We had a pleasant meal together. I sat on one side of the booth alone and you sat with our daughter. She was impossibly sleepy but she ate as much as she could before nestling against your chest and growing unusually quiet, eyes glassy and dazed. You kissed her forehead. When she is this sweet and still, it’s impossible not to.
My day with her was typically long. I took her to a local playground, in hopes of burning some of her boundless energy. She ran and climbed with a sweet, slightly older girl until her cousin joined her and the tide began to turn. The cousin, perhaps closer in age to our kid, started asking questions our daughter didn’t understand. “Do you know my cousin?” “Do you go to this school?” Our daughter answered yes to everything, as she always does when she doesn’t understand questions. Minutes later, the girl started declaring loudly, pointedly, “There’s not enough room for you,” as she and her cousin crowded into the mouth of a tunnel slide.
Sometimes I forget how different she is. I forget that there are people who don’t know what we know about her, children who are too young or disinclined to read the situation in front of them: This little girl wants to play. But she can’t speak to me the way that I can speak to her. She doesn’t quite understand everything I’m saying or doing.
I know it’s too much to expect girls just a year or two older than her to be kind and welcoming to her, despite her differences. But I always do expect it. And it levels me whenever that hope is dashed.
While the girls crowded the entrance to the slide, I stood underneath it and asked our daughter to step out and come with me. I led her to the swings and promised her a kid’s meal when we left. “Okay,” she said with her hand in mine, confused but with a rare lack of protest.
I held it together at the playground but cried back at home, when I recounted the incident to my mother. She said my intervention should’ve been different. I shouldn’t have taken her away from those girls; I should’ve made a more formal introduction, should’ve said, “This is S—-. She’s four. She’s a good player. Do you think you can play nicely with her?” And if they said no, Mom said, then I should’ve led her away.
Sometimes I just want to be able to express how and why I’m hurt without being immediately told how I should’ve behaved to prevent it. “I know how you feel,” Mom said, eventually. “But you need to be…” And she went on.
When you came over after work, I told you this playground story, too. You are always more empathetic; you’ve had your own similar memories – as a child and as the father of our child.
It is a relief, then, that I can discuss these things with you. It is one of few reliefs.
There is another subject I wait until we’ve returned from dinner to discuss. Our daughter sleeps soundly in her car seat behind you. I try to think of the least offensive, combative way to broach it.
“I think we should revisit the idea that we need to live in the same city to do this.“
This is coparenting.
You have been here nine months. I can count on two fingers the nights our daughter has spent at your house. Outings are rarer than visits where we live. And in either event – whether you take her out or visit her here – the time is short.
I tell you: I understand why this is so. It’s your hours at the job. It’s the housing setup – neither of us live alone; we’re with family and perhaps visitation must be coordinated with them. I tell you: I’m not trying to upset you when I suggest this, but maybe you should move back to California.
I remind you that I wasn’t the one who asked for you to move here. I tell you now that we’ve given the same state a try, I know how it will go. It seems, if these nine months are any indication, that our co-parenting arrangement will insist on my being the primary caregiver – an overwhelming majority of the time – no matter where either of us lives.
If this is so, we should both be free to live wherever we want and not, as previously discussed, be trying to agree on a mutual city to relocate.
You were quiet, mostly, offering the occasional protest. Things would be different if I just moved to California, too, you posited. Moving to the same mutually-agreed-upon area is what we’ve discussed since before you moved back here, you remind me.
I have a response for all your points. But there are also things I do not say: I have been raising her with minimal hands-on help from you for five years. The day-to-day work of that gives me a far less sentimental and noble view of parenting. As a culture we throw around these moralistic dictates, “Be a father to your child.” And “Get your kids” and “Mothers need to do whatever is in their power to make sure fathers have access to their children.” But people without children don’t know what any of that looks like in practice. And for people with children, that practice varies widely between couples and co-parents.
You two miss each other when you’re away from one another. It’s a heart-longing, a palpable ache. You two reside within a circle I am firmly planted without. There are confidences and conversations you can give her that I cannot, affirmations you’ve taught her that it would not have occurred to me to teach her.
I understand what nearness means. But I’ve always had a hard time believing that mere physical proximity means much without consistent visitation. You are here when you can be. This is the argument I am willing to accept, though I could choose to point out many more instances when you could be here and are not.
It’s just that, if this is as much as you can be present while living minutes away, I remain unconvinced we need to live near each other for you to maintain this level of presence and connection.
It sounds harsh in my mind and possibly illogical. So I don’t say this latter part to you, as I raise the idea of us moving independently. And it’s good that I don’t, because in the weeks to come, things will improve. Having this conversation will help jar something loose for us both. You’ll show up more; I’ll be more welcoming. Our daughter will delight in the very noticeable difference.
But secretly, silently, I’ll still dream of us being wherever we want, seeing each other very little (which will hopefully mean being less frustrated with one another and arguing less). I’ll dream of a set custody arrangement, of you having to do it all sometimes just as I have had to do it all most of the time. I’ll dream of her becoming acclimated to her parents as separate entities, both wholly committed to being attentive, protective, cooperative, and doting for her.
“It would work better than this,” is the last thing I say aloud, in the car.
You carry her up the stairs and lay her on the loveseat in my living room before leaving. She looks peaceful, unaware of so many of the things that make us all uncomfortable. As always, I hope she stays so at peace as long as it is possible.
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