on being a non-custodial mother, saying good-bye at the airport

I promised myself I wouldn’t cry when I saw him walking away from me down the gangway or whatever it is they call that tunnel that takes you from the airport and into the airplane. But the gate agent was a gruff Nigerian man who offered us only the briefest of moments — quick, say goodbye to Mama — before shuffling my son off, away from me. A sideways knowing glance from another mother, brimming with sympathy, and the tears welled up beyond any promises I’d kept to myself.

One of my pet peeves is custodial mothers who become emotional when non-custodial parents pick up children for visitation. They tend to act (in my estimation) as though they are being drawn and quartered. And then there was a recent essay on The Rumpus from Gina Frangello, whom I knew briefly in graduate school (though I doubt she remembers me), in which she laments being away from her children while on book tour. Indeed, there’s an entire lexicon of experience of women spending time away from their children…within the context of it being temporary and sad and heart-wrenching and — above all, more than anything else — deeply unfair. But what does this mean for the non-custodial mother, the one whose absence (sometimes a deliberately made decision, others an injustice in itself) is status quo? Where do we fit into these narratives in which the non-custodial parent coming to pick up the children is all but kidnapping them? And why is it that the mothers who make such laments — feminists all, the ones I’ve heard — are so tone-deaf to the pain that comes with being the mother who says goodbye to her children more often than she makes their school lunches?

With a few exceptions (namely, other non-custodial mothers, who know what this is like), the only people who have ever said they respect and admire my grace and fortitude are men with children. Not one single mother has ever understood my decisions (or, if they have, they have not said so), and in fact I have had many, many feminist mothers (single and not) express extreme judgment about my motherhood status. So be it. This is what it is. And today it’s me blogging from LaGuardia waiting for my son’s plane to leave the gate.

I wish I could confirm the worst vilifications of my situation, say that it never hurts to be away from my children or see them so infrequently. Most of the time I feel like a third wheel, at best, despite taking measures to be included in their lives (an unwilling ex isn’t helpful). I wish I could just detach and get on with things and pretend it doesn’t matter, but it does. The best I can say is that I’m able to hide it really, really well.

Meanwhile, his flight’s taken off, but the tears will take a while to dry up. It feels as though a piece of me has flown away. Well, a piece of me has flown away. I’ll see him again soon, but it won’t ever be the same as having him live with me, and there’s a deep sadness I carry with me that I fear will be permanently lodged inside, a vestigial organ of sorts. Anyone who thinks this is easy for me, I’d really like to tell you to fuck off. That’s a bit crude, but so is a world in which people think mothers like me love their kids any less just because we don’t tuck them into bed every night.


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