My daughters showed me the way

I remember that wintry Saturday morning more than a decade ago. It followed the let’s-get-through-the-holidays-for-the-sake-of-the-kids phoniness, the weeks of my husband and I arguing, sometimes in front of the children, mostly after they went to bed. After more than a decade of “wedded bliss,” it was very clear the marriage was over–I could take the emotional torture no more. And now the moment was here: How would my husband move his clothes out of his side of our walk-in closet without our daughters actually seeing him do it?

One day and a half-empty closet later, I moved my shoes to what had always been his side. As I did, the closet walls echoed and so did my head, with my fears–financial and emotional. We would be three in a household now, not four. Two incomes had shrunk to one.

Surprisingly, I found comfort where I least expected it: from my daughters, Rebecca, then age 14, and Maxine, age 9. I had thought I would be doing the caretaking. Instead, I often found them taking care of me.

It began that night in a lonely bed, where I was experiencing for the first time the cold silence that would from now on issue from his side of the sheets. At 11 p.m., my door flew open. There stood my two beaming daughters. “I thought you two were asleep!” I sputtered. The girls didn’t answer but instead climbed up on the quilt. Brandishing a boom box, Rebecca said, “Mom, this is important. Do you think ‘NSync or Backstreet Boys are better singers?” She pressed a button, and suddenly Justin Timberlake was belting out a tune. Maxine began flopping around the mattress. Lots of giggles and pillow slamming ensued. My lonely first night simply…wasn’t.

Had they come to me to ease their own sense of loss? Could they have been more aware of mine than I knew? Or did some instinct tell them that in making me feel better, they would soothe themselves as well?

Gradually I began to see that the roadmap to this new, uncharted life lay in my daughters’ faces. When Maxine studied my eyes while licking the cookie-dough spoon and asked, “Mommy, you won’t ever leave me, will you?” a new kind of strength was born in me. At a moment like that, you discover that even if you’re not wanted any more–not by your ex, anyway–you certainly are needed.

My daughters’ faces taught me that divorce brings brand-new parenting rules. I learned not to bad-mouth their father, because I saw the pain in their eyes when they reported back that he had bad-mouthed me. When I was conversing with a friend, I would sometimes see their jaw crumple or their eyes shift away–in that way, I learned to gauge what they could handle and what they shouldn’t have to hear. And when one of them brought home a school pal for a little “Mom advice,” the pride that shone in my daughter’s face as I dispensed what little common sense I had to offer buoyed me up as almost nothing else could.

I learned that being “us girls” alone didn’t just mean we had lost something. We had gained something, too: independence. In the car Rebecca belted out the theme song from the “Charlie’s Angels” movie: “All you women, independent, throw your hands up for me!” Then she turned and said to me, “Hey, Mom, that’s you. Independent.” Which prompted Maxine to ask, “What does independent mean?”

Well, that’s what we were discovering together: what “independent” means. We were doing all the things we used to depend on Dad for. I remember Rebecca and I lugging the big garbage barrels down our 300-foot driveway for the next day’s trash collection. We’d be in our p.j.s on a freezing night, laughing, running, yelling, “Last one to the curb has to empty the dishwasher and make school lunches!”

I was learning strength from my daughters and, in turn, giving it back to them. Where I used to look toward my husband for the energy I needed to do what I had to do, I now had to look elsewhere, for the added energy I needed to juggle a household whose income had been cut by more than half. If my husband didn’t validate me during the marriage he certainly wasn’t going to do it now. But my daughters did. And they continue to do so years later. My oldest one graduated from college with high honors. And as my little one entered Pace University in New York, she threw her arms around me and said, “You are the kind of mom all daughters dream of having.”

For Rebecca and Maxine, I am the most important person in the world, and that’s what makes it all worth it. In some ways, I’m more mom than I ever was, more sensitive to them because I’ve had to be, more giving because I’ve felt they needed me more, and more appreciative because I’ve needed them more, too. Most of all, we’ve taught one another that you can make a real family out of what family you have.

And in learning that, I’ve gained a lot more than a little extra closet space.

Photo by  Valeria Zoncoll on Unsplash


Lois Cahall is the author of Plan C: Just In Case, a “screwball comedy with heart” about a divorced single mom.

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