My daughter may have an imaginary friend. She either has an imaginary friend or a speech impediment. She keeps asking for a child whose name is Huggi or Aggi, neither of whom me or anyone else in the nursery school have ever heard of. She could, of course, be asking for any one of the children in her class, but her delightful lisp and awfully cute tongue thrust make it impossible to know. I was delighted at the prospect of an imaginary friend for her, and thought it something to be encouraged. Imaginary friends have a lot of up-sides – they don’t have painfully over-elaborate birthday parties, play dates do not require actual arrangements, and if the mother sucks I don’t have to have a stilted cup of coffee with her. And it makes me slightly more interesting during the interminable birthday parties where I have to make actual stilted conversation.
I made the mistake of discussing this new complexity with the over-enthusiastic and, I have to say it – childless, nursery school teacher. She is a thoroughly intimidating, highly animated person who, in the mold of her satirised counterparts, talks to the parents like we too could pee in our pants at any minute – with an anxiously paced, high pitched tone of forced jollity. She also seems to feel quite strongly that nobody actually knows how to parent adequately, and she has taken on the task of re-educating us with a martyred enthusiasm. This, of course, is the secret code that unlocks the full capacity of my people-pleasing rocket bomb. “I am good” I am saying when I bring the extra big box of tissues and twice the number of required packets of raisins (don’t ask). “I am worthy” I am screaming when I bring lots of shiny silver coins for the charity box on a Friday. ” I am not like those bad mothers” I am hollering when I let her take my daughters dummy out of her mouth and don’t head-butt her like I would anyone else.
So when I mentioned the possibility of my daughter’s imaginary friend to her, I was doing so with a certain amount of pride at what I imagined was evidence of her eccentric precociousness. “Don’t worry”, Bossy Teacher said to me ” This often happens when a child is going through something traumatic, like a divorce. It will pass when she has sorted it all out. Don’t feel bad”. I should have expected a response like that. This is the same woman who basically told me that going through a painful divorce while holding down a corporate job in order to be the breadwinner for your two traumatised children is not a good enough reason to keep Daughter off the three year old party circuit.
Leaving the school utterly deflated I started thinking about the possibility of this hypothesised relationship between the trauma of divorce and the need for an imaginary friend. All my many years of training in social work and psychology have led me to believe that nothing in our psyche is that simple or linear. I preferred my version – where the imaginary friend was a sign of a quirky personality and incalculable intelligence. But Bossy Teacher had pushed one of my buttons, and something was ringing uncomfortably true.
There is definitely something in the barren just-divorced landscape that leaves you vulnerable to the more fertile plains of the imagination. I thought of friendships that I had forged in the filthy trenches of this battle field, and I began to feel a sort of identification with my daughter. I thought in particular of Irresponsible Friend and Ideal Man (see my earlier blogs if you have no idea what I mean), two people who had been through startlingly similar breakdowns of their marriages. We connected with each other in a post-traumatic haze, and bonded over slightly drunken analyses of our doomed relationships. I have thought them both quite heroic, wounded but immensely strong. I have spent an inordinate amount of time with both of them, and bored my friends and family with my endless chatter about their activities and states-of-mind.
My best friend imagined that Irresponsible Friend was in fact The One, and that we would eventually come to recognise the deep and abiding love we felt for one another. Over-Protective Brother loved him, seeing in him the Man I Should Have Married. In fact we stopped speaking altogether about three weeks ago when he would not apologise for leaving Darling Niece to babysit until four o’clock in the morning. What he did instead was to deploy a well-used tactic of his that he picked up at Stanford Law – when blamed for something: deny, deny, accuse. I didn’t do anything wrong (deny). Nothing I did could be defined as selfish (deny). You are the one making trouble (accuse). And as silly as the entire episode was, I had become hyper sensitive to men who can’t own their own shit, and I decided to bail (it is a very useful tactic though, and I must confess to using it once or twice myself to rather good effect). In retrospect I can see that he had not changed at all. Our relationship mirrored those of all the others in his life. But the breathless terror of the New World is like an opiate, pushing us down, down the rabbit hole, where we can believe that all good things are still possible.
So I suppose I do understand how imaginary friendships can get built in the aftermath of divorce. I am now a little scared to look at my relationship with Ideal Man in direct light, for fear that he may disappear in a puff of reality too. In fact in what may turn out to be a terrifying “Sixth Sense” twist in the tale, I have a growing suspicion that he occupies a world where I cannot exist, making me the imaginary friend. And while that does open an infinite number of short term possibilities, it doesn’t bode well for my longevity. But hey, at least I will have Huggi or Aggi for company.If I could just figure out who it is.