Why must this crap always end up being about me and what I need to hear myself say?
Let’s face it. I’m just not the same girl I was when he left. The truth is that I like being independent and overcommited. I like being sure of my parenting skills and having an excuse for being bad at it, sometimes. I like my new-found car battery-changing capabilities, and my blossoming “relationship” with my handyman who previously only responded to Husband’s phone calls. The inevitable meshing of two personalities that often happens in marriage is faint, and I’m happy with me. But what if I’m too happy? What does that mean? I can’t unmature. This wife remodel has been ten months in the making. There has been significant investment. Going back is not an option. I’ve eaten the fruit.
I heard the weight of my own words, and turned toward Sweet Pea and her sullen face. I reached for her knee, tried for a tickle, and begged her for a smile. She obliged, forced a smile, and it about broke my heart. I looked into those eyes and realized this was the smile I offered Husband while he was home. The half-sad, half-happy smile.
So I looked down at my imaginary bracelet.
I flumped down on the couch, and invited her to snuggle with me instead. I told her to close her eyes and pretend I was her Daddy, wrapping his arms around her. I laid on my back, and she rested on my tummy face up. We were stacked like a mother-daughter sandwich on the couch. I started patting her on the belly just like I’ve seen Husband do many times over. I even called her “girly-girl” and patted her little head, smoothing her hair, like he has always done since she was a baby. It was working. She was smiling with her eyes closed. And we were touching. I realized I needed it as much as she did. Touch is magic.
And then, I really don’t know what came over me, but I had an overwhelming desire to tickle her. I swear it was the magic of the bracelet combined with her exposed vulnerable belly. But I went for it. We were on the floor in no time, and I grabbed her and I tickled her under her chin, and on her cheeks (as Daddy would say), and under her arms, and on the bottoms of her dirty, stinky feet. I pinned her to the floor as she wriggled and shrieked and I poked her belly as she guffawed. I squeezed her knees and moved back and forth from one to the other, rendering her defenseless and confused, and I threatened to keep doing it until she tinkled (as Daddy would say).
“Oh, that reminds me! I have to go to the bathroom! Ah, stop! I have to go pee! I’m going to pee on you!”
“Uh-uh, I’m no sukah. I don’t fall for that trick. You’re staying right here with no hall pass!”
“Really! I do! Ha ha ha! Stop! I’m gonna pee my pants! Let me up!”
“Do I have stupid written on my forehead?” (also a Husbandism)
“Mom! Stop, that tickles! Ahhh aha ha ha!”
“It’s SUPPOSED TO TICKLE!”
Pretty soon, The Preschooler was in on the action. He’s a conniving mercenary tickle-fighter, switching from winning team to winning team at his own momentary but calculated advantage, so there was no allegiance to be expected. More than once his mini fingers found his way into my armpits, and soon we were all on the floor, breathless, happy, and really smiling this time.
I eventually sent them up to bed and I stayed there on the floor, looking at the ceiling through finger-smudged glasses. And you know, I realized I hadn’t grown so far apart from Husband, after all. I wasn’t as independent as I thought. I have been marked and changed and molded by him, and permanently so. Because the pre-Husband me would never have erupted into a tickle fight to solve sullen and troubling behavior. In fact pre-Husband solo me would have delved into the true psychological meaning behind Sweet Pea’s obvious mental and emotional breakdown, pick apart every painful childhood event, analyze the number of times I used the hot tub during pregnancy and research the potential correlation between extreme abdominal heat and fetus brain development, including the need to compare and contrast the number of times I was not available to provide physical support to my innocent needy infant because I went back to work too early, possibly causing permanent irreversible infant detachment disorder. And it would all end with several weeks of involuntary counseling and a reluctant but regularly administered onslaught of modern mood-stabilizing drugs (for me, not Sweet Pea).
So yes. I’ve changed. But really, I haven’t changed that much. The ratio just doesn’t support it. I’ve spent twenty years with him, and one year without him. There are indelible marks there that just can’t be erased. They can be added to, but not erased. Why am I so worried about change? It’s not reversion to a solo me - it’s growth. I’m building on top of what I’ve already built with him. Why was I so mad about every little thing he did (or didn’t do) while he was here?
Oh sheesh, wait. What is this? Fear, expressed as anger? Is that why I yelled at Husband during R&R? Ack. You mean I’m basically like a scared attention-seeking puh-puh-puh … plaintiff? *shivers* Barf-o-rama. Spit, spit, spit. Pah-toey! Blech. Bitter. I need bleach! Bleach! Someone get me the bleach!
So. Okay. No more of that. I emerged unscathed. I’ve been cleaned by tickle-baptism. And it’s a good thing tickling still solves everything bad in the world for my children and clears my head almost as much as a good massage. Because you can’t argue with tickling. You just can’t. Am I right?
Of course I am. Because it’s not just what Husband would do, anymore. It’s what I would do.