Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Bathtub Confessional


She took in a breath before slipping underneath the blanket of pristine white bubbles.  She resurfaced a split second later and let out an exaggerated gasp.  I watched Faith’s silhouette clear the bubbles from her eyes through the fog-like steam, now fragrant with familiar baby-powder scent. 
I sat on the toilet seat, on the other side of the shower curtain, waiting and listening for my youngest daughter to continue her rant about having two families.
Throughout my children’s lives, long soaks in a hot bathtub filled with bubbles or Epsom salts and essential oils has been a tradition.  They take after me that way.  When they were babies, all three of them seemed to take to the warm, soapy water with relish, and as a busy stay-at-home mom, bath time, whether for me or them, was sacred.
Now, even at the age of 10, my youngest daughter clings to this ritual every other weekend when she comes home to me.  Even on her mid week visits (known simply as “Faith Night”), she will often ask me to run her a hot bath so she can soak and unwind.
And confess.
I’ve told Noah that I believe our old, cast iron tub has magical, medicinal qualities.  It is not only where I go to unwind and relax and think at the end of a busy work day, but it works wonders on the disposition of my children when they’re cranky or tired.  But there’s more magic in it than that most fundamental quality that even the Romans cherished -- my bathtub, in a way, is a time machine.  Days and sometimes (though rarely) even weeks can pass when I don’t see one of my children.  Bridging that kind of time and distance is hard on a mother (this mother, at least), but once they emerge from the hot bath I’ll draw for them, they will emerge, warm and glowing red from the pool of life, and cradling any of them to me is like the first time. 
In my home, the mother and child reunion is only a hot bath soak away. 
As for Faith, my youngest, she’s always wanted my company while she bathes.  It’s her opportunity to have my undivided attention.  It’s the occasion where we’ve consistently had the most endearing, sometimes painful, and always heartfelt conversations.  I long ago dubbed these sessions “Faith’s Bathtub Confessional.”
We’ve developed a routine.  After I run the hot water and set out her favorite, fluffy, orange beach towel (which I will have warmed from the dryer), I step out and make tea while she steps into the tub and pulls the curtain -- the confessional screen.  She usually insists on Baby Magic bath soap.  I love the fresh clean baby smell of it -- I think it reminds both of us of when we were together all the time and I used it on her as shampoo, molding her thin red hair into a single Unicorn spike on top of her head.  At ten, she is much more discreet and serious than even just a couple of years ago, so of course she washes her own hair and doesn’t play with the stiff-haired Barbie dolls during her bath.  But she still wants her mommy an arm’s length away.
While in the tub, she has asked me the hardest and most profound questions, like “Who is God?” and “What if I don’t turn out the way I want to when I’m grown up?”  It should be no surprise that it was in the Bathtub Confessional that she first asked me (a few  years ago but countless times since) why her daddy and I got divorced.  My textbook answers were appropriately vague for the seven-year-old that she -- “Mommy and Daddy decided we needed to divorce because of grown-up reasons, Honey."  But as she's gotten older, the more complicated her questions have become.  Some are so difficult that I don’t know how to answer.  Even though that is hard to admit to my daughter and to myself, I too confess. 
Recently, I agreed to meet my children’s stepmother for dinner.  What triggered my dedication to this idea was Faith’s tearful and out-of-the-blue confession in the tub.  She was talking about having two families and she spelled out for me, in no uncertain terms, what it was like for her when our two households don’t get along. 
“I feel like I’m up against a big rock, getting squished in the middle by another big rock.” 
It hit me like a lightning bolt.  I thought I’d been careful, but words slip out in front of the children sometimes, even when I don’t realize it.  Noah and I know better, but now and then we are guilty of rolling our eyes and issuing sarcastic comments about things the kids tell us about their dad and step mom.  Having said that, our behavior doesn’t hold a candle to the other household, where there are much more vociferously negative comments about Noah and me.  Step mom has been known to show my emails to the kids while saying “she’s so stupid” or “your mom is shady.”  She’s referred to my husband as an asshole in front of the kids and makes condescending comments about me and the food blog I write that she seems to stalk.  Most telling, perhaps, is the line she’s said to Faith more than once – “I love you more than your mommy because she gave you up.”

Sitting in the sauna-like bathroom, everything was suddenly clear to me.  None of the details of my divorce mattered as much as what my daughter was telling me just then.
“I feel like I’m being squished between two big rocks.”

She went on to explain that when she’s at her dad's house, she feels like she shouldn’t like me, or Noah, or our home.  She said she feels like a traitor to her dad and Wanda if she says something nice about us.  And I did not come out as the perfect saint myself.  She said when she’s at my house, she feels angry at her dad and stepmom, but then feels guilty about that.
Sometimes, it takes and innocent child’s simple words to make you realize the truth.
Who cares about our petty disagreements and fights as adults?  All of our battles are not as important as my children’s peace of mind.  It was that day that I decided to fix things for Faith. 
My shoulders slumped.  I let go of the animosity and decided to talk it through with the other adults who were “squishing” my kids’ hearts and minds.  My job is to protect my children.  All of my decisions, especially the toughest ones, I make so that they have the best opportunity to grow up to be healthy and happy adults.  When you are told by your child that they are hurting, or that they are feeling pressure, the only thing you want to do is fix it.

Faith slipped back under the water momentarily.  By the time she resurfaced I had silently accepted my penance of meeting her stepmom and making a good Faith effort at doing what would make me a better mother in these circumstances. 

8 comments:

  1. my own mother used to put the towels in the dryer right before we got out of the tub... it's the little things that mean the most and connect us to our family.

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  2. It doesn't matter the age or how nasty of a divorce. The kids always feel guilty about something. My stepson was 18 and struggling because he thought we were more "fun" than his Mom's. I tried to explain that she has the tougher job ... she is the Mom. I'm so glad Faith talks to you!!

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  3. As I read this tears are pouring down my face. I too am a non custodial Mom. Your story has inspired me many times and I am so Thankful you chose to share it.

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