I am having one of those weeks that fills my head with thoughts I am not permitted to express, at the risk of committing maternal blasphemy. But, because I am me, I am going to express them here anyway.
It’s no news to anyone that being a divorced, single parent is a juggling act. Before I left my husband, I took stock of the ways that I anticipated that my life would change. I calculated the cost of having to do so many things on my own for which I had previously looked to my husband for help (…and didn’t usually get it, but that’s a post for another day). I considered the demands of working full-time and raising my children, the financial constraints and the diminished opportunities, the loss of near-by familial support, and the potential loneliness. And I made a thoughtful, deliberate decision to do this. But what I never fully realized, what no one ever told me or showed me completely, was how hard it would be to be a single woman, who happens to be divorced and have kids.
To be honest, during the last two years of my marriage, I felt like a single parent most of the time. My husband had checked out emotionally and physically and did the absolute minimum around the house or with me or with the kids. I managed the household expenses, did the grocery shopping and the laundry, prepared the meals, planned “date nights,” cared for the yard, children, cars and dogs, arranged all the kids’ activities and camps, attended to familial obligations, volunteered in the community, and ran my own small business. You name it, I did it. My husband came home every evening at 6:00pm and retreated to our bedroom suite, where he watched TV until dinnertime. After dinner, he’d either leave to play tennis at the club or retire to the bedroom again. When it was our daughters’ bedtime, I would summon him to say goodnight to his children. My friends used to say, wryly, that visiting my house was like a trip back to the 1950’s, and my mother commented once that my husband didn’t even help take out the trash. I had learned to put my own needs and desires — of every kind — on the back burner. I was adept at caring for everyone else and sublimating myself. When I thought about it, I figured I was pretty damn well prepared to be a single parent.
Except that I was wrong. Because I didn’t realize how much time I’d spend managing my ex and protecting myself from his little jabs or demands. I didn’t realize how little our division of labor would change. I didn’t realize how much needier my children would be. I didn’t realize how important meeting my own needs would become.
On my “off-weeks” — the weeks that my children spend with their dad — I have learned to be mindful of my needs and to do the things that feed my soul, whether that is yoga or writing or dating or sharing tea with a good friend. I move through my days with a consciousness of myself and my present. I feel that I am beginning to live the life that I imagined. I have space and time to figure out what I want and who I am trying to be.
Then there are the weeks that I have my children. Oftentimes, I sincerely struggle to be a good mother. I fly through my day, checking off obligations and trying to be emotionally present and available to my girls. I strive to keep one foot in the life that is mine and mine alone, without making my daughters feel like intruders or visitors in their own home. Usually, I collapse into bed at night, exhausted, spent, and stressed. Sometimes those weeks with my kids are amazing and soul-nurturing. Sometimes we are so connected and in love with each other that seeing them go off to their dad’s is heartbreaking. But other times, those weeks are long, and tiring, and unfulfilling.
Like many women I know, one of the things that kept me in my unhappy marriage for so long was the thought of not putting my children to bed every night. Everytime I tried to imagine what that would be like, my stomach would clench and fear would close my throat. I was certain that living without them for part of their childhood would be far too great a sacrifice. I read blogs and articles by women who bemoaned the temporary loss of their children and the hollow emptiness that consumed them when they viewed their children’s vacant beds on those evenings. I sympathized with women who wrung their hands over the damage they worried they’d inflicted on their children by breaking up their families. I wondered at women who had chosen to leave and seemed happy with their choice and contemplated if they were selfish, or uncaring, or maybe just plain bad mothers.
What’s that old adage about not judging someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes? Oh, yeah, that one.
I know what I’m supposed to say. I’m supposed to tell you that I miss my children every moment I’m away from them. I’m supposed to say that my life is empty without them in it every day. I’m supposed to be choked with guilt that I am not there for every bruise, every tear, every success in their life. I’m supposed to say that I am sorrowful every time they leave for their dad’s and overjoyed every time they come back.
Except that I’d be lying.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my children with every cell of my being. The thought of harm coming to them makes me physically sick, and there is nothing — nothing — that I wouldn’t do to protect them. I admire them and respect them and feel eternally grateful that they have given me the opportunity to be a mother. I am in awe of what they have given me and taught me and made me. They are probably the best thing I have ever done in my life.
But, at the same time, I spent so many years being everything that every one else wanted me to be, that now I insist — demand, even — that I be allowed to carve out a space for myself as a woman. Not a mother. Not a wife. Not a daughter. Me.
I am aware and appreciate that some women manage to be mothers and wives and daughters without sacrificing their sense of themselves, the pieces that make them unique and special and whole. But I was not one of those women. So now I have a lot of hard work in front of me, but it’s work that I want to do, work that I value. And I fervently hope that, as they grow, my girls will understand that the time I take for myself is important. I hope that my example is a constant reminder to them to value themselves and their needs and their desires, and not to forfeit those things simply to keep peace or make someone else happy or fulfill an obligation. I want them to understand that being a strong woman doesn’t only mean surviving difficult times. Sometimes it means making unpopular choices. Sometimes it means putting yourself, if not first, at least on the same par as those you love. Sometimes it means doing what you feel is right, even if it makes everyone else feel bad.
Sometimes it means being a bad mother.