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Mathematics of a Family

By Isabel Abbott

unnamed-2I think my son chose to enter the world, chose to come to me. I just said yes. I did not seek motherhood out, and his entrance into my body and life was of the unexpected variety. But yes, I did say yes. And his dad said yes. So my son was knit together in the web of my womb, and then he was born. One plus one now equaled three. Because the mathematics of love and bodies colliding sometimes works this way, bending the rules of reason. We were a mother and a father and a child. We were a family. And this made me very happy.

But then there was this. Five years after my son was born, I asked his dad to move out. I had my reasons. They were about the he and she equation of marriage, where one plus one equals one. Until one of the ones decides to leave. I asked him to move out, because, really, he had already left. And yet we were not just a marriage, but a family. To unfasten from the first, would shatter the second.

We were separated, pieces splintered out in all directions. Those were the months of subtraction, of absence and taking away. There was, in our family, a gaping hole, this open wound of loss. I wandered around in a haze of disbelief. I woke up in the mornings, remembered everything all over again, and crumbled. Then I got out of bed, drove him to school, watched him walk through the front door with his backpack and unanswerable questions, sat in the car, and cried. I did this every day for weeks.

I was afraid of my son growing up as a statistic, a casualty of a broken home. I did not want to have this as my legacy and his history. And I was unwilling to pretend, to work to get back together with his dad simply “for the sake of the child,” sacrificing myself at the altar of guilt, and have my son forever feel responsible for his parents’ unhappiness. And so those mornings, when I sat in the car crying, I kept waiting for an answer, something to tell me what to do. I thought there would be some moment of clarity, when all was revealed. That I would perhaps one Sunday afternoon be standing in the grocery store, staring at the pyramids of apples, and suddenly think, Oh yes, of course! How obvious. How could I not have known? But this is not how it happened. Instead, there was simply choice. Not right or wrong, have to or can’t. Just the freedom and weight of choice. And no matter which direction I walked towards, there would be no certainty, a conclusion I could see or know. So I did the most difficult and perhaps courageous thing I had ever done. I chose, with all the complexity and ambiguity and responsibility this brings. I asked for a divorce.

Divorce is the mathematics of division. Dividing up his and hers, possessions and the meaning made of memory, the vast collection of books accumulated over the years and the regret over what went wrong. But for a family, three divided by two does not equal one and a half. His dad and I chose to have joint custody, with our son living with each of us a week at a time. But you cannot divide a child into two pieces, split him down the middle, each taking a half. And so three divided by two is watching my 5-year-old son attempt to navigate two homes and worlds and try to integrate them into a cohesive life, and feeling the burdened hurt that this is not something I can do for him even though I chose it for him. And three divided by two is being my son’s mother all of the time and only being with him half the time, and there is not an mathematical formula in the world that can solve the ache of this.

But in the division which destroyed the life I once had, this is what I began to know as true—though my child may have chosen me those years ago, I was choosing him now. Were it not for him I think I would have come undone, all the pieces broken apart, and stayed there unformed for a very long time. I would have moved away and licked my wounds and waited until it no longer felt dark inside and I could breathe again. But I had my son. So I woke up every morning and fought for him. I was starting completely over, with no income, no home, no savings to live off, no stability in which I could rest. I moved in with friends, said yes and thank you to help that was poured out, did whatever I needed to do to get a job—staying up late into the night filling out applications online, working below minimum wage, spending money I didn’t have to buy clothes for a job interview, only to find out the position had already been filled. I found us a small apartment to set up a home for us, and built a life for us.

I made us peanut butter sandwiches which we ate in bed while watching The Wizard of Oz, and waited until he fell asleep to go take a hot shower and this is when I would cry, letting the grief have its way with me. And to grieve what was dead was to choose life. And to choose life was to choose my son.

And then one day I realized I was no longer walking around with the constant lump lodged in my throat; my son and I began to spend much of our time exploring together or resting in a quiet ease, days filled with routine, and life as just normal. Somehow we came out the other side. I am clear that our family today exists in part because of things far beyond my control and in part because of decisions made. Some things were lost, and others were found. I do not think it was the right way or the only way. I think it was simply a choice, and as is the case with any choice, what happens next is part grace, part living well within the choices made. I do not assume my son will grow up and have all the same feelings I do about what took place, or that he will not have questions and grievances. I hope, though, that he will know and feel that he was conceived and born from love, even if that love did not turn out to be a family resembling what we imagined it would be. And that he grew up surrounded in love; a love that, even its loss and separation, its subtraction and division, found a way to more than there was before.

This is my family now. There is the mother and son, me and him, solid and whole in our family of two. And from this there is the family we choose, and the family that chose us these past years, and the family that stitches itself together into new forms. The friends whose homes we lived in for a time, leaving out a special place for him to keep his things and hang his pictures on the wall. His home and life with his dad and his dad’s partner, a good woman who loves him well, and the times when we are all together, walking crowded neighborhood streets Halloween night for trick-or-treating, pumpkin lantern glowing light in the dark. There is the ancestry of my origins, and all the faces, the kinds of loving people that have been there on the bridges between then and now. We have been surrounded, encircled, loved. This, then, is the mystery of multiplication.

There is a backwards and strangely beautiful math in matters of love and human need, the family we are given and the family we choose, the heart which breaks and mends itself, the division that hurts and the forgiveness that heals. Whole new people are created and born. Things are lost which cannot be replaced. Choices are made and lived. People come and claim you as belonging. Nothing equals up to what it should be. And this is the ache of it. And it is the kindness.

Isabel Abbott is an artist and activist whose writing has most recently appeared in Ars Medica, Bellevue Literary Review, elephant journal, and Amulet Magazine, and she also regularly writes at She lives in Chicago with her son and alley cat.

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