I want to begin writing again, but I will confess that I am beginning with some trepidation. Figuring out how to begin this story has been very difficult. I mentally crumpled up draft after draft and threw them in the digital waste bin, unable to properly articulate what C and I have been through. Re-reading this, there’s so much I have had to leave out about my personal experience—my divorce has been shockingly dramatic at times, to say the least — but I really think it’s for the best.
This will likely be the only post where I discuss C’s experience in detail. There is a very fine line between too little and too much information. I hope I have managed it well.
In January of 2012, I left my husband of five years. Out of respect for both his privacy and my daughter, I will not go into great detail about the reasons I left, but the important piece is this: Everything C knew of life, from the womb up until the day we left, was tension and anxiety. Any time I think of what C's life must have been like, I think of our poor dog, who lived much of her life with her tail between her legs.
C held it together through the upheaval surrounding our separation, even though it included a lot of change. She and I traveled to Oregon to stay with my parents, took a ten-hour drive back to California, lived in a motel for nine days, and found a small new apartment where we shared a room. Everything fell apart four months later, though, when I got a job outside of the home.
I have been the only constant in C's life. To this day, she has never spent a night away from me, and I am the only one to ever comfort her at night. For a child who often struggles to go to sleep and doesn’t sleep well at night, this is a big deal. She is two-and-a-half and still wakes up at night, scared. The first time she spent more than three hours away from me was her first visitation day with her dad at 18 months. At the time I went to work, C was a little over 18 months, and she had never been away from me for any real length of time.
I found a job, specifically looking for something flexible. I was very lucky to find something that allowed me shorter-than-average days (thanks Joanna!), so that C wouldn’t have to be away from me for 10 hours a day. The job is also four days a week, which has proven absolutely necessary for C’s well being.
Once I found a job, I started looking for a daycare. I did a ton of research, trying to find the best possible place for her. When I found the daycare I settled on, I felt confident that she would be in a loving environment. There were 14 kids and 5 adults. The caregivers assured me that she would be well cared for emotionally and that they would help her through a difficult transition.
The transition to daycare was far worse than I ever could have imagined. I prepared her for it ahead of time, explaining what would happen, and taking her for visits. The first day I left her, she screamed “MOMMY! MOMMY!” and had a look of total terror on her face. I again assured her she would be fine, exited quickly per the Internet’s advice, and held it together until I got outside, where I literally collapsed on the sidewalk. I felt horribly guilty. Thank God for my mother, who reminded me that I truly had no other choice—I had to work to support us.
You never know how strong you are until you’re forced to be.
C’s experience at that first daycare was so traumatizing for both of us that it literally pains me to recall it. The daycare provider tried everything she could, but she couldn’t comfort C. During the first week, she cried most of the day and refused to eat or drink. By the second week, she was withdrawn and quietly depressed. When I came to pick her up after work, I would find her sitting in an outdoor swing with the primary caregiver, staring off into the distance. I started calling this behavior “going to her happy place.” Every once in awhile, she still goes to her happy place, but luckily I recognize what’s going on and can talk to her, which helps a lot (man, am I ever thankful she can communicate now!).
The daycare lasted for nearly a month before I realized it was never going to improve, and continuing to leave her there would just cause more trauma. The daycare had a caregiver entirely dedicated to C, but she still couldn’t cope. They gave her two more days until she was essentially kicked out, but none of us (me, C, or the caregivers) could take it anymore. My mom flew down from Oregon (again) to stay with C while we tried to find another option.
Thus began the search for a nanny we could afford. The nanny I found, Cyndi, was sent from heaven above, I swear. She is kind and patient, super experienced, and willing to work with C—but even she was blown away by the level of anxiety that C was displaying. She became completely hysterical by the sight of bark chips, sand, shadows on the ground...and a lot more. It was heartbreaking.
Cyndi worked very, very hard with C, and I credit her with much of C’s improvements during that period. Part of their time was spent in a nanny share with Cyndi’s son, which was ideal because C was also afraid of other children. By the end of their time together (Cyndi and her family moved), C walked right up to a group of kids playing in a sandbox at the park. That absolutely never would have happened just a few months prior.
Since our time with Cyndi, we have slowly worked our way into a preschool setting. After Cyndi, C had another nanny, attended a Montessori school with only six kids, and is now in a very calm, structured preschool with 12 kids. Although making that many transitions is far from ideal, we had a lot of unexpected issues arise that made it impossible to find the right situation immediately. In the end, I think it has turned out perfectly, because her school is fantastic. She will be able to stay there until she starts kindergarten, and, for the first time, she is thriving in a school environment.
A child who grows up with a baseline of stress develops a fight-or-flight response to any negative emotion. I did my best to create as relaxing an environment as I could for my daughter and I, and in some ways this made life even more confusing to her at first. One time, about a month after we left, my mom realized she forgot her glasses at my house and made some sort of exclamation like, “oh crap!” From the backseat, C started crying: “Mimi sad, Mimi sad.” My mother felt awful, and of course C picked up on that, too. Her life had become very calm, and she reacted to even the slightest bit of arousal.
Trying to Find Help
Soon after I started work, I went to a Meetup of “freshly single mothers.” One of the women in the group had a horrible experience with domestic violence. Her son was in therapy at a clinic specializing in early childhood trauma, and had made great strides. I called the clinic as soon as I got home.
It took awhile to start the treatment, but C’s therapist has been incredibly helpful. She’s taught me how to communicate with C in a way that she understands, and in a way that offers her comfort. She’s also provided me with a long list of books (which I’ve added to), which have helped.
As her ability to express herself has developed, C’s inner turmoil has become more and more apparent. While it is heartbreaking to hear what’s going on inside her little head, she’s now able to understand my explanations more, and I’m able to ease her fears—currently focused on bugs, goats, and polar bears—more than I could before. I am so thankful that I found professional help for her when I did.
We are now a year and a half past the separation, and I have been working outside the home for over a year. It’s been about nine months since C started with her therapist, and I’ve found that a calm, relaxed home environment is what we both need to be happy. In many ways, things have improved a lot, but we still have a long way to go. She still doesn’t sleep, has a hard time with certain situations, and needs a very structured routine in order to feel safe.
Through this process, I have learned a lot about toddlers (sensitive toddlers specifically), and would love to share the information with others. While C’s emotions and reactions have been amplified due to her sensitivity and early experiences, many of her difficulties are issues that all toddlers struggle with. Some of the most common are separation anxiety, difficulty with sleep, fears of the unknown, and transitions.
Little kids don’t have to go through trauma to have a hard time with transitions. Despite this, finding resources to help C was really difficult. Many of the books and advice aimed at helping kids are for ages 3+, when you’re able to reason with them more successfully. Toddlers under two, on the other hand, face specific challenges…most notably a lack of ability to communicate. They’re also a lot more aware of their surroundings and other people’s emotions than we give them credit for. They may not be able to speak, but from a very early age kids can understand everything going on around them, and are constantly trying to make sense of it. At times it was hard not to talk about the divorce in front of C, but she could understand everything we said.
I am sure that we have many challenges to face in the future, but I definitely think things are (finally, hopefully) improving. One of my main goals for C is to help her learn to be a strong woman—to find her own voice and speak her mind, even if it doesn’t please others. This is something that I have found challenging in my own life, and I think my personal experience (and that of other strong women we know) might be helpful to her.
The past year and a half has been very bumpy, and I’ve had to be very vigilant about protecting my daughter, while teaching her that she doesn’t need to be afraid so much. This wasn’t an experience I felt comfortable sharing at the time, but it feels right now. I am looking forward to sharing with you all again.
If there is anything at all you’re curious about, please don’t hesitate to ask in the comments. If I don’t feel comfortable discussing it with the entire Internet, I will contact you directly. Thanks so much for sticking around.