happy face pancakes| GUEST COMMENTARY – Baltimore Sun

A few weeks ago, on a busy Sunday morning, my husband and I went out to breakfast at a favorite local diner. A little girl and her father were seated at the table adjacent to our own. The child appeared to be about 5-years -old. Her shiny, auburn hair was divided into pigtails, and she wore a sleeveless print dress that stopped a few inches above her purple sandals. When the waiter brought her pancakes topped with a chocolate chip happy face, she shrieked, “Daddy, look, my pancakes are smiling at me!”

Her father, a bearded 40-something man of slight build, said, “They’re glad to see you.”

Before even taking a bite, the girl jumped off her seat, knocked into our table and climbed onto her daddy’s lap. She gave us a contrite, “excuse me,” then wrapped her arms around her father’s neck saying, “I wish you didn’t ‘t have to leave again. I want to spend more time with you. Why can’t you move back home with me and Mommy?”

The father swiped away a tear, and said, “Baby, we’ve talked about this many times. I love you, and I will be back to see you next week.”

The girl’s tiny shoulders shook, her nose dripped, and through a current of sobs she begged, “Please Daddy stay, I miss you so much.”

I reached for a napkin to dry my own tears — for the child as well as the parent.

I thought back to that day, 31 years ago, when my ex and I had huddled with our children on a worn velveteen sectional — together as a family for the last time. My 3-year-old daughter sat on her father’s lap while I wrapped my arms around my 13- and 10- year-old sons.

Shifting our voices into neutral, we told them that we were getting divorced. Attempting to cushion the impact, we added those expert-advised taglines: “We love you more than anything else in the world. It will all be OK. This is our fault — not yours.”

It didn’t matter.

My youngest son stormed off and barricaded himself in his bedroom. My eldest straightened his back and held in tears trying to act brave. My daughter didn’t understand what was going on but dissolved into a meltdown anyway.

It was the worst moment of my life.

Our pronouncement had caused a seismic shift in the once secure ground of our family, and we still had to withstand the aftershocks. The times I had to pry my daughter’s arms from around my neck to hand her to her father so that she could spend the night in his sparsely furnished apartment instead of her turquoise-elephant wallpapered bedroom at home. The invisible wall I constructed to cope with his presence at soccer games, parent-teacher conferences and dance recitals. The hurt when I was no longer invited to his families ‘ graduations, weddings and milestone birthdays — nor he to mine.

Regardless of necessity or justification, breaking up a family brings most parents to their knees.

I wanted to hug that child in the restaurant and comfort the father.

I wanted to let them know that it would all be OK, the pain will subside and fade like a gash on the skin. The only salve needed is time.

The pig-tailed child will adjust. Separate households will become her new normal. One day she might gain stepparents, and new grandparents, aunts and uncles. She will get to some celebrate holidays twice. She will not be stigmatized, as many of her friends will also be children of divorce.

The bearded father will also move on. Perhaps, like me, he will remarry.

Yet, also like me, he may never release the last droplets of blame for causing his daughter pain. When she receives a poor grade, isn’t invited to a dance or doesn’t get the job offer, part of him will question his role. He may overcompensate with gifts, trips and other indulgences; sink into guilt or hold steady and wait for her “crisis” to pass.

When his child comes of age and makes her own decisions, he will strive to maintain his standing. He will hold his breath when he asks her, “Have you thought about where you’re spending Thanksgiving this year? When’s a good time to celebrate your birthday? How do you want to coordinate walking down the aisle?”

More than anything, he will hope that despite everything, his daughter loves him. That the corners of her lips turn upward into a grin when she sees him — just like those happy face pancakes.

Laura Black (www.laurablack.net) is an attorney, businessperson, author and speaker, who focuses on the challenges of midlife-plus women with humor and affirmation.

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