“When you aren’t here it’s like you died,” my 6-year-old daughter said during drop-off at her dad’s a few weeks ago. I crouched down to look her in the eyes, I kissed her hand, a routine before goodbyes, and told her, “I’m always here, I’m right down the road.”
Somewhere in between packing her favorite snacks in her lunch box, our visit to the aquarium, scooting around in the park, pizza night, rounds of Uno, puzzles, drawing farm animals, reading books before bedtime, somewhere between cookies and milk, I had gone and died.
Although it’s been a year of this back and forth the drop-off process can still make my heart deflate, to know my time with them has ended. Sharing time as a parent means that dreaded word: letting go. It means accepting your kid’s smiles are not yours every single day and managing the grief while longing for them. Co-parenting has involved lessons of treasuring the moment and making peace with imperfection, mastering drop-off, being OK with simply doing the best I can, along with some self-reinvention.
1. Re-connect to solo happiness
During the first months after dropping off my kids at their dad’s, I would go on long walks on the trails at a nature center near my home. These walks have become ongoing and therapeutic, to connect with the surroundings and to connect with my inner self. Sometimes, though, it would take a whole lap before I truly let my breath and said to myself, Everything is OK, while passing families walking together, or hearing the clomp of kids running on the boardwalk. I would imagine my own kids’ faces: my son Phoenix, 7 at the time, and his never-ending energy making ninja kicks against the boardwalk planks and rambunctiously pretending to fake a fall; Vivian pointing out a family of turtles or a lily pad, their playful movements reminding me that life keeps moving on.
During my solo walks, I’d admire the wildlife in the pond and the long-stemmed flowers, decayed, leaning down, like a friend who understood that my pace was meant to be slow. I would process the new normal of being without my kids for a week-long stretch, I’d try to “let go” of my children in each step. I’d make plans to connect with forms of happiness that were positive and uplifting — visiting an art museum, spending time with a friend, writing in my journal some new goals, catching up on an inspirational podcast — to engage in ways that are nourishing to my well-being. It has helped me when I miss my kids.
2. Focus on ‘my week,’ not his
After drop-off, there’s that sting of not being there for every single thing anymore, but I have learned to put the focus on “my week” with the kids. While the scenery and structure of our family has changed, what hasn’t changed is my kids’ excitement to go to the science museum, make slime, try out some new Sharpies, or have pizza night.
I focus on the activities that bring joy to keep my rhythm as a parent who loves to venture out with my children. Although it is now for a party of three when we get our tickets for the zoo, I’m still their same mom, carrying water bottles, snacks, and a stuffed animal in my purse.
I try to force my mind to focus on “my week” and not dwell on what’s in their lunch box, did they sleep sound, how was soccer practice, when it’s not. These concerns while your kids are out of your care can be hard to shake. Instead, I cope by embracing the lesson of making the moment count and valuing the precious time that I do have with my kids.
3. Accept imperfection
Being flexible with memory-making has also been key during the transition of sharing time. For example, since it wasn’t my week during Halloween, the kids and I celebrated a week early by carving pumpkins and getting costumes together.
On the other hand, not every week will be perfect. I try not to dwell when plans sink and being Supermom fails. Before co-parenting, I packed in the weekends with activities, and sometimes I still do, but my mindset has changed to “If it happens it happens.” I’ve kicked to the curb the unneeded pressure that can come with a “my week” mindset, and just to let the week be what it is. If we don’t make it to a certain park, museum, or place to eat, there is always next time. This easy-going mindset limits the stress of the moment passing us by. “My week” is about being present, just embracing that my kids are with me. The agenda is making peace with imperfection.
4. Make transitions easy on everyone
I also try not to use negative statements like, “I only see you every other week” or, “We only have another day,” and describe our time together as “a full week” and as the week comes to an end, I say, “We get to hang out all day today again.”
Drop-off has been the most stressful during this first year, but it has gotten better in time. It has been a year of back and forth, of packing backpacks, jackets, favorite toys and gadgets, driving back for a forgotten soccer shin guard or sock or baby doll.
Through trial and error, I’ve found when I pack their stuff up early, drop-off tends to be smoother. Then I can focus on my kids, spend a little more time with them, instead of dashing around in the last minute, gathering shoes and school bags, or rushing to fit a scooter in the trunk of my car before they are gone. I pack up my car sometimes hours before drop-off when possible; it makes leaving less stressful for everyone.
Talking about the exchange ahead of time has been helpful. The day before drop-off, I tell my kids I will see them soon. Then I tell them what I’m looking forward to the next time I see them, or I bring up a memory we made during the week.
When the time to say goodbye is here, Phoenix usually gives me a high five. I kiss Vivian’s hand. Yes, I tell her, my kiss stays on all week. We have a long hug until she decides to let go. I’ll admit, I soak it up. Whenever I hear her say, “When it’s your week” or “Next time I see you,” I feel that she is accepting the new normal a little more.
Then I’m off to walk. The pathways at the nature center are giving, and the decaying long flower stems I passed last week are now reaching for the sun. My pace has picked up these days, but I purposely slow down at my favorite tall dead tree in the meadow.
It is branchless, a beam, solo in an open space, as though it has let go of what is most meaningful but always is there awaiting, never far. It’s strong, right down the road, and doing the best it can.