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We Are Seven

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Wordsworth is my favorite poet, and "We Are Seven" is one of his best. It recounts a conversation between a gentleman and a delightfully "innocent" eight-year-old "little girl."

Ten years, ago, when my husband left, my daughter Ella was seven; a few months later she turned eight. She's the baby of the family and, to her occasional dismay, I suppose some part of me will always think of her that way. Sometimes I forget how she looked at say 9 or 10, without getting out the family photo albums. Seven I remember.

The other day I did a Google image search of "seven-year-old." Have a look at their faces.

At seven, most children are transitioning to second grade. In general, they're curious, ask lots of questions and choose to take on more responsibility and become more self-sufficient. They even understand sarcasm! In school, they're learning how to measure, beginning to memorize their times tables and developing a broader understanding of the world beyond their own. Their vocabularies consist of several thousand words; fluency with reading, writing and storytelling is really taking off. And they're forging friendships.

But these little ones are also prone to worry and self-criticism. They care how others look at them and their self-esteem can be fragile.

With all these developmental changes, it's no wonder pediatrician guidelines recommend 10-11 hours of sleep per night.

I have dozens of boxes loaded with school work and other mementoes for both my daughters, labeled year by year. Ella's second grade box is filled with stories. Poems about sharks and sea monkeys and rock stars. Haikus, shape poems and comic strips. Family tales involving mom, dad and sister about baking bread without yeast and lobster ice cream.

And then our family was blown apart by divorce. And Ella joined the ranks of the one million other children who are victims of divorce in the U.S. every year, thereby required to divert their time and energy "adjusting" to the break-up of a family they never asked for. Time and attention they would otherwise spend playing, sleeping, doing homework and just being a kid, instead gets taken up with traveling back and forth between two homes, packing and unpacking, laying their heads down at night on a new pillow and learning -- and keeping track of -- the new rules in another home. Many children must also "welcome" others into their lives -- stepmoms, stepdads, step-siblings, and boyfriends and girlfriends who now sleep in mommy's and daddy's beds.

A few years ago, researchers of The Longevity Project from the University of California concluded that divorce was harder on children than death. Imagine that -- experts believe it's generally easier for a seven-year-old, or any kid, to "adjust" to the death of a parent than to the death of their family by divorce. (Not "easy," of course, but "easier.")

My own father died more than 20 years ago, and at times, the heartbreak still feels like yesterday. Sure, my father could have stopped smoking and taken better care of himself. Still, I don't consider that choosing to walk out on me. I'm a grown woman and adjusting to a divorce I didn't ask for took its toll even on me.

If you have a seven-year-old of your own -- or a child of any age -- I imagine you've often watched them sleep. Try also imagining this. Envision yourself in your child's place if you decide to walk out the front door. And then carry that memory around with you for awhile. Because seven only comes once, you know. Or 8 or 9 or 10.

If your spouse is abusive or threatening, or you're living with some other high-conflict situation that makes staying dangerous for you or your children, perhaps it's better if you walk. But otherwise, is it really too much to ask of yourself that you think long and hard about getting over your own frustration or anger or marital boredom and do whatever it takes to get help for you and your spouse to make your relationship work?

If I'm happy, my children will be happy, too. That mythical logic has been floating around since at least Wordsworth's time. Indeed, the gentleman in "We Are Seven" thought he knew best, too, exasperated to the very last stanza by the "little Maid's" refusal to see things his way. Her final words, however, leave no doubt who possessed the greater wisdom.