I sat in the passenger seat of our car with my notebook spread open in front of me, gleaming and white, ready to absorb whatever ideas, thoughts, and stories I might bleed onto it.My counselor, Gloria, had recently read to me a poem I’d written in a previous session with her, and when she saw the look of shock on my face at the raw power of the words contained in it, she pointedly said -- “Sophia, start writing again.”
Writing was the only safe way I knew how to exorcise the corrosive memories smoldering inside of me.Six years had passed since the day my old life had abruptly ended, but my blood pressure, which had never been extraordinarily high, was beginning to escalate as the past began creeping into the present.I couldn’t account for the midnight panic attacks and racing heartbeat that would rev inside my chest, like an out-of-gear engine when you step on the gas.
So there I was, sitting in the car, trying to obey Gloria’s advice.I stared at the notebook and pen that I’d bought for the sole purpose of dumping the trapped memories that were suddenly roaring to life in the form of physical ailments, trying to come to terms with the fact that the words apparently weren’t going to write themselves.Outside, the rain turned to hail.I heard it on the rooftop of the car, smattering and pinging, as I watched my husband Noah and his soccer team chasing the ball, completely unfazed by the spring storm.I finally put the tip of the pen on the paper.Once I started writing, there was no holding back.Years of turmoil, frustration, and black humor poured forth from my heart and head, through my hand, onto the paper, pure and unfiltered.I couldn’t get it out fast enough.Later, I would describe my experience writing the “Big Bang” chapter of Illumination as an almost uncontrollable bodily function.I felt as though my body was expelling the story, vomiting uncontrollably, allowing toxic waste to exit in giant heaves.
I was writing again.I’d written since I first learned how to.Journals, short stories, poems, even timid beginnings of novels eventually discarded. Writing was my original and most precious form of self-expression.Even my ex-husband, who was devoid of the ability to compliment me, used to say I could write.Writing about one’s own experiences (“ME-moir”) can seem gratuitous.It is certainly one way to expel the demons.But it’s also a way to call them back to you – to bring them to life so you can look at them when they are standing still in the full clear light and possibly make sense of them.My demons were more manageable once I could see them laid out on paper in the form of black and white words.
In all of my writings online, I’ve been surprised not to have elicited more negative comments and harsh words or judgments about my life decisions.But the other day, I found one that took a direct shot at me.A woman wrote in response to a piece I'd written for the Post Divorce Chronicles:
“I’ve read your articles for many weeks here and I have also read a ton of your blog and I keep telling myself to keep a open mind to you and the ways of your family,...and I’ve decided I just don't like it I don’t like the way you have chosen to live and to blog and to put your self out there for the world to see, I think the likely hood of your children resenting you is very high.”
The French have a word for whatever thing frightens us most, a “Bete Noire,” or “black beast.”I know why I made the choices I did for my family years ago and, truthfully, I’m not always at peace with those choices. I will be haunted by the guilt that comes from them.It is nearly impossible to know if I did everything right.And beyond just defending my choices to myself, I do wonder if it’s okay for me to write about them.The commenter claims my children will one day resent me for doing this.Is she right?I don’t think so but I can’t say for sure.
One thing, however, she might not have known is that, to shield and protect my children, myself, even my ex, I have changed all of our names. But even though I use a pen name, I do not want to hide my story any more.I do not want to carry it around silently.It was eating at me from the inside out.
When I began writing and regurgitating my past, my story, it was impossible to stop.It feels like the reason I’ve gone through all that I have.And the pen really is mightier than the sword.When I am angry or frustrated or scared, my thoughts and words congeal in my head and stick in my throat, like a giant hairball of emotion.When confronted by a hostile or aggressive person, I freeze.Like an animal that poses as a statue, I hope the attacker will miraculously forget that I am standing there, or be deceived by my lack of motion, and leave me in peace.In person, I am inept at fighting back.But I can write.Buffy used a wooden stake to vanquish her demons.I use a pen.
Most of the response to my writing has been positive.I’ve seen enough responses to my book and my blog entries to know that my stories give a voice to other women who thought, as I did, that they were alone in being a non custodial mother.
“I shouldn’t read your blog at work… Here I sit. At my desk, tears rolling down my face, because this the closest I have ever come to having someone who has been there, and lived it tell me, it's going to be okay. And It means the world to me. Thank you.”This, from “Anonymous,” is just one of many examples.
Grace Paley once stated -- “We write what we don’t know we know.”Sharing our stories is a way of processing our thoughts and experiences so we can make sense of our lives and give meaning to them.We should be brave enough to write nakedly from our own point of view.Only then will our stories be free and, if we choose to share them, free to affect the minds and hearts of others.
Four years ago, almost to the day, along the banks of the mighty Columbia River, the heavens opened above me and poured down as I hunkered in my car and quietly began writing.By the time I finally looked up, Noah was headed back, looking both refreshed and exhausted from his game.Without ever stepping out of the car, I realized I too was out of breath and exhausted.My fingers ached and my heart was slowing down again after pounding away in my chest.I had been running for years from my Bete Noire, but now, I was staring at it in front of me, captured on paper, and finally in my control.
Over lunch with the Editor of a regional food magazine recently, he looked up after we’d been talking about potential articles for 2011.
“Sophia, the last time I saw you, you said you have another blog about parenting? I’d love to hear more about it.”
I hesitated. I put down my fork and took a sip of water, contemplating whether or not I should tell him more. If I did, I would surely get “the look.” It never fails. I’ve received this look hundreds of times since my divorce. It is characterized by a dark shadow of doubt and shock across the face of the person I’m talking to when I first explain to them that I am a non custodial mother.
They look at me like I am wearing a poop suit.
The frozen, nervous smile…the thousand-yard-stare…or (my favorite) the flared nostrils, clearly offended, as if suddenly smelling something putrid, all the while trying to pretend no such thing is occurring. I immediately sense my captive audience steeling themselves, racking their mental archives for how to catalogue me as a person, what to think about me now, and what to say to me. Clearly, I am no longer the person they thought I was. Upon seeing and meeting me, I am easy to categorize as a professional, nice, and normal mother who works outside of the home. In the bleachers at my kid’s softball games, the mommy sorority accepts me into their fold — until, that is, they learn that I only have my children every other weekend. Then, they casually turn away, just slightly, just enough to close me off from the conversation. I’m no longer wearing a fitted pencil skirt and heels.
I am downwind, trying again to make my poop suit stylish.
I saved Paul from his momentary shock. I bailed him out (which I don’t always do, depending upon whom I’m facing) by explaining “The best way to describe my brand of motherhood is to say I’m the divorced dad.” People aren’t accustomed to meeting a mother who doesn’t have full physical custody of her kids. Often, when a woman fesses up to having her kids even as little as 50% of the time after a domestic split, she’s branded as irresponsible, selfish, or unfit. For a really long time, I avoided the subject. I know other non custodial moms who feel the same way I do from their comments, almost always left anonymously on my blog. Here is a recent example, posted after an entry on A Non Custodial Mother Blog titled, When Mommy Has to Man Up :
“Thank you so much for this blog, if I could write, it’s what I would say. My life was ripped apart without my control, like yours, and after many years of struggles I relinquished my children to my ex husband and play the supporting role. I know those looks you talk about from other ‘mommies’ who assume there is something wrong with me. What a relief to learn I am not alone!” – Anonymous
When Lee Block sought out other women to interview for her Huffington Post article about non custodial mothers, she said the vast majority of them would not give their names. There is a stigma and shame associated with not having your children full time. The label “bad mother” is one that is often pinned on us.
I’d hoped my “divorced dad” explanation would help Paul wrap his mind around my situation without having to go too much into the details of my situation. It’s a long story to tell. I reassured myself that people understand the stereotypical divorced dad role. Invariably, if you are a man who is divorced and doesn’t have full physical custody, no one is really surprised. It may be unfair that our society is so accustomed to the traditional and entrenched stereotypes of how families are supposed to divvy up the responsibilities after divorce, but, even with 2.2 million non custodial mothers in the U.S. today, it certainly doesn’t feel like a sea change is coming any time soon. Minds and hearts are slow to adapt to new concepts and models about something as primal as parental roles.
Paul caught me by surprise, though. I had been quick to assume that his look of shock equated to distaste or disapproval. I’ve conditioned myself to expect that response over the years. Instead, he began to tell me the story about his childhood, about being raised by a single mother during a time in our society when that was also not considered a normal or acceptable way to raise a family. His initial look of shock, he said, was his surprise in meeting a woman who had an alternative view of parent roles.
As we finished our last few bites of dessert, I felt a kinship with Paul. Our common ground went beyond our love for food, writing, wine, and restaurants. We both had experiences in non-traditional parenting situations, and I wondered if it is time to reconsider the possibility that more people could be open seeing these matters in a new light.
We wrapped up our lunch and parted ways, and Paul smiled at me. I felt reassured and confident. Walking to the car, I caught my reflection in a window – that’s me in the skirt and heels.
She sat there on the couch across from me, arms crossed, chin slightly jutting out from her face, her sharp features contorted into a look of disapproval. Her pale blue eyes looked sternly into mine, like a mother admonishing a child. It was a look I’d seen before, many times.
Every mother, every woman who found out I’d let - chosen, you could say - my children live with their father, had given me this look. Not all of them had taken it to this level of uncensored judgment, which lingered on her face while she spoke to me. Not all of them said exactly what was on their minds, but today, Kara did.
I sighed. Here we go again. I’d been battling my own inner demons of guilt and regret since I’d let the children go to live with Mike months earlier. The young woman across from me on the couch was only echoing questions I had often posed to myself.
Almost daily, an inner war was being waged within my own head about what was best for the kids, what was best for me, what they needed, and what I needed. I never seemed to find that calm, still place of assurance that I’d done the right thing. I constantly played an imaginary recording of what phantom critics might say about me, and the choices I’d made. I imagined the worst and put those words into their mouths before I heard them come out - things like “What kind of mother would give up her children?” and, “She must be unfit. No decent loving mother would abandon her babies.” Maybe they thought I’d abused or neglected them. Or maybe they thought I did drugs, or I’d chosen to be a prostitute instead of volunteering for the PTA. Maybe they thought I’d run off with another man, leaving my children and their father behind in a hazy wake of selfish smoke.
We had all been had been drinking wine that afternoon. After a few glasses, the questions I supposed she’d been wondering to herself, ever since I started showing up in her mix of friends with Noah, were given voice. She’d asked Daniel, I was sure, maybe even Emmett, but as Noah’s best friends, they must have either completely avoided the questions, or had never interrogated Noah. Men were different than women in that respect, I thought. Men seem to trust the choices and decisions of other men rather unconditionally. Women, in my experience, seemed more apt to judge each other and question each other’s motivation, and almost try to find fault, if at all possible. Sometimes women were each other’s harshest critics. The Bachelors had not asked me why I was the non-custodial parent - it didn’t seem to occur to them. They accepted me into their fold, no questions asked. I assumed they believed if Noah liked me, they would too.
Their girlfriends, however, were another matter. I had, in some ways, replaced the girl Noah had been dating, who some of them had recently travelled with to Europe with for a wedding. The girlfriends seemed slightly leery of me. I felt like I had to prove myself to them, to win them over. Being an older woman, a single mom without custody of her children, was not a good start.
“Divorce is hard on children. I think married couples should do everything they can to stay together. Kids don’t need the stress of a broken home.”
I knew Kara was trying to enlighten me, but she was only echoing the voices that had bounced around in my head for years.
“How could a parent not be with their child? I just don’t understand it. I’d do anything and everything to keep my family together.”
I smiled blandly and nodded. I’d gotten good at smiling and nodding, politely deflecting people’s judgment. I had heard Kara’s disapproving lecture before. In fact, I had imagined far worse things people might think about me and my situation. But the hardest part of taking it on the chin, of letting people think I was a shitty, uncaring, heartless excuse for a mother was knowing what had really happened, and realizing, because the whole story was so crazy and unbelievable, that it wasn’t worth trying to explain. I wasn’t about to start saying, “Before you give me that look one second longer, I need five hours of your time to make you understand the entirety of what really happened,” to every woman that gave me a sideways look when they found out I was a non-custodial mother. Even if I did, would anyone believe it? How could anyone possibly understand it, without having lived through it? All of it - from the Big Bang, to losing my house, to not knowing if the kids would have health insurance – who should I tell my story to in order to make things better, let alone get off the hook from the “Perfect Mothers (and Future Perfect Mothers) Club”? It seemed preposterous, even to me, that a seemingly normal, happy, suburban family would blow up in the style and fashion my family did. I didn’t have the time to explain all the details, and even if I did, it was embarrassing, much too personal, hurtful, and exhausting. Reopening wounds I still didn’t fully understand was something I wanted to avoid. Instead, I let people think what they would.
Like many before her, I did not try to correct Kara. She was young (in her early 30s), well-educated, recently married, and her parents had probably provided a very secure upbringing and future. She didn’t have a clue what I’d been through (how could she?), and I didn’t fault her for that. The wine had emboldened her, and the questions she had kept to herself for at least a couple months were spilling forth, unguarded, chased closely by her strong opinions. She was resolute in her harsh examination of my scruples.
Noah walked into the living room to see me sitting on the small chair in Emmett and Christine’s living room, only to hear Kara ruthlessly questioning me. He immediately came over and sat next to me, putting his arm around my shoulder. I leaned into him.
“Hey, Emmett, do you mind if I put on a record?”
He quickly changed the subject, and before getting up, searched my face for signs of anger, sadness, or self-consciousness. He was worried about my being cornered and put on the spot, but I was numb to those feelings by now. Kara didn’t mean any harm, and I knew it. She was just asking what most people wanted to ask, but were too polite to do so.
The week before, I’d visited Claire and Jackson’s school to meet with their teachers for parent-teacher conferences. The teachers were polite, but somewhat reserved in their interaction with me. I couldn’t help but think about how different the meetings were from when I was a stay-at-home wife and mother. I imagined that when a divorced dad went to his children’s school conferences, the teachers would be impressed. A “good” divorced dad was defined by the fact he was still involved with his children at all - that he picked up the kids on his weekends, paid child support on time, and not much more than that. If a mother, however, perfectly fulfilled the same duties, something must be seriously wrong with her. Or at least, there must be some drastic reason why she didn’t have physical custody.
Claire had shown me around her classroom, explaining the science projects the class was collectively working on, the garden they had planted just outside the classroom door, and the chapter books she was reading. She took me into the hall to show me her artwork, a painting and writing project about heroes.
Her painting was of a tall blonde man. She’d sketched herself holding hands with her dad, and had written in careful fourth-grade cursive, “My Daddy is My Hero.” Seeing that stapled to the wall on bright, red butcher paper struck a chord of irony in me, and made me momentarily dizzy.
“Beautiful work, Honey,” was all I could say.
There was no way my children could know what had transpired. No way the teachers could know, or the other children’s parents. When I stood behind Wanda at Jackson’s tee ball game, as she handed out cupcakes with frosted tops designed to look like whipped cream baseballs, I just stood by, feeling helpless and worlds away from being a “good mother.”
The unfairness of my plight often stuck in my throat like a giant hairball of emotion, and I choked down the urge to scream out to Wanda, as she looked at me smugly with her after-game treats for my children in front of their friends. I wanted so badly to tell her the truth. But I never did. I had made the decision to bite my lip. I’d always admired that superheroes and the strongest characters in the Bible and literature never let their missions be interrupted by misperceptions that people or society might hold of them. Every hero has a choice - to face the darkness or be consumed by it. People judged Batman harshly at first, but he just kept doing what had to be done anyway. Hellboy was resigned to the fact that, although he looked like a monster, he was the hero, and saved the exact people who were afraid of him or condemned him.
I felt like the Hellboy of moms standing there, behind the other parents, as Wanda handed out her cupcakes at Jackson’s game. I felt like a mutant, an undercover mother, stripped of the matching sweatsuit-and-keds uniform. Instead, I wore high heels and a fitted business suit to the field, having come straight from work. Making me stand out even more was the fact I didn’t have my own folding sports chair or a spot on the roster indicating which day I was supposed to bring snacks for the kids. I was displaced. I was on the outside, looking in, at my children’s lives, no longer a part of the “Mommy Sorority.” That part hurt, but I tried to remember to look at the bigger picture, which was the wellbeing of my children. And every time I could make it to one of their events, I watched them closely to make sure they seemed happy and well-adjusted.
My responsibilities now included not only trying to navigate the waters of being a non-custodial mother, but also how to survive, and hopefully succeed, as a career woman. I had to live a new life, and I wasn’t very keen on explaining to people what my former life was like, let alone how I’d ended up here.
I looked at Noah gratefully as he veered the conversation away from Kara’s interrogation. I’d been turning the other cheek for awhile now. The kids’ dad and Wanda had called me selfish, and an irresponsible parent. According to Mike, he was the ideal father figure, and a much better parent than I was. He looked like it to the unknowing public, too. But Noah knew the whole story. He knew me. Not only was he being protective, but I knew that to him, I was brave, smart, and a loving mother, even though I felt like a mutant-mom. He thought of me as the opposite of a “bad mother,” and I loved seeing myself through his eyes, as a courageous woman who would do whatever it took to protect the unknowing little ones around her. He knew I was misunderstood, and he was protective of me and my reputation.
Kara didn’t look ready for the conversation to be finished, but everyone had followed Noah’s cue. She got up from the couch and headed to the kitchen. The record Noah had put on was still playing. Thom York’s voice carried throughout the apartment...
“I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo, what the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here.”
Silently, we all sipped our wine and shifted uncomfortably in our seats, wondering if we’d had too much alcohol, or not enough.