A few weeks ago Nathaniel and I were talking on Skype, and I asked him a question. It wasn’t a fair question, I know, but I couldn’t help myself:
“Are you happier now? Or were you happier a couple of years ago?”
The implication was a comparison–NOW, when we live mainly apart, versus THEN, when we did the shared-custody dance. Underneath the question I asked were all the ones I didn’t: is this okay? Am I okay? This decision to be apart–is it hurting you? Do you still love me? Do you still feel my love?
Nathaniel was silent for a while and then he spoke. “Now, I think.”
“Now?” Even though it was the answer I had hoped for–I wanted to know this was the right choice and I want my children to be happy–my heart seized. They’re happier without me. How do I bear this?
“Yeah. I didn’t have any friends then. It was hard going back and forth all the time from your house to Daddy’s. His house was so messy. . . ”
“Now it’s good,” he said finally.
Good. I wasn’t prepared for my tears then, and I wasn’t sure whether the tears were from relief or sadness. Shouldn’t he be pining for me now? Has my sacrifice–giving up being with my children so their life could be better–gone unnoticed?
My expression of motherhood has been one long chain of sacrifice. I didn’t plan it that way, but I can look back now and see what I created: quitting jobs to raise babies; sleeping sitting up while holding nursing infants in my arms; commuting three hours a day so my children could go to the schools that best supported their needs; dishing out the best bits for the kids and taking what was left for myself at every meal. Growing up, my brother and I teased our mom when she claimed to prefer her toast burned. Now I know why she did that. It’s a mother thing. Sacrifice.
Earlier this month I flew to Pennsylvania to spend a week with my children. It took two airplanes to get to there. On the first I saw the movie Her Sister’s Keeper, about a family with three children. The youngest child was bio-engineered so she would possess the proper genetic combination to donate parts of her body to her older sister who is dying of leukemia. The film was all about sacrifice–the younger daughter giving of her body, the mother giving up a normal life and a normal relationship with the younger daughter so as to save the older one. I watched it uneasily while seeing myself in the mother’s desperation and understanding her helplessness.
On the second airplane I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and learned that in advance of the German occupation of the English Channel islands during World War II, thousands of children from the island were sent to England to live with who-knows-who for who-knows-how-long. The parents had to make a snap decision–keep their children with them and face together the horrors or challenges from the occupation, or send them away to an uncertain but safer future, one that could last years. It was a cruel choice, and either way a sacrifice. My first inclination was to cry, “How could those mothers send their children away?” Then I realized that this might be the same response people have when they hear my situation.
The mother-bear instinct is strong in me, and it took every ounce of resolution I had to execute the decision that being apart from my children was going to be the best thing for them. The reasons were complex and numerous, but among them was that my stepping back was to be a gift to their father. Now would be his time, I thought, to step up and to deepen his connection with his children, the connection he thought I usurped simply by being their mother. He could be the dad he wanted to be. I would sacrifice the thing that, like my mother’s burned toast, was part of a long chain of sacrifice. I would give up the close, everyday connection I had with my kids, the connection that was at the heart of nearly everything I had done for twelve years.
I found out earlier this fall that my ex-husband is now going to law school in addition to working with an airline. His older brother moved in with all of them shortly after I left over a year ago, and now this 60-something man who never had children of his own spends more time with my kids than their father does. The kids see their dad in the mornings before school and then late in the evenings after he returns home, and not at all on the weekends because that’s when he also works. I feel now that I should have known that this–or something like it–would happen, but I feel angry and cheated. I am angry that my supreme sacrifice appears to have been in vain, and angry that my ex-husband is the father that he is and not the one I thought he should be. I feel cheated out of feeling good about my sacrifice, and angry that just as when we were married, my children’s father seems to be doing exactly what he wants without regard for anyone else. I know my anger is misplaced in all this, and that letting go is, ultimately, best for everyone, but it’s still there. The aching place in my heart is still too raw.
The week with my kids was wonderful. None of them seemed starved for a connection, and I reveled in being truly present with the new dynamic I’m creating with each of them individually. This was most apparent with Nathaniel. One afternoon he ate an apple while sitting on the edge of his hotel bed. The way he held his body, hunched over the dripping apple that was still wet from being freshly washed, reminded me of his father. For a moment I was taken aback–my little boy was no longer mine, no longer as like me as he once was–but then I realized the perfection in his changes. His voice is deep now and his tall body dwarfs mine. His demeanor is capable and knowing. He’s no longer a little boy in any respect, and of course he carries pieces of his father’s spirit along with mine. I see them more clearly now after he has spent a year redefining himself with his father’s energy. And, like he said to me that day on Skype, it’s good. My sacrifice didn’t create emptiness for him, it created space–the space he needed to become the man that is inside of him.