Tuesday, May 31, 2011
From Sweatpants to High Heels
After the terrific response from A Non Custodial Mother Article in the Huffington Post and the latest news about mothers who are redefining traditional roles (such as the recent piece by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto on Salon.com), I thought I’d put a face on one non custodial mother – me. This is the beginning of my story, and an unexpected new life:
From Sweatpants to High Heels
For a long time, I considered myself a proud member of The Mommy Sorority.
When it came to raising my children, I did everything “right,” and I held other moms to the same expectations I had for myself. I stayed home with my children, first when they were babies, then as toddlers. I bought the latest Baby Einstein crib mobiles and educational toys. I never forgot to pack an extra hat and kept an ample supply of organic graham crackers in the diaper bag. I would spend hours researching what kind of diapers or sunscreen to buy. I made baby food and froze it in convenient serving sizes in the ice cube tray. I subscribed to Family Fun magazine. I felt confident in my role of Super Mama for over eight years.
I was even smug about it.
When working mothers dropped their children off at my house for daycare, I didn’t envy them at all. I contentedly breathed in the aroma of homemade play dough that wafted through my house and co-mingled with the familiar and comforting scents of homemade pancakes and maple syrup. I felt superior to those mothers. After all, I knew all the words to Kenny Login’s “Return to Pooh Corner” soundtrack and I was free to spend uninterrupted hours of the weekday at home with my kids. I thought I was doing the noblest job of all, that of stay-at-home mom. I decided I didn’t need to worry about make-up, stylish clothes (Hanes sweat pants did the trick!) and a career at an office. I’d given up my dreams of writing and photography. I figured that by being there 24/7 for my three children, writing about them in my journal, and photographing them at every stage, my dreams were being fulfilled in a more down-to-earth, practical way.
After all, sacrifice is the soul of parenting.
But in 2002, my suburban June Cleaver world turned upside down. Little did I know, while I was nursing babies, flipping pancakes, planting bulbs in the backyard, folding mountains of laundry, and tending to our home, my husband was tending to other women. On our 14th wedding anniversary, I learned in the most shocking of ways that he had been having an affair. I was so caught up in my idealized suburban slice of heaven that I this possibility never dawned on me. After all, he was a church-going man — a Promise Keeper and part of a “Men’s Accountability Prayer Group” on Thursdays. Over the course of our 17 years together, he’d told me many times that he was “the Captain of our family’s ship.” He was, he said, in charge of making sure we were taken care of, and I trusted him to navigate us through any choppy waters. It never seemed possible that our marriage would become a shipwreck.
But when I found out what my husband had done, I immediately made the decision to make him leave. He was not at all the husband I thought he was. Maybe some couples survive the heartbreaking devastation of infidelity, but my husband’s version of it was too much for me to work through. I would have put my health in jeopardy if I’d stayed with him. To put it bluntly, not only had he been unfaithful, but he’d been extremely promiscuous with a high-risk person, and did not use protection. That additional bit of information mattered to me a lot. I wouldn’t risk my health by staying with him, and although I could eventually forgive him, I knew I would never be able to be intimate with him again. I couldn’t stay married to a person I did not want to ever make love to again. Not only had he betrayed me emotionally, but the physical repercussions of what he did were more than I was willing to overlook. My logic was, if I stayed with him, and eventually became sick or contracted a disease because of his infidelity, what good would I be to my kids then? In the end, I traded in my marriage and relationship. I valued my long term health, and didn’t trust that he ever would. It is my belief that a woman shouldn’t stay with a man who endangers her health and doesn’t cherish her enough to protect at least that part of her.
I also found myself deciding, out of necessity, to take over as “the Captain of our family’s ship” by going back to work (my husband also lost his job because of his indiscretions). We couldn’t pay our bills or our mortgage. In the aftermath, we even lost our health insurance. Someone had to take over, and that someone, however unconventional it felt in the world I was familiar with, was me.
So I joined the ranks of the working mothers that I’d looked down my nose at. Not only would I become a mother who worked full-time outside the home, but I would be a single mother. The women from my church didn’t understand how I could make my husband leave and not work things out with him. But they didn’t know the whole story. My own family and friends thought I was crazy not to take my estranged husband to court for alimony and child support to “make him pay” for what he did. I struggled with my own idea of how a mother should be. I was in very new territory, and I privately wondered if I was making the right choices. But I did know that my children missed their daddy. They spent more time with him since he was not working much. He became the parent that would take them to their soccer practice, doctor appointments, and help them with their homework after school before making them dinner. I became the frazzled busy parent who would pick them up late at night at his apartment, then shuttle them to daycare early in the morning, hurriedly strapping them half asleep into their car seats with limp toaster waffles wrapped in napkins and warm juice boxes for breakfast. It was a harrowing adjustment for all of us, and I wasn’t happy with what kind of mother I was turning into. It seemed like I was exhausted, cranky, and in a hurry all the time. My kids were tired and their performances at school were suffering. I wasn’t giving them the kind of parenting they deserved, and it began to haunt me. I felt guilty, angry, and sad. Mostly, I felt overwhelmed.
Once my ex husband met the woman who would become his new wife, I found myself fantasizing about how nice it would be to share with them the responsibility of parenting. She was a hard-working woman with an office at home. She seemed to really like my children and volunteered to pick them up from school several times a week. She stepped right in. She packed their lunches and made cupcakes to take to baseball games when they were with their dad. Their home environment was more of a traditional family existence than it was with me. She seemed to be the perfect partner, not only for my ex husband, but for me. I could finally rely on another woman to help me “mother” my children, since I didn’t have enough time to do it by myself. Eventually, my ex and I came to a verbal agreement over a couple beers in a restaurant. The kids would be with me on the weekends, then with their dad and his new girlfriend during the week. My ex husband was more than happy to have our kids during the weekdays since he was working on the weekends, and I was willing to let go — just enough to give myself a little workweek breathing room.
Unfortunately, I failed to see the repercussions of what amounted to a handshake deal. Our new set up would come to tear at the very fabric of my concept of motherhood and my identity. I also hadn’t thought ahead about how other people would view me as a woman and mother. Worst of all, I didn’t anticipate the legal repercussions of letting my children go to live with their dad without having a lawyer draw up an official parenting plan.
There are specific things I wish I would have planned for and thought about before making the crucial decision that I did. Being a non custodial mother has been challenging and surprisingly rewarding as well, (which has been quite a pleasant surprise actually), so stay tuned!
My next blog article will feature off the cuff advice to other women and mothers who may be going through the difficult decision making process of how to divvy up time and finances with an ex, as well as some rather unexpected positive side-effects of divorce.