Based on the recent attention there has been given to Non Custodial Mom's of late in Huffington Post that I was recently interviewed for, I decided to share this chapter (originally titled "Bad Mother") from my book ILLUMINATION: How One Woman Made Light of the Darkness.
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.