My son, Josh, has been having a tough year in senior kindergarten. His teachers noticed early on that he doesn't seem as happy as the other kids. He doesn't like to participate in things like dancing and singing and he often prefers to be alone. In fact, he's usually only happy when he can read and work independently.
"Well, maybe he's an academic," I told his teacher. She had called me in to talk about Josh and we were seated at a little round table on tiny plastic chairs, our knees squished up at our shoulders. "Isn't that a good thing?" I asked, suddenly not so sure.
"I have to tell him he can do more work after he plays with his friends," his teacher told me. "And sometimes instead of playing, he sits in my rocking chair and rocks."
And that's when my heart sunk. I could almost feel it drop from my chest to my ankles. Then she pulled out some work Josh had done recently. The kids had been asked to write about winter, and while others loved playing in the snow or making snowmen, Josh's was different.
"The snowflakes are falling and they are dead," Josh wrote.
This was morbid -- sadder than knowing he rocks back and forth on a rocking chair. After our initial meeting, my ex and I met with Josh's teachers and the principal to discuss what could be done to ensure his happiness at school. We agreed to have a social worker observe Josh in the classroom.
A few weeks later, the school social worker had a chance to watch Josh at school, and then she met with him one-on-one. With more than 25-years experience, I trusted her judgement. But when she called to share her observations, I wasn't prepared for what she would find.
"Josh is a very smart, friendly boy and I watched him interact with his classmates. He seems to be really good friends with one boy in particular," she began.
I was so relieved to hear the news that I hadn't had time to brace myself for the rest of it.
A love for a husband or wife can change, but a parent's love for their children can never change. Mommy and daddy will always love you no matter what.
"I also noticed that he's very intense and more serious than the other kids. He seems to feel things more deeply than others," she continued. "I asked Josh what's troubling him and he told me he's upset about your divorce. I think his heart is broken in two and he doesn't understand how he can be loyal to his mom and his dad while living in two houses."
My knees buckled and I had to sit down. I held my forehead in my hands and tears sprang to my eyes. My ex left when Josh was two and his brother, Ari, was three. I know that Ari struggles with questions, anxiety and feelings stemming from our split, but Josh was so young at the time. He seemed to just go with the flow... until now.
"I can't change the way things turned out," I told the social worker. "What can I do to help him?"
"Well, you can tell Josh that it's OK to be sad and that it's OK to cry sometimes," she said. "I can continue to see him at school, since his personal life is affecting his school performance, and I can try to normalize things for him. Usually there's a big developmental jump when kids are eight. Josh just might struggle with his feelings for a few more years. There's not much more you can do."
I thanked her for her help, hung up the phone, and cried.
When Josh got home from school that day, I gathered him on my lap and relayed what the social worker told me. He reiterated that he's sad about our divorce and wants us to get back together.
"Joshy, it's not going to happen, sweetheart. I'm sorry," I told him.
"Why would you get married if you were going to get divorced," Ari asked. My boys are never more than a foot apart from one another, so an intimate discussion with one usually involves input from the other.
This was not the way I'd envisioned raising my kids: as part of a broken family, with so many overwhelming feelings and an inherent sadness that I can't easily fix.
"Do you still love daddy?" Josh asked.
"Daddy will always be special to me because he gave me you, but I don't love him anymore," I explained, making eye contact with them one at a time so I could gauge their feelings. "A love for a husband or wife can change, but a parent's love for their children can never change. Mommy and daddy will always love you no matter what."
"Well, if you wouldn't have been rude to daddy he wouldn't have left," Josh said.
I was taken aback. "Josh, is that what you think happened?"
He nodded. "Josh, I promise I never said anything rude to daddy. It's not the reason we got divorced. When you're older we can talk again," I told him, trying to put off that discussion for another few years.
"OK," he said, seeming satisfied that the matter had been cleared up. He got off my lap and joined his brother in a wrestling match on our living room floor.
This was not the way I'd envisioned raising my kids: as part of a broken family, with so many overwhelming feelings and an inherent sadness that I can't easily fix. And I certainly had not expected my kids to struggle with our divorce for as long as they have. I hadn't known they would suffer so deeply. But here I am, sitting on little chairs, speaking to social workers, answering my boys' questions as best I can, and waiting for them to turn eight.
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