“I’m where he always told me to go if I couldn’t find him,” Joey thought as he stood in the terminal at the Baltimore airport. Ever since his parents got divorced and he was old enough to fly unaccompanied, his Dad had found a spot, right next to a newsstand, that Joey was to wait at if Dad wasn’t at the gate when Joe got off the plane.
“I’ve stood here for hours. He’s not coming for me. Something is terribly wrong.” Joey found himself sliding to his knees. Business travelers and family vacationers stream past him. He tried to look at every face, looking for his Dad’s. Tears start to roll down his face. He can feel his chest starting to heave. Panic is setting in.
The alarm clock goes off. Joe bolts straight up, almost violently. “What a weird dream,” he thinks, “I’m 35 living in Phoenix. Dad passed six months ago. I hadn’t flown to Baltimore in 20 years. But I always felt the most lonely on those flights. I would say good-bye to Mom and then be on my own for 4 hours. My friends all thought it sounded exciting, exotic, and at first I would pretend in my mind I was dashing off on some sort of important undercover mission. But that never really lasted and all I could ever think about was how alone I felt during those 4 hours. But the alternative had never been any better. Before Dad moved to Maryland, the exchanges were always contentious and someone always had to say something.”
“Looking back, I wish they had done my exchange differently. The first time it happened was one of the worst experiences of my life. They were so busy arguing about where the exchange took place that they completely failed to think about how it was going to work for me. It was the hardest thing I had ever done, I had little to no knowledge about why or what was happening, and I just remember crying for what felt like hours. Even after I figured out what was happening and why (as best I could understand ‘why’), it was never easy. Instead of being excited about my accomplishments, Dad made it a point to tell Mom that he was disappointed she hadn’t told him about it already (I had asked her to wait so I could tell him). Even though Mom wasn’t working and Dad offered by buy her plane ticket, she never wanted to fly with me because she didn’t want to risk having to see him at all – the advantage of Dad’s move in her opinion. Sometimes she would try and cancel the visit altogether at the last minute because of some false reason. Some of the happiest times of my life – getting time with my Dad who I never saw enough – was always marred and bookended by “the exchange.”
One of the hardest parts of splitting life between two parents for a child is when they transition from one house/parent to the other. There is a mixture of sadness of leaving the other home and parent and great joy in seeing the other parent. The former is exacerbated, though, and can quickly engulf the joy when the parents allow their own feelings and baggage to take over the exchange. Or they read the joy of their child reuniting with them as the child’s joy in leaving the other parent. Or the tears of leaving them as a sign they are unhappy spending time with the other parent. Very, very rarely are either of those assumptions true.
If you are in such an acrimonious exchange relationship, try this next time – fake it to your child that you’re excited for them to go see the other parent. See what happens. Watch the anxiety slip from their face. Notice that they start to breathe more deeply. Realize that you are allowing them to feel comfortable in their own skin.
Try it. They’ll like it.