The Seder

The Seder


Art The SederI rang the doorbell of my ex-husband Larry’s house, a jar of gefilte fish in one hand, boxed coconut cake in the other. To date, I’d been to the house on Thunder Lake only to drop off the kids. But today I was here with my husband, Eric, and two stepchildren, Luke and Jamie, for Seder dinner.

Given the circumstances, this was miraculous: I’d last seen Larry three weeks ago at the trial. Six years after our divorce was final we’d gone back to court over the religious upbringing of our three young children, Sophia, Olivia, and Johnny. I’m Catholic; Larry is Jewish.

Eric, Luke, Jamie, and I stood on the front steps. I did not want to ring the bell again. “Cool house,” Luke, 13, said, looking heavenward to where the white columns we stood between might end.

“We could leave,” I said.

“Just breathe, honey,” Eric said.

“Tell me again why I’m here?”

“For the children,” he said, taking the jar of gefilte fish and squeezing my hand.

Eric had been here for me each odd step of the journey. He’d been at the first meeting with the rabbi more than a year ago, where I sobbed, explaining I was the primary caretaker of my baptized children, and  could not raise my children Jewish.

Sophia answered the door, welcoming me as a guest in her other home. The divorce agreement said nothing about religion, so Larry and I tried to figure out Sophia’s faith in real time. Each decision we made would mark her, and be the precedent for her sister Olivia and brother Johnny. But looking at Sophia, I knew Larry and I had not damaged her permanently yet. She stood at ease in the foyer. She’d grown into a beautiful girl with her father’s dark eyes and my mother’s wide-lipped smile, her mane of black hair a gift from some former generation.

Now in a house where my children lived when they were not with me, images of their life with their father came into view, the backpacks on each hook, three jackets hung in the closet, a drawing with the words “I love my Daddy” in a frame on an end table.

I remembered a five-year-old Sophia in the tub with her little sister just after the divorce. The girls played in the bath bubbles, splashing suds onto their chins Santa-style, and spun the rubber ducks on the surface of the water, like dreidels, singing in Hebrew. That was how I first found out that Larry had been taking the children to Temple on his weekends. He had never taken the children to Temple in the eight years we were married.

I had fallen in love with Larry at a Seder at his house when we were dating. I’d grown up in a cloistered Irish-Italian family, a plaid-uniformed Catholic schoolgirl. I had never been to a Seder and at that one I met a Buddhist and a Muslim. As the conversation developed into a theological discussion, my mind stretched past Sister Marianne McCarthy into the realm of rabbinical texts, the Tripitaka, and the Quran. My world cracked open over a candlelit table with plates of beef brisket and roast turnips. My then husband-to-be was worldly, 15 years older than I, and seemed to believe in all religions, subscribing to none.

We walked to the main room. “I come bearing gifts,” I blurted, handing Larry the gefilte fish and coconut cake. Several children raced through the house and a few other couples greeted us. I knew one woman from the gym.

“It’s so nice how you all get along,” she said, nodding toward Larry, then Eric. “So nice how you’re all here,” she added, her words echoing beneath the cathedral ceiling.

All of us getting here was a long story. One that began with a two-sentence e-mail I received 18 months earlier stating that Sophia was enrolled in Hebrew school and her bat mitzvah was set for June 12.

My ex-husband’s e-mail, in its brevity, seemed a decision to change the course of my children’s lives without discussion. It set off a series of sparks that turned into blue-flamed anger, then action; two motions filed within two weeks, followed by a trial.

In court I sat on the bench with my lawyer, waiting for our case to be called. I shuffled papers, my hands shaking, the children’s baptismal certificates fluttering to the floor. Larry sat several rows in front of me, with a string of witnesses shoulder-to-shoulder.

Larry’s lawyer called me to the stand. I swore to tell the truth and nothing but  the truth. I considered another oath I’d made before Larry, to love him in sickness and in health all the days of our lives.

The lawyer fired off questions.

“Do you know how long the children have been attending Temple?” he asked. “Have you ever taken any legal action up until now?”

I hated him, catching me on a hook like that. No, I had not taken legal action, but I had built a case with Larry outside of the court. We’d tried to talk, but the words crisscrossed before ever being heard. The talking turned into curt e-mail exchanges, what we each thought the other’s intent was for the religion of the children when they were born. I believed we’d agreed the children would be raised Catholic and Jewish. My problem at this juncture really boiled down to a bat mitzvah. A ceremony that would confirm my daughter in the Jewish faith, somehow separating her from me.

“Are the children presently enrolled in any other religious instruction?” the lawyer continued, tension in his voice. I thought back to my enrolling Sophia in religion classes after school when we first moved, and how I pulled her out three weeks later. The change in homes and schools was stress enough for both of us. And I thought the allure of taking three kids to Temple would wear off for Larry.

Larry’s lawyer repeated the question. “Are the children enrolled in any other religious instruction?”

I began to explain the three-week enrollment.

“Answer yes or no,” the judge said.

“No,” I said.

“When was the last time you went to church?” the lawyer asked. “Christmas?”


Sophia’s Hebrew school teacher came to the stand next. I had never seen this woman before. She addressed me from the stand: “Did I know that Sophia already knew her Torah portion?” she asked. I did not know. That was the problem. This  all  had happened in secret, on the one day a week the children spent with their father. The lawyer finished the show with a former next-door neighbor, who confirmed that, yes, he and his wife had attended seders in the marital home.

Court was adjourned until a date two weeks from that day. Two more weeks. It would be unbearable.

My lawyer walked me to my car. I locked myself in, tears dripping from my eyes onto the leather seat. My mind reeled back to my childhood, me in that white dress at my First Holy Communion. I had memorized the Our Father and the Hail Mary. I’d taken the Body of Christ for the first time and had gotten stomach sick. Years later I would say my Hail Marys in succession after confession with Father Amato, where I begged forgiveness for my 16-year-old sins.

Though I’d grown up with God, that confession would be my last in a formal setting. Once I went off to college and was away from parents who did not know if I went to church or not, I opted to not attend. By the time I met Larry after college, my faith was packaged into silent prayers at night, the ongoing giving of thanks in a private setting. I married Larry within 12 months of meeting him.  We divorced eight years later, to the day.

Larry and I both lost so much in the divorce. But afterward, I found Eric, and I wondered now, for the first time, if Larry had found religion. Perhaps Larry was not just pushing his Judaism to control me, but had come to believe in it. While I reestablished my roots in an expanding family, with Eric and my children and stepchildren, Larry may have found the roots of his faith.

Darkness fell, and all the other parked cars had gone. I tapped out the number of years Larry had been taking the children to Temple and Hebrew school. I tapped seven times on the steering wheel. It had been seven years.

I put the key in the ignition, wondering for the first time if I should let Larry win this one. I told myself that whether or not the children had mitzvahs, they would choose for themselves one day. Unlike in my house where Christianity had been a given, never questioned, my children would have to think things through as they grew older. Even with a bat mitzvah, Sophia would have to question the two faiths that were rolled up inside of her.

In the morning I called my lawyer. “Settle,” I said.

Later that week, after my ex-husband heard of the settlement, I received an e-mail invitation to seder at his house. “Please bring Eric and Luke and Jamie,” he wrote. I thought about the invitation for more than a week and decided it would be best for the children if Larry and I at last appeared to be on the same page.

I took in the scene before me now: Sophia pulling out the Scrabble game, Olivia trying to hide the afikomen while everyone watched. I went to the kitchen to pour a glass of wine and found myself alone with Larry.

“It’s a nice party,” I said.

“I’m glad you’re here,” he said, taking theseder plate from the refrigerator, the boiled egg rolling off onto the tile floor.

“Need help?” I asked, picking the shank bone off the counter.

“Remember that seder when you tried to bake shehakol?” he said. In a minute I was back in another kitchen, separating 13 egg whites, completely baffled at how to make a dessert without flour.

“I remember,” I said, the moment between us tacked to the corkboard, held still for us to observe. We were joined in a singular memory, from a time when we would have done anything for each other.

Johnny came into the kitchen, the moment broken.

“Come see my room, Mom,” Johnny said, taking my hand. I looked at Larry as if to ask if it was okay for me to go upstairs. He nodded, and Johnny scooted me away taking the steps up to his room two at a time. “Here’s my bed,” he said, a six-year-old docent. The room was blue, a framed Derek Jeter jersey hung above the headboard. Autographed baseballs were lined up in individual display cases on the dresser. Johnny hopped on his bed, and I sat next to him.

“Can we have a sleepover tonight, Mom?” he said.

“Not tonight, Champ,” I said.

After the tour, Johnny and I went back downstairs for dinner. My children, stepchildren, ex-husband, and husband sat down to matzo ball soup in steamy porcelain bowls; matzo ball soup had always been a favorite of mine, the item I craved through each of my pregnancies. I had not had it in years. The smell of broth and parsley sifted through me, the lilies pushed their necks up out from the lips of the vase.

Johnny, the youngest at the table, started the seder with the first of the four questions.

Ma nishtana ha-laila ha-zeh mi-kol ha-lelot?

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

Author’s Note: Eric and I never attended another seder at my ex-husband’s house, but I will always be proud of making the effort that one time.

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Perfectly Imperfect

Perfectly Imperfect

By Elizabeth Richardson Rau


Best friends often don’t come in the prettiest packages. The true friends I have made are like me, willing to show dents, battle wounds and flaws. 


In 2011 my world imploded when I left my husband. The decision was the right one; the fallout nothing short of apocalyptic. It was during this time that I learned that friends of substance run towards the burning rubble that life can become while most others flee. This friendship culling, much like that of a spring garden, is laborious and painful but necessary so as to make room for more sturdy roots to thrive. During times of crisis it feels devastating, but, as one of those fleer-friends once told me: God sometimes draws straight with crooked lines. You will get where you are meant to be with the right people standing beside you, even if the journey there doesn’t look like you expected it. This was the friend who, after three decades of friendship, told me she needed space and a break from the drama; an understandable request. That break is going on over three years now and I haven’t heard a word from her since; she is now on my ex-husbands friendship roster.

Years later, with lots of therapy under my belt and a much better understanding of who I was as a woman, I landed happily on the friendship isle of misfits, among others who are unashamed to admit the imperfections of their lives, of themselves. I suppose we are social outcasts to some degree. Unlike years ago, my circle of friends is no longer made up purely of tidy, socially embraced Jack Rogers wearing, Coach bag sporting, SUV driving stereotypes. One is a recovering addict who is physically compromised from an illness that kills most people, and prefers jeans and plaid button-downs to capris and cardigans. Another, despite criticism, waited out her husband’s affair to save what is now one of the strongest, most admirable unions I’ve ever seen. And the friend who endured not one, but two, children’s battles with substance abuse. We are the women others whisper about — the ones who have the courage to show scars without apology. This does not come without a price of course. Gone are the invitations to book clubs, cookie swaps and wine tastings. Also gone, though, is judgment, comparison to others and the unspoken need to conform.

My daughter is now navigating the complicated ‘tween’ friendship labyrinth as she enters middle school. The complexities of her relationships are really no different than mine. Society teaches us that having popular friends is something to strive for from a very young age. Even Barbie has a bestie, Midge. One of the most successful sitcoms of all times was devoted entirely to the subject of…Friends. I learned, though, that popular doesn’t necessarily mean healthier. The friendship circles of my past included those who would be considered popular: they drove the right cars, wore the right clothes and had wealthy husbands. They sipped lattes on the sidelines at Saturday morning soccer practice, wore skinny jeans instead of yoga pants and gave fake air kisses instead touching lip to cheek. In these circles, though, publicly-perceived perfection was not only a goal but a requirement. The messiness of real life was simply too unpleasant for anyone with a hyphenated last name. Then I met the runners.

I joined the morning running group at the encouragement of a friend (who does not drink latte) which was not an easy feat for this night owl. I went religiously, however, after learning it was formed to support a woman who was experiencing unimaginable grief: the death of a child. I roused myself each morning at 5:30 with the stern reminder that if she could get out of bed in the dark to run, then I had absolutely no excuse. What happened on those runs changed my life. I found women who were honest about their life struggles and I, too, was completely honest about my unpleasant life’s circumstances: that my children’s father was more interested in destroying me financially and emotionally and protecting his bottom line than he was in being a father to his two children. That I, a Master’s educated woman, had taken to cleaning houses when I could not find a professional job. The final straw was at the gas pump on a Friday morning when my debit card was declined and I had been driving on fumes and prayers for a day and a half. My child support deposit hadn’t been made. I sat in the car and cried, feeling hopeless and helpless. So I did something I hadn’t ever done — I told these new friends, women I had known for mere weeks, the truth. Within days I had a frenzy of support around me. I had a fridge full of food, gas in my car and bills that were paid. My daughter had enough back-to-school clothes when her father refused to help, declaring “that’s what child support is for.” These women had not shunned or scolded me for “making my bed and having to lay in it” the way others had; they saw a friend in need and immediately took action to help. I had finally found women who were like me: imperfect and hurting, each in her own way, but loving, loyal and generous. They taught me to believe in myself the way they believed in me.  

The book of my friendship life has not been a romance novel. Nor has it been a tragedy. I have learned that best friends often don’t come in the prettiest packages. The true friends I have made are like me, willing to show dents, battle wounds and flaws. We might not win any contests around town for having it all together, but what we do have is authenticity.

Elizabeth Richardson Rau is a single mother of two children living in central Connecticut. She earned her B.A. In communications from Simmons College and her M.F.A. in creative and professional writing from Western Connecticut State University. She is a freelance writer and a certified domestic violence victims advocate.

Photo: Melissa Askew


When There’s Enough Love for the Three of Us

When There’s Enough Love for the Three of Us

By Jessica Rosen


I just don’t know where or how to find enough love for my husband when I give all I can muster to our son every moment of the day and night.


I come from a long line of divorce: My great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mother twice, my father twice. He married a third a time, but their relationship hasn’t been easy. His wife refused to give into divorce when they grew disgruntled and distant. She signed them up for sailing lessons on Lake Michigan, bought season tickets to the opera, stopped working into the night and accompanied him to bed. Now they have settled into a silent comfort that I long to have one day.

But these divorces haunt me.

December marked my 10th wedding anniversary. Our four-year-old son came down with strep throat—we called off the babysitter. I spent the night crammed into his single bed, ready to sooth his pains upon every whimper. My husband slept alone. Perhaps on our 11th anniversary my husband and I will spend time together. Since the birth of our son, time for each other has escaped. There is only time to move through the day, complete tasks, sleep, start again. There is no time for marriage. No time to care for each other. As this lack of care divides us, divorce seeps in like dirty water through a cracked ceiling.

Driving in the car recently, my husband pointed to a small travel-trailer in a lot as we passed. “If you ever divorce me, I’m gonna buy one of those trailers, save up all my money, and get out of here as fast as I can.” His tone was not mean or angry, but matter-of-fact. I assured him he does not need an escape plan. He refused to give it up. I guess I have a plan, too. My dad has a very large basement, my mom has an extra bedroom. Still, this announcement was hurtful.

I wish we could live our lives without a disaster plan, without any sort of doubt. But those dim days when we don’t talk and aren’t reading each other’s minds, when I have spent each minute of my day washing, cleaning, caring, tending to my son’s every need, when I have nothing left to give to my husband upon his arrival home from work, when we are both so exhausted with life, I know our instinct is to plan. No one wants to be blindsided.

Before our son, we were inundated with time for each other. We took care of each other. From the very beginning, we savored the endless company of each other.

Our meeting in graduate school was nothing out of the ordinary. The first time he invited me to his apartment, we sat on the tattered second-hand couch and held hands. We didn’t talk. We sat. We breathed. We drifted far away into the future where we would still be sitting, holding hands, listening to the silence of each other.  

After graduation, I dragged him home with me to Chicago where we landed teaching jobs at one of the many junior colleges downtown and a second floor apartment in a bad neighborhood. When I told him he had to marry me, he didn’t flinch. That was that. We both knew it was right.

We flew to Vegas a few months later. I wore a red velvet jumper. He wore a cheap western suit he bought on Chicago Avenue (not the fancy downtown part of the Avenue).The wedding party consisted of only us and the two strangers who conducted the ceremony. Neither of us wanted a crowd.  We honeymooned two nights in Vegas and then drove in our rental car through the snowy mountains to Eastern Idaho where I met his family for the first time. Sisters, an older brother, so many nieces and nephews that I stopped trying to remember names. They all hugged me. His siblings gave us cards with small amounts of cash.  We ate pancakes with whipped cream and sugared strawberries. I had nothing in common with any of these people, but their kindness engulfed me. The same kindness my husband has always bestowed upon me.

Back at home, we continued our mundane life in Chicago. Marriage made not much difference. We settled into the comfort of each other like soothing bathwater. It flooded our bodies with warmth. Like many married couples, we read each other’s minds and had no need for conversation. He’d say what he wanted for dinner. It would be exactly what I had been thinking. He’d say we should go camping for the weekend. I had been dreaming of trees.

But for the past four years, our son has drained us of love and care for each other. Because of this addition to our family, marriage is no longer easy. All of the love and endless attention we used to bestow upon each other is now given to our son. Date night seems so silly we can’t bring ourselves to pay a babysitter, nor can we afford it anyway. Instead, we put our son to bed and sit side-by-side in our lounge chairs, watching TV and making witty comments during the commercials. I head to bed early. As our son gets older and his demands more demanding, I am exhausted by the time my husband gets home from work. I have no energy to care for him, too. He losses his passion for caring for me because my love is short and elusive.

I yell at him to wash the dishes because I cannot take the responsibility anymore. I ignore him for three days because he forgets to take out the garbage. My husband begins to hate me. I can feel it. “I need to know,” he says to me one night as I lie in bed reading. He means he needs to know if I’m done with our marriage. I wish I could explain to him that, right now, I just don’t know where or how to find enough love for him when I give all I can muster to our son every moment of the day and night. But, I am not done. I will never be done.

Someday, soon, our son will want nothing to do with either of us. He’ll get dressed on his own, bathe without my help, hide in his room. My husband and I will be left alone. We’ll figure out how to love each other again and take care of each other again. There will be room for all three of us in this marriage. I long for the room to move around in, to feel loved in, to give love the way we all need. One day, we might have to take sailing lessons together or buy season tickets to something. And I will. I will know that we can survive the moments of non-love. The moments we are too tired to give. I will know that the love is there somewhere and if I try, we will find it together.

Jessica Rosen is a Chicago native who now lives in the middle of nowhere on the Oregon Coast. Between grading papers, preparing snacks, playing superheroes, and washing dishes, she scribble in notebooks she has stashed around the house.  

Photo: Melissa Askew | Unsplash

Mourning Alone

Mourning Alone

By Marcelle Soviero


“I don’t want to watch Grammy die,” my son said as he got out of the car, dirt-dusted from his afternoon baseball game.

“I know you don’t buddy.” I took his hand and we walked into the house. “But Grammy had a good life. Ninety-two years is a long life.” My ex-husband Larry’s mother was now in hospice care in Chicago, halfway across the country, and Larry wanted the children to be able to have their last good-byes.

I gathered my three children, Johnny, Olivia and Sophia, ages 9, 10 and 11, into the living room; I got a good look at the three of them seated in a row on the couch, each face punctuated with worry. Tear dots on Olivia’s cheeks.

My ex-husband Larry would be here in an hour to go to the airport. Though I had been divorced eight years, I had long adored my mother-in-law, and I was sad of course, but perhaps even more anxious than sad. I was unraveling knowing I would not be a part of what would be my children’s first attendance at a funeral. But this isn’t about me, I thought. Then again, somehow it was. This would be a major event in my children’s life, their first experience with a death, besides our family pet, and I would not be there.

I had asked Larry if I should go, but I knew I would not, our divorce had been court-worthy contentious, and we still spoke only if we had to. No, we would not fly as if a family to Chicago, instead the children would have their father—a no doubt distracted father—to care and console them. Who would really watch the children on the plane?

But it was more than this. Larry did not believe in a heaven of any sort; our misshapen souls do not rise. I knew matter-of-fact answers would be the only consolation offered from father to child—the details of the aorta, collapsed ventricles and how blood circulates through the body. I knew this because just after Larry and I married, my father had died young of heart failure. Mourning his death was made harder by the fact that Larry would not support speculation on an afterlife, while heaven was the only concept that was helping me through it. After a few weeks, Larry had told a tortured me that I needed to move on. I knew then that the marriage would end, not then, but soon.

“It will be hard to say goodbye to Grammy,” I said to the kids now believing each sentence I spoke would invite more questions in their minds. Perhaps I was hoping for that. Evoking questions and memories so they could mourn with me in advance. I knew Larry would get through it, his coping mechanism would be to intellectualize the death.

“She’ll die and we will never see her again?” Johnny said.

“That’s right, but she had a good long life.”

“Will Daddy be busy being sad?” Olivia asked.

“Yes,” I said, “But he will be OK I promise.”

Johnny twirled the fringe on the couch pillow. I sifted my words, deliberately dumbing them down in an effort to explain the unexplainable.

“I believe in heaven,” I said. “Your father may think differently and that is OK. You can believe what you want to believe.” I went on and on, this would be my only chance to ever tell my side of the heaven story. “Every time you think of Grammy she will be alive again in your memory.”

The concept of heaven wasn’t an entirely new idea for my children, we’d lost our dog years back, which had required some explanation on my part. I was able to persuade Larry then that the children did not have to hear the clinical aspects of how our dog died.  

“Grammy will be watching you from another place, she will see you grow. She will watch over you, you’ll talk with her in your mind, not face to face.”

“I love Grammy,” Johnny said.

“Me too buddy,” I said. Then I surprised myself by taking out every cliché I had in my purse—This is for the best, Grammy will be at peace soon—until I was clichéd out.

Larry came to get the kids at 6:00. Again came the clichés, I was so sorry she was nearing the end. How could I help? Polite conversation, then me escorting the children gently to the car, remembering every other time I piled them into the car to see Larry on his weekends.

The Jeep etched out of the driveway, and I went back inside. I cried anticipating the sadness my children would carry witnessing their grandmother’s death. I cried finally too for my mother-in-law. She was a charming character with good intentions, our only contentious moments being my decision not to breastfeed any of her grandchildren, and my decision to divorce her son. “You’re the best thing that ever happened to him,” she once said, my first and only Jewish mother.

An hour later Sophia texted me. They were at the airport—Grammy died. They had not yet boarded the plane. Neither they or Larry would have a chance for that one last visit.

I clenched my hands, which had already begun to sweat, the kids would not get to say goodbye to Grammy after all. I selfishly consoled myself with thoughts that their grief would be closer to home, closer to me now. Grammy was from New York, the services would be here so they would not board a flight and mourn across the country.

The next day Larry texted the particulars. The services would be on Wednesday.  

Nine-year-old Johnny got on the phone next with questions.

“Yes honey, the funeral will be in two days, on Wednesday,” I said.

“Did Grammy go to heaven already or will she go on Wednesday?” he asked.


Marcelle Soviero is the Editor-in-Chief of Brain, Child Magazine. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo: Gary Rockett /

Co-Parenting at the Holidays: It’s the Most Wonderful, and Complicated, Time of the Year

Co-Parenting at the Holidays: It’s the Most Wonderful, and Complicated, Time of the Year

latestBy Shannan Younger

I stayed in an irretrievably broken marriage longer than I should have in part because I hated the idea of sharing my amazing daughter, and the idea of spending the holidays without her terrified me. The thought of not seeing her face light up with wonder on Christmas morning seemed like too much, until, of course, everything else felt like too much.

That moment came when my four-year-old said something silly that gave me the giggles. She ran to the phone and called my parents. “I just made my mommy laugh, and that never happens!” she proudly announced.

It was then that I realized just how much I was failing at my job of modeling how to be a happy adult woman for my daughter. I was finally able to do the emotional math and see that my sadness at sharing her was no longer greater than the sadness of raising such a bright light of a little girl in an unhappy home with unhappy parents.  She deserves a mother who laughs, at least on occasion, and I needed to make the necessary changes to allow us both to be happy.

The fact that this epiphany happened in the middle of an intense summer heat wave probably helped make a holiday without my sweet girl seem distant, and bearable. But as the temperatures dropped and winter approached, my dread of spending holidays without her grew. I had no idea how to be without her.

This struck me as odd, given that when I first found out I was pregnant at the age of 25, the idea of being a mother with a child was foreign to me. The life-changing news came as a complete shock on a frigid December day and for the next few weeks it felt like I couldn’t walk two city blocks without encountering a nativity scene. Instead of feeling comfort and joy at the coming holiday, I felt panicked, unprepared, and inadequate. I had no idea how to be a mother, let alone be like the Virgin Mary, who always appeared so peaceful and serene. I was neither.

Five years later, I was full of angst and uncertainty again, but this time at the thought of not mothering my child. Yes, I would of course still be my child’s mother, but not in the way I had been the prior holidays. When a child is absent, the act of mothering is different, and in fact unnecessary. Someone else would give my child gifts, fix her food, tuck the covers around her body that was exhausted by a full day of celebrating, all without me. I loved all of those tasks, and most of all I loved making sure she knew I loved her.

So, I did all that before saying goodbye to her. And I still do, years later. She’s very tolerant of some extra hugs prior to her departure with her dad now that she’s a teenager. That first holiday season was difficult, but we made it through, and I’ve even gotten a bit better at it. Some years I am more successful than others. As soon as I think I have figured out this coparenting thing, the situation changes. Each year is different, and has its own curveballs. Perhaps the most memorable one came a few years into co-parenting when the phone rang one Christmas night.

“Is Santa real?” my then seven year-old daughter demanded to know in her most no nonsense voice.

“Uh . . .  Why do you ask?”” I pulled out my go-to, not-so-stellar yet sometimes revealing maternal response.

“Because Mr. West at dinner said that his granddaughter still believed in Santa and he thought that was really silly,” she said. The Wests were family friends of my former in-laws who had apparently joined them for Christmas dinner. She continued, “When he said that, everyone paused and then very slowly turned and they all looked at me. I think they were all staring at me because I still believe.”

“Did Dad tell you to call me?” I asked, stalling for time and wondering what the party line was here in a situation happening an hour away from my current location.

“Nope. Nobody knows I’m in here calling you,” she said.

“Great,” I thought to myself.

“What do you believe? I need to know,” she asked in a voice laced with desperation.

I indicated to my soon-to-be fiancée and his parents were waiting for me to rejoin them that I was going to need a few moments. I proceeded to have a heart to heart with my daughter about how not everyone believes the same thing, which is okay. I told her that I believe in love and giving and magic, all things for which Santa stands, and so yes, I believe in Santa and while it’s true that he gets some help from parents around the world, I see evidence of his existence every single year, sometimes when I least expect it. I left it up to her and said that what matters most is what she believes deep down in her heart.

Ideally, we would have had this conversation when I had the ability to look into her deep blue eyes and wrap my arms around her, but that was the circumstance. My heart broke that I could not do so, but we got through it. And sometimes co-parenting is about getting through it as best you can.

Author’s Note: I’m very grateful that talks about the challenges of co-parenting during the holiday season. Millions of Moms and Dads will be sharing their children this holiday season; knowing we are not alone and hearing how others navigate the waters is helpful and comforting. I love the tips on co-parenting through the holidays in this video, and most of all, I appreciate how VProud has initiated the conversation about this important parenting challenge.

Shannan Younger is a recovering attorney living in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and teen daughter. She blogs at Mom Factually, ChicagoNow’s Between Us Parents and as part of the Chicago Parent Blogger Network. Her writing has appeared on the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, Mamalode, Scary Mommy, Club Mid, BonBon Break, and In the Powder Room, and her essays have been included in two anthologies by The HerStories Project. She is also freelance writer for regional magazines. Shannan was in the 2013 cast of Listen to Your Mother, despite the fact that her daughter often fails to do so. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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Miles to Go

Miles to Go

Version 3By Priscilla Whitley

It was a late July morning as we drove up Route 22 on our way to Great Barrington Massachusetts. In the front seat next to me my sixteen-year-old daughter, her shoulders slumped as usual, was characteristically silent. The summer sun made the black car hot and I reached over to turn up the air conditioning. We’d made this trip many times each year, in every season, though this time it was different.

“Too cold for you now? Let me know, we just may have to keep turning it up and down until we get there. Want to be in charge of that?” I knew my chatting wouldn’t make a difference but I had to try.

“I’m fine.” She turned slightly toward the window, her long blond hair falling softly down her back. It was all I could do not to reach over to give her a gentle stroke. But my touch seemed to be unwanted these days.

For me the trip to visit this college seemed a waste of time. She hadn’t entered her senior year and her interest in school had vanished. I’d already made up my mind she wasn’t going here, but these days I grabbed any opportunity to be in proximity to her. And so I agreed to make the trip.

It was only the two of us at home, she being my long awaited one and only. Her father and I had separated three years previously. I thought we could settle into a new routine, even envisioning the coming years would make us a true team. Though with her father rarely coming around she didn’t trust him and it was easier to blame me for his leaving. School wasn’t a place she wanted to be for it didn’t hold the answers as to why her life had gone through such painful changes, and only a few friends understood the losses which came quickly these past three years.

We continued our drive in silence. Up by Thunder Ridge where she first learned how to ski, zipping down the hill in an exaggerated snowplow, her little arms outstretched, “Look at me, look at me.” Through Pawling where the boarded up dirty red brick buildings used to house a school for delinquent youths. As a little girl she’d stare at the overgrown grounds, her pretty hazel eyes serious, “Mommy, I promise I’ll never do anything bad to be sent to a place like that.” Then past the intersection where we pulled off on another hot summer day while she threw up on the side of the road and I stroked her back as she cried. After that we’d always point and laugh as we drove by. Now nothing.

The Berkshires, Great Barrington, Stockbridge, Lenox were special to us.  When we were all together we spent one glorious summer at a small cottage on Stockbridge Bowl. A place of my own childhood. I’d take her out in the rowboat to the island, filling her imagination with stories of pirate treasure, her little hands splashing in the wake. As she became more confident of herself in the water we’d swim to the dock where I taught her how to dive, chin tightly to her neck, arms pointed neatly down.

On the lush lawns of Tanglewood Music Center she perfected her cartwheels eventually falling asleep on my chest as the music played on into the night. Everywhere I went she also wanted to be. To the library for books, lemonade on the porch of The Red Lion Inn and lazy afternoons together in the hammock.

Like most mothers I’d read the countless articles on the volatile teenage years and heard the endless discussions of the vanishing self-worth of girls, though I still hadn’t expected it would be this way now. I tried hard to look back to when I was a teen, but those seemingly long, confusing years were so wrapped up in all about me I couldn’t find any perspective. My sweet little girl, the one who used to twirl around the house, sit on my knee, take my hand, now sat gazing silently out the window.

“Horses, look horses!” I said, breaking the silence and slowing the car. Our silly joke since she was little, shouting it out as if we’d never seen one before. After making the turn through Millerton we’d see them in the rolling pastures, their graceful necks reaching down for some grass. Horses were a love we always shared. I think I saw her eyes move slightly to take them in, then withdraw again.

Two summers ago after a night of thunderstorms a fire destroyed the barn where she’d ridden since she was seven. All 31 horses were lost. The pony she’d begun her lessons on, the stunning dark chestnut who’d taken her over her first jump and the horse her father had recently bought her after he and I divorced.

Donner, with his white blaze and dark eyes followed her every move, giving the unconditional love she must have felt she lost with the breakup of our home. At fourteen the barn was her anchor, her community, the one place she felt safe and truly loved. By morning nothing was left but memories and a sad little girl who now had no footing in a swiftly lost childhood. The fire had taken these beautiful animals and her innocence along with it. And neither one of us knew where to begin again. It was as if I stood on one small deserted island desperately trying to keep her in sight as she, on another in the distance, sat weeping by herself in the sand.

I’d thought I could protect my child. As I put on the fake merry smile, not having any idea really how to make this better, she through those past years slipped into the quiet of her own thoughts. I wasn’t allowed in.

We made the turn at Lakeville gliding down the hill into Salisbury where in the past we’d always stop at the White Hart Inn.

“Thirsty, thirsty, thirsty.” Her little girl voice would say it over and over again knowing how it made me laugh. Back then we’d sit on the high stools at the dark wooden bar while she sipped a ginger ale topped with a bright red maraschino cherry, her little legs swaying back and forth.

To my surprise the Inn was shuttered.

“Oh, no, what a shame, our favorite place. Shall we stop at the deli? Thirsty, thirsty?” Another silly phrase we never seemed able to give up.

“No thank you.” Her back still to me. “I just want to get there.” So we started up Under Mountain Road towards South Egermont.

Cleaning up her room one morning the previous year I’d come across some books she’d tucked under her pillow. Books about loss. At first this worried me thinking it would only reinforce her own losses. Quietly though within her own time she had been processing, like we all must do, how to integrate her past with her future. Now last week, as she headed towards her senior year in high school, she wandered out on our deck one evening and unexpectedly said she had something she wanted to discuss.

She looked so tall standing over my lounge chair, startling me as I stared out to our lake, the water smooth, the swans gliding in the dusk. “I made a call,” she said quietly. “And made an appointment for an interview at Simon’s Rock. It’s next week. Please, please don’t be mad, I want to go and see it.”

Bard College at Simon’s Rocks in Great Barrington is a college for those who haven’t finished high school. A neighbor’s child attended though at this point I knew nothing more.

“No,” I got up and started for the house surprised with the harshness of my voice. “You’re not going there.”

“Please go with me and see.” She reached out softly for my arm and I turned to see she wasn’t a little child anymore begging for what she wanted.

“I have to think about it.” The idea scared me and her courage stunned me. How could I say no when for the first time in so long she wanted to try? I pulled her close not able to say anything. Or did I not want her to see me cry?

We turned onto Route 7 into Great Barrington passing Searles Castle then up the steep Alford Road coming out of the thick forest to a view of a plush valley below. For the first time in our two hour trip she looked over to me. “Here it is.”

We’d arrived at this small college campus, an inviting New England red barn on our left, then a turn onto a meandering drive over a small creek. Up the hill we found the Tudor style administrative office. I parked and without me asking she combed her hair, smoothed her dress and together we went in. I walked behind her amazed at how my child, so filled with sadness, now confidently put out her hand to introduce herself.

This small liberal arts college accepts students who have finished the 10th or 11th grade.  A place for those who are ready for college now. But she wasn’t ready. At home she stubbornly turned away from school and could barely get herself to class. I could only see this as an escape from me, her father and her memories?

I waited for an hour, maybe more, wandering outside then back again only to go out into the bright sunlight once more. This was her idea, not mine, and I wasn’t about to let her leave home yet. Now I wished we had never come here today. Finally the door opened and she reappeared with a bright smile I’d almost forgotten was possible.

“Mommy, let’s walk around…please.”

Together we toured the campus, saw the dorms, the classrooms and went into the library.

“This is where everyone ends up, our idea of a student union,” our guide pointed out.  Though there were the stacks of books, there were also sofas, cozy floor pillows and long windows allowing in the bright sunlight. For a moment I could see her here among the books, eager for exciting new experiences again like the girl she used to be. But, oh, was she ready?

We drove back into Great Barrington settling ourselves in a tapestry laden tea room. I still couldn’t imagine any words she could say which would allow me to let her leave high school, to leave our home and take on this challenge. What would I do without her? I didn’t think she’d noticed, but these past few years had also shrouded me in my own fears, sadness and self-doubt.

She took a sip of tea then placed her graceful hands on the table. How long had it been since she’d looked directly at me like this?

“This is my chance,” she said, her voice even and in control. “I know it is. Here I can start over again. I can’t go back to that high school. Then it’s all the same. Every day a reminder of what was. I don’t know how to make it better back there. But here I get to begin all over again. Here is a place where someone will ask me what I think. Please try and trust me. I want to be happy again… and I want you to be happy again too.”

We finished our tea and started back down that familiar drive home, the summer sun dipping gently behind the mountains. Unlike our drive up, unlike these past few years, we now spoke. She didn’t beg or try to convince me, but calmly explained her reasons. And I thought back to another July evening many years earlier. On the day my mother had suddenly passed away, my father had taken me outside on that warm, balmy night. He’d put his strong arms around me. “Everything is going to be all right,” he assured me, “It will be different, but it will be all right.”

By the time we arrived home I’d reflected on my own life and how I learned through experience there are many positives in our world and one, two or even three or more negatives can’t change that. There are so many things we can’t control. But what we can control is what matters. I decide if I win and my daughter decides if she wins. And I decided right there, as I pulled into our driveway, I needed to take that leap into the unknown or no one wins.

August ended and we made the same drive back up to her new school. For the past six weeks it had been like watching a delicate shell splinter and crack beginning to reveal the young woman I would eventually get to know. I had listened to her and decided I needed to let her go. We’d lost our way for a while, but never the love. Now we hugged tightly as she whispered, “Thank you for giving me this.”  And then we were waving goodbye, the sunlight catching her hair as she stood on the top of the same hill where one summer day a choice was made that offered each of us a new start.

Author’s Note: One of the most wonderful surprises I discovered after having a child was how I immediately gave up the all about me. Such a relief to bid that farewell. My life would have been so narrow without my daughter. She’s taught me, inspired me, and introduced me to ideas I would never have encountered, all done with her courage, her determination and now her commitment to those less fortunate. My father was correct, no matter the unexpected changes which occur we do eventually work them out. Different really is all right.

Priscilla is a freelance writer focusing on personal essays. She’s recently been published on Scary Mommy, in Chicken Soup for the Soul and within The Weston Magazine Group. She is also a feature writer for The Record Review in Bedford, NY. Priscilla is the facilitator of The Candlewood Writers Workshop in Fairfield County, CT.

Fiction: Quarry

Fiction: Quarry

EmptyNestBy Molia Dumbleton

It took her a second to recognize him, coming at her with a glass of champagne, but just as she was about to open her mouth, he said “I thought that might be you.”

Kenny must have been all of eighteen the last time she’d seen him, and sweeping Judith off somewhere, the way he had almost every day that last summer, before he and Judith and all of their friends had packed up and left for school. She had loved that summer. It was the last time things felt right. She looked at him now, in a suit, almost thirty, and said “Kenny, my god, honey, look at you.”

She thought he might hug her, or offer a lingering handshake—but he waved instead with his glass, so she waved back, and then they stood there in the bright light of the outer gallery, searching for details they once knew, buried in these new, older faces. Eventually he laughed, and she crossed her arms, and they turned to look out over the cocktail hour at Judith’s rehearsal dinner.

“I was sorry to hear about your mom,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Sorry about Mister Janney, too.”

“Yeah? Well. Thanks.”

Allen had died a few years ago, after the divorce and more than a few years of not speaking, so she still felt guilty when people expressed their condolences as if she were a proper widow. Still, the one consolation of being back in town was that at least people here had known them then—so no matter how things ended or how they felt about it, here, at least, they would be forced to look at her and face what had been lost.

She smiled and tried to will a tray of champagne to pass. “I guess you and Judith have both had a hard couple of years,” she said.

A swell of jazz pushed out from behind the door to the main gallery. Kenny tossed his head in that direction. “Art history, this guy.” He bottomed his champagne and set the glass precariously on a windowsill. “What a prick.”

She hadn’t made it to the main room yet, hadn’t yet faced Judith. She hadn’t even gotten a drink. It was only minutes ago that the airport shuttle driver had flicked a hand toward the building and said “Modern. Can’t miss it,” and been right. The perfect, glowing gallery had appeared around the corner: tidy and geometric, with nothing left to chance.

It wasn’t hard to guess what the wedding would be like, nor the boy. He would look the way he was supposed to look and say the things he was supposed to say, and later tonight, he would tell Judith the things she would need to hear about how hard it must have been having a mother like that, and how brave it had been to invite her after all these years, and of course, sweetheart, of course, princess, how much better it would have been if her precious father could have been here instead.

The gallery was just so. The music was just so. And the boy would be just so, of course—and she would love him, as she loved Judith from the instant she’d conceived of her. But looking around, she also knew. No matter how the weekend went, she would never again be allowed to know Judith the way she once had, or share her secrets, or watch movies with this young man under a blanket at their perfect house, or be invited to breakfast on Thanksgiving.

“Smoke?” Kenny used two fingers to reveal a pack of cigarettes in his jacket’s handkerchief pocket.

That last summer, sweet, lovesick Kenny had come by almost every day, just to sit on the couch with Judith arm-to-arm in the heat, with thick course catalogs or lists of dorm room supplies. He’d come almost every night, too—to fetch Judith out to a party, or down to the quarry, where the kids did god-knows-what, except everybody in town knew what. Had known for generations.

And then they’d gone. All of them at once, leaving their tidy rooms and beds empty behind them.

And how could a mother not miss the nights of worry when the kids snuck out, with their tangled hair and their beautiful skin, reeking of youth, as the short hours of their perfection ticked away?

And how could she not be surprised to find herself tiptoeing into those rooms to smell the t-shirts of the children she had lost, and the prom dresses and baseball mitts left behind in their closets.

In truth, it was only Allen who had turned away, and only he who turned the children.

Couldn’t they see: it was only heartbreak that could cause a mother, of all people, to start going down to the quarry. Only love.

But by the time Allen asked her to leave, the quarry had gone cold anyway, and the buzz in those old rooms had gone flat. And by the time the children finished and came home from college, nothing smelled right anymore, not even them.

She hesitated, eyeing the door to the reception, and Kenny’s sweet fingers in his pocket.


Molia Dumbleton’s fiction and poetry have appeared in New England Review, The Kenyon Review Online, Witness, Hobart, Monkeybicycle, and others. Her story, “The Way They Carried Themselves,” was awarded First Prize in the Seán Ó Faoláin International Short Story Competition and nominated for a Pushcart. Her story, “If She Were to Lay Down,” was featured in Huffington Post’s “Read 15 Amazing Works of Fiction in Less Than 30 Minutes.” Her website is

Should A Parent Who Shares Joint Custody Be Allowed to Move Out of the Area?

Should A Parent Who Shares Joint Custody Be Allowed to Move Out of the Area?


By Stewart Crank Jr.

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 5.48.59 PMYears ago, my children lived with me half the time, and I shared in the responsibilities and celebrations of their life. We ate breakfast together; I took them to school; I celebrated their birthdays (on their birthdays) with them, woke up every Christmas with them, packed their lunch, and knew their friends. Although my ex-wife and I were finished, I remained firmly planted in their everyday lives.

Then, for reasons of her own, my ex-wife moved with our children seventy-five miles away, to another state. My lawyer told me that there was nothing I could do.

That was six-and-a-half years ago. Now I see my kids about once a month over a weekend and have gone as long as two months without seeing them at all. I know their friends by name and some by face, but only from pictures. I have spent as much as two-and-a-half hours (with traffic around Washington D.C., the metropolis planted between the kids and me) driving one way to see a play. I’ve watched the play, seen my children for five minutes, and then turned around to come home. Attending their events like this is difficult at best, and between work and the drive, sometimes impossible. Stopping by and grabbing them for dinner has become a four- or five-hour event versus a two-hour event. None of their friends has ever stayed the night at my house. This unfortunate situation is only bearable because the kids and I are very close despite our lack of time together.

As parents, our children should be our first priority in life. And study after study—published everywhere from the Journal of Family Psychology to Psychology and Health—has shown that the best possible situation for children and parents of divorce is to retain as much of the support and access that was in place prior to the separation of the family unit. It should be the exception, if not illegal, to take the children more than a reasonable distance from a willing and able parent. Ideally, parents would live right around the corner from each other, a bike ride away for the child.

When one parent moves away from the children or one parent moves away with the children, it creates an environment that is painful and challenging for both the children and that parent who suddenly spends less time with them. For any child, it is bad enough that the parents’ inability to maintain their commitments as husband and wife has left that child with two homes instead of one—placing a great distance between these two homes adds insult to injury.

With the advent of e-mail, social networks, and text messaging, many people may feel that the connection to our children can be maintained at any distance—and believe me, it does help keep us in touch. Yet nothing beats a parent and child’s walking down the street, hand in hand, or the ability to share in the day-to-day activities of doctor visits, school pickups, helping with homework, eating meals together, or simply being in their presence.

Children who have a distant or absent biological parent are statistically more likely to develop social problems like violence, drug abuse, and unhealthy sexual relationships. No parent out there feels this would be in the best interest of his or her child. And still, every day, divorced or estranged parents make the decision to place distance between a child and a parent.

It’s a selfish act—whether you are the parent moving the child away from the parent or the parent moving away from the child. The children are the ones who suffer the most. They have no control over the situation. They don’t have the coping skills that grown-ups do. The parents may claim good reasons for the move—and there are good reasons. People find better job opportunities; they move closer to family; they remarry. But I’d argue that it’s rare to find a reason good enough to trump a child’s need for his or her other parent.

My own father and mother may disagree with this statement because a big move is exactly what happened in our lives. I still have the letter my father gave me at Dulles Airport when I was ten years old, on my way to live in California. His letter confirmed his unconditional love for me, despite our impending distance from one another. It still makes me cry when I read it, twenty-eight years later. My mother, stepfather, sisters, and I moved from California to London, and my father to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. It wasn’t a bad life at all—winters in London, summers at the beach—but not a day went by that I didn’t yearn for a more consistent relationship with my father. I often wonder how different my life and my choices would be had he not lived so far from us and had we spent more time together. I compare my own life with those of my half brother and sister, who were raised full time with him, and see a stark contrast in our lifestyles and our viewpoints. It makes me wonder if I would have found a calmer path in my own life had he been more present.

In recent years, even the courts have started recognizing that equal access is best for the children. In Florida, for instance, the court is legally obligated to order that parental responsibility for a minor child be shared by both parents, unless it is detrimental to the child. In Alabama, the law states that both parents have an equal right to the custody of their children. As our society evolves, we should see more courts shifting toward default laws that support joint custody. Terms like “equal access,” “shared parenting,” and “proximity” are repeated through the thousands of words I have read on this very subject. Laws affecting shared parenting rights are being scrutinized throughout the country.

Regardless of the law, we should all try to keep our children close to both parents. We should do this because we love our children deeply and want to give them the best odds of flourishing. Is there a purer motive than that?

Stewart Crank Jr. is a father and editor who lives in Virginia.



By Sarah Clayton
Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 5.49.13 PMI handed my nine-year-old son’s violin over to his stepmother and, in that moment, felt my own heart slip out of tune.

“This is not a toy,” I said, knowing this sounded harsh, but I was too bereft to explain myself in any other way. I was delivering my two young sons, ages nine and eleven, to their father’s home in suburban Connecticut, five hundred miles from my own rural home in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. They would be there for the next three years, and I would be the visiting parent, as their father had been for the first four years of our divorce.

In that short yet interminable moment of delivery and departure, I began to understand what the majority of fathers go through in divorces; in saying good-bye, they know they will see their children only in fragments of time, shards of days and hours. I had had the luxury of uninterrupted time with my sons since they were in utero. Now it was my turn to live with them in fragments.

And it was the right thing to do. After all, they are as much his children as mine, a fact often forgotten in divorce situations. Plus, my ex-husband was remarried, an event essential to my agreeing to let the boys go; I needed to know that someone would be there when they got home from school. The boys were also approaching puberty, and, unless a father is abusive or disinterested, boys need to cross that great bar into manhood in his presence. And all children of divorce, whether boys or girls, need to know their fathers as real people—complete with weaknesses and strengths and idiosyncrasies—and not just the Good Time Charlies children usually see during the short, weekend visit.

It wasn’t that I’d stopped loving the boys’ father when we separated; I simply couldn’t live with him anymore. We wanted different lives and couldn’t seem to find a compromise. But just because their father and I had different views on what we wanted didn’t mean the boys couldn’t enjoy both of us and both our worlds. It didn’t mean those worlds had to be around the block from each other, though.

Sometimes a parent’s needs trump a child’s when it comes to living arrangements. To be a successful mother at that time, I needed to regain my once imperturbable core of happiness. That meant getting as far away from my ex-husband as possible. To his credit, he was gracious enough to let me take the boys to England, the land of my mother.

The boys thrived there. By the time we left, three months later, my withdrawn older son, six-year-old Nicholas, sang a solo in the local school play. My younger son, Chris, renowned at four years old for his whiny nature, found his peace and became a delightful companion as we explored the fields and villages of Dorset. We all needed that break from the other world. And here on the banks of Chesil Beach, the boys got their mother back.

We moved back to Virginia, the land of my youth, when I learned that my father’s cancer was terminal. The boys’ father would come for a visit, and I’d fill my house with the food and wine he liked, then move out so he could have the boys to himself. It caused the least disruption in the boys’ routine and made it less stressful for him.

Then he got married, and it was time for them to leave me. I was eviscerated. They were thrilled. They loved their little stepbrother, and the minute we reached their father’s house, the three boys were off, overflowing with the joy of beginning life together. Heart unstrung, I was awash with worry: Would their father read them to sleep as I did? Would he keep Chris’s violin playing going, Nicholas’s running?

During those three years with their father, I saw the boys whenever possible. We’d head off to ski or to the beach, and once we slipped over the border into Canada to celebrate Nicholas’s thirteenth birthday. We had a ball, and I became Good Time Charlie. This was fun.

But it wasn’t necessarily easy. I went up for Chris’s first violin concert when he was nine. “Chris is an excellent violinist,” his conductor/teacher said. “But he would be even better if he remembered to bring his violin to school.”

I despaired. Why didn’t his father remind this uprooted child to take his violin to school? And why wasn’t Nicholas running? But I couldn’t deny it; the boys were thriving. I realized it didn’t matter that things weren’t done as I would have done them. They were happy to see me and happy to be with their father. In one great exhalation, I let go of my worries. Mothers, it seems to me, tend to think only they can raise the children. But fathers have every right to share their vision and talents, too.

When the boys came back to me three years later, they once again took to the mountains, swam the rivers, and reveled in the freedom of country life.

When their father called, they slipped back into their Connecticut world. They’d come to know their father as a three-dimensional person, just as they knew me, with all our faults and strengths. They had been immersed in and enriched by both worlds and both parents in a way they might not, had we lived closer.

Many people criticized me for taking the boys so far away from their father; many were in awe that I’d let them go live with him for that great length of time. But it seemed the right thing to do, and I’ve had to conclude, watching the boys turn into fine young men, now twenty-seven and twenty-five, that it is okay for parents to move away from each other after a divorce as long as they honor the other’s role as viable parent.

I’ve also realized that after divorce—after ripping apart the fabric of the family—it’s important for parents to first regain themselves. As they say in the airplane safety instructions: “Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.” Sometimes, it takes moving away to give both of you, ex-husband and ex-wife, time to put on your own oxygen masks and begin to breathe freely once more.

And, in the end, it was the boys, in growing up, who moved away from both of us.

Sarah Clayton, the mother of three sons, lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia where she writes travel pieces and essays for The New York Times, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and National Public Radio, among others. She also writes romance books.

Brain, Child (Fall 2010)

The Judgment That Wasn’t

The Judgment That Wasn’t

toddler Abbie

We make choices about thousands of things for our children, and none is as important as seeing them, knowing them, and loving them.


I cringe a little when I’m with a group of moms and the hot baby topics come up. You know the ones: breast or bottle; home or hospital; disposable or cloth. The decisions that, when we are parenting brand new people, are so vital and consuming. We fret over them. We go to playgroups where all the moms do the same things we do, and discuss them, and defend them, and it all feels so important.

Now, from the distance and experience of many years as a mom, I know these conversations by heart, and I know the defensiveness that comes if I reveal that I had my youngest child at home, or that I breastfed and used cloth diapers for all three of my babies. Immediately, the explanations begin to pour out as moms defend their need for a C-section or an epidural. They explain their inability to breastfeed and I want to shrink into a corner because I hate that our culture has done this to us. I hate that we feel we must defend ourselves so much that we engage in these wars.

My home birth is not a judgment of anyone else’s birthing choices. In fact, I wouldn’t describe myself as a home birth advocate at all. I am an advocate for every pregnant woman and her family having access to the best possible medical care and the birthing environment that is safest and most comfortable for her and her baby. I’m not an advocate for breastfeeding as much as I’m in favor of babies being fed. I want all the babies to have their milk delivered to them while they are snug in the arms of someone who knows they are feeding a miracle. As to the diapers, I didn’t choose cloth for any noble reason. I was too poor when my first two children were born to buy disposable diapers, and by the time my youngest was born I was used to it.

We have become a culture that questions every decision a parent makes, from where they are born to whether or not they should be allowed to walk to the park to how involved parents are when their children are at college. We judge each other and we judge celebrity parents and when something goes wrong, we immediately look to the parents to find a place to lay blame. Likewise, when a child gets accepted to a great university or lands a dream job, we congratulate the parents, assuming they must have done well to produce such a successful person.

The problem with all of this is our children are not products and we are not half as powerful as we believe ourselves to be. I wish the whole world could take a collective deep breath about kids, take two steps back, and re-evaluate everything.

Parenting matters. Good parenting is vital to a child’s healthy development. They need to be safe and loved. Every child needs at least one person who thinks he or she is absolutely the best person who has ever happened in the history of people. Babies need full tummies and dry bottoms, and toddlers need someone to patiently teach them to use a toilet. Preschoolers need someone to read them stories and let them help in the kitchen even though they make a mess. Grade schoolers need reassurance that even though they are beginning to move into the world, away from their families, they will return home to the same loving arms that embraced them when they were small and helpless. Teens need to learn so many things, I’m amazed most of them manage to fit it all into the few years they have, and they need parents who will still receive them with those loving arms when the world is overwhelming. Small children need a great deal of care, and older children need a great deal of guidance, and while it’s a big responsibility, there is no single decision that will make or break a child.

When my second child, my daughter Abbie, was three months old, I became very depressed and needed to take anti-depressants. It was 1996 and my psychiatrist and Abbie’s pediatrician insisted I must wean her before I took the medicine. I was devastated at the thought of giving her formula, but I was very sick and I knew my children needed me to be well and happy, so bought some bottles and formula and weaned my daughter.

I made a good decision based on the best information available at the time, but I was terribly ashamed. I was embarrassed to give my baby a bottle in public, as if the way I fed her said something about my character. Of course, in our culture of hyper-awareness and judgment, we assume that how we feed our babies does speak to our character. I beat myself up for years for weaning Abbie so young, even as the girl herself stood before me, shining and healthy.

As my children grew, life got very complicated. I divorced their dad, then remarried and my kids gained a new stepdad and stepbrother. I had their youngest brother who has multiple disabilities, and finally my eldest two children’s dad alienated them from me and robbed us of five years together. By then it was almost too late, but I finally understood that the only thing that truly matters is the relationship. We make choices about thousands of things for our children, and none is as important as seeing them, knowing them, and loving them. Good education is important, and feeding our kids well protects their health, but what they need most is loving parents who are interested in them, curious about them, and willing to be their safety and warmth in an unpredictable world.

I took too long, was too focused for years on doing parenting the “right” way, and beating myself up because I could never meet the false standards I created for myself. I am fortunate to share my life with my children and I wish I’d known sooner that I could set aside the weight of responsibility sometimes and simply be with and know them. I’m glad to know it now.



Jacob & Abbie winter 1998

My ex-husband didn’t protect our children from a bad parent; he denied them the comfort and security of strong bonds with both parents.


I lived underwater for five years (though it could have been 4, or maybe 6) when my two eldest children were with their dad, and not just with their dad but refusing almost all contact with me. The first of those years were hopelessly blurred by my youngest son’s burgeoning mental illness; the last years were muddled by grief, punctuated with occasional episodes of ugly, helpless rage.

I felt, almost always, as if I would die of their absence, that I would never learn to breathe in the vacuum that was the space they’d once occupied in my life. I thrashed and struggled against it, but a vacuum offers no resistance so I fell and fell, alone, tumbling in misery and barely resisting the chasm of bitterness.

People told me (repeatedly, unceasingly) that they would be back, that my children would recognize what their dad had done and come back to me, and when they did all would be as if they had never been stolen.

Those people were wrong, of course, though I don’t blame them for trying to give me hope. They wanted to ease my grief with expectations that my family could be put back together as if it had never been torn. I knew better, but I couldn’t tell those people that lest they redouble their efforts.

My friends’ endless entreaties to think positive and keep the hope alive served to keep me isolated with my pain. When life goes really, really wrong—when it diverges dramatically from even the most equivocal of expectations—the disorientation is powerful. Gravity works sideways and the sky turns yellow. Eating made me hungry and sleeping made me tired. Worse, sometimes I was OK, even a little happy, and then I would arrive back in myself with a spine-crumbling thump because what kind of mother, what horrid, heartless person would dare feel any happiness when her children had rejected her so violently? My truncated motherhood felt impossible, unnatural. Wrong.

My expectation was that I would raise my children from childhood, through adolescence, and all the way until they were grown. I expected that I would always love them and they would always love me, and if (when) we hit bumps in the road, that we would come out on the other side, perhaps battered, but bound to each other.

Instead, we ran into one of those bumps and it was infinitely more sinister than the bumps I had imagined: when my two eldest children were six and 8 years old, their younger brother was born. He roared into the world with cacophony and chaos in his wake, with problems that wouldn’t be fully diagnosed until he was 7, and my inability to cope in any reasonable way with their brother meant my other children were stranded on the cusp of adolescence without a mother. I was there, making the dental appointments and going to the parent/teacher conferences and supervising homework, but I wasn’t present with them the way I had been. As we rounded the corner into the third year of my youngest son’s life, I lost my emotional footing and I came apart. I was living the biggest crisis I had ever experienced up to that point and I crumbled.

At this part of the story, kind and well-meaning friends tell me that I did the best I could under very challenging circumstances. Yes, I did. I tried hard and did the best I could. That’s not the same as being innocent.

Soon after my youngest son was born, my older children’s father got married, and a few years after that, his wife left him, and as I was coming apart under the weight of anxiety over my sick child, he was coming apart from the pain of rejection. His response to that pain included taking our children away from me, putting into action his desire of many years to have our children all to himself.

Amy J. L. Baker, Ph.D, author of eight books and noted researcher in the fields of parent child relationships and emotional abuse of children, defines parental alienation as a dynamic in which children are manipulated by one parent to reject the other parent. The comparison that rings most true in our situation is to a cult, where the alienating parent is the cult leader and the children are unwitting acolytes, anxious for the approval of the alienator.

I didn’t know any of that in the beginning. I only knew that the accusations my children hurled at me grew ever further from reality, so that all my real failings as a human and a mother grew in magnitude until I could scarcely recognize myself in the narrative.

During those years, I went every August to the children’s schools, divorce decree and custody agreement in hand, to prove to the school that I was their mother and to add my contact information to their files, information their dad habitually left off when he registered them. Because of that, and because my kids’ dad let our daughter stay home from school at least one day each week, I found myself facing action from the school district who said they would send me to truancy court and fine me for educational neglect. One more absence and you’ll be in front of the judge, they said to me in February 2012.

When I got that notice I drove to my ex-husband’s apartment, and this day of all days I remember with stark clarity: walking up the crumbling concrete stairs, the blue sky and sharp, clear air that means winter on the high desert southwest, the deep breath I took as I knocked on the door. I would leave in a police car or an ambulance; I would go away in a body bag or I would walk out with my daughter. I entertained no other options. I would end the hateful stalemate and this day would be the last day, the end of hope or the end of the impasse.

He said I could take her with me, on condition that I not put her on medicine. Among the many narratives he used to drive his alienation was that I wanted to “drug” all my children, but I bristled at the notion of his permission for anything.

My daughter and I came home and we were a stark contrast, me buoyant with relief and joy at having her home, she as angry as ever at me, and doubly so because she was now forced to live with people with whom she didn’t want relationships and who she didn’t know.

Except slowly, the reality-mom began to loom larger in her life than the alienator-created-mom, and two months after she came home she said to me one night, “You know, you don’t actually yell much. I don’t think you’ve yelled since I came home. For a long time, it seemed like nobody did anything except yell at your house. I don’t know if that’s what I really remember or just what we always said, though.”

For all the pain I suffered, my children are damaged in infinitely worse ways. To gaslight a child until he or she views reality in ways that please an adult creates massive and unspeakable wounds, a distrust of self and others that may never be healed.

We were not made stronger by alienation. My ex-husband didn’t protect our children from a bad parent; he denied them the comfort and security of strong bonds with both parents. To all parents I say, in the absence of abuse the only right thing to do is to actively support the children’s relationships with their other parent.

To alienated parents I say, as long as our children are alive there is hope.

The Boy Who Is Mine

The Boy Who Is Mine

Baseball Equipment Laying on Grass

Unlike the blissful announcement of a baby the first two times, my mother’s smile taking up her entire face; this time, she met the news with a blank expression. “Why?” she said, before hesitating, then hugging me as if to hold me up.


Johnny’s bus comes later, after my other four children are off to school. And suddenly I am in “Johnny Time,”—the half hour each school day morning that I have to spend alone with my youngest son, a small-for-his-age first-grader.

“Ready Mommy?” he says. “Ready!” I say, and, unless we’re rained out, we head outside to play baseball before his bus comes. It is late autumn, the leaves have let go of the trees, and I stand in the grass in my pajamas and robe, a cup of cold coffee on the ground next to me. Johnny races to get our mitts from the garage, his small muscled body pulsing with excitement.

I throw him a high fly; the ball crashes through the branches of our oak tree; he zig-zags beneath the limbs judging exactly where it will fall. “Johnny Jingle makes the catch!” I scream and he beams, raising his mitt, calming the crowd. “How did you get to be such a great baseball player?” I ask, TV-interview style, using a small stick for a microphone. He says the answer I made up for him. “I owe it all to my mother!”

He bats next, my pitch lacks accuracy but he slams it. He hits left-handed—the way my father, a professional baseball player and also named Johnny, used to. Johnny does nothing else left-handed, but by some odd coincidence he hits lefty and his swing makes me smile every time. He has an uncanny resemblance to his namesake as well, tufts of blonde hair, blue eyes like light blue fondant.

I throw a thousand balls, or so it seems by the time the bus lumbers to our driveway, letting out its routine wheeze. Johnny gives me my three kisses, left, right, and center, before getting on. And though I am tired, feeling thin as wax paper, I know I did the right thing seven years ago.

Because Johnny was all my idea. The baby I insisted on having, though he was conceived at a time in my life when a baby should have been the last thing on my mind. My marriage was breaking, my daughters were just two and three, and my career had hit high gear. But for reasons I have only begun to figure out, though I know it was more than a desire for a boy who I could name after my father, I wanted a third child as much as I’d wanted the first; every cell of me committed to it, the need innate, primal.

My husband and I were in marriage counseling at the time; we had been for months. The therapist cautioned against having another child just then. “Another child will not fix things,” she said. Of course not, I thought. But that was not the point.

The point was I wanted a third child whether my husband and I stayed together or not. I was clear on the issue in my mind. I told my mother I was pregnant first. Unlike the blissful announcement of a baby the first two times, my mother’s smile taking up her entire face; this time, she met the news with a blank expression. “Why?” she said, before hesitating, then hugging me as if to hold me up.

I knew what she was thinking; she was the one who came to stay with me when I suffered postpartum depression with both of my daughters, who were born in the context of a better marriage than what I had now. She was the one who took Sophia from my lap while I cried, leaving me frozen in the polka-dot cushioned rocking chair, cold cabbage leaves on my breasts to sooth the engorgement.

I waited many weeks before I told other people, including my husband, who smiled when I showed him the stick that flared pink.  He left quickly after to go to his flying lesson. I remember thinking, he would fly 15,000 feet in the air while I stayed grounded.

My husband was home less often. He’d had so many interests and made time to pursue them all—a zest I loved when I married him but hated now that we had children. We were together less and less, a thick silence webbed between us. Over time my daughters sensed the end of something I think; clinging to me, grabbing at my thighs while I cooked macaroni and cheese again, my stomach huge, wedging into the countertop as I filled the large pot with water. At any time I could snap, like a celery stalk, knowing that if I didn’t unravel during the pregnancy, chances were high I would plummet again right after the baby was born.

It was a lonely pregnancy, punctuated by doctor appointments that I went to by myself. At 21 weeks as I lay in the dark on the exam table, my melon-sized belly in full bloom, I asked Dr. Derman if it was a boy or a girl. “I thought you didn’t want to know?” he said, having delivered both of my daughters who I insisted be a surprise. I felt the baby roll inside of me, swimming, as it surfaced on the ultrasound.

“I want to know,” I said.

“Boy” he said.

“For certain?” I said. It was certain.

The divorce came when Johnny was 18 months old; I now have to share my son, along with his sisters. On Wednesdays and every other weekend the children go to my ex-husband’s house and the little bird beats in my throat. In spite of that I try to see the situation through a positive lens, thinking that perhaps the forced separations help me appreciate the extra minutes I have on weekday mornings with my son, before the bus comes—the little boy who I still like to believe was all my doing.

Mathematics of a Family

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.

The Whole Truth

The Whole Truth


“How often do you see your dad?” she asks casually.

The question is one of many questions we’ve volleyed back and forth this particular afternoon as we sit in the sun and let our children play on the playground.

How should I answer this question I’m sure she perceives as benign?

I could simply say, “My dad visits a couple times a year.”

That’s true. Or, at least, true enough.

Or, I could say, “I see my father’s shadow every day.” That’s also true but it takes some explaining.

I could tell her I see his shadow every time I pass a big rig on the highway and glance at the forearms of the trucker to see if they are connected to my father’s hub-cap sized hands.

I could tell her I see his shadow in the uneven gait of anyone in cowboy boots. And in every pair of Wranglers with extra slack where a butt should be.

I could tell her I see his shadow in the hand firmly gripping the upper arm of the whining child in front of me in the grocery checkout line. And in the neck swiftly turning to administer a fierce gaze and the promise of action to an off-task child at the park.

I could tell her I see his shadow in the red nose of the man in the bar who asks for another with eyes at once hopeful that the next round will bring relief and simultaneously sorrowful because he knows the amber elixir lost its magic years ago and the bottom of the glass is not where second chances hide. And in the father sitting across from his child at a nearby table holding up his end of a patchwork conversation, pieced together as good as it can be given the uneven stitches of court ordered visitations and shared holidays.

I could tell her I see his shadow in the Vietnam vet on the corner and hold my breath while I check to make sure that the stranger is indeed a stranger and that the remarkable resemblance is only just that.

I could tell her all this and reveal myself to be a not-so-well-adjusted, not-so-resilient child of divorce. I could reveal myself to be the dented can somehow placed on the shelf alongside all the unblemished cylinders that made it through similar journeys without permanent damage.

There are plenty of other moms on the playground that appear normal and self-actualized. Friendship with me will cost the same as friendship with one of them. Surely she would prefer to invest her time in building a friendship with someone else. Someone not standing in the long shadow of what could have been but wasn’t. Someone who won’t tense when she hears kids whine. Someone who won’t weep when she sees the easy affection of a father for his child. Someone who won’t speed up to overtake a semi on the off chance she knows the driver. Someone who won’t lose her train of thought when she sees a bearded man at the off ramp with a Sharpie plea written on a cardboard remnant.

I could pose as an undented can. I could turn my best side forward and hide the imperfections. I could pretend to be unaffected by the bumps and sharp corners of my journey.

I could say, “My dad visits a couple times a year.”

Or, I could reveal the scars of improperly healed wounds and say, “I see my father’s shadow every day.”

I look at her and realize that I’ve taken too long to answer what she thinks is a simple question.

Calling Ida

Calling Ida

Family in forestBy K.G. Wright

Ida—a soft, round, raven-haired woman so different from my petite, blonde mother—broke up my parents’ marriage. An Inuit from Canada’s Northwest Territories, Ida was forced to leave home to attend a government residential school in Yellowknife when she was seven. She returned, pregnant, at 17. Her parents dead, her siblings scattered and her finances precarious, Ida gave up the baby girl for adoption and set out to Toronto seeking a better life.

When Dad left Mom to live with Ida, my older sister, Laura, followed. A rebellious teenager, Laura (with the help of a family therapist) convinced my reluctant mother that she’d be better off at my dad’s. I was 10, so a judge decided I would stay with my mom. Laura and I were divided like the spoils of war—each parent’s household a separate side of the battle line.

Their side set up, to me at least, the perfect Hippy family. Ida, then 27, played guitar and made dinners of brown rice and tofu. Laura smoked dope and went to Neil Young concerts. Dad grew a mustache and kept a little pot plant on the windowsill of the guest room. The same room where I slept on a futon during my one-night-per-week custody visit.

The rest of the time I lived with my mother and her gun-in-the-mouth depression. She drank whiskey out of coffee cups and took an overdose of sleeping pills that, once she was released from the hospital, miraculously triggered her latent, yet powerful, Protestant work ethic.

At the age of 35, my mother finished college, earned a business degree and became a high-powered career woman. She ran marathons, sewed her own suits and made tiny, designer throw pillows from the remaining scraps of material. She gave lavish dinner parties replete with five-course meals and me at the piano— her charming daughter— entertaining the guests. One evening, after a fabulous meal, her admiring friends raised a glass of expensive wine and dubbed their hostess “Supermom.” The name stuck.

Supermom’s perfectionism was, of course, time-consuming. When she wasn’t working, running, sewing or fighting the forces of evil (a burned soufflé), she was hosting a party or attending one.  Martha Stewart would have knelt before my mother’s extraordinary domestic powers (spice rack alphabetized; color-coded sweaters folded with military precision).  Ironically, her way of parenting by the time I was twelve was to prepare a nutritious, microwaveable meal for me to eat, alone, while she worked late, or attended a fundraiser for orphaned children. A handwritten set of instructions, in the form of my “to do” list, would be attached under a magnet on the fridge:

walk dog

eat dinner

wash dishes

do homework

one hour of T.V.

practice piano

brush teeth

lights out

These lists became her way of raising me in absentia.

I lived for the liberation of Thursdays, my night at Dad and Ida’s, where my biggest to-do was to shred the vegan cheese for taco night. Dad was a book salesman and when he wasn’t traveling, he liked to stay home, stroke his mustache and read. His social life was Ida, and after a time, so was mine.

Because of her longing for the baby girl she’d given away, Ida doted on me. She didn’t have much money, but she loved to buy me gifts: used items from flea markets and yard sales. No amount of expensive piano lessons or back-to-school clothing from my mother could compare to the rusted harmonica or the garbage bag full of old rag dolls that Ida gave me. I played with those dolls for hours, made up names and stories for them— made them the family I longed to have.

More than gifts, Ida gave me attention: she braided my hair, read my Tarot Cards, and strummed her guitar along with my wailing harmonica. She told me stories about her childhood at the residential school. How the children had to eat frozen cow beef and boiled Arctic Char—a diet that put her off meat-eating for the rest of her life. When she first arrived at the school, one of the Grey Nuns, younger than the rest, was told to cut Ida’s hair. But the young woman took pity on the little girl whose dark eyes glowed with tears as her braid slid silently to the floor. Though it was against the rules, the nun let Ida keep the braid. Which she hid, coiled like a snake, in a hollow place she cut inside the pages of her Bible.

I would call Ida when I was alone in my mother’s big, empty house.
“I’m scared,” I’d tell her.
“Don’t be scared little one,” she’d whisper. “You have no idea how lucky you are.”
“How am I lucky?” I’d sniffle.
“Your father loves you so much.”
“Why can’t I live with him?”
“When parents don’t live with their children, they love them even more for missing them.”

Ida’s kindness awakened in me a ferocious desire for attention. Supermom eventually noticed my increasing interest in spending time at my ordinary Dad’s house.  Our conversations became a power struggle over Ida—though we never spoke of her directly.

“I’ll be home late tonight,” she’d tell me at breakfast.

“Maybe I could go to Dad’s.” This was meant to sound like a nonchalant suggestion, though I’d hold my breath until she’d answer.

“Not tonight. You have piano lessons and a whole list of things to do.” Then she’d lace up her running shoes and bolt out the door.

The profound hurt my mother must have felt about the woman who’d taken away her husband and daughter—and won her younger child’s heart with a bag of dolls— did not resonate with me until years later when my own husband left me to live with the “other” woman: a childless, 40-year-old academic, to whose tiny apartment he took our four-year-old son every other weekend. The woman gifted my boy a necklace: a black onyx half-moon hanging on a tight string of rawhide.  Obviously, she didn’t see the choking hazards that gift represented—or did she? The sight of this ominous trinket, encircling my son’s delicate neck like a noose, penetrated a place in my heart’s deep core that I cannot accurately describe.

During my divorce, I spoke of this feeling to my mother over the phone while she was vacationing with her boyfriend in the Bahamas. The long distance connection kept breaking up, making her sound as if she were yelling from inside a rain storm. “My god, darling,” her words crackled far away, “don’t you think … I know … how that feels?”

Looking back, I believe the breaking point came for my mother the day she pulled into my father’s driveway and saw Ida and me walking up the street, hand-in-hand, fresh from a yard sale.  She marched toward us, high heels clicking rhythmically like my piano teacher’s metronome. My mother slammed the car door behind me with such force, the windows shook. As we drove away, I looked back and saw Ida standing on the sidewalk. Black-hair parted into two braids, red feather earrings, knee-high leather beaded moccasins. In her hands, broken pieces of a Madonna and child statue she’d bought at the yard sale. She’d planned to glue the pieces together and put it in the garden along with her growing collection of owls and gnomes.

One night, I ran away from home, arriving at my father’s house with my tiny black miniature poodle, Susie, her head sticking out of my backpack. It was a late summer night; even the crickets were silent. When my father saw me standing in the wan porch light, he sighed heavily. He turned the lock to let me in. I sat with Susie on the couch.

“Why can’t I live with you?” Tears formed like glue at the back of my throat.
“You can stay tonight,” he’d said, quietly. Then added, “But I can’t afford to have you live here all the time.”
“I won’t eat much, I promise.” Susie licked my hand.
“I’m sorry, honey. You need to stay with your mom. You’re all she has. Besides, I don’t have enough money to support you. Your sister already lives here.”

What remained unspoken that night, and forever afterward, was that he supported Ida: her yard sale habit and Saturday night Bingo games. That conversation blasted a hole of loneliness in my gut so wide that now, years later, I still feel its hollow ache. Like the hole that Ida’s missing baby girl must have left inside of her.

When Ida had the affair—a one-night stand—that broke up her relationship with my dad, I took it hard, though I never admitted it. I walked into his house one Thursday, and found her guitar was missing. My father stood at the kitchen counter vigorously chopping onions for beef stew—a rare carnivorous meal. His eyes were moist.

‘Where’s Ida?” I’d asked.
“Gone.” Chop, chop. The hole inside me widened.
“Gone where?”
“Just gone.”

I saw her only once more, a few months after she’d moved out. I was 15. Laura, with a shrug of her shoulders, gave me Ida’s new address scrawled across a piece of marijuana rolling paper. “Why do you care?” she’d asked. “You didn’t live with her.”

On a frigid winter Saturday, I took a Toronto City bus across town to visit her, unannounced, at her new place: a nearly empty studio apartment she was renting, in part, with money borrowed from my dad. But mostly she lived on her modest salary as a switchboard operator at a local hospital. We sat at a little table in her kitchen. She spoke of her mother. One night, after Ida and her sisters and brothers had been sent away to learn the Qallunaat—non-Inuit—way of life at the white school, her distraught mother had wandered away from home without her coat on during a fierce snowstorm. She never came back. Ida rolled some tobacco into a filter-less cigarette as she spoke, and stared out of her kitchen window. It was snowing—a soft downy snow that concealed the hard ice beneath. She lit the cigarette; white smoke trailed upward toward the few grey hairs beginning to sprout at her temples. The smoke seemed to signal to me that this was the last time I should come here. Ida was not my mother—and I could not ask my parents to accept her as my friend. This wasn’t bitterness; it was truth. We drank some tea. The conversation turned to her new job: how anxious people calling Ida relied on her to connect them with the broken ones whom they loved.

K.G. Wright’s poetry has appeared in Midwest Quarterly, Cold Mountain Review, Sanskrit Literary Arts Journal, among others. Her most recent publication is an interview with poet Mark Pawlak in Amoskeag Literary Arts Journal. Currently she is at work on several writing projects, including a memoir essay collection entitled True North, and a scholarly article on multimedia composition.  An assistant professor of English, Wright is passionate about teaching literature and writing courses to college students. She lives outside of Boston with her adorable 7-year-old son.

What You’re Left With When She is Gone

What You’re Left With When She is Gone

WO What You're Left With ArtBy Ronit Feinglass Plank

In a box of old things my sister recently sent me I found a photo of my mother from when I was thirteen and my sister was ten, when Mom had just come back from her second cult experience.

She looks thinner than I’d ever known her. Hollows carve shadows under her cheeks and the pallor of her skin is off; her face has a gray tinge to it. She has a faint smile but it doesn’t reach her eyes. My sister dangles from her left arm and I, a little chubby and wearing too much make up for a middle-schooler, have my arm around my mom’s shoulder. I am leaning into her, a big stretched out smile across my face as if everything is normal.

It had been six months since me and my sister had seen my mother and we were grateful to have her back. But tentative. Like if we said the wrong thing or touched her without warning, or got too close, she’d disappear again. We had none of the casual comfort we might have once felt with her. I remember serving her tea, asking for permission to touch the tinsel threaded scarf she wore draped around her neck, offering her blankets and snacks, trying to keep her comfortable so she would stay.

For the longest time my mother seemed like a superhero, she was dazzling to me, which made no sense since she left me and my sister twice: once when she went to live on the ashram in India, and once when she went to live on the ashram in Oregon. I think it confounded my father, too, since apart from a few years of weekends at my mom’s after their divorce, she had left him taking care of us since I was six. Still, I dreamed of seeing her. She was the gift parent, the special occasion; I imagined her appearing like a fairy queen—and changing my life.

She was back this time because the ashram had broken up, her holy man arrested, his ninety-three Rolls Royces confiscated. She and the other followers—sannyasins they called themselves—had given up everything they owned for their guru and were now leaderless, scurrying back to wherever home had been to plan their next moves. My mother had nowhere else to go.

Even though this was the second time she had skipped town leaving my father to care for us, he told her she could stay at our apartment a few days while she figured things out. My sister and I were elated: both of our parents under one roof with us was something we had stopped hoping for. But my father should have known better before he agreed. And my mother should have known better than to ask.

I could feel his agitation soon after he came home from work that first day. After so many cancelled visits, so many missed birthdays, to see my mother curled up cozy on our sofa like she belonged there, a daughter fawning over her on either side, was too much for him. His frustration simmered through the apartment until it swelled into a wave of fury he could not contain. His profane expletives flew and my eyes darted between him and my mother, the panic in me growing, trying to figure out even as he got louder and louder how I could make it go better, how I could make it stop.

He said he wanted the child support money she owed him for all the years she hadn’t paid. But I understood it was much more than just that.

He stormed into the dining room and snatched her purse off the table searching for money. My mother tried to get it but he grabbed it away from her. He swung open the apartment door and she followed, crying out that he should give it back. But he wouldn’t. He threw it onto the stained burgundy carpet in the hallway.

“Where is the money? Where is the money?” he yelled, his eyes blazing, his face burning with anger. But I was so angry with him because after all us kids had been through, all the waiting for our mother to return, he was going to scare her off. It didn’t have to be this way but he was making it happen: he was going to force her to go away.

And that’s when our elderly neighbor Elizabeth from England, whose apartment was right next to the garbage room, opened her door to see what the trouble was.

There was my mother, kneeling on the old matted carpet, clutching at her purse, my father pulling at the handle. My mother wasn’t letting go and so he dragged her along the carpet by it for several feet, her thin scarf trailing, the warm garbage stink of the incinerator room filling the airless hallway, Elizabeth looking on.

I was so sorry Elizabeth had to see this. So sorry because it wasn’t really true, what she was seeing wasn’t our family. I wanted to smile at her to tell her this is not what it looks like, this doesn’t ever happen. But something about Elizabeth witnessing us made it worse, made it harder to convince myself everything was going to be okay.

My mother was gone by evening. She zipped up the two suitcases that she had not yet really unpacked and left.

It’s not easy now to look at that photo of us from before she left again, to remember how careful I was, how hard I was working to keep her with me. When we took the photo I understood I didn’t have my mother in my life. What I didn’t know yet is that I never would.

Ronit Feinglass Plank’s short fiction and essays have appeared on, The Iowa Review, Lilith and is forthcoming in Best New Writing 2015. She lives in Seattle with her young family.

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On Nitpicking and Co-Parenting

On Nitpicking and Co-Parenting

By Carley Moore

FFIR Image 1“Where did you get that?” I stared at my ex-husband as he affixed a headlamp to his forehead and our five-year-old daughter wriggled off her shirt and settled into his office chair for what had to be the millionth hour of Angelina Ballerina.

“Duane Reade.  Jealous?”

I nodded.  I was impressed.  Not to be outdone, I offered, “I bought coconut oil and tea tree oil which we can melt together and slather on after we pick.  I also brought my hair dryer.  I’ve heard they can’t take the heat.  Oh, and new hair clips to section off the hair.”

“Mama, is there candy?”

“You can eat whatever you want.”  The only way to get a five-year-old to sit still for an hour or two of nitpicking is to stuff them with sugar and cartoons.

M. rummaged around in the brown shopping bag of lice treatment products her dad and I had been toting back and forth between our apartments for the last week, and pulled out a bag of cherry hard candies.  She scratched her shoulder and returned to the mouse dance drama that was unfolding in the English town of Chipping Cheddar.

This was our second lice battle.  I’d found them crawling around on M.’s head before Christmas and spent a disgusted six hours shampooing and combing the still kicking lice out of her hair on a Saturday night.  M.’s dad was out of town and after I was done, I went into my bedroom, shut the door, and cried for a quick minute.  I felt exhausted and overwhelmed, like I feared being a single mom would feel in the months before my separation from M.’s dad.  This time, the school called her dad, and he called me since it was my day.  We agreed to get supplies and meet up later to nitpick.  When I arrived at her school, M. had been quarantined in the nurse’s office with at least twenty other kids.  Instead of speaking to the school nurse, I was greeted by a lice-removal salesperson, who was charging parents $1000 to comb through a child’s hair and de-louse the apartment.  He thrust a flyer into my hand, and turned to one of his employees.

“She’s got live lice, right?”

“Yep,” the young woman didn’t look up from the hair of one of M.’s classmates as she deftly parted it with two small sticks.

M. buried her head into my leg and cried.  I wanted to cry again too, but I didn’t.  I’d learned that in my five years of being of mom—if you’re a good parent, mostly, you don’t get to cry.  Or you do it later, on your own, with a glass of wine or with a friend or for a quick minute in the bedroom while the Backyardigans are dancing the two-step.  There was something so galling about the cold practicality of the lice removal salesman when I was hoping for the folksy comfort of a school nurse.  Do public schools even have nurses anymore?  I haven’t met ours yet.

A week later, I found out from another mom in my daughter’s school that she actually paid over $1300 to have her daughter combed out and nitpicked.  Neither M.’s dad or I have that kind of money lying around, and if we did, we’d probably spend it on summer camp or three year’s worth of school clothes or half of a shitty used car.  I get that parents need help, and that many of the parents at my daughter’s public school can afford these treatments.  Nitpicking and lice removal are big business, especially in cities where infestation is common and there are a lot of middle-class overworked parents.  I found several articles about Orthodox Jewish women in Brooklyn who had become professional nitpickers after dealing with their kids’ lice.  One has put six of her nine kids through college by nitpicking.

Nitpicking, I’d learned was a very particular kind of hard focused labor.  It reminded me of the kind of feminine precision work I’d failed at growing up:  needlepoint and quilting.  You needed good eyes, and really good light, and you needed to care.  “Don’t drop the stitch,”  I heard my mother saying gently over the hoop of a sampler I’d botched.  “You have to follow the pattern,” my 4-H teacher sighed into the soft light of her Singer.  I was too impatient to be much of a seamstress.  I refused to use the seam ripper on mistakes, instead insisting that I had my own vision, one that included dropped and crooked stitches.  The results were shoddy and embarrassing.  I usually stuffed them under my bed or threw them out altogether.  As an adult, when I saw a quilting show of the African-American quilters of Gees Bend, Alabama, I understood the difference between improvisation and mistake.  Intention.  Vision.  Belief.  My daughter’s kindergarten teacher calls a mistake that turns into something viable, a “beautiful ooops.”  As a young girl, I knew only patterns and rules.  I wanted to be an artist, to improvise off of a mistake, but I couldn’t make the leap.  Mistakes were to be ripped out.  They were not a riff to extend.

Staring at my daughter’s teeming, bug-infested head for that first comb out, I knew I had no choice.  I had to remove every last bug.  It was tedious, precision work that we were too broke to pay anyone else to do.  The nits are the size of a grain of sand, and you have to look on almost every hair follicle.  My daughter’s hair is fine and long, and as her dad and I have taken to calling it under our breath “louse brown.”

M.’s dad and I have been separated for a year.  We are slowly heading towards mediation and a divorce.  We are friends, we talk or text most days, and we are co-parenting.  M. spends half of her time with each of us.  He is an excellent dad, and my dear friend.  I miss him a lot.

When you Google the words “nitpicking” and “women” most of what comes up is relationship advice.  The top hit is, “Want a Happy Marriage?  Don’t Nitpick.”  As I learn the true meaning of nitpicking, I think now about the ways in which I nitpicked M.’s dad when we were married, especially in those last two very hard years of our marriage.  I suppose we picked at each other, or I picked and he withdrew.  We both felt so wronged and so misunderstood!

You’re bossy.  You’re very detail oriented.  You like to be right.  You cross all of your t(s).  You can’t let it go.  You have to have it perfect.  You always get your way. I’ve heard phrases like these from parents, friends, and even-well meaning colleagues.  I suppose my ex hurled one or two of these at me too, and I’m sure I deserved it.  They are code for nitpicking, ball busting, acting the part of the difficult woman.  The nitpicker is a good foil, a scapegoat for larger struggles around relationships both at home and in the workplace.  And I admit too that I can be difficult and disappointed and exacting.  But I’m also funny and sexy and smart!  I may pick nits, but I am no longer that nitpicking wife—maybe I never was.

The last year has been hard on us all.  M. is adjusting to living in two apartments, and to the loss of married parents.  M’.s dad and I are mourning our marriage and learning how to live as single adults.  But I see in our relationship of late, in our shared quest to rid our daughter’s head of vermin and our resistance to getting fleeced out of money we don’t have, some core beliefs about co-parenting that are at the heart of my new favorite parenting book, Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households after Divorce by Deesha Philyaw and Michael D. Thomas.  I was drawn to this book because of its tagline, “practical advice from a formerly married couple.”  Wow, I thought.  They’re divorced and they managed to co-author a book!  I’ll buy that!  In their introduction, Philyaw and Thomas define successful co-parenting as “any post divorce or post-separation parenting arrangement that (1) fosters continued, healthy relationships for children with both parents and (2) is founded on a genuinely cooperative relationship between the parents.”  They urge co-parents or divorcing couples that are considering co-parenting to put the kids first and to remember, “It’s not about you.”

And so for the two weeks, M.’s dad and I have come together to nitpick.  We have two metal combs now, and though we can not both fit around the small circumference of our daughter’s head, we keep each other company, we make jokes, and we divide up the sections of her head.

“I’ll do the bottom, if you do the top.”  He clicked on his headlamp.  M. scratched at her shoulder again until it was red.

I suppose I write this essay as a wish to return nitpicking to its original lice hunting origins.  Nitpicking is precision work, often relegated to wives and mothers, but it needn’t be so.  M.’s dad is actually better at getting the nits off of her hair than I am.  His vision is sharper and he has a firmer pinch.

Carley Moore is a poet, novelist, and sometimes blogger (  Her debut young adult novel, The Stalker Chronicles, was published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in 2012.

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Ex In-Laws at My Wedding

Ex In-Laws at My Wedding

By Sue Sanders

BC_FA2013_Final_layoutI stood in my ivory silk wedding dress clutching a bouquet with my six-year-old daughter by my side. Lizzie held tightly to a basket of rose petals with one hand and to me with the other. She pulled on my arm and looked up.

“Now we’ll be an official family? And Jeff will be my official dad?” she whispered. Smiling, I nodded, squeezed her hand, and scanned the small crowd gathered on our front lawn for the occasion. Nearly everyone important to us was there: our friends and family, my new in-laws and my ex in-laws.

 *   *   *

When Jeff and I had first met, it was electric. It was also complicated: we’d both been married before and carried bits of our past into our present. I brought my young daughter; he, Louis the dog; and both of us, a subset of ex in-laws. When Jeff divorced, he had only occasional contact with his ex-family: exchanging holiday cards and email and later, becoming Facebook friends. But I remained close to my ex in-laws, chatting on the phone frequently and staying occasional weekends with them at their house in suburban New Jersey. Lizzie, their only grandchild then, helped cement our relationship as did my ex-husband’s severe bipolar disorder, which made it vividly clear that divorce was our only realistic option.

My ex-husband and I met in college and were together eighteen years. His parents, Tom and Nancy, had seen how I’d spent the final five years of my marriage, desperately trying to get my husband to take the pills that could control his illness. We were bound by the horrific experience of seeing someone we all loved deeply refuse psychiatric help and get sicker as a result. His parents knew that their son’s illness was no one’s failing; that ours was the ultimate no-fault divorce. They’d welcomed me into their lives all those years ago and their son’s illness wouldn’t change that, would it? Part of me wondered, but I tamped down the doubt, sure we’d continue to have a relationship.

From the time my husband and I had separated, my ex in-laws continued to be both emotionally and financially generous with Lizzie and me (I had quit working to stay at home with our baby). When my ex’s “episodes” became more frequent and severe, finally leading to the end of our marriage, Tom and Nancy took Lizzie and me into their home while we worked with a series of doctors and New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to have their son hospitalized. They were there for us when their son, in an angry manic phase, canceled our health insurance and had all our mail forwarded to his house. They were there when their son frightened my upstairs neighbor into giving him a key and then let himself into my Brooklyn apartment. Much later, when I finally met with a divorce lawyer and we all realized that my ex-husband was in no condition for court, his father Tom became his son’s legal guardian and represented him in the proceedings.

More than a year went by. I eventually started dating and met the man who’d become my second husband. Jeff and I met online, flirting and getting to know one another remotely. When we finally met in person, we knew it was real. As time passed and our relationship deepened, it all seemed so easy and natural something I hadn’t experienced for ages.

After dating for a year, we moved in together, to a little house in a small town in the Hudson Valley. One afternoon, a few months later, Tom and Nancy drove the two hours from their house to ours the house that they’d loaned us money to help buy—where Tom would meet Jeff for the first time and Nancy, who had joined us all for Lizzie’s fifth birthday party a few months earlier, would get to know him better. I was nervous—I felt a bit like a matchmaker arranging a blind date. Would Tom and Nancy like Jeff? Would it be awkward for them to see me with someone who wasn’t their son and to see Lizzie treat Jeff as the father he had already become to her? Would they flinch if Lizzie referred to Jeff as “my dad”? How did they fit into our lives, anyhow? I wanted them to continue to be involved, but what are the rules for ex-family? I wasn’t sure, but we were grafting new branches to our family tree.

As I wondered what would happen, I realized I was really seeking their approval—even though the logical part of me understood this was ridiculous. I was an adult. I wasn’t their child. They knew staying married to their son wasn’t an option. Still, there was a tiny portion of me that felt guilty for abandoning my mentally ill husband.

When they finally pulled into our gravel driveway, we all dashed out to greet them. Nancy struggled on an arthritic knee to extract herself from the passenger seat, then greeted Jeff with a peck on the cheek. Lizzie and I escorted her into the house, walking slowly in time with her cane, while Jeff helped Tom pull multiple bags of brightly wrapped gifts out of the trunk. I could hear them laughing and talking. Jeff let Tom know how grateful he was for their generosity and compassion toward me. Tom told Jeff he really appreciated hearing that. When Jeff repeated all this to me later that night after Tom and Nancy had left, I felt incredibly thankful—and relieved. I hadn’t realized that I’d been holding my breath and I could finally exhale.

Their visit crystalized something that had been bothering me since my ex-husband and I separated: there needs to be better vocabulary to describe changing family relationships. Lizzie seems to be aware of this deficiency, and flips back and forth in an almost bilingual manner depending on her audience, referring to Jeff by his name when she ad- dresses him, and calling him “my dad” when she talks about him to friends and family. I find the lack of accurate words challenging, as well. What label is there for ex in-laws who are still in a person’s life? I’ve tried to refer to them in other ways, though nothing seems right. Using just first names when I introduce them to friends somehow doesn’t convey our bond. And introducing them as “my ex-mother-in-law, Nancy, and ex-father-in-law, Tom” maybe accurate, but it’s an awkward mouthful. I play around with possibilities, but none seem right: my mother-out-law; my father-ex-law; my parents. I can’t think of any short, pithy label to explain how our relationship, though changed, is still a close one.

*   *   *

A few months after that visit, when Jeff and I decided to marry, we didn’t hesitate to add my ex in-laws to our small wedding’s guest list. It felt right.

So there we all were: friends, family, ex-family. That June afternoon was a clichéd ideal of Hudson Valley wedding weather—sun peeking through wispy white clouds that kept the day from getting too hot. Though our row of peonies had already died back, dropping their petals all over the ground as Lizzie soon would hers as flower girl, the potted foxglove and geraniums on the deck overlooking the distant mountains were in full bloom. A scrum of kids played freeze tag and softball in the yard before settling into chairs with their parents. Then I said that I did and Jeff said that he did too, and we kissed. I grinned at my family and ex-family, so glad they were there for the very beginning of this newest phase of our life.

Jeff’s friends seemed surprised that we’d invited my ex in-laws to the wedding, after they’d been introduced during the reception with that awkward mouthful of words. Later, I poured a glass of merlot and brought it to Tom as he sat on a folding lawn chair in the backyard. He stood and hugged me, a genuine hug from someplace deep inside. I thought about how conflicted he must have felt to see his ex-daughter in-law so happy with a man who wasn’t his son, and to see his granddaughter bond so firmly with a “new” dad in a way that she never would with his son. I hugged Tom back.

“I’m so glad you came,” I said, as we sat back down.

Tom reached for his merlot and took a sip. He seemed at a loss for words.

“You’re part of our family,” I said, tearing a little for all that we’d been through together with his son—and for all that was ahead of us.

“And you’re part of ours,” Tom said softly, eyes moist.

I feel so lucky to have had even that brief conversation. Three weeks after our wedding, Tom died in his sleep.

*   *   *

Now, years later, we’re still writing our own rules about what family is. We visit Nancy in her Manhattan apartment every summer. She’s stayed with us as well. But we still grapple with explaining our relationship to others and what, exactly, to call one another. Lizzie has it easy: “grandma” is grandma no matter what. But I still don’t have a convenient word and perhaps I never will.

Our new nuclear family is celebrating its ninth anniversary this summer and we’ve each celebrated nine birthdays together. Lizzie’s homemade birthday cards to Jeff have progressed from squiggles and backward letters, with stick figures with curly gray hair crayoned on the front, to tiny, careful cursive with anime-like drawings. Some have said “To Dad;” others, “To Jeff.” But however she chooses to address them, he’s very much her “official” parent.

Author’s Note: I’m still wrestling with what “family” means and searching for a word that can describe ours to others less awkwardly—there aren’t any nice, concise expressions that easily explain ex-family still in someone’s life. I also sometimes wonder if these bonds will remain as strong over time as with “regular” family. I hope they do.

Sue Sanders’ essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Brain, Child, the New York Times, Real Simple, the Rumpus, the Oregonian, the Seattle Times, The Morning News, Salon and others. She is the author of the book Mom, I’m Not A Kid Anymore.

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Family Affairs

Family Affairs

From Brain, Child (Fall 2009)

By Meagan Francis

fall2009_francis_ringFour-year-old Charlie has no idea—yet—what transpired between his mom and dad late last year.

Stationed overseas while her husband was on active duty in Iraq, Charlie’s mother, Stella, began to notice her husband, Tom, becoming distracted and disinterested. A picture of her husband sitting with a young woman on his lap on a mutual friend’s Facebook page aroused her suspicions, and the constant texting and e-mailing when he came home on a break confirmed them. Finally, Tom admitted he’d been having an affair with another soldier and said he was in love with her, though he claimed they’d never had a physical relationship (something Stella doesn’t believe).

As she watched the effects her husband’s withdrawal was having on her son, Stella got angry. “Tom was so disengaged that Charlie started wanting nothing to do with him,” she says. Before the holidays, Charlie’s class was working on a project to send deployed dads a “Christmas hug”; a paper outline of the child’s arms on a piece of paper. “Charlie sat in the time-out cubby all day, refusing to participate,” Stella says. Because Charlie is speech-delayed, Stella explains, figuring out what he’s thinking can be a challenge, but after some questioning, Charlie came out with it. “All done with Daddy,” he said.

Lonely and confused, Stella began spending a lot of time with a longtime male friend. Then, while recounting the story about her son’s school to him, Stella found herself thinking, “My marriage is over.” Soon afterward, things between her and her friend got physical and she began a brief affair of her own.

Stella and Tom are hardly unique—infidelity is one of the oldest of human stories. Chances are good that even if infidelity isn’t part of your own life story, you’re hearing about the affairs of your friends or neighbors or watching it unfold in the life of a public figure. The chatter surrounding an affair almost always seems to focus on what it will do to the relationship under stress—the adult relationship, that is. Will they or won’t they stay together? Can he forgive her? Will she walk?

But what about the children? When they figure into the discussion, it’s almost always as an aside. When the Monica Lewinsky story was breaking, the national discussion was about Hillary and the state of the Clintons’s marriage, with far less attention paid to how the scandal might be affecting Chelsea. Ditto John and Elizabeth Edwards, who have three children, or most recently, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and his wife, Jenny, who have four.

Or take the saga of Jon and Kate Gosselin of the TLC show Jon and Kate + 8. When news emerged that impossibly laid-back Jon—arguably the more likeable of the couple—had had an affair, public sentiment seemed to shift. Sure, the show’s most rabid viewers thought that Kate was still bitchy and controlling, her hair had gotten utterly ridiculous and who did she think she was with the huge sunglasses, fake tan, and designer clothes anyway … and yet … she’d been cheated on. The viewing world seemed to divide into two groups: those who thought Jon was a cheating bastard and worried that those eight kids would grow up in a broken home, and those who thought Kate had brought it all on herself and needed to give up the public life before she drove Jon further away and wound up raising eight kids by herself.

What nobody seemed to be asking was what affect the affair itself would have on the kids. Even if Jon and Kate had stayed together, news of Jon’s infidelity had been splashed across tabloid covers and blogs for weeks. There’s no way the kids can stay sheltered from that forever. So what happens when they figure it out? And what lingering effects might have haunted them even if the marriage had lasted?

Even if you’re not in the public eye—if you’re a Stella or a Tom, say—there are plenty of questions to be asked. Will your little Charlie one day be blaming you in therapy for mishandling the whole affair? Is there a right way or a wrong way to explain infidelity to children? Does it make a difference to the emotional health of the children if they’re told of the cheating right away or kept in the dark? Are they affected differently in the long run if Mom and Dad reconcile or eventually split? And, given how widespread a phenomenon this is, we have to wonder: Why is there so little research on the effects of infidelity on children?

*   *   *

Recent studies from the University of Chicago indicate that one in ten Americans (twelve percent of men, seven percent of women) will have an extramarital affair in their lives—and those are among the most conservative estimates. Researchers at the University of Washington recently found that twenty percent of men and fifteen percent of women under age thirty-five say they have cheated, while twenty-eight percent of men over age sixty say they have cheated. (The actual numbers are likely to be higher, sociologists say, because people tend to lie about sex.) While it’s equally difficult to pin down what percentage of people having an affair also have children, one recent survey provides an eye-opening clue. In a poll of thirty thousand mothers conducted by Cookie magazine and AOL Body in May, 2008, thirty-four percent of respondents admitted having an affair since giving birth to their kids, and more than half (fifty-three percent) said they’d considered an affair.

Thanks to The National Center for Health Statistics, we know how many people marry and divorce each year. And the short- and long-term effects of divorce on children have been tracked through longitudinal studies like the one performed by psychologist Judith Wallerstein, a former senior lecturer at the School of Social Welfare at The University of California, Berkeley. But when it comes to how children are affected by infidelity per se, the research is conspicuously scanty.

Ana Nogales would like to change that. Nogales, a family therapist in Southern California, has watched the effects of infidelity on her patients for years. To synthesize what she was seeing, she designed a study of eight hundred adults whose parents had been unfaithful. In June, she published the study as a book, Parents who Cheat: How Children and Adults Are Affected When Their Parents Are Unfaithful.

What emerges from the survey is a mixed bag:  Some of the long-lasting effects of infidelity on the respondents are what you’d expect, while others are more surprising. Nogales’s respondents skew heavily female—eighty-four percent women compared with just sixteen percent men. (This may be because women are more expressive, Nogales says.) Many more respondents (seventy-three percent) report that it was their father who was unfaithful; only sixteen percent report a mother’s infidelity. About fourteen percent of respondents report that both parents had an affair.

Three quarters of the grown children of adulterers report that their relationship with the unfaithful parent changed as a result of that knowledge. The same percentage report feeling betrayed and even more said they felt angry with or hurt by the cheating parent’s actions. Eighty percent report that their attitude toward love and relationships was affected by their parent’s infidelity. About the same percentage say they now feel that people regularly lie. More than half of respondents are afraid of being betrayed by a partner, and more than two-thirds say they have a hard time trusting others.

Yet almost ninety percent of adults who in their childhood experienced the infidelity of one or more parents still believe in commitment, and nearly eighty percent report that they believe in monogamy. Whether they can carry through with those beliefs is another story, though; forty-four percent report having cheated at one time or another.

*   *   *

All this data seems to mean something, but what, exactly? Nogales is the first to admit that her survey isn’t scientific: Participants are self-selected, and it’s likely that the people who feel most affected by a parent’s cheating are the first to get in line to fill out a questionnaire about it. Participants assess their own mental and emotional health, further adding to the subjective nature of the study. There’s also no comparison data and so no way to know whether adults whose parents cheated are any worse off, emotionally, than kids whose parents stayed faithful. We all screw up and fail our children in some way. Is infidelity statistically worse than our other failings?

Many questions linger on the perimeter of the data. If the parents stayed together, did the infidelity continue? If the parents split, did the offending parent stay involved in the kids’ lives or did he or she disengage? Was the cheating a one-time event or chronic? How did the kids find out, and how did the parents treat one another during the crisis? In other words, did the affair lead to family dysfunction, or did family dysfunction come before the affair? How long ago did these marriages and these affairs take place and in what kind of socio-cultural environment?

In Nogales’s study, fifty-eight percent of marriages survived the infidelity. (National averages may be higher; a recent study of 1,084 people whose spouses had affairs found that seventy-six percent were still married to the same partner years afterwards.) Whether or not the parents divorce after an affair is discovered changes the way kids react to the affair, according to Nogales, but neither outcome is all good or all bad: “When the parents didn’t divorce, the children were better able to trust, but felt more shame and had a harder time forgiving,” says Nogales. “When the parents did divorce, the children had a harder time trusting, but an easier time forgiving. They saw the relationship as something in the past that had come to an end.”

Eighty percent of survey respondents reported that their relationship with the cheating parent changed when parents divorced. Nearly that many—seventy-two percent—reported that their relationship changed with the cheating parent when the parents stayed together. There was no significant difference in the relationship with the betrayed parent, whether or not the parents divorced.

Though those questions aren’t answered via the survey responses, the book is full of personal stories that shed some light on the various ways infidelity plays out in the family.  And from those stories and the conversations I had with people who’ve been there, I learned that the effects of infidelity are as individual and unique as the families themselves.

Take, for example, Jennifer Canzoneri, a twenty-seven-year-old mother in Roanoke, Texas, whom I spoke with recently. Jennifer was not merely a bystander to her dad’s infidelity; she was made an accomplice of sorts. When she was about seven, he began taking her and her sister to dinner with a “friend” of his who worked in his building. “I guess he assumed we wouldn’t catch on,” she says. “We caught on. But as a kid, it’s kind of hard to wrap your brain around what your suspicions really mean.” The infidelity continued. Eventually, Jennifer’s mom and dad split and her dad remarried; he later broke up with her stepmother while he was in another relationship.

Jennifer says the affair made her have some trouble trusting people. “I won’t cheat—I can say that with much certainty—and I won’t stand to be cheated on,” she says. “But trust is difficult. I look at my husband, who’s nothing like my father, and sometimes wonder if he’s keeping things from me. He’s open and honest and has given me no reason to doubt him, but as a child of infidelity, you doubt and fight insecurity.”

Again, not surprising. But digging deeper into Jennifer’s past indicates that it may not just have been her dad’s cheating that affected her so strongly, but the way it played out in her family.

“My sister and I told my mom [about the other woman], and, sadly, we tried to defend him. I remember my mom wasn’t surprised, which saddens me a lot in hindsight,” she says. “The woman we met wasn’t his first mistress, and my mother knew of them all. She stayed with him, she looked the other way, and she didn’t demand that he stop cheating or lying. He convinced her she wasn’t worth being faithful to and so she never said she was worth being faithful to. I needed to see, through her actions, that no woman should allow a man to cheat on her. I didn’t see that.” Jennifer tells me that it took much therapy for her to be able to trust, and even now, she finds divorce devastating: “When I see friends go through it or even some random celebrity couple, it physically affects me.”

With that kind of fallout at stake, it’s understandable that a parent might try to keep an affair completely removed from the kids. “In the military, with so many spouses on active duty for much of the year, there are women who have boyfriends practically living with them—picking the kids up from daycare, even—while their husband is gone,” says Stella. She opted out of that kind of arrangement when her own affair began, trying hard to keep Charlie in the dark. “If I wanted to see [the other man], I got a babysitter and went out. My kid was not around.”

Stella and her husband are attempting to stay together, mostly for Charlie’s sake, and she says they have no plans ever to tell their son about their infidelities. “I think adultery always has been and always will be around, and it’s separate from your kids,” she argues.  “There’s this feeling that once you get married and have kids everything is supposed to revolve around the kids. Honestly, I think that’s why some women have affairs—to have some kind of life that’s outside of the cocoon. But I think it can remain very separate. It depends how it’s all handled.”

*   *   *

I can see her point. After all, we don’t involve our children in our sex lives. Why involve them in our affairs? Is it ever appropriate for them to know all the ins and outs of our marriages?

My own parents split up when I was about five, and soon after, my dad moved across the state to live near a former female co-worker. Within a couple of years, the two were married. (They later divorced.) When I was in my late teens, my mom told me that my father had cheated on her with my to-be stepmother. I remember being remarkably uncurious about it, never asking if she had proof, or why she would believe such a thing. In my subconscious, I probably knew that it was true, but as it was all in the distant past, I didn’t have to grapple with the “what does it all mean?” questions. So I chose largely to ignore this tidbit of knowledge and went right back to worshipping my father.

Now that I’m an adult and see things with clearer eyes, I suppose I could confront my dad and ask if it’s true. I’m sure he’d deny it; I’m not so sure I’d believe him. But at this point, what difference would it make? In hindsight, I can see that nothing is black or white. My dad’s purported affairs weren’t a rejection of me personally (my mother was not an easy person to live with—hell, I left her, too, moving in with my dad at the age of thirteen). My dad is a fallible human being. Mistakes were made.

But if I’d been told about his actions at the age of, say, eleven? I’m not so sure I’d have had the same confidence in my view of human nature or clarity to see my parents as they really are.

Nogales would argue that I’m kidding myself. On some level, kids know about affairs even when they don’t know the actual facts, she says. For that reason alone, honesty is always the best policy. “If you keep lying to your child, the child will have more and more problems,” she argues. “You don’t have to give details, but you have to ask your child if he or she has any questions and respond with the truth.” Even if your child doesn’t exhibit signs of knowing about an affair, Nogales believes they should be told.

That position strikes other family dynamic experts as extreme. Marilyn Barnicke Belleghem, a family therapist in Burlington, Ontario, thinks children should be told about affairs—but on a need-to-know basis only.

“High stress comes from having a lot of responsibility and little power,” Belleghem argues. “Giving children information that they’re powerless to do anything about increases stress.”

On the other hand, if a child has a sense that something is off, it’s important to validate that knowledge, she says. When kids see something that doesn’t fit into their idea of the world—for instance, they think “Daddy loves Mommy” but then see Daddy kissing the neighbor—they need to know how to make sense of it, says Bellenghem. “When they learn that their perception was right, they say ‘Whoa—what I thought I saw, I really saw!’ It builds their confidence and self-trust.”

Bellenghem suggests that while childhood might not always be the right time to spill the beans, the time will come eventually. Let’s say an affair happens when a child is three, and the parents work through it and agree to stay together. Should the child grow up with the knowledge that one of his parents cheated on the other? No, she argues, but it could be shared when the child has reached young adulthood and is grappling with relationship issues of his or her own.

Emily Brown, Director of Key Bridge Therapy & Mediation Center in Arlington, Virginia, and author of Patterns of Infidelity and Their Treatment (2001), says about affairs, “In most cases, it needs to be part of the family story in some way. It’s not a secret, it just hasn’t been shared yet.”

And if this is the route you’re going—if you’re going to explain the complexities of an affair to your child, it makes sense to have a good grasp what exactly was going on in your own marriage. Why did it happen, after all? Brown, a frequent media commentator on infidelity, has identified five types of affairs, each with its own kind of motivation and potential fallout.

“Conflict avoiders” are the “nice” people who are too afraid of abandonment to resolve their differences directly, she says. The marriage erodes, and so they look outside the marriage for intimacy. “Intimacy avoiders,” Brown says, communicate via intense fighting, and often both partners wind up having affairs. “Split Self” affairs happen when people are so intent on doing their marriage “right” that they deprive their own feelings and needs, and end up getting those needs met in a long-term, serious affair. “Exit affairs” happen when conflict avoiders are looking for a way out of a marriage, and use an affair as a way out. And finally there’s the sexual addict, for whom sex is a compulsion more than a choice.

Within those five types, there are even more differences: serial cheaters and those who have a single, brief affair; those who involve their children and those who work hard to shield them from it. There are cheated-on parents who stand up for themselves and those who allow the infidelity to continue without taking action. There are couples who have mostly respectful, peaceful relationships in which affairs happen and couples who never cheat but scream and throw things at each other. The kids involved can be anywhere from not-yet-born to adults (sometimes, a child is actually a product of the affair, which throws a whole new wrench in the works). But whatever the details, they matter. When it comes to explaining matters of the heart, context is everything.

*   *   *

Like every other issue we face as parents, there’s the ideal, and then there’s reality. No one (well, almost no one) goes into a marriage expecting to cheat or be cheated on—it’s no surprise, therefore, that so many parents find themselves muddling through the aftermath. And whether they get everything out in the open right away or put it off for a later date, they’ll have plenty of opportunity to fumble and fail.

But they’ll also have lots of opportunity to try again until they get it right. Because whether you’re talking with a child about drugs or sex or God or infidelity, no single discussion shapes his or her understanding of the entire topic.

At least that’s what Stephanie, a thirty-five-year-old mother of two from Virginia, is banking on. Last winter, while she was struggling with depression and the demands of caring for two closely spaced young children, Stephanie’s first love showed up on Facebook, and the two reconnected. “I told myself I was just catching up with an old friend and gaining some closure, but I knew I was heading into dangerous territory,” says the attorney, who wrote about her affair on her blog, “This was a man I had never entirely gotten over; someone I had always loved.” On a business trip to Chicago not long after, Stephanie got together with the man, Mark, in person, and that meeting sparked a five-month affair.

When she returned, Stephanie’s husband figured out something was up right away; the two of them separated but eventually reunited. “I guess you could say that I came to my senses,” she told me. “Even though I was in love with two men, I realized that I had to make a choice. I chose my family.”

The children don’t know about her affair … yet. At only three and four, Stephanie thinks they’re too young to really understand: “Hell, even most adults don’t understand.” But she admits that she learned the hard way how perceptive even little kids can be. “During a car ride with my three-year-old, I was on the phone with Mark, just chatting, but I guess there was something in my voice,” she says. “When I hung up, my son asked me, ‘Mommy was that Daddy?’ I said, ‘No, sweetie that was Mommy’s friend, Mark.’ He was quiet for a while, and then said, ‘But who is he? Is he Daddy?’ After that, I never spoke to Mark on the phone with my children in the room.”

Since the affair is out in the open—and on the Internet—and both families involved know about it, Stephanie figures it’s just a matter of time before her children find out what happened. But whether the news comes from a gossiping cousin or Google, Stephanie and her husband are prepared for the discussion they’ll have one day. “We’ve agreed we’ll talk to them about it together and tell them as much as they want to know,” she says. “We plan to tell them that marriage is really hard work and sometimes we make mistakes, but we’re a family first and foremost and we did everything we could to keep it that way.”

*   *   *

Perhaps the reason there’s been so little research on the effects of infidelity on children in the past is simply due to adultery’s secrecy and the difficulty quantifying an experience that’s largely individual. Studying divorce, by contrast, is easy: Either a couple is divorced or they are not. The life cycle of an affair is a much more nebulous concept. We don’t like to talk about affairs in public to begin with; we certainly don’t want to admit to having had one (or several). We even have a hard time defining an affair: Do you have to go all the way? What about emotional affairs? Internet affairs? Sexting?

Maybe the definition doesn’t matter. Bellenghem is quick to point out that it’s the dishonesty—not the sex—that makes infidelity damaging to kids. “Having an affair isn’t just betraying the spouse, it’s betraying what family is about,” she says. “And a family is usually created on the premise of monogamy.” In open marriages or cultures where infidelity is the norm, Bellenghem suggests that sex outside of marriage wouldn’t have as devastating an effect, precisely because it wouldn’t catch either parent—or their children—by surprise.

It’s that surprise, shame, and confusion that often leads parents to deal with the infidelity in a way that’s not necessarily best for their kids. Trying to normalize or cover up the situation to the kids, the betraying parent will often either deny the obvious or—worse—bring the children into the “secret” (outings with mommy or daddy’s “friend”; keeping secrets from the betrayed parent). As for the cheatee? “Usually the parent who’s betrayed goes through a period of obsessing and questioning, and is unable to stop thinking about [the affair],” says Brown. “There’s no way the kids don’t hear that.” Trying to help children deal with the confusion of the family upset in a healthy way may be easier said than done when a parent him- or herself is in the throes of pain and feelings of rejection.

If there’s a silver lining to the often grim reality of living through the aftermath of an affair, maybe it’s the opportunity to get a little more real with their kids about the realities of marriage: the fact that marriage is messy, takes a lot of work, and sometimes, the people we love the most will disappoint us in ways that are both simultaneously shocking and clichéd.

Author’s Note: When I was growing up, secrecy and privacy reigned supreme in families; now, the cultural norm seems to be shifting rapidly toward total disclosure. When it comes to infidelity and kids, I wonder what that will mean for everyone involved. Less shame and isolation, perhaps, but also the potential for an unhealthy dose of TMI. Presumably, it’ll be good for today’s children that we’re more honest than previous generations of parents, but I hope it’s something my kids won’t have personal experience with.

Meagan Francis has written for the Christian Science Monitor,, the Chicago Sun-Times and elsewhere. Her website is

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Straightening Things Out, With the People You Love

Straightening Things Out, With the People You Love

bracesWhen all the happy teeth of your mischievous smile were covered the other day by your shiny new braces, I remembered brushing your hair. But that doesn’t make any sense at all, I imagine you saying without hesitation. No? Well maybe it doesn’t. But that’s the way I think, all over the place, all the time. Don’t you? Doesn’t everybody? Well I do and, for all we know, it does make sense. Let’s see if we can straighten this out.

When you were a little girl, I used to give you baths, which I loved when I wasn’t consumed by myself and my own ambitions, which was often but, nonetheless, there was always a part of me that stayed aware of loving to watch you play with cups and water and I loved the way it felt on my big hands when I washed and conditioned your pretty hair. It was after the bath when things got ugly. I went downstairs as you dried off and put on your pajamas. Solemnly, you descended the stairs with your detangling spray, a comb, and a brush. Your mouth was a straight line and your eyes were half-lidded. You walked straight to me and turned around, rigid, like a soldier. I doused your hair with the spray and so it began. First, the comb to rake through the bigger tangles and then the brush. You tried to stifle your outbursts but sometimes you squealed as big raindrops formed in the clouds of your eyes and rolled down your cheeks and God it killed me to hurt you.

One of the many beautiful things about primal cultures and children is their convincing ability to inhabit a world of amazingly creative theories of causation. I don’t look upon this ability in a disparaging way at all. I admire it, respect it, yearn for it, and fundamentally believe that it’s a truer way to dwell in the shelter of the world than the diminished world merely understood through the lens of science and its useful discoveries. People used to have gods that oversaw almost every form of activity and nearly everything they did was a prayer. They made sacrifices to influence the harvest. Mimicked myth through ritual. Created idols to protect their homes and sleep. Attributed good fortune to the goodwill of deceased ancestors. Danced for rain.

It’s been almost 4 years and you don’t talk about the divorce much; you never have. But I imagine you might shoulder the burden of your own ideas about what went wrong in your secret and magical way of making sense. What did you do wrong? Were you perhaps mean to the cat? Did you steal cookies? Did you think a horrible thing in anger that you quickly wished you never thought and couldn’t think away? Or maybe you stepped on a crack or forgot to water the plants and your parents got divorced. And though I wrote above that I admired this ability to live in a world where what happens occurs in the realm of art, one of my deepest desires is for you to know and understand in the deeps of your bones that nothing you did caused your parents’ divorce. That blame lies solely with me. Your dad made sacrifices to all the wrong gods and incurred the wrath of their vengeance. And, even though I’ve told you so many times that we’re both sick of hearing it, I remain always on the ready (when you are) to discuss my mistakes with you, to make amends, and set things straight. God, it killed me to hurt you.

But eventually the brush would slide through your long yellow hair like a hot knife through butter and I could see your body slacken with relief. And I would keep brushing for a good long while because I knew it felt so nice to have a brush running through your shiny clean hair without a single snag or snarl. Loosened up, you would climb on my lap and start telling me your funny stories about the way things appear and happen for little girls. The cat likes to sing when she thinks no one is listening but you have heard her, on more than one occasion, sing I Shall Be Released by the big glass slider. When you fell off your bike and skinned your knee, you yelled at your bike and now she doesn’t feel much like riding no more. If you ever get scared at night, you just talk to the moon, which makes you not scared, because the moon is maybe your best friend in the whole world next to Maddie. And I would just listen and love you, brushing and brushing your long yellow hair until it was perfectly straight.

Now it has come to my attention that a smart little girl has taken to sneaking a peek at what her daddy writes on the Internet, so I will break one of my rules—a magician should never ever never reveal his tricks—and explain to you exactly why your shiny new braces reminded me of brushing your hair. You start with the braces. They straighten your teeth. I brushed your hair to make it straight. But these are just metaphors for the constantly ongoing need to straighten things out with the people you love. I am ready when you are. Now turn that thing off and go to bed. I love you. —Daddy

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Love in the Time of the Parenting Plan

Love in the Time of the Parenting Plan

By Theo Pauline Nestor

TheoPaulineNesterWhen you divorce as a forty-two-year-old mother of two, you can almost see the trajectory of your dating life stretching out before you, as solid and real as your seven-year-old car and your century-old house. As you file away the notarized papers decreeing your solitude legal, you know with complete certainty that you will be totally alone for several months or maybe even a year with not even an occasional thought of your romantic future. You will meet no one of interest in your trips to the grocery store and the library, and you do not expect to.

Around the one-year mark, friends will begin to set you up, and perhaps you will dabble in online dating on the Friday evenings when your kids are with their father. You will meet someone; he will be wrong for you in ways clear to you but not to others who are just so glad to see you “getting out again.” Suffering through long dinners and Scrabble games for the promise of mediocre sex, you will deny to yourself the ways that he is only half-right and date him half-heartedly for six months, and then, suddenly but somehow expectedly, the day comes when you never hear from each other again.

Acquaintances are nice to you because they know that this is your fate, that you are, in fact, the latest member of the country’s most congested demographic—middle-aged women in want of a good man. Nice married people think of you as someone who has it worse than they do; they treat you in the manner they normally reserve for the elderly or the terminally ill, and you do in some ways depend on the disability status that being female, middle-aged, and single affords you. No one asks if you’ll be attending this year’s school auction.

But what if, in fact, your life swerves abruptly and veers away from this dreary course? What if just months after a long marriage you fall headlong in love and you are no longer an object of pity but regarded now with some strange mixture of suspicion, guarded good will, and maybe even a little envy?

I was in what I now refer to as The Winter of My Home Improvement when news of our upcoming twenty-five-year high school reunion began to circulate among my old friends. During this home improvement season of my divorce, I channeled all my disappointment, anger, and loneliness into spackling, painting, and repairing wallpaper. I would run a roller dripping with Terra Nueva pink over a dingy wall with all the force of my being and then stand back to admire, as I kept insisting, “how much better things were becoming.” I manically charged through all the tasks that I’d been perpetually waiting for someone else to do when I was married, and it was only when I was hip-deep in some job of Herculean enormity—moving a pile of rocks from one side of the yard to the other, reorganizing all the junk thrown into the basement—that I felt any of the sense of peace and contentment that I’d once been able to garner from everyday activities like making dinner or folding a basket of laundry. Whenever my ex had the kids overnight, I obliterated the nagging sensation that I’d somehow misplaced my children by cruising the aisles of the jumbo hardware stores, filling my senses with the soft pile of carpet samples and the smell of freshly cut plywood. Yet, underneath my remodeling obsessions, I was haunted by my newfound isolation, and I immediately began to look forward to the reunion as a chance to get together with friends and warm myself around the bonfire of their company.

I didn’t give the reunion that much thought, though, until late spring, when I received a reminder e-mail. I recognized Thomas’s e-mail address on the “To” list as soon as I opened the message. Our names were side by side just as our lockers had been in the eighth grade, a coincidence of alphabet once again. We didn’t talk that much back then—just a shy word or two exchanged as we spun our combination locks. It wasn’t until a couple years after high school that our big romance ignited. We got together on a cloudy summer day for coffee at the beach and ended up spending the next year tangled up in each other, drinking blackberry tea in bed and confessing our love in three countries, chasing a dream of a life of a two-artist home, a dream we were too young to really live out but too old to dismiss. It took us all of the eighties to really break up, although we were never quite the same after our fateful re-entry into the U.S. from Australia at LAX. I went through the “US passports” line at customs and he went through “All Others.” His Canadian passport was stamped but he was granted only two weeks in the U.S. before he’d have to leave the country, me, and our Santa Fe life behind. When he left for Canada two weeks later, we broke up and spent the next six years trying to make it final, opening things up at random intervals by sleeping together and then having a fight over nothing the next morning.

In the nineties we both married other people and started families. Once in a while, he’d phone me and the room would spin until I’d catch my breath. We’d talk about our daughters and family life. When his marriage broke up in ’97, we talked on the phone until I said at last that we couldn’t. There was nothing I could do for him. His marriage was sinking, but I still had mine to keep afloat.

But now I wasn’t married. And neither was he. When I saw his e-mail on the list next to my own, I thought, Well, he can certainly see my name there just as I can see his. I went to sleep that night smug and certain there’d be an e-mail from him by morning. But there wasn’t one the next day, and I noticed that but then forgot about it in almost the same instant I rushed off the computer to get the kids ready for school. Yet, a week later, when another reminder e-mail came from the reunion organizers, I couldn’t resist the desire to e-mail him. It took me fifteen minutes to write the three-line note. His reply came a few hours later: Your “locker” is still next to mine.

Within a day we were on the phone, and once we were on, we couldn’t seem to get off. One night we talked until four in the morning and the next day we finished where we’d left off the night before. We talked of our marriages and their respective demises, our daughters, our gardens, and finally what had happened between us. He invited me to visit him, and soon I was juggling my parenting schedule, school performances, babysitters, and the favors of friends to cover my life as a single mom so I could take the two ferries and the bus between my house and his.

It was rainy as I walked off the final ferry. And I was worried and nervous and obsessing about whether or not I should put down the umbrella and let my hair get wet and frizzy or should I attempt to keep the thing aloft gracefully while also taming my clumsy rolling suitcase at the long-awaited moment of our reunion. Which hand should I carry the umbrella in? Did the rolling suitcase make me look middle aged and foolish?

And then I saw him. I saw his smile first, and then we were hugging and I reached up to kiss him and he pulled back and looked at me and then kissed me and put his hand on the small of my back and pulled me towards him. The wet black umbrella sat upside down on the dock where I had dropped it. All the little things I’d been worried about seemed from another life.

*   *   *

I live in a city, but it’s a city of small neighborhoods that are almost as insular and self-contained as mountain villages. It is rare for me to go to the library or the grocery store without running into someone I know. “Coming out” with my new boyfriend made me feel inconceivably brazen. It was only eight months after my husband and I separated when Thomas and I walked hand-in-hand into the local burger place, and I realized that the only people who seemed to know that my husband and I had split were those I’d actually gotten around to telling. It is, in fact, much easier not to mention that you’re getting divorced to acquaintances you bump into selecting their organic celery in the produce section. It’s much more socially acceptable to chat about the comings and goings of children than to say, “Hey that’s quite the head of romaine. Did I mention that my husband and I split up?” And who notices whether you’re wearing your ring or not? We’re all in our forties, not twentysomethings gushing over newly acquired solitaires.

My Seattle community is not prone to gossip, which I suddenly realized was somewhat unfortunate. Gossip has a distinct social function— it is an efficient and effective means of disseminating information. When you want said information to remain a secret, gossip can be a nightmare, of course, but when the news is the sort that everyone will inevitably find out—such as that of a divorce—you can almost find yourself wishing that there was someone whispering, “You wouldn’t believe what I just heard,” rather than having to awkwardly say, “Oh, we’re not married anymore” and deal with their sympathy (if you’re alone) or their open disgust (if you’re holding hands with your new boyfriend). At times, I’ve wished there were some sort of newsletter in which I could post the news of my marital disaster, sparing others and myself a number of awkward moments.

Before I was divorced, I had this naïve black-and-white view of divorce and tended to see divorced moms as something like the untouchables, a class of people whose lives had cast them into a dark and lonely sea, perpetually just out of reach of the brightly lit shores of happiness. But suddenly I was starting to look around and realize that the divorced moms weren’t inherently more miserable than the married ones and, in fact, many of the divorced moms seemed to be unapologetically happy.

I noticed another divorced mom, Kari, the first day at my daughter’s new school. She was wearing cute low-rise jeans and a ball cap and was laughing mischievously into her cellphone while the other mothers were straightening backpacks and chatting with each other. Kari and I started talking in the parking lot and quickly exchanged divorce stories. She was a year and half further into the process.

“You seem like you’re doing okay,” I ventured, hoping for some good news about the future, I suppose.

“Well,” she laughed, “I have a boyfriend. That helps!”

“You do?” I was surprised how open she was, no tone of guilt here. I lowered my voice and whispered, “So do I.”

“Co-ol!” She called out, nodding and giving me the you-go-girl look.

A few weeks later at basketball practice, one of the married mothers, Becky, was idly cleaning out her purse as a cluster of us chatted on the bleachers, only half-watching our seven-year-olds’ attempts to dribble balls down the court. Becky, sighing, passed me a Victoria’s Secret coupon from her purse’s discard pile. “Do you want this?” she asked with a sort of despair in her voice. “I’m afraid you’re the only one of us having the kind of sex that requires good underwear.”

*   *   *

The rule of waiting a year before introducing a new Significant Other to one’s children is apparently so pervasive in our culture of divorce that even my friend Nancy (also separated from her husband but far too sensible to become mired in the competing voices of advice books) cited the one-year rule to me as if it had been sent forth from the Ark of the Covenant.

“Aren’t you supposed to wait a year?” was her only response after I rambled on about Thomas and his latest weekend at my house with my daughters, Grace and Elizabeth.

What happened to being happy for me? “Yeah, you are,” I said. “But sometimes your life just happens and then you have to work with that.”

For a divorced mother of two, it would seem that falling in love should have a waiting period, like the purchase of a handgun. If my life had gone the route of occasional Scrabble playing and futile dating, I know the world would still be on my side, but apparently there is something deeply disturbing about a newly divorced woman slow dancing in the living room with a man other than her children’s father.

It wasn’t just my friends, though, who were concerned about my children and how best to juggle their need to have nothing more change in their lives and my need to love and be loved. I had obsessed endlessly on the phone to Thomas about how best to tell my daughters about him, how to reassure them that I was still there for them even though I was clearly—even a six-year-old could see it—crazy in love.

My eldest, Elizabeth, tended to think of this relationship as an affair I was bold enough to have out in the open for all to see. She is nine and a half and precocious, and it is with a suspicious tone—a tone not unlike the one Rita Moreno’s character uses on Natalie Wood’s when she realizes her sister has fallen for a member of the rival Jets gang—that she asked me, “So, are you ‘in love’ with him?”

She is the girl, and I the grown woman, but still I trembled a little as I nodded my head with a yes.

She looked at me with the exasperation of a mother of a teenage girl and said, “So soon?”

“It’s not like I planned for this to happen now. If I could’ve chosen a time, I would’ve waited.”

Gracie, my six-year-old, nodded and tried to make sense of it all by drawing from her far-too-extensive knowledge of Disney films. “Yeah, in the movies,” she said, “When the characters fall in love, it just happens. They don’t know it’s going to happen.”

Elizabeth turned her frustration on Grace. “Grace, can’t you see this? Mom and Dad are a match. For every person there is just one person. Dad is that person for Mom. There cannot be another person!”

Resting her head on one hand, Grace looked strangely detached, something like the Dalai Lama, as she said to Elizabeth very calmly, “I don’t believe that. I think there can be more than one. Wait here. I’ll show you.”

Grace leaned over the front porch and plucked two waxy camellia leaves from the overgrown bush that borders the house. Carefully, she tore the first in half, but before she did this she waved the one whole leaf that symbolized her parents’ intact marriage before our eyes, like the magician’s dramatic gesture of showing nothing up the sleeves. Then, she calmly demonstrated the autonomy of the two newly freed halves and the ease with which the mother half of the first leaf was able to hook up with the male half of the second torn leaf. “See how the leaf can split in two. I think,” she paused and then continued in a measured, emphatic voice, “there can be more than one true love.”

Stunned by Grace’s demonstration and by just how far beyond my reach and control things had really gone, I sat there speechless for a moment, and then Elizabeth spun on her heel and dashed to the same camellia bush to yank off another leaf.

“Well, this is what I think,” she said, looking me right in the eye as she waved her leaf in my face. “This was Mom and Dad.”

She then shred the leaf violently into minuscule pieces, shouting, “This is them now.” I was terrified of her anger and the enormity of the situation. I knew all the anger she felt was justified, and I knew too that I was the one who had set the match to this blaze of emotion. But as scary as that was to realize, I also felt genuinely relieved. Maybe now we could start to move forward. I pulled her close to me and held her for a long time while she cried and cried, and I said the words I could only hope were true: it’s okay, it’s okay, it really is okay.

*   *   *

The first few times that Thomas came to visit when the kids were home were at times akin to a root canal, a thing to be endured so that life could be better later on. He slept on the couch because it seemed too early for him to be sleeping in the same bed Mom and Dad had slept in together less than a year earlier. I would wake up at five in the morning and creep into the living room and lie there beside him, wishing I could freeze time and stay tucked into his arms all day, but at the first footfalls upstairs, I leaped off the couch as if I’d just received an electric shock, just as I had when I was sixteen and heard my mother start down the basement stairs to check on my boyfriend and me.

It was excruciating to watch Elizabeth struggle with how to just be around Thomas. She’d cycle through a gamut of emotions, from disdain to giddiness, in five-minute intervals that were exhausting to follow. Sometimes she would be very nice to Thomas but then glare at me or say something snide when he left the room. He’d somehow return just as I’d be telling her to smarten up, and he’d look at me surprised and come over and rub my shoulders and say something like, “Hey, easy there.” And then she’d say something like “Yeah, Mom,” even daring once to add, “Why don’t you chill?” After a few hours of this, I’d go lie down in the bedroom, Thomas would come lie down beside me, I’d go to touch him—wanting more than anything to just kiss him—but then Elizabeth would plunk into my desk chair and spin, browsing with obvious glee through my normally forbidden papers until I’d find myself shouting something like, “Hey, that’s enough!” and find myself awash in remorse and guilt.

But I also knew throughout this that if I just gave the situation enough time, love, and patience, as well as the right mixture of attention and detachment, it would improve. And it did. The day before Halloween, Thomas and Elizabeth sat on the front porch carving pumpkins in the fading afternoon light. They talked in quiet voices for a long time and when I walked by once to take out the trash, they both gave me a look warning me not to interrupt them. By the time they came in, their hands were cold and it was almost dark, and there was a shift in Elizabeth—very tiny, almost imperceptible—but still an undeniable shift.

By our second Christmas as a two-home family, Thomas has been part of our lives for six months, and it is more mind bending than working a Rubik’s cube for my ex and me to figure out how, when, and where the holiday should be celebrated, despite the legal “parenting plan” that delineates the children’s movements down to the millisecond. Somehow it’s just not as simple as “on even years the children will spend the first half of the Christmas break with their father” when Santa, stockings, and a new boyfriend are all involved.

We agree somehow that Thomas will stay at my place (alone) Christmas morning, and I will come to my ex’s (where Santa has been smart enough to scout out the children and the stockings, which normally reside with me) and watch the kids open their gifts there. But then on the twenty-fourth, Thomas and I are dropping something off for the kids when Elizabeth rushes down her dad’s front steps.

“Mama, Thomas can’t stay at home alone on Christmas morning. It’s not right. I want him to come over here.”

I look up the stairs and I meet the gaze of their dad and ask with a shoulder shrug, “What do you think?”

“I think it’s a great idea,” he says. Both of us know that’s not true.

The next morning Thomas and I walk hand-in-hand to the house where the man who used to be my husband and my two children wait for us. Inside, we will drink hot chocolate and eat muffins and then we will notice the stockings. Beside the four matching ones of a Christmas mouse, reindeer, penguin, and bear that our family has used for years, there is a new stocking, a fifth one made late last night by a nine-year-old girl who would never want anyone to feel left out.

Author’s Note: The other day Thomas and I took a walk at the beach with the girls. We sat down for a moment on a bench so Elizabeth could adjust her roller blades. When they were tightened, she leaned back into Thomas and rested her head momentarily on his chest. It was one of those breathtaking gestures that is so small and yet undeniable in its significance. Neither Thomas nor I said a word but our eyes met in that split second before she scrambled back up to her feet and began to glide along the path once again.

Theo Pauline Nestor is the author of Writing Is My Drink: A Writer’s Story of Finding Her Voice (And a Guide to How You Can Too) (Simon & Schuster, 2013) and How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Over (Crown, 2008), which was selected by Kirkus Reviews as a 2008 Top Pick for Reading Groups and as a Target “Breakout Book.” An award-winning instructor, Nestor has taught the memoir certificate course for the University of Washington’s Professional & Continuing Education program since 2006. Nestor also produces events for writers such as the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat, Bird by Bird & Beyond, and the Black Mesa Writers’ Intensive, featuring talks by literary leaders such as Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, Julia Cameron, and Natalie Goldberg.

Brain, Child (Fall, 2005)

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The Normalcy Of Divorce

The Normalcy Of Divorce

0-13The most common and only shared symptom of children of divorced parents is having divorced parents.

Having parents who remain married may not the best thing for a child. Having married parents is merely having married parents.

You can argue as much as you want about divorce being right or wrong, but you can’t dispute its normalcy.

Our generally unquestioned assumptions about marriage and divorce and their respective impacts on children spring from the double-sided presupposition that 1). The best possible scenario for a child is to grow up in a family that remains intact and 2). That having divorced parents causes suffering and should, if it can, be avoided. It’s commonsense, right? Married and divorced people—even single people—agree. But what if, because these observations are so ready and apparent, divorce turns out to be the scapegoat of commonsense? Hold that thought.

It’s generally accepted that 50% of marriages end in divorce. Wading through and understanding divorce statistics can be exhausting and one can, if they wish, get argumentative about that percentage or what that number conceals. And it’s true that divorce is on somewhat of a decline, but even if we conceded that only 40% of all marriages end in divorce, the bottom line is that a lot of marriages end in divorce. So many that if you take any given kid walking down the street, there’s absolutely no reason to simply assume that his or her parents are married.

I’m going to repeat that for emphasis: There’s absolutely no reason to assume that any given kid’s parents are married. This fact of our daily lives has consequences that are not yet apparent to our commonsense, which is common. Individually and culturally, our least questioned assumptions about the way things are have a tenacious tendency to lag way behind the way things are. And for more than a few decades now, divorce has been normal. I’m risking redundancy here because I want this point driven home. Grab any two kids off the street and chances are that one has married parents and one has divorced parents. That’s a pretty good argument for the normalcy of both conditions.

And yet, in spite of its normalcy, we still view divorce as a catastrophe and seek to interpret children of divorce through the lens of abnormal psychology. Granted, people enter marriages with the intention of staying together and a marriage’s end feels catastrophic. But, given its normalcy, it is perhaps time to revise our understanding of divorce as something very difficult that a lot of people experience and reserve our catastrophes for hurricanes and auto accidents. Things are never just things. They consist of what we collectively believe about them. And, for some stubborn reason, we’re still making a really big deal out of something that’s no big deal. No big deal? Yes. No big deal. If 5% of marriages ended in divorce, then it would be rare, out of the ordinary, a big deal. But half the time means just as often. It’s no big deal.

And yet where do we first look for the source of a person’s abnormal psychology? ADHD. Depression. Anxiety. Substance abuse. Oppositional/Defiance Disorder. Sexual deviance. Cutting. Suicidal ideation. Suicide itself. Serial killing. It’s a very safe bet that when abnormality of any kind becomes manifest and IF (IF) that person has divorced parents, our attention automatically hones in on divorce as undoubtedly a fundamental cause of the abnormality in question. Ah! Divorced parents; comes from a broken home. The madness of this kneejerk attribution is as crazy as the various madnesses it seeks to understand. It’s equivalent to seeking the cause of psychopathology in a person’s blue eyes (indeed, having blue eyes is less common than having divorced parents) or in a sneaky underworld demon possessing the afflicted. In fact, attributing the cause to a demon would be a much more useful diagnosis because you can at least work with a sneaky underworld demon. Demons can be exorcized. You can’t undo having divorced parents.

For people who suffer AND have divorced parents and for divorced parents with children who ALSO suffer, it’s high time to let divorce off the hook as a catch all for the cause of life’s discontents. Our various mental illnesses no doubt have deep and complex causes and would be much better served by seeking those causes beyond the limited scope of the family and perhaps in broader frontiers like the kinks in our culture or the mystery of brain chemistry. A shot of imagination to revive the depth psychologies of Freud and Jung wouldn’t hurt either. Of course this work is already being done and advances are being made but they seem to be having little to no impact on our commonsense pop-psych notions about the simplistic relationship between our problems and our Family of Origin.

The attentive reader will have noted that I laid a great deal of stress on normalizing divorce while ignoring the unarguable fact that children do indeed undergo an intense amount of suffering when their parents divorce. Agreed. However, the cause of that suffering is not the phenomenon of divorce itself; rather, the suffering is generated by our collective insistence upon living within the unquestioned and commonplace assumptions detailed at the beginning of this essay: mainly, that having married parents is good and having divorced parents is bad. If you want to cite research that supports those assumptions, what you’re actually doing is citing research generated by those assumptions. Understanding “family” as an entity that necessitates marriages that remain forever intact simply does not represent the reality of families as they exist today and we harm ourselves and our kids to the extent that we (viciously) judge half of our actual families as something less than and worse than the other half when they’re both equally common.

We celebrate diversity in so many ways. Why not here? This is not a divorce manifesto. This is not an attack on marriage any more than gay marriage is an attack on marriage. It’s simply an affirmation that there are different ways to be and a proposal that difference is not what causes suffering; refusing to acknowledge the dignity of difference causes suffering. There’s plenty of divorced people who go their separate ways while deftly co-parenting their children. There’s plenty of married couples who muck it up. Marital status is a gasping variable. Beyond the limited focus of this essay, there’s plenty of gay couples and single women and men who do fabulous jobs raising great kids. There are ways and there are ways—all kinds of ways for people to be and be together.

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Is A Woman’s Identity Based on Her Last Name?

Is A Woman’s Identity Based on Her Last Name?

0-5I didn’t think about the connection to my daughters based on our last name until two months after signing divorce papers. Then I realized if I reverted to my family name I could lose my identity with my girls, who had their father’s last name. In addition, strangers might think I was an unwed mother. I know there’s nothing wrong with that, but, for me, after twenty-three years of marriage, and closer to fifty than forty-five, I deserved my social status married with children. Yet, I had to face the truth, I was no longer married. How would I announce my new last name after owning it for two decades? Perhaps, like an address change. “Dear Friends and Family, Now that I am divorced, please refer to me as Ms. Hooks. Please change your contact list from Mrs. Batchelor to Ms. Hooks.” And we know what happens with address changes: people forget to update their contact list and frequently lose contact with each other.

Still paranoid about this transformation, I imagined constantly correcting people. I’d have to deal with sorrow and grief about the divorce. And the very mention of divorce can be hostile.

Historically, society expected a woman to take her husband’s last name for convenience as a societal expectation with no questions asked, a better last name, nuclear family identity, and true unity. Also, it was illegal for a woman to keep her surname before the mid-70s. But times have changed, women keep their maiden names, hyphenated or not.

I asked my own daughters their thoughts about returning to my maiden name: Hooks. My 19-year-old said, “You’re leaving an old life behind and starting a new one.”  My 15-year-old said, “I know you’re my mother and that’s all that counts.”  I knew she understood that concept when one of her friends asked, “What do I call your mom? You know, the divorce.”

“Ms. Angela,” my daughter said. “Or Ms. Hooks.”

Keeping life simple for the sake of the children is one thing, how about the married woman who has established her career or needs to reintroduce herself to friends with her maiden name?

My last name is hyphenated—Hooks-Batchelor—on my undergraduate and graduate degrees, along with my first book; however, not on my writing clips and collegiate adjunct status.

Maybe I’d wait for a second marriage and adopt his name and use my family name, Hooks, for publications and future accreditations. Yet, I wonder–why couldn’t I use my first name, Angela, like Beyonce, Cher, Madonna, Oprah and Pink. Even women in the bible didn’t have last names; they were identified by tribe, occupation or place—Lydia, a dealer of purple cloth, Gomer daughter of Diblaim. Who was I kidding, I didn’t have celebrity status, and this was not biblical times. Who would call me, Angela, a writer of essays, or Angela, daughter of the Bronx? Although during my teenage years, the neighbors called me the beauty parlor lady’s daughter.

In December, eight months after considering changing my moniker, I read a quote indicating people cannot start a new life until they rid themselves of the old. That was me. Instantly, I clicked on my computer and changed my name on all social media forums. For LinkedIn, I placed my former name in parenthesis. One person emailed asking if I remarried. I politely replied, no. To avoid this confusion, I updated my Facebook status: Yes, a name change has taken place. Please note Angela Hooks, not Batchelor. And since you didn’t get a wedding invitation and I didn’t post a wedding photo, I didn’t remarry. That post received several likes and comments such as, “Welcome back,” “You Go, Girl, Ms. Hooks, love it,” and “I didn’t want to ask.”

Next, I called my lawyer, and he reminded me that my judgment of divorce stipulated the Plaintiff, me, “shall be entitled to resume the use of her maiden name.” Then I made a list of people and places to contact and inform of this change. Inside a manila folder, I placed the judgment of divorce, my birth certificate, social security card, passport, and driver’s license, stuck it in my handbag and carried it everywhere. I headed to the Social Security office to make the official change, and the moment the new social security card arrived, set off to Motor Vehicle. Each time I mentioned a name change, responses varied. Some creditors asked why. One representative said, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” The bank teller blurted “Congratulations on your marriage.” Her face soured at the mention of divorce as she tried to clean it up, with “Are you happy?” I smiled.

Church seemed the most difficult and invasive, since I’d been there five months and had not shared my personal life. The moment my name appeared on the bulletin as Hooks, the infamous question followed, “Did you get married?” Some faces frowned, others smiled at my answer. One lady said, “I’ve been married so many times, I don’t know who I am sometimes.”

However, on campus at the start of the spring semester, I encountered students who knew me from previous years, and they said, “Hello, Mrs. Batchelor.”  I replied, “It’s Ms. Hooks.”

My name change will take time; I did have it for two decades. Often times I forget and call myself Mrs. Batchelor. The way I look at it, identity is who you are – not religion, community or a man’s last name.

Angela writes at angchronicles. She teaches at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, NY and studies Creative English in the  Doctor of Arts program at St. John’s University.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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Telling Addy

Telling Addy

By Joseph Freitas
Portrait of a girl. She is beautiful in its anger. Almost a witch.Every family has an agitator, a provocateur who is always ready to call attention to the embarrassing moment, the underlying motive, or the simple fact that things are not as wonderful as everyone would like to believe.

Addy was that dissident voice in our family. Peering through her teenage insolence, she seemed to understand that things were not okay. Despite the fact that I moved as carefully as possible between the big house and the pool house where I had been sleeping separately from my wife for several months, tiptoeing across the yard after all the lights were out, and despite the fact that Jamie and I had been working on the words we would use to describe our situation to the kids, Addy found a way to preempt any and all our timelines. Like that August three years before – when she stole the car and brought Jamie and me to our life-changing conversation – she was now a constant reminder that we could no longer wait to take action.

During our last few months of life together as a family, Addy took advantage of our preoccupation. And why wouldn’t she? Jamie and I were so engrossed in our impending separation that we barely monitored her schoolwork; we asked her very few questions; and we accepted implausible explanations for her whereabouts. When we actually stopped to focus, she was always well armed.

One night in early October she asked if I would drive her new boyfriend Nick home. He was 17, two years older than Addy, and had dropped out of high school the year before.

Nick sat in the backseat looking dully out the side window while Addy sat in the front punching music out of the radio, barely letting a single note register before shifting again to the next station. I didn’t even try to make conversation.

“That’s it,” Addy said. She pointed to a small bungalow up on the left.

I pulled over and Nick got out with a quick, “Thanks.”

Addy opened her door and approached him. I could see their hips through the passenger window as she walked up close. I turned and looked straight ahead like a dignified chauffeur. A few moments later she climbed back into the car.

We were quiet for a while and then I asked: “Is Nick going back to school?”

She began fiddling with the radio again. “I don’t know,” she said.

“What does he do all day?”

Her sigh was audible even over the music. She settled on a song and sat back.

“What’s going on with you and Mom?” she asked.

The counterattack was perfectly planned. It was a square hit. With a single question she managed to switch our roles. I moved from protective father figure to guilt-ridden teenager. What did she know about Jamie and me? Had she caught me sneaking in and out of the pool house? Was she aware of my life on the Internet? For an instant I felt afraid – afraid that I would have to reveal everything at that very moment. I looked over; she was staring straight ahead. Both of her hands were held up close to her mouth, and she was biting the nail of her left index finger. I regrouped and spoke.

“I ask you what Nick does during the day and that’s your answer?”

She ran her fingers through her hair with dramatic exasperation. “He’s looking for work. I’ve told you that a million times. What do you do all day?”

Good question. Even I had to admit that. What did I do all day?

There was a time when I could answer that question without even thinking. I took the train to work. I went to meetings. I reviewed big budgets. I got things done. And now, well, I wrote. I floated in the pool. I talked to men online. I worried about the future. I worried that Addy might actually know what I did all day.

One of my contract goals was to tell the kids about our separation, but I didn’t have the language down yet. And even though I had nearly completed my so-called screenplay, it was clear that I had been working on the wrong script.

I ignored her last question and focused instead on the first: What was going on with Jamie and me? Should I give Addy some information, warn her of what was to come? And more important: Was this the time to have the talk?

I looked over; she had turned her head away from me. As I made the final turn on to our street, the lamplight trapped both of our reflections on her window. Our eyes inadvertently met. And suddenly a memory – the one of the Caribbean – came rushing back again.

This time I remembered that the kids were in the back seat when Jamie said, “We’re lost.”

“How can we be lost on five square miles?” I asked.

Evan, who must have been eight years old, began to jump up and down with excitement.

“We’re lost!” he shouted into Addy’s face. “I love being lost!”

Addy pushed him away from her. “No we’re not! Daddy, are we lost?” Peering into the rear view mirror I could see her beginning to panic. The painted beads at the end of each of her braids rattled around her head.

I gave Jamie a look. “No, Addy, we are not lost.”

“But where’s the hotel?”

Our eyes locked in the rear view mirror again, but this time I tried to hold her attention as if my reflection could cup her small, tanned face. “It’s very close, honey,” I said.

She kept an eye on me in the mirror. And then I smiled. “Yup,” I said. “Here we are. There’s the little market.”

“Shoot!” Evan sat back and looked out the window, dejected, like the air had been unplugged from the source of his excitement.

“See?” Addy said to her brother. “I told you we weren’t lost!”

I pulled into our driveway and stopped the car. I wanted to be that father again. The one who reassured her, the one who set her mind and heart at ease. But I no longer had that power. Besides, I had no idea where that little girl in the braids had gone – the one afraid to be lost. Where was she?

I pulled the keys out and turned my whole body toward her. Out of reflex more than anything, she looked at me. She twisted a strand of hair in her hand; I could see the chipped blue nail polish on her fingertips. And though her jaw was set and her eyes were filled with an angry determination, she seemed more lost than she had ever been before. I wanted so much to make it better.

“Your mom and I are having some problems,” I said. It was a lousy open- ing and I regretted it as soon as I uttered the words.

“No shit,” she said. “It’s so obvious that you don’t want to be together.”

She looked at me in the darkness. It had become rare for us to share any pro- longed eye contact. The outside light dropped an uneven shadow on her face but her eyes stayed fixed, ready for my response. I could feel her breathing, waiting, her underlying unhappiness and dissatisfaction almost palpable. Would these new revelations make her situation worse? Would the eventual knowledge of my homosexuality make her even more rebellious, more difficult to deal with, more disappointed with the sorry lot she called her parents?

I sat there trying to imagine the impact our separation would have on her – and Evan. But she and her brother were both so different that it seemed as if the discussions – though filled with the same content – were a diametrically opposed set of problems that I had yet to overcome.

I looked at her and felt so deeply sad that our relationship had become more like an unpleasant truce. And though there had been a time when she stood at the doorway waving goodbye as I headed to work, left her drawings on the pillow for me, and wept when I left on yet another business trip, I knew that our bond had been damaged.

Still, despite the armor she had constructed around herself, I knew I had to continue trying to reach her, to bring her along as best I could.

“Addy,” I said finally. “Your mom and I aren’t sure what we’re going to do.”

“Just get a divorce.”

She said it as if she were tired of the whole thing. She started to open the door but then turned back, waiting for my response.

I looked into her eyes, trying to transmit all of my feelings to her – as if there were some sort of telepathy that could intervene and help me communicate.

“Whatever we do,” I said, “we love each other and we love you.”

“Whatever,” she said and got out of the car.

I watched as she rushed up the porch steps and into the house, and I wondered whether our problems were as clear to everyone else as they seemed to be to Addy.

Author’s Note: “Addy” is a chapter from my forthcoming memoir, An American Dad, which tells the story of coming out: to my wife of 20 years, our children, family, and closest friends. Despite its challenges and heartbreak, being a father continues to be my greatest joy.

Joseph Freitas is the father of two children. He taught memoir writing at the Westport Writers’ Workshop in Westport, Connecticut. He and his partner own and run 141 Bedford Natural Market in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where they have lived for the past two years. Joe is currently completing work on his memoir, An American Dad.

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Mothering from Afar

By Katy Read

Kim Voichescu was running into conflicts with the staff at her sons’ school. Sometimes she was kept from seeing her kids’ records or picking up her boys after school. She suspected that people there might secretly doubt her qualifications as a parent. One day, a school secretary came right out and said it to her face:

“Well, you’re not a real mother.”

Voichescu is a real mother, but she doesn’t live with her children. She doesn’t have physical custody of her two boys, now ten and thirteen, but she does share joint legal custody with their father, and that entitles her to access their educational records and to other parental rights.

For Voichescu, who has spent tens of thousands of dollars and years in court fighting to get physical custody, the secretary’s comment was a pin against a big balloon of pent-up frustration. Now, a year later, Voichescu can’t remember exactly what she said to the woman, but clearly recalls it left the secretary gaping wordlessly.

“I wish I could relive it and put it on the Internet where it would live as one of those speeches for all eternity,” recalls Voichescu, thirty-four, of Diamond, Illinois, a project manager for a civil engineering and land surveying firm. “It was one of those occasions when you walk out of a place and you feel like a shining light is upon you. [The unspoken prejudice] had been undulating under the surface for so long that I couldn’t pinpoint it. But she actually said it.”

The suspicion that people secretly doubt their fitness as parents haunts most noncustodial mothers—even loving, caring, law-abiding mothers who’ve always acted in their children’s best interests.

Their worries are not unfounded. As a society, we don’t quite know what to make of mothers who don’t live with their kids. Whether it’s expressed openly or not, society still tends to assume that the mother is the parent mainly in charge of caring for children, and the one best equipped to do it well, the one to whom most of the responsibility rightly falls. A father pushing his child in a stroller draws charmed smiles—Wow, what a great dad, helping out!—from people who wouldn’t look twice at a woman behind the stroller, just doing her job.

When parents are separated or divorced, it’s often assumed that the kids live with her. If the father lives in a different household or is out of the picture entirely, it may not be ideal, but it’s not unusual. Sure, we’re no longer surprised that some children of divorce pack their bags and shuttle between parents every other week. But when the roles are completely reversed—when Dad has the kids and does all the domestic duties and Mom lives somewhere else—the old gender stereotypes come rushing back into play. People wonder what went wrong. They assume the noncustodial mother must have deserted her children or had them taken away. Did she hit them? Leave them home alone while she went bar-hopping? Leave them in order to “go find herself”?

If those thoughts actually don’t go through your mind when you meet a noncustodial mother, you can bet that the fear of what you’re thinking probably is going through her mind. Rather than face odd looks, intrusive questions, or rude remarks, some noncustodial moms say they keep their kids’ photos off their desks at work, avoid mentioning their children, and wonder when to break the news to new acquaintances that they are, in fact, real mothers. They often suffer guilt, confusion, sadness, and depression.

“You can’t believe the discrimination and bias that people have toward you,” says Voichescu, who now carries around laminated copies of her custody papers wherever she goes. “It’s like you are an alien.”

Noncustodial mothers like Voichescu might feel like cultural oddities, but they are actually far from alone. There are about 2.2 million noncustodial mothers in the United States, according to the most recent U.S. Census records. The reasons women live apart from their children are many, of course, including a move, a job, family preference, a prison sentence, or a court order. Some noncustodial mothers live near their children; some live in different cities or states or countries (the last group includes women who come to the United States from other countries to work as nannies or maids in order to support children they’ve had to leave back home).

Some women retain the right to share physical custody of their children, even if they choose to live elsewhere and not exercise it. Some share legal custody—that is, they retain the right to make decisions on behalf of their children, even if they don’t live together. And some have neither.

Some see their kids frequently; others rarely. Some have good relationships with their children and their children’s fathers, “other mothers,” or legal guardians; others find that hostile former partners have turned their children against them. And, yes, some actually have behaved in ways that caused the court to deem them inadequate parents: committed a crime, abused drugs, abused or neglected their kids.

The number of noncustodial mothers is increasing, in part because family courts have moved from always assigning custody to mothers toward deciding what works best for a particular child’s situation, whether it’s having the parents share custody or assigning it to one parent or the other. But many noncustodial mothers live apart from their children willingly, because of a job or school situation, because of individual relationships or preferences within the family, or for other personal reasons.

Even among these ostensibly voluntary arrangements, made privately or informally within families, some situations are actually “a little more gray,” says Geoffrey Greif, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, who conducted a pioneering study of noncustodial mothers in the 1980s. For example, he says, a woman might say, “I divorced my husband and I need to earn more money and I can’t do that if I have [to pay for] child care. My husband happened to start his career ten years sooner, while I was home taking care of the children. He has more job flexibility; he can pay for a babysitter.” In cases like that, the mothers gave up custody willingly, Greif says, meaning they didn’t fight in court. “But it’s sort of unwilling, based on the roles of men and women in society,” he says. “Men make more than women. He gets to reap the benefit of that.”

As for women unwillingly separated from their children by court order, there, too, is a lot of gray. Their status may mean that they willingly signed over their rights for various reasons, or it may mean they lost the legal battle with their children’s father. When there is a dispute over custody, parents don’t always enter a courtroom on equal footing, financially or otherwise. Some women—especially former stay-at-home mothers who did not have a career or separate finances—can’t afford lawyers and lengthy court fights. Ginna Babcock, an adjunct associate professor at the University of Idaho, who has studied noncustodial parents of both sexes, says many women lose custody “essentially by default.”

Even women who can afford the legal costs may face disadvantages in court, Babcock explains. If the father has a new wife at home, some judges reason that if a mother works full time, her child would have to go into daycare, while the father’s new wife could provide a presumably more stable home environment, she says. “In other words, many of the women in my study ‘couldn’t win.’ “

Janet, thirty, would recognize that feeling. She says her ex, who physically abused her, comes from a prominent family and has friends in the court system in their small Midwestern community. He forced her to hand over custody when their daughter was just two months old, grabbing Janet by the neck and brandishing papers for her to sign, threatening that if she didn’t, she and the baby “will never leave this house.” She has spent six thousand dollars trying to regain custody of her now six-year-old girl. Recently, her new husband was laid off, her own hours are being cut, and she’s running out of options.

“It’s a game, and if you don’t have the money, you’re going to lose,” says Janet, who asked that her identity be concealed in order to protect her daughter. “When mothers don’t have custody of their children, it doesn’t mean they were negligent or that they didn’t care about their kids or that they didn’t want their kids all the time. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of who’s got the better attorney, who’s got the better connections.”

The history of child-custody policy is one of flip-flops. Before the Industrial Revolution, children were expected to contribute to the family’s income and thus were seen as a form of property, says Diana Gustafson, author of the 2005 book Unbecoming Mothers: The Social Production of Maternal Absence. Fathers, who generally provided their financial support, were assumed to have the right to their custody. After the Industrial Revolution, the outlook started to change. Children’s rights were given more attention, and mothers came to be seen as “naturally more able to nurture,” she says. That gave rise to the “Tender Years Doctrine,” a legal concept from the late nineteenth century that presumes that during a child’s “tender” years (generally, up to age thirteen), children belong with their mothers.

“There were exceptions where the mothers were judged to be so unfit that they weren’t able to care for the children,” Gustafson says. “That’s where a lot of the stigma of not having care of your children comes from. Because it was seen as natural for mothers to take care of their children, there’s something unnatural about you if you can’t.”

In recent decades, the overriding concept in child-custody cases has shifted from the Tender Years Doctrine to the “Best Interests of the Children” doctrine, a newer legal concept in which decisions about living arrangements are based on children’s individual situations, theoretically without regard to the parents’ gender. Family courts still have tended to favor mothers as the primary caregivers, says Jill Miller Zimon of Cleveland, a lawyer and social worker who has worked on behalf of families and providers involved in the court and social service systems. That attitude is changing, however, as a result of evolving gender roles, employment patterns, pressure from fathers’ rights groups, and other social developments.

But society hasn’t fully caught onto the fact that the term “noncustodial mother” no longer suggests, as it once might have, that the child was forcibly removed because of the mother’s inadequacy.

“Clearly that’s not the case anymore,” Miller Zimon says, “but there’s not been an effort to really change the image of that.”

If mothers who lose their legal rights to their children discomfit us, what emotions do we reserve for intelligent, loving, competent mothers who voluntarily choose to live apart from their children?

“Society expects a mom who basically ‘abandons’ her children to sort of slink off guiltily, and the hero single dad to come in and save the day,” says Rebekah Spicuglia, twenty-nine, an articulate, affable New York media manager at a nonprofit media-advocacy organization who happens to not live with her son, eleven.

When Spicuglia, who writes the NonCustodial Parent Community blog (, relinquished physical custody of her son about nine years ago, it wasn’t against her will, and she is not fighting to have him live with her.

Though she may face less overt prejudice than noncustodial mothers who have “misbehaved,” her situation confounds society’s collective assumptions even more deeply. “When you’re a mom and your kids don’t live with you, there’s a look in someone’s eyes that you can see a mile away,” Spicuglia says. “They’re wondering why. Were you on drugs? What did you do? The imagination goes crazy.”

When Spicuglia meets new people, she has learned not to mention her son, not right away at least. At twenty-nine, she has spent much of the past decade living and working among students and young professionals, where the subject of children doesn’t often come up. Spicuglia waits to mention it only when she has time for The Explanation: the tale of how her son lives in California with her ex-husband because of a series of decisions Spicuglia made as she progressed in her education and career. She seems to feel obligated to clarify: “There were never any issues of me being a bad mom or anything like that.”

“Once you tell someone you’re a mom, they want to know what school your child goes to and they want to ask all the kid questions,” she says. “I believe that in general, people are very understanding. But I think that because this is something most people don’t think of or haven’t heard of, it’s just something that needs to be explained. For a long time, I didn’t have the energy to explain it to people. It took me a long time to really own it.”

As with most such stories, hers is not particularly short or simple. Spicuglia, who lived with her own divorced dad when she was a kid, got pregnant at seventeen. She married her son’s father, a co-worker in a restaurant in Santa Maria, California. He lived among his large Mexican family, which she describes as “so incredible in all its beautiful traditions, people everywhere, relatives just loving each other and lots of great food.”

When their son was about a year old, Spicuglia’s husband returned to Mexico to deal with some immigration red tape, and their son accompanied him. Spicuglia had been taking community college film classes; while they were gone, she moved to Los Angeles to work as a production assistant.

When her husband returned, the couple moved back in together, but soon realized they “wanted different things” from life, she says, and decided to split up. Spicuglia was accepted at the University of California, Berkeley. She left her son with his dad’s family while she waited for family-student housing. At that stage, both parents assumed the boy would live with his mother.

Unexpectedly, a year and a half went by, during which time Spicuglia worked, attended classes, and visited her son as often as possible. When her name reached the top of the family housing list, she called her ex-husband to tell him. He announced that he had changed his mind: He now felt the boy would be better off living with him and his extended family, rather than be placed in daycare while Spicuglia attended school.

“It was a huge shock for me,” she says. “This was not what I’d wanted, not what I had ever expected to happen. But I was faced with a decision to either challenge this in the courts or I could reexamine the situation from a more objective and loving standpoint and try and see if what his father was saying was true. Maybe that is a better place for him to be. When I looked at that, I realized that his dad had so much more to offer than I did.”

Spicuglia retained shared legal custody, got her degree, and moved to New York, where she remarried a couple of years ago. She does her best to keep up with her son’s activities long distance, although, like Voichescu, she has run into problems. School officials have left her off of her son’s emergency-contact information, neglected to send copies of the report cards, and have made her get authorization from his father to release records although legally she isn’t required to provide it.

“The school system is not set up to include noncustodial parents in any way, even though legally noncustodial parents have the right to equal access to educational records, to make decisions for their children,” she says. It’s ironic, she adds, that although educators know that parental involvement is important for students’ academic success, “I’m out there begging to be part of my son’s education, and I’ve hit roadblocks and apathy at every turn.”

The worst moment was when she discovered inadvertently that her son had been seeing a school counselor for a year, visiting once a week to talk about problems. Though Spicuglia was in favor of the counseling, she was upset that no one had notified her about it. She called the counselor, who had to get permission from the boy’s father in order to talk to her.

“Which is crazy! I’m not a bad person. There’s no reason for this,” Spicuglia says. “It may sound like a small thing to some people, but until you actually go through it, until you’re actually told that they have to get permission to talk to you about your son…”

The counselor told Spicuglia, “I didn’t even know if you were in the picture.”

Which made Spicuglia wonder what the counselor and her son could have been discussing; she stays in the picture of his life as best she can. They see each other during school breaks and hold video chats on the computer in between.

It’s not easy. In her blog, Spicuglia writes about her delight over having the rare opportunity to answer her son’s history questions during a visit (reminding herself to tell him to call anytime with questions), and about the tears shed by both mother and son when they parted in the airport.

“He was eager to get into line, but that always rushes our goodbyes too, as we can’t keep everyone waiting,” Spicuglia wrote in her blog in January. “So we hugged and kissed, and I was asked to step aside. As he waited by the gateway to the plane, his back was turned to me, and I called [to] him …  When he turned, there were tears in his eyes, which set me off too, but that was it, and he was escorted away.”

Later, she wrote, “The quiet has descended … a house once full of laughter and tears (he will never forgive me for making him do his reading and math over what he sees as VACATION!) is now silent.”

Remaining in the picture can be a challenge for noncustodial mothers, if only because it’s hard for many mothers to define where the frame begins and ends. In a society where even residential mothers can feel that they’re never doing enough, many noncustodial mothers suffer from a sense of inadequacy for not meeting their own expectations of themselves.

In her research of noncustodial parents, Ginna Babcock was struck by the difference between fathers and mothers. She writes, “The most dramatic finding for me was in how precisely each and every father in my study was able to articulate a definition of ‘a good noncustodial father.’ He (1) paid child support regularly, and (2) took full advantage of his visitation rights. These two qualities defined the good noncustodial parent for these men.”

But if fathers were able to define “in pragmatic and attainable terms” what would constitute fulfilling their responsibilities, the mothers were not, she reports. “When they tried, the definitions were amorphous and far-reaching—basically describing a woman who is physically present, providing emotional support to her children every day, which is difficult for even the residential mother.”

Child support was not part of the mothers’ definition of adequate noncustodial mothering. (Many noncustodial mothers do, in fact, pay child support, just as fathers do.) And visitation was mentioned only in the broader context of “being there for my kids when they need me,” Babcock writes.

As a result, many of Babcock’s respondents felt that, by definition, they could not be good mothers. “There were many tears, and the response always was, ‘How can I be if I am not there?’ I heard stories of mothers missing their child’s first steps, first day of school, first prom, getting their driver’s license, and many of the other special days in a young person’s daily life,” she writes. “Because of the high expectations mothers had for parenting, their perception of success as a noncustodial mother was almost impossible, regardless of how much they wanted to succeed.”

Bethany Gilmore, who lives in New York, gets together once or twice a month with her daughter, eleven, who lives in Mississippi. But it never feels like enough time to either one of them.

“Over the past ten years, I feel like I’ve missed so much of her life,” says Gilmore, twenty-eight, who works as a senior accountant.

Gilmore gave up both physical and legal custody when she entered college in Nashville. She has since regretted giving up those rights, but has been told by attorneys that it’s hard to get custody back unless the father can be shown to be unfit. So she hopes that she and her daughter will be able to live together once her daughter is old enough to make her own choice. “It’s too hard to be without her. We’re so close. She’s going through puberty, and she can’t really talk to [her father] about boys and cliques in her school, so she just feels more comfortable talking to me. I hate being away from her.”

The feeling goes both ways: Children may hate being away from their mothers, too. But does the damage go beyond simply missing their moms? Are the children of noncustodial mothers any worse off—emotionally, developmentally—than children of noncustodial fathers?

These children often are as aware as their mothers that they are in unconventional situations, and may have to face the same sorts of questions about why their mothers aren’t around, the same assumptions about why she lost custody or chose to leave, the same stigma except from the other end.

Traditional psychology tended to demonize mothers for “abdicating their so-called natural responsibilities,” Gustafson says, just as it demonized fathers who failed their financial obligations. (As usual, those traditional judgments were cast along gender lines, with moms being chastised for perceived emotional lapses and dads for financial failures.) If the children had behavioral problems, the blame was often placed on their mothers’ absence, often to the point of disregarding the quality of their fathers’ parenting. Such assumptions were so pervasive that, according to Gustafson, they shaped the way questions were asked and findings interpreted.

But more recent and more nuanced research indicates that other factors play greater roles in predicting a child’s well-being than which parent is present or absent, Gustafson says. The ability of the caretaking parent, regardless of gender, to do the job well is paramount. Other factors include those that also affect kids in two-parent families: household income, parents’ level of education, the safety and stability of the physical environment where in which the children are raised, whether the parents’ relationship is conflicted or respectful, the supportive social network, the mental and physical health of the caretaking parent, and so on.

“When all factors are in place to support healthy child development, maternal absence doesn’t necessarily equate with damaged children,” Gustafson says.

And because studies show that absentee mothers tend to want to stay more involved with their children’s lives than absentee fathers, she points out, their lack of custody often does not translate into lack of contact or participation.

Mothers who share legal but not physical custody of their children have often had to toughen up as they get in the habit of asserting their parental rights, which include the right to access their kids’ educational, health, and other records, and to have an equal say in decisions made on behalf of the child. Some aren’t even fully aware of what those rights entail.

“For a long time I didn’t assert my rights because I felt like I was imposing” on school staff, Spicuglia says.

Educators and health-care providers are often no better informed about what the law requires, and may throw roadblocks up as a result of this ignorance, says Miller Zimon, the social worker. “Maybe there’s a need for a public campaign to show the face of the twenty-first-century noncustodial parent,” she speculates. “Or even to start looking at the language again and figure out what’s best to denote this relationship of involved parents who share or have arranged custody when it has nothing to do with abuse, neglect, or dependency.”

Kim Voichescu doesn’t think she’s ever been as fiercely determined about pursuing a goal as she has been in asserting her rights as a noncustodial mother. She is in the midst of a long, expensive and emotionally draining court battle with her ex-husband, to whom she originally signed over physical custody in the days when her job was far more demanding than his. She is now trying to reverse that decision.

Meanwhile, her tangle with the school secretary and subsequent letters to the superintendent has led to a change in school-district policy ensuring that both parents see any documents filed with the schools. Along the way, she has overcome initial intimidation and learned more effective ways of handling judges and court procedures. Perhaps not coincidentally, she has become a martial artist and a kickboxer, and is working on an economic degree with the ultimate goal of becoming a lawyer.

“The frustration told me that’s what I want to do,” Voichescu says. “I want to help other ladies, so they’re not fucked over like I was.”

Author’s Note: When I told a friend I was working on an article about noncustodial mothers, she asked, “Are you hearing a lot of really sad stories?” Well, sure, it can be sad to live apart from your children, but I knew that’s not what she meant. She meant, “Are you hearing stories about drug abuse, and child mistreatment, and other terrible events that might lead to children being seized from their mothers?” I explained that women in such situations are a minority among noncustodial mothers. But I also understood that the term itself seems to imply past transgressions—it struck me that way at first, too.

Meanwhile, one of my own children had been begging to return to the city from which we moved last summer, in another state, where his father still lives. He missed his friends, his school, his old neighborhood. That move isn’t practical for now, but it’s possible that at some future time my son would go live with his dad. That’s how easy it would be for me to become a noncustodial mother. Well, not easy maybe—probably kind of sad, in fact -but definitely free of transgressions.

Brain, Child (Spring 2009)

About the Author: Katy Read’s essays, articles and reviews have appeared in Salon, Brevity, River Teeth, Chautauqua Literary Journal, Literal Latte, Minnesota Monthly, the Chicago Sun-Times and other publications. She has been awarded a 2013 Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Art Board to work on a collection of essays. She has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and been honored in literary competitions including theChautauqua Literary Journal Prize for Prose, the Literal Latte Essay Awards, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition and the Mid-American Review Creative Nonfiction Competition. She is a reporter for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, where she lives with her two sons.

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