He got on at 103rd Street, the woman holding his hand probably his mother. Probably four years old, maybe five; I’m usually accurate about those sorts of things. Mothers tend to know kids’ ages once they’ve lived through them.
I don’t talk much about missing my children, about how the choices I made years ago still affect me to this day, about how it is they came to not live with me, about what it’s like saying I have two children but they live with someone else. Moving to NYC has just been the final stage of that process, accepting that the situation we were in wasn’t temporary after all and never had been. Most of the time I squash down whatever feelings I have surrounding the situation that causes more judgment toward me than any other aspect of my life. But seeing that little boy on the B train started the unraveling of that repression.
Let me be clear: my boys are in a good home. They are with a man who is a good father, not always the man I would want him to be if I were a puppeteer but I could say that about almost anyone. He’s a good dad. The boys are safe and being raised well, probably in a manner that will prepare them for the world in ways I wouldn’t. Or at least couldn’t, right now, given my circumstances. My feelings aren’t borne out of a sense that I should be yanking them out of their home and bringing them to live with me (though the general reaction from the majority of people who hear my situation leads me to believe that “taking” them is exactly what I’m expected to be doing). Rather, it’s my coming to terms with having long-ago lost the chance to be part of their lives in any day-to-day, living-together way.
I suppose thousands and thousands of noncustodial dads feel this way; the difference between them and me (or any noncustodial mom) is that there’s an entire cultural narrative out there that labels me a certain way for being a mother who doesn’t live with her children. I’ve been called names unimaginable and relative strangers quiz me about personal specifics when they find out. I’ve gotten to the point where it’s all I can do to say, with clenched jaw to bite back the tears, I don’t really want to talk about it.
If you’re a mother, think of the first time your child went to a sleepover or sleep-away camp. Think of the feeling of emptiness, the visceral awareness of distance and separation. Think of feeling those things knowing your child would be back home, in their bed, in your house, at a defined point.
Now think of those feelings in a context of your child’s home being not yours, that bed being in someone else’s house. And there are no defined dates, just scheduled weekends and vacations and weekly phone calls and occasional letters. It’s a desperate feeling, an existential crisis in slow-motion.
I was recently part of a court struggle — not a battle, but not peaches-and-cream, either — regarding one of my children. Part of it was an attorney being appointed to represent my son’s interests. All of the adults in his life were interviewed, and after everyone was talked to, a report was written. In it, there is an accounting of all of my parenting “sins,” if you will. I can’t say too much about what is in that report; I only read it once and knew enough to know I didn’t need to read it again. Everyone makes mistakes, some more than others, and after a certain amount of time and making changes (getting sober, in my case), you like to think atonement is possible. But it isn’t always; sometimes the ideas people have of you persist despite evidence to the contrary. And in my case those ideas ended up in a report about what kind of mother I am. I wasn’t accused of abuse or neglect or anything that would land me on the 11:00 news, but it was all unflattering. Much of it around the facts of my leaving and not doing the “right” things to “take” my children in “sufficiently emphatic” ways.
But enough of that. The court kerfluffle isn’t the point; it’s just a symptom. It is true that I left, for what I thought would be a limited amount of time, to escape a relationship I found to be oppressive and emotionally unhealthy. And what I thought would be a temporary situation ended up to be the status quo. And once things have been a certain way for a certain amount of time, changing them requires a good reason. And that “good reason” isn’t a mom who wants her kids. Especially if that mom has made a few mistakes along the way.
In any case: that little boy on the subway just floored me. Seeing his little legs dangle off the seat and hearing him rattle off the subway lines to his mom and watching them interact reminded me of all the moments I had like that with my kids… as well as all the moments like that I’ve missed and will continue to miss. And not just temporarily because they’re off at camp but for forever.
It hurts more than I let on, more than I want anyone (even myself) to believe. I’m writing this in a cafe right now, to get wifi and air conditioning and generally feel less isolated in a fifth-floor walkup without A/C. Even writing all this, I want to bawl my eyes out but instead I’m (discreetly? I hope) wiping my eyes and holding it all in. Maybe I just don’t want to feel it all come out. Maybe I feel this is some sort of punishment that I brought on myself (the latter being technically true). Maybe I don’t feel like I deserve to miss them so much at this point; after all, it’s been five years since I left.
I’m not sure about any of those things, just that seeing little boys on subways and in restaurants and walking down the street hand-in-hand with their moms and dads reminds me what it is I’ve lost or given away or both. It’s a crummy experience with equally crummy feelings surrounding it. So next time you meet a mother whose children don’t live with her, maybe don’t ask so many — any — questions about why or what it’s like or how that happened. Maybe take her hand and say that you can imagine how hard that must be. I know I’d like that, and I can imagine others like me would as well.