Today is my girls' last full day in California. Ugh. While on one hand they are excited to get to their "new home" and see what all this packing fuss has been about, they are also in a weird flux of sadness and discomfort. It's hard enough for me to process all that is happening right now, so I can only imagine how this drama is interpreted through the lens of toddler-goggles.
I'm no expert in raising children. I can't tell you what will work best for your child in these circumstances. But, in talking with other moms and doing a bit of research and learning a LOT through prayer, trial, and error, I have come to find out a lot about living through this massive change with two toddlers. I've decided to share this experience here as tips on how I've gone about this - in hopes that maybe it will help you come up with your own ideas for how to intentionally go about introducing big changes to your own child - whether that's trying a new vegetable or packing up all their toys and moving 2,000 miles. For what it's worth, here's how I've handled the last several weeks with my girls.
My daughters are 3 and a half and 22 months, so most of these regard Matilda, my eldest daughter who is just old enough to take in what's happening. However, both of my girls do best when they are prepped with more information rather than not enough. In other words, while some parents can sneak out of the house on a date night and their youngster swimmingly adapts to the babysitter's authority...my girls would wage World War III. They do much, much better if I spend the whole day prepping them with info on how the night will pan out.
That being said, when I first started telling friends about our big move to Nashville, I caught myself constantly talking past my children. I would whisper in conversation with friends or avoid eye contact with Matilda as I told others of our plans. I feared introducing the subject too soon might be too confusing or cause undue drama too far in advance. But, soon I started to see that she was very contemplative and starting to shut down if I "talked around her" too much. She was left out, and she knew it. She didn't know what she was being left out of, she only knew that she didn't like the feeling, and I began to sense a wall being put up. Nobody likes being talked around, even a toddler. And maybe I wasn't giving her enough credit. So, we decided to tell her early.
Here's my tip: Talk early, talk often, talk calmly. Just because there may be a lot of emotions tied to a change doesn't mean you have to deal with all those emotions at once. Telling Matilda about the move weeks in advance gave us time to answer her questions (again and again and again) and talk about it positively and thoroughly long before boxes and duct tape scattered our living room. Erring on the side of too much information also allowed me the time to process how she was understanding everything. I would hear her relay the information to her sister and then began to see how she was taking it all in and interpreting it.
Figuring out how to get my toddler to process all this new information was another story. I prayed and prayed to know how to explain to a three-year-old that she would say goodbye to the only home she's ever known, all her friends here, and yet her family would remain intact and there would be safe and familiar things to surround her on this new adventure. How would she understand that some things stay and some things go? How would she feel secure and adapt? How could I make this inevitably difficult experience as manageable as possible?
Then, one night, I got the idea (thank you, Lord) to make a photo book in story form for her that would explain the entire journey. The plan for our move is that I will fly out with the girls and take them to my parents house in Kansas. Then, after a couple days of familiarizing them there, I will fly back to California alone, and help my husband pack up the moving truck and forge ahead via road trip! We will meet up with the girls in Kansas, pick them up, and continue another day and a half on to Nashville. Whew! (You can see why I value your prayers so much!)
This is a LOT to understand for a little brain! So, I wanted a consistent story. Something that she could see visually and hear again and again until it stuck. Luckily, God created toddlers with an incredible ability to soak up information in this way! I gathered photos off Facebook and the internet, wrote a short story of our exact journey from here to Nashville, and even included photos of the outside of our new home. Yes, it may seem a bit extreme. Yes, it took a few hours to throw together. But, after reading it again and again, I can tell you it has been totally worthwhile. Now, Matilda reads it to Daphne and can tell you how the whole journey is laid out ahead of her.
We will find out for sure in the next few days just how well she has absorbed that information. I know that there will still be questions about where her toys and friends are for weeks to come. I know that she will have confusion no matter what. I know that I can't buffer everything so that it makes perfect sense to her. I know that she is a toddler. :) But, my goal isn't to downplay what is happening or avoid tears or questions. My goal is to help her understand and help her feel understood.
Finally, tomorrow as we pack the remainder of their little belongings into a suitcase and blow kisses into the California sun, I hope to bring my girls a tiny sense of closure for the chapter in their lives they spent here. I want them to not only say goodbye to their friends, but their rooms and their little yard too. Sadness is okay. Sadness is allowed. Sadness is a perfectly normal response to change, and I want them to witness it in me and see that it is something honest and human and expressible. You don't have to be sad or cry necessarily, but it's not an emotion that needs to be suppressed either, and I just want them (yes, even at this very young age) to feel the security of knowing sadness is okay.
One reason I think this is important is that it allows them the ability to recognize the best thing about sadness: that it is temporary. There is incredible security in learning that while sad things are inevitable in life, hope exists. It is very sad to leave California, but with that change comes much excitement and anticipation of joy in things to come. Closure is sort of an impossible thing to actually discuss with a toddler, but not impossible to demonstrate. My girls watch and imitate me to a frightening degree, and so it's important for me to have them witness my own process in taking the time to say goodbye, be sad, and then be excited and hopeful and happy again. I have complete confidence that God will use this experience in all our lives to remind us of how He protects and provides for our family.
I'm amazed at the resiliency of children. I love their wild questions and hopeful courage. I love that they hug without abandon and wholeheartedly just feel. As usual, I often learn more from them than I think they gain from me, and that is always an awesome and unexpected blessing.
It's gonna be a tricky journey. I don't know if there is any easy way to force adaptation on a person, no matter how welcome the change may be. We're in transition, and all I can be is trusting in my faithful God who continues to lavish grace on my life. Thank you, Jesus, for leading us in this crazy life!
Now, if only they made bubble-wrap for the heart.