My six-year-old daughter is now one of an incredible number of children in America who bobble back and forth between two homes due to separation or divorce. At first she was stressed about ping-ponging between my home and her dad’s and resisted the whole enterprise. Eight months into it she has, for the moment at least, accepted her current reality and has found ways even to enjoy it. As my husband of 13 years and myself drift farther and farther apart save for the common concerns of our daughter, our dogs, and our financial entanglements, what I notice is how different a culture each of us presents within our discrete and rather new single-parent homes.
My daughter’s father moved into a live-work loft in an industrial area when he left the house we shared, a space with no outdoor play area except for an asphalt parking lot. He likes board games and has taught our daughter to play many of the ones he himself loved as a child. They two of them are also fairly screen-focused and our daughter spends quite a bit of time while she is with her dad watching TV shows and playing games on his iPad. They cook and bake together too, especially for special occasions like picnics and birthdays. And, from what I hear, they take a lot of naps, construct Lego projects, draw and, from time to time, wash my former partner’s car. They mostly stick indoors and to themselves, save for going out to restaurants now and then for meals and to stores to pick up needed supplies.
In the home I now head solo, I ask my daughter to be fairly independent. She has a strict limit on screen time (roughly 45 minutes in the morning and 45 minutes in the afternoon or evening) and once the time’s up, the time’s up. She plays a lot by herself or with our dogs in our large back yard, does yoga in the family room, and reads with me in bed. We live in a Southwestern state that is in an unfortunate drought so sometimes we call to the Gods and do rain dances. We garden. We go to the barn to see my horse, where my daughter has developed relationships with the dogs, horses and people who are part of that community. And we spend a lot of time visiting with our friends for dinners, picnics, concerts, parties, swim dates, ski dates, anything, really, we can think of that will take us out of what often feels like a lonely house.
While my husband is Asian and I am Jewish, it is not our ethnic or religious differences that make for our disparate patterns but our personalities. I fall on the borderline between introverted and extroverted with a slight leaning toward extroversion according to the Meyers-Brigg test, while my daughter’s dad is firmly introverted. I like analog technologies (paper books, LPs, physical newspapers); my ex is undeniably digital. I love the outdoors, while he is more of an indoors guy.
When my daughter and I are home together, I am often busy doing household chores: dishes, laundry, vacuuming, changing bed sheets, watering plants, putting away groceries, cooking, cleaning, feeding the dogs, helping my daughter with her homework, helping her practice reading and math, and making sure she bathes regularly and changes her underwear from time to time. She often complains about how busy and bossy I am and wonders why I don’t have more time to play board games with her like her father does. I feel badly when she complains this way, like I am failing her and failing our relationship. Yet I know that all the things we do together, all of the times I take her to soccer and swim lessons, school or day camp, our time spent at the barn and our time together caring for the dogs, grocery shopping and traveling to see friends and family do add up to something important and something good. And while it might not seem exactly like play to her, there is value in sharing my quotidian life with her. Some parts of it she might even experience as fun from time to time.
This year, on her first day of summer camp, she was trepidatious about going. Although she has attended this particular camp before, her classroom has shifted this year since she has been bumped into a new age group. She had new counselors and many of the children are new to her as well. She woke up on that first camp morning with a stomach ache and complained that her legs and throat hurt. I knew what was going on: she was scared to go to camp. And so I called her father and let him know that our child was feeling tender and asked him if he could meet us at drop-off to give our daughter some extra support. He readily agreed.
When we arrived at camp my daughter hid behind me and refused to make eye contact with anyone. When she saw her dad, she ran immediately into his arms. The three of us found her cubby and put away her backpack before we went into the classroom to settle her in. Just two other children had yet arrived and our daughter knew neither one. She refused to sit down at the table where they were drawing on a large sheet of white paper. The teacher tried to encourage her to join the others but our daughter’s super-selective hearing screened out everything that was coming out of the unfamiliar adult’s mouth. Within a few minutes her mood shifted, however, and she was ready to let us go.
At the end of the day, I picked her up and brought her to her dad’s for a play date, for that is what they mostly have together: play dates. And most of the time they go well. They play board games and watch movies, eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and whip up smoothies. It’s all good and it’s all fun. And when she comes back home, where we live our more workaday life together, she often gets bored and wonders why our home is so different, so much less a playhouse and so much more of a workaday house.
I try not to take her complaints personally, try not to feel cast into the binary role of boring parent in opposition to her father. When she asks me what she should do when she gets bored I point to the backyard and suggest she spend some time outside. She slides on her flip flips and lets herself out, finds a plastic shovel and begins to dig up the dirt in her rock garden. When I’m done with my current set of chores, I go out to be with her, toting two buckets of water and a scrub brush. “Let’s wash and rinse your rocks,” I say, watching her face break into an exuberant, surprised smile. We proceed to wash every last one of them. There are, literally, hundreds: striped, pink, oval, heart-shaped. “My favorites are the obsidians,” she tells me, putting some small black rocks with sharp crystalline edges in a row along a low rock wall. She turns to me and hangs her soft arms around my neck and squeezes. “Momma, I love you,” she says, and I know that what she is really saying is that she appreciates the time I am devoting expressly to her, to an activity she loves. Before long I feel the need to go back inside to start preparing our dinner and feel badly that my daughter will be left again on her own. But it’s better now, easier. She is happier after spending some time doing something that she loves with me and I am happier and more relaxed too.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to be the day-to-day parent rather than the play parent. And it’s impossible for a six-year-old to understand why one household is so different than the other when they used to be folded together fairly seamlessly. I, too, have a hard time understanding sometimes what has happened to our family and why. But I can say one thing: what we have, in both places, is good. What we have in both homes is true to each of our daughter’s parents. She will learn who her parents are through the activities each of us share with her, whether or not she finds them compelling. I know I run the risk—already feel it—of being the less interesting parent, the one with a prosaic rather than poetic bent. All I can promise, mostly to myself, is that I will do more rock washing, rain dances, and gardening to balance out the homework, laundry, and dishes. It’s not perfect but it’s what we have. And, at the end of the day, what we have mostly is each other, as we fall together into bed, tired from the day.