You’ve finally managed to live under separate roofs. Immediate assets are mostly divided and you have your space. Now it’s time for the first exchange of your child(ren). You try to talk to your child and explain what is going to happen. You explain dropping off and picking up, phone calls and that you’ll see them again. You’ve packed a bag and hidden your emotions fairly well. You’ve almost even managed to get your child exited for their “trip.” But nothing could possibly prepare you for what comes next.
My little angel ran to her daddy and wrapped her arms around his neck. It’s the classic scene of “Daddy’s Home” after he came home from work. I knelt down and told her once again that she was going to go in Daddy’s car and he was going to drive all the way to Daddy’s house and they were going to have fun for a few days and then she’ll be back. I said it all with a smile. Still, panic swept over her little face. She nearly turned white and started screaming: “No, I don’t want to go.” There was no amount of reasoning I could do to calm her down. No bribe good enough. With no other choice I picked her up and put her in her car seat as she is kicking and screaming and pinned her down while her dad buckled her in.
“You’re ok sweetheart. You’re just fine.” I could barely whisper with the lump in my throat. My eyes burned and I could feel tears welling up in my eyes. I managed to smile and kiss her forehead. I pried her little fingers away from her death-grip on my clothing. I reassured her I loved her and that I would see her soon. And away they went.
I fell to my knees right there in the parking lot as soon as they were out of sight, sobbing uncontrollably. In that moment I would give anything to take it all back. I would do anything, ANYTHING!!! Just don’t take my baby!!!
I survived the rest of the weekend devouring comfort food and binge watching tv series. Sometimes I just stared at the clock counting seconds until she came back. In the midst of my depression I also felt guilt. I had primary custody and her dad was without out her for most of the time. For the first time in over a year, I felt empathy for my ex. I vowed to facilitate a healthy relationship in any way that I could for my angel and her dad. I limped by the rest of the weekend torn between grief and guilt and finally excitement as the time came to get her back. I was eagerly waiting outside when they pulled up and her dad carried her in my direction. She started screaming, clinging to her daddy and declaring she didn’t want to come home. Again no reasoning or bribing would work and we eventually resorted to me holding her back with her little arms reaching for her dad and him wiping a tear as he walked to his car and quickly drove away.
For a year and a half we continued to exchange this way with our dear little girl screaming no matter if she was coming or going.
When my current husband and I were still dating he would often hold me while I sobbed, with pure empathy for my pain. He had been stationed abroad while serving in the Air Force. No judge would possibly order a child under 5 years to leave the country for visitation. As a result he could only see his son for two weeks in the summer and two week in the winter, racking up a decent amount of debt paying for round trip tickets across the Atlantic. He would set an alarm in the middle of the night while deployed to catch his toddler between naps in a different time zone just to hear inaudible goos and gaas on the other end of the line. All this for his child who didn’t recognize him when he saw him and would cry himself to sleep at night because he missed his mommy.
Talk about feeling even more guilty! Here he is holding me while I cry because I miss my girl for a few days and he has gone years with minimal contact with his son and was ecstatic to complete his contract with the military and move to Colorado to even get every other weekend with his little guy.
“Does it ever get easier?” I asked him after one particularly rough goodbye.
“It does.” He reassured me. “But then you start to feel guilty for getting used to not missing them so much.”
I tried to talk to others to find out how they handled this? We went to co-parenting counseling for a while thinking we must be doing something wrong. Our counselor reassured us we actually have a great co-parenting relationship. If this is great and we are doing everything right, I can only imagine what the situation must be for parent who are in the high-conflict category!
I continued research and attended seminars and workshops on blended families and co-parenting. We tweeked our routine a little which did seem to provide good results.
We found out that our little girl responded better to being dropped off at the other parents home rather than picked up.
We didn’t restrict what item she wanted to bring with her, we limited the items of course but didn’t restrict it. If she wanted to bring her giant stuffed elephant, we allowed it. Eventually she stopped asking to bring something and now she usually goes without bringing anything.
We exchanged recordable story books.
We put a picture of the other parent by her bedside.
We have a “call anytime” policy. If the person can’t be reached at the moment she is encouraged to send a voice recording, message or picture. (This unlimited calling is only encouraged for cooperative co-parents, it is actually discouraged for high-conflict parents because it is too stressful for the child.)
We tried for a while to have a one night sleep-over between her two weekend visitations. This ended up just confusing her. Because of the tantrums it induced, we now have adopted a rule of no one-nighters. If she’s to stay at the other parent for any unusual circumstance (holidays or family events) then she must stay for at least 2 nights.
It took nearly 2 years to come up with the solution that was manageable and produced the least amount of fits. This will always be a working and fluid process. With the adjustments tailored to our child, interactions did get easier. The tantrums associated with a brutal goodbye that used to occur at every single exchange now only takes place a few times a year. With the continued love and support from all of her parents I’m confident that we can continue to refine a peaceful routine for everyone involved.