“Mama, do you love me even when I’m gone?”
My eyes slowly lifted from the tiny Elmo suitcase I was packing with military precision to meet Coraline’s curious expression. I wanted to cry. Deciding that was the most inappropriate thing to do, I instead asked her to repeat herself.
“Do you love me even when I’m gone?”
I crawled over to her, and picked her up. She put her head on my shoulder. I really wanted to cry. “Mama loves you every second of every day, no matter where we are,” I told her, blinking back the tears. I’m sure that all parents — single or not — have had a moment where they wished they could just hand their love over to their children in a box, simultaneous proof of its existence and assurance that it really is theirs forever. This was one such moment for me. Though I know, on a rational level, that it is normal for an almost-three-year-old to ask a question like that, and that the layers of meaning I bestowed upon it were mine alone, it broke my heart that she did.
I went and got my favorite t-shirt out of a drawer and brought it to Coraline. I told her that I was putting my love in the shirt, and that if she missed me all she had to do was hold the shirt and she’d feel my love. I felt pretty silly as I did this. All my love for her in a ratty old t-shirt? Really? How trivializing. But she squeezed it hard and exclaimed “Oh thank you Mommy. I’ll put it in my backpack.” Later, as she breezed through the door of her dad’s house she called out to him, “I have my mama’s shirt in case I miss her.” With her joyful announcement I felt relieved.
All I really gave Coraline was a “transitional object.” As one local therapist explains, young children can benefit greatly from having a physical object to represent their connection to Mom or Dad when they’re away, especially those kids that struggle with transitions and/or have to make difficult transitions, such as from one home to another. One reason for this, the therapist explains, is that they take things very literally. For example, to parents trying to move a child out of the family bed, she often recommends tying a long piece of yarn from the big bed to the child’s own; doing so gives the child a tangible reminder that they are still connected, even though they’re not in the same room.
I don’t know if Coraline will take the t-shirt out of her backpack at all while she is at Daddy’s house for the night. She probably won’t think of it again, until we unpack her bag tomorrow. Which, perhaps, is the best thing. Perhaps it means that even she knows she just wears my love like a great big invisible t-shirt, one that never rips or gets too small — it just keeps growing with her as she goes.
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