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Dividing the Toys

7:45 a.m. Phone rings. It's my ex-wife, with a wake-up quiz.

Her (brisk and focused): "What about Stella's playdate today with Charlotte?" Stella is 6, and playdates always outrank school.

Me: "Huh?" The morning stupor is slow to lift.

Her: "I can't do it." Something about her...something. Whatever.

Her (again): "You take care of it."

Click. End of conversation. Dial tone. Put down phone. Look at clock. Yikes -- they'll be late for school! Jump out of bed, rush into the living room without looking back.

Emergency mode. Make Stella's lunch. Check for Max's third-grade homework folder. Need to wake them up. I'll shower first. How fast can we all get dressed? They can be a little late, since they're only in elementary school. Stumbling into pants now. It's not so terrible, I keep telling myself, I just have to go in and wake them up. I race into their bedroom and...they're not there!!!

Here's what I've recently discovered about divorce: My new apartment is dull without my children. When their things are still, untouched, even for a day or two, the home can feel like a morbid museum exhibition. And on mornings like this one, when I realize -- just a little late -- that it isn't one of my days, that Max and Stella are at their mom's, I am quite literally lost.

It wasn't so long ago, with a legal separation in hand and the final divorce document lolling its way through the courthouse, that my kids and I were gamely preparing for my relocation into a new home. It turned out that legal combat, attorney's fees, and random vindictiveness were a game of patty-cake compared to actually sitting down and splitting up the toys.

No self-help books or evangelical television personalities could adequately prepare me for the prospect of boxing up half of Max's 7-year-old life estate and an equal parcel of Stella's kindergarten kitty. The kids themselves certainly had no idea how to approach such a daunting experience. Or was it really so daunting for them? Sometimes, what seems particularly confusing for grown-ups is a relatively simple adventure for kids.As total novices in the separation game, we just jumped into the water, for better or worse. With their mom away on business, I steered our course, but it was vital that Max and Stella felt that they were in control of their own belongings.

David Tabatsky, a playwright, a teacher, and a director, has written for the Sesame Workshop Family Newsletter.

Conquer and divide

Step 1 was a ruthless yet gentle process of elimination. A reject pile -- dolls too dumb, toys too boring, and clothes too small -- was set aside for Goodwill. Next came special leftovers not to be kept but pegged for specific friends and faraway cousins.

Step 2 required a little bit more thought, as the three of us designated the remaining possessions, piece by piece, for either Mommy's house or Daddy's. As much as I tried to keep my own sentiments out of the equation, I sometimes slipped, and ended up tipping my hand.

"Daddy, why are you crying? It's only a teddy bear. He can visit your house, too," Stella said. My house. Different adventures awaited us there, I knew, one of which was trying desperately to fit all this stuff into a much smaller space and make it as much of a home as our previous one.

Once there, sentiment soon gave way to astonishment as I noticed the children's belongings rapidly swallowing up most of the available square footage -- and this after we'd left half behind for their mother's new house. Max's 11 loose-leaf binders filled with baseball cards instantly usurped the bookshelf. (My books got stacked in the hallway.) Stella's art projects adorned most of the available wall space. But one look around and I knew I preferred it that way.

As for the kids, they adjusted quickly. Like most other children, they live brazenly and perfectly in the moment. Max, the cool skateboarding, hip-hopping boy, has created his own protective devices. He doesn't get rattled by small details. Stella flits along from one girlish plot to another, happy with her little projects and the personal connections and flights of fancy that inspire them.

I toured the old place one last time to make sure I had all the stuff the kids wanted to take. When I entered the playroom and saw the piles of toys and clothes designated for their mom's, I realized I'd never see many of them again. That exquisite teddy bear, for example. I remember looking for just the right one, waiting in line to buy it, and finally returning home and planning the perfect moment to give it to Stella -- and then reveling in my daughter's face as she first saw and touched her favorite new pet.

But now I'm here this morning. Alone. No need to rush anymore. Looking around, I see Stella's teddy -- he's visiting this week -- alongside Max's silent GameCube. I'm not satisfied knowing I didn't screw up by waking them too late to get to school on time or forgetting to put their lunches in their backpacks. Getting divorced, all by itself, was a bigger screwup than I could ever manage on any single day.

Although there was no conceivable way to stay married, I can't help feeling I messed up by not keeping our family intact, in spite of the impossibilities. Hopefully for Max and Stella, the only things that remain divided are a bunch of toys and belongings -- some at Mommy's house, some at Daddy's, and only a few lost in transit.

I hope, too, that for them, each day will be an original adventure. But for me, there will always be a schedule. And today is not my day.

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