Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t want the life I have. To be sure, I’ve learned to be grateful for it. I’ve even discovered how to take great pleasure in it most of the time—what do you want me to do, sit in a funeral shroud with the shades drawn and do nothing? But if you think I wouldn’t trade it all for the chance to go back in time to the moment when I had to decide between focusing on my sobriety and putting myself and my children through a potentially soul-crushing custody battle, which do you think I would choose?
In the decade since, I’ve told myself many things: I would never have stayed sober and my kids need a sober mom; they are better with their dad, who can teach them things I cannot; they would have been traumatized by a custody fight; I wouldn’t be good for them full-time; when they are old enough I’ll tell them the truth about what happened.
Talking about that truth here doesn’t matter as much as the fact that it was because I was too trusting and believed people would do the right thing. It’s a story as old as I am, and you’d think I would have learned by now. People I don’t trust are always surprising me by coming through when I least expect it, but the ones I think won’t hurt me are the ones who inflict blows that leave me reeling. Oh well. It happens. I’m learning. Slowly. But I am.
I don’t doubt that my son’s father loves our son or misses him when he’s not around. I think he’s a good dad, albeit one who has a different parenting style than I do.
I just don’t think he understands how painful my life has been as a noncustodial mother.
I don’t think he understands the pain of a scheduled phone call that isn’t picked up, a first time, a second time, a third, not even when a voice mail, or three are left, not even when a few text messages follow.
I don’t think he understands the pain of three-day weekend visitation that doesn’t happen because he signs our son up for improv classes on the weekend that interfere with our son being able to fly to see me, even though there are classes that meet during the week, even though the court papers say I’m allowed those three-day weekend visitations.
I don’t think he understands the pain that comes from not pushing the issue of the three-day weekend visitation to which I’m entitled, especially because I know that one day I might well be told I never tried to push the issue.
I don’t think he understands the pain of a child who tells me he’s cutting himself but not to tell his father, because his father is part of the problem, but then his father won’t listen to me six months later because his father doesn’t think there isn’t a problem (and because our son will then deny he ever said his father is part of the problem, and what do I know, I’m just someone who mishears things, right?), and all I can do is sit on the sidelines, because what power do I have, really? (The answer is none. No one listens to me. Ever.)
I don’t think he understands the pain of being left out of everything, from parent-teacher conferences (I work from home and can arrange to be in town if I knew about them) to report cards (I haven’t heard about or seen a single one in eight years) to school trips (our son missed the 8th grade trip because it was “unaffordable,” but I would have picked up 10,000 cans if I had to so he could have gone) to so many other things.
I don’t think he understands the pain that is so close to the surface that sometimes all it takes is seeing a teenager on the subway whose hands look like our son’s—notice how I’m careful to say our instead of my because I learned that in a parenting class we were required to attend during our time in custody court; I am trying to be respectful because I want to work hard at things, really, I am—to bring me to my knees and leave me crying on a bench in the subway station.
Sometimes all it takes a song popping up on my Pandora feed at 4:30am to have me sobbing uncontrollably in a small room in Connecticut when I’m supposed to be working in advance of a lovely day under a waterfall with a friend.
This is my life: I travel, I have good friends, I work at night, I spend my days under waterfalls and doing other postcard-perfect things. In less than two months, I’ll be blogging from Shanghai, if the right VPN will allow it. This doesn’t make me a bad mother. It’s another thing on the laundry list of things I’m doing to move on with my life since I’ve accepted that things aren’t changing. I really did lose the battles and the war and a couple of limbs along the way, maybe even an eye or two. The best I can say is that my injuries were sustained protecting my children the best I could. They can’t see it yet, that whatever damage they may perceive within themselves was still me doing my best, but I hope it will occur to them one day. God, I hope it will. Because I really have tried my fucking best. Whatever sadness I have, whatever hell I exist in as a result of this, I’ll take it if it means that they were spared the worst of it.
And you may think they weren’t spared a damn thing—absent mother, in New York City now, moving to Shanghai, how could you imagine you’ve done anything but bad for your children? selfish bitch, that’s what you are? fuck you!—but you don’t know me. You don’t know my kid. (Leave my older son out of this one. He’s an adult. He gets to fight his own demons at this point. If he wants to talk that out with me, he knows where I am.)
And that kid and I are okay with things. He may not know the truth of what happened ten years ago, but he knows what happened to bring me to New York City. He knows what’s happening to draw me to Shanghai. He’s old enough to comprehend it all. He knows the deep sadness I feel over not having done a better job with any of this parenting stuff, but he also knows I’ve tried the best I can with the tools I’ve been given. Maybe he’s just telling me what I want to hear, but he’s been remarkably mature about letting me off the hook, to the extent that he even thinks there’s a hook to be let off of (though, like most teenagers, he has his moments when he thinks I should be drawn and quartered after I’m tarred and feathered). Most of the time, though, it seems like the only person who hasn’t forgiven me is, well, me.
I’m the only one who notices how much I’ve missed because I’m the only one who sees things in flip-book form with half of the pages missing, the only one who notices how much taller a teenage boy can get in the space of a couple of months and what it’s like for that boy to go from not having to shave to having a mustache during those same intervening months. I know what it’s like for his voice to be cracking when I talk to him on a Sunday and to not be able to get him on the phone for a whole week, and then all of a sudden his voice has changed and I don’t know if he’s answering the phone or his dad. I know the intimacy of feeling his long hair under my fingers as we’re watching TV on the couch in April and the devilish look on his face when I pick him up from the airport in June, after he’s buzzed all of his hair the night before, but he didn’t say anything, he knew I’d be upset.
I know there was a time—years, really—when I saw him every day. I was an attachment parent. We coslept. I carried him in a sling. I breastfed him until he was almost four years old; he kept reaching for my breast much longer, for comfort; it was anything but sexual. He snuggled with me until was 13, swearing it would last well into his teen years, until one day he showed up, and it had stopped. I wish I could go back to the last time, knowing it would be the last time, but that’s not how things happen, or else none of us would ever let anything go. Moments slip by. Despite being warned not to let it happen from the moment we can understand what that even means, we seem to forget to pay attention. Or we think it won’t happen to us. Until it does.
When he was a baby, we would fall asleep everywhere together: on the couch, in a folding chair, on the floor, in the grass. It didn’t matter. He taught me what love was. I know, because I wrote a story about it. It’s still one of my favorites. He was only a baby when I wrote it, it seems both that I knew time would pass quickly—”our love affair is nearly over” were its first words—and could predict the future with its ending: This is what love is, this is how it ends.