“Where’s daddy?” My beautiful baby girl asked nonchalantly, without even looking at me. She was shuffling toys around trying to decide which one to play with next. She was clearly expecting a quick and easy answer that would confirm what she suspected - that he’d be back any moment. Little did she know that was not the case.
It was a few hours after my ex had told me he was leaving, packed his bag, and kissed her goodbye. My friends and my mother were in my living room holding me, talking with me, trying to get me to eat. I was trying, but failing miserably, to hide my tears from my daughter. I’d turn my face and cry, or take deep breaths, or try to hold it in. But right as I’d start to catch my breath, she’d ask “where’s daddy?” and I’d sob all over again.
How was I to explain to my sweet, innocent girl that both our lives had just drastically changed? And really that they’d changed in completely different ways. I lost a husband - a life partner; someone with whom I’d share in life’s experiences and love for the next several decades. But her relationship with her father had just (potentially drastically) changed - the man who would show her how a man is supposed to love, treat, and honor her; the man who would set the tone for all the other male relationships in her life; the man who is supposed to protect and shield her from pain and suffering. How do I even begin to explain what was happening to her?
Especially in a world where the news is filled with experts, reports, and numbers that insist divorce and single parent homes are single handedly ruining children all over. Then you have social media filled with younger generations (who are apparently the ones the news says divorce has ruined) self-diagnosing the cause of all of their plight to be their divorced or never married parents. After that, you have older generations acting like your newfound family identity is a uniquely horrendous case of leprosy. As if that isn’t enough, you have television and movies filled with wildly happy two-parent families in luxurious suburban homes living the ultimate American dream. So. There’s that. All those impressions and opinions combined with good, old-fashioned, always dependable mommy guilt made the idea of explaining to my daughter the new dynamics in her family an intensely anxious endeavor.
This is how I did it.
The only thing saving me was that my daughter was so young. I didn’t really need to give her much of an explanation because she likely wouldn’t have been able to understand it anyway. When she first started asking, I’d just respond “he’s at granny’s house.” This worked for a few days. I’d say it confidently and without any extras, so she’d be more likely to accept it without any question. And she would. She’d return, matter-of-factly, to whatever she was doing.
But at some point, a few days later, it no longer made sense in her mind that he was still at granny’s house. She’d start to ask more often, sometimes even (it excruciatingly felt) hourly. Then she’d follow it up with “when daddy be home?” I continued to respond that he was at his mom’s house or at a friend’s house. Why you ask? Well, because honestly, I wasn’t entirely sure where he was. So I began to tell her I “wasn’t sure when he would be home”. But since that lends no confidence or surety, she continued asking.
Then one day, after enduring the grating pain of having to answer the questions so regularly, I realized she needed a more concrete answer from me. She could tell my answers were shifty and she was demanding more. So I stopped what I was doing. I held her adorable little face in my hands. I looked her directly in her big hazel eyes. And I said, with all the false confidence i could muster, “daddy is not coming back. It's just me and you.” She blinked, with her eyes focused on mine, and responded “ok.” And I don’t believe she ever asked those two questions again because I don’t recall having to answer them ever again.
I spoke with other women and men who have been divorced and asked about their experiences. One thing they all agreed on was that you absolutely must tell your children. They each told their children in different ways, settings, words, and times. But they all did it. And here are some of the tips I’ve gathered from their stories:
Have both parents tell the children together.
Do not try to beat the other parent to the punch by telling the child(ren) by yourself. If you’re in a scenario, like mine, where its more feasible to tell the child(ren) by yourself, then go for it. But don’t do it out of spite.
Assure your child(ren) that both parents will still be present in their lives, just living in different locations. It's important for them to know that their parents are not disappearing.
Do not give a detailed reason for the divorce. Children do not need to be involved in “adult” matters. But you also don’t want children assuming they’re the reason.
Give them space to process and ask questions.
Tell them over a weekend or vacation so they have even more quality time with you.
Wait until you have a plan in place for living and (if applicable) school arrangements so that you are equipped to answer your children’s questions.
Use language the children can understand.
It’s a hard task no matter how we do it. But ultimately we want to do it in such a way that eases our children’s pain, uncertainty, or anxiety. We’ve got this!