I thrive on routine. I get overwhelmed with responsibility, and having a piece of paper that says “make school lunch for tomorrow” somehow keeps me from hiding under the couch cushions in lieu of getting things done. Now that I work free-lance as a writer and teacher (yes, in Los Angeles, teachers can be free-lance), I especially need the to-do list; otherwise, Facebook would eat my entire existence.
Our life has another type of routine that is harder to whittle into bullet-points. Every summer my daughter, age 9, flies to the East Coast to stay with her dad. Part of this routine is that she starts counting down the days 3 months in advance, mentioning often, with a squeal of anticipation, “I can’t WAIT to get to my dad’s.” Another part of this routine is that I always ask her to call me when she arrives, and I ask her father the same; they have forgotten every time. When we finally do talk on the phone, she is too distracted by the roller-coaster or the pony or DisneyWorld® to say very much, always ending our abbreviated chat with “So…I’ll talk to you later…?”
Her return is predictable, too. Her flight will always be late or “canceled,” which I suspect means “missed.” Upon arrival, she will not be happy to see me. She will cry a lot. For a few weeks if not months, she will insist how amazing and bigger-better-cooler-funner everything is on the East Coast than here in L.A. Last year, she actually tossed a menu away at a restaurant, thumped her head down onto her folded arms and said, “I don’t even UNDERSTAND California food anymore.”
My role in this routine is to let her cry all she wants, and to listen, and nod politely, and ask a lot of questions. It is also to maintain our household life routine as much as possible. Together with my live-in boyfriend, we do our best to make sure that she can always depend on How Things Work around here. There’s a “daily routine” list and a chore chart on the fridge, which has rewards, including dairy-free frozen yogurt, and the occasional movie night. (I mean, we’re not ALL bullet points. Come on!)
This year was no different. Except it was totally different. Because while my daughter was away, she—my beautiful, hilarious, little girl—started growing up. She wouldn’t let me come in her room the other night when I knocked. The next day, she stomped off and slammed her door. Her chubby little body (always a little chubbier after her summers full of deep-fried Twinkies™… really) is changing along with her attitude; it’s time for a training bra and deodorant.
So I bought her some Secret®, and we’ll get some bras when my last check clears. I even checked out a book from the library called The Girls Body Book. (Total disappointment. More on that another time, but suggestions about any contemporary feminist equivalents appreciated. If there isn’t one, let’s write it?)
Those were unexpected changes, but she still cried big, pre-pre-pubescent tears about her dad. But this was also different, albeit initially familiar.
“I don’t want to grow up!” She wailed. Her sobs were of the hyperventilating variety, causing hiccups and a lot of snot. “I spent more time at my grandma’s than anywhere else, no one pays attention to me anymore, the little kids are so annoying.” And then the kicker. “If I grow up, I won’t be his little girl!”
I am so proud that I have a 9 year old that is self aware. I am devastated that she is figuring things out so soon.
NOTE: this is not a story, in the end, about a doofus dad, although there’s plenty of evidence pointing in that direction.
She isn’t Daddy’s Little Girl any more, not like before. For years, trips to the EC meant endless hours of one-on-one time, and spoil-her-rotten entertainment. But now he is married. He has a career, which takes up a lot of time, but he doesn’t make a lot of money, so there are fewer ponies. His adult siblings have been having babies; there are toddlers and newborn twins to steal the attention. Now that she is older, there seems to be an assumption of independence, which is to say: she feels neglected. And bored.
I think, most importantly though, that she is realizing that he has a life that doesn’t really—really really—include her.
In my mind, the rough time line of her self-discovery would go like this:
▪ Age 0-14: worships Dad.
▪ Age 14: hates mom, moves in with Dad.
▪ Age 17-21: realizes Dad disappoints a lot, and might ask me some hard questions. Moves back to my place, attends art school.
▪ Age 30: total and complete understanding and gratitude to the mother (me) for everything she went through. We become best friends again, just like when she was 6.
▪ Age 30-forever: she loves me the most, and loves her father eventually again, with therapy. They have lunch together sometimes; she occasionally slips cash into his bag. He is invited to her wedding; he comes late, with his 5th wife. My boyfriend walks her down the aisle because she finally realizes who really—really really—raised her. Lots of murmurs among guests about how good I look.
But duders, she is only 9! She is way off schedule. I don’t know what to do. I hate that she feels neglected and bored, but I hate it when he spoils her, too. I am suddenly defending this man with “He is doing the best he can!” And I don’t want her to bemoan the inevitable; she will grow up. She IS growing up.
I made a collage out of an affirmation I learned a few years ago: “I love and approve of myself exactly as I am.” It is framed and hangs in her bathroom. I want her to read it every day and understand it and believe it! Truthfully, I want to be in complete control of the kind of woman she turns out to be: strong, smart, powerful, unstoppable, and feminist. I want that affirmation, and my routines, to be enough armor against the effects of a mostly-absent father.
Whether our domestic routine stays consistent or not, I don’t have control over anything. I don’t have control over what happens on the EC. I don’t have control about how much of his 15% legal custody he actually spends with her. I can’t change what they feed her, or what they talk about in front of her…cigarettes, Coca-Cola, creationism, I mean, I DON’T KNOW! Most importantly, I can’t really—really really—control the woman she is becoming, regardless of which coast she’s on. What if she regresses into an arrested-developmental rebel with chest tattoos? What if she moves in with her dad and becomes a drug addict? What if she stays with me and becomes a drug addict? Or a libertarian?
So what’s a mother to do? Does it matter if I’m feminist, American, Caucasian? How is it different for other mothers or future mothers out there? Is it about a second parent, regardless of gender? How does this play out in same-sex parenting scenarios?
There is only one thing I know how to do: stick to the routine. But what happens when the routine gets glitchy?