My ex husband and I separated just before our youngest turned three. We were building the trampoline that would be her 3rd birthday gift when I said I was done. We processed the decision over a few months with minimal hatred, lots of sadness, and a very solid promise to co-parent in as peaceful and respectful a manner as possible. There have been plenty of times of conflict and disagreement along the way, but I know happily married couples that have regular fights about parenting decisions so I’m pretty sure we’re doing ok on the Divorced Parents’ Leader Board.
Dare I say we even own a few Course Records… (my running friends will understand).
When we separated, Em was really young and the professionals generally favour the establishment of one primary home and one primary caregiver, with regular and reasonable access to the other parent. We used to do Thursday nights and alternate weekends with dad, and the rest of the time they were with me. You won’t believe how long three nights can be when your babies are away and your only contact is a distracted phone call each evening. I had regular WhatsApp access to my eldest via her phone, which helped, and she eventually elected to stay with us full time which probably had more to do with having an independent flat on our property and a preference for my vegetarian cooking than anything else.
More recently we have established a week on, week off routine and this is why I am a bit of a basket case every Thursday evening; waiting for the last sleep to pass, or agonising over the end of “my week”.
This is where the “don’t say it” comes in. I’m writing to advise parents and any other well-meaning adults to refrain from saying things like, “You get a great break”. Don’t say it. Do not mention that you would love a regular break from your children; a moment of peace, a bath alone. Even if you really mean it. Say it to another mother, just not me. Do not tell me that you envy my full night’s sleep or that I don’t have to battle school traffic on certain mornings. Lucky me.
Here is the truth.
I would give anything to see my children every single day until they are adults, and then I would like them to visit me at least every other day. I want their laundry, their creative food demands, their little sleepy bodies in my bed. I want their all-night fevers, fear of the dark and repetitive bedtime stories. I want the music from their bedrooms even when it is Justin Bieber. I want the Lego on the floor that morphs in to a knife in the middle of the night, causing excruciating pain in the arch of my foot. I want the crazy-ass parents in massive 4x4s that turn the simple process of delivering my children to their place of learning in to a life-threatening obstacle course that requires advanced driving skills, lightening-quick reflexes and the kind of calm that only Mother Theresa has displayed on this earth… every day. I want it every day. I birthed them with the full understanding that they would be an intrinsic part of my daily routine EVERY SINGLE DAY.
So don’t say it. Please, don’t say it. Don’t suggest that I might have it better because my kids move between two homes and I get time to soak in a bath while you are scraping a full plate of uneaten Mac ‘n Cheese in to the bin while your toddler demands honey toast for supper and your pre-teen slams her bedroom door hard enough to set the neighbourhood dogs off barking.
Here is more of the truth.
As a divorced parent, you don’t always have a say. You can’t fight the pink glitter nail polish on your 4 year old’s fingernails because it is a sign that dad’s girlfriend is bonding with her and that is supposed to be a good thing. You don’t get to plan their daily lunchboxes, and your outright ban on TV from Monday to Friday is not going to fly in anyone’s home but yours. Even if you and your ex have a really solid co-parenting arrangement, it will be fraught with moments that you can’t see coming and some will literally floor you; usually because it just hurts. Your children will get step mothers and step fathers and you can’t choose them. You might never really know them. Your children might even LOVE them. They might get step brothers or sisters, too, and in so doing they will establish an entire life that you aren’t privy to. They will come home smelling like another home, wearing clothing that you didn’t buy, using unfamiliar slang, with hair that hasn’t been brushed or tied up the way you do it, and you will have to resist the urge to wrap them up in your arms and hide away on a remote island where there is no pink glitter nail polish, white bread or DSTV on a Wednesday.
Here is an extension of that truth.
Your home and its rules will be questioned, too. You will also cause a furore when you forget to pass on a birthday party invitation for dad’s weekend and when meet-the-teachers is in “his” week, it might slip your mind entirely as you waft tragically around your empty, silent home, sipping Sauvignon Blanc before 6pm, finding things to keep you busy while you count down to the Thursday breakdown and your mommy friends scrape the Mac ‘n Cheese.
Your children won’t always love every moment of being with you, either. Sometimes they will cry for dad and you will have to drive 12km and climb a hill to get phone signal on your one and only family holiday so that they can phone their dad and tell him how much they miss him, and how much they want him to drive there, right away, and take up residence in the adjacent campsite because why can’t we all holiday together???
There are divided holidays, Christmas mornings without anyone jumping on your bed (I’ve asked Q, so far he isn’t keen) and drop offs that turn a perfectly ordinary day in to dark hole of self pity.
So please, please don’t suggest that the time I spend without my children is a privilege. What you can envy, if you wish, is that I have learned to appreciate the time spent with them in a way that can’t really be described. Of course they drive me crazy like any growing kidlets might; I am frequently overwhelmed by kitchen dishes, wasted food and endless school notices like any other mother. I can’t believe how much peanut butter they eat and we too lose all the Tupperware lids. When they bicker I want to run screaming from the house and primary school exam time is a special kind of hell but…
The bedtime stories, the shared meals, the holidays as a family, the sports games, the weekend adventures, the dinners at Gagi and Grandpa and yes, even the death-defying school run, they are all appreciated in a deeper sense. It’s like I caught a glimpse of my life in the empty nest phase and I just want now to last forever.
For every drop off that makes me feel less of a mother, there is a collection that makes my mommy heart sing.