“As I get bigger and bigger, I get sadder.” The words rocked me, and I turned to give my full attention to my toddler daughter, M.

“Why are you so sad, honey?” I asked, enfolding her in my arms.

She told me that she misses her father, V, who is overseas fulfilling a job contract. We were able to maintain frequent visitation at first, but couldn’t keep that pace up, the realities of both time and money intruding. Her comment came at the end of our first visit in three months, the day after he left.

 

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For me, this was a consign-the-clothes, pass-up-the-pedicures, walk-to-work kind of moment. Our toddler had just matter-of-factly shared her suffering, adding her assumption that it would simply continue as she continues to grow.

Of course we could do all those things and tighten our belts in a myriad of other ways, and none of that would make the loss of his salary viable.

We miss him terribly. But when we finally had him here for a visit, he was a stranger to our routines in a way that made his presence feel almost like an intrusion. He didn’t know that we read two bedtime stories before brushing teeth and the rest after, that we use a hooded towel whether or not we’ve shampooed her hair, that she is only allowed one flavored milk per day.

She uses school glue now and colors with Sharpies and can cut using safety scissors with reduced supervision. She enjoys opening the freezer. She no longer likes carrots. All the infinitesimal things that, in their astonishing collective weight, make up how she lives and who she is.

I send frequent video snippets of the obviously momentous events: flying a kite for the first time, spelling out the word “Dad” in looped, unformed handwriting, choosing her own outfit. But I’m apparently less adept at sharing the mundane details that make up the essence of her life, and my life.

When V comes to visit, we have stacks of saved artwork to show, rocks that we thought he would like, Play-Doh creations that M painstakingly dries so he can see them. There’s heartache here, too, like the time M covered an entire sheet of paper in V’s favorite color and announced, “I’m coloring this blue to make Dad come back.”

Then my clumsy reassurances that he would love the picture, but that she does not need to work to bring him back because he already longs to be with her. I don’t know how much of that got through. In the meantime, I feel a need to try to be both parents. It doesn’t leave me much time to be anyone else.

And so the separation rips a bit at the fabric of our family. Not at its overall pattern maybe, but with fraying around the seams and missed stitches here and there. Our rituals can keep him in our hearts, but they do not keep him in our actual lives.

Shortly after M’s mournful announcement about her continuing sadness, V came to me with bad news. He told me that he had asked around and isn’t sure where his next job position will be. It will be for no more than five years, and he can probably come home most weekends.

If this, in fact, comes to pass, if we are unable to avoid this awful outcome, M will be nine when we begin living together again, halfway to the point of official adulthood. I was horrified at the possibility of these parallel, but intermittently intersecting, lives. The alternative emotional reactions are both pretty bleak: Either we continue to miss him, or we don’t.

While dinners get made and soccer jerseys washed and missing tutus found, M’s dad might be off somewhere else, living his own life, in pursuit of (we hope) a better financial future for our family.

I don’t want to speak for V, but I also don’t want to leave his sacrifices unacknowledged. When he took the job, we moved as a family to Puerto Rico. Within months, it became clear that daily life in our new locale was not what we had hoped. It’s a beautiful island and his family’s home, but the current economic situation and associated reduction in services made it an untenable place (for us) to raise a young child.

So M and I came home to the mainland, leaving V behind in a world of mysterious power outages, massive potholes, and blaring sirens throughout the night. This is about mourning his absence – not complaining about it. This is about us making the best decisions that we can, while, naturally, wondering if other decisions would be better.

And right now, this is about wondering how long this situation will last.

So we wait.