Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Here and Gone: When the Kids Aren't Home

I've been busy at work, mucking around in the garden, slapping paint on a few things, scraping the siding when it isn't raining.

My heart really isn't in it right now.

Grant graduated from high school, and almost immediately boarded a plane for England, on a senior trip.

The rest of the boys got in a van with their dad, headed for Colorado and camping. 

Ben and his faithful companion, Moosie. 

That was last week, and I won't see them again for another week.

Saying I miss them doesn't really cut it. There's a gone-ness haunting this house that is hard to take.

It isn't always this way. But often enough that it's hard to pat their shoulders and leave them standing in their dad's driveway.

The custody arrangement I have with my kids' dad is fair. And really, we're luckier than many divorced couples. We live in the same town, and our arrangement is 50/50-- we alternate weeks. Whether at Dad's or Mom's, they go to the same school. Though there are some hiccups with business travel, vacations (like now), and holidays, we mostly stick with dropping the kids off at the other parent's house every Sunday before dinner.

We've been doing this for a few years now, so it's built into our schedule. A habit. But saying that it's routine for us is different than saying it is easy. It is not. I don't know that it will ever be.

I don't, or am at least not able to, sort the emotional freight of this situation into a neat list of advantages and disadvantages, pluses and minuses.

What I do when I have the kids, most people call single parenting. I prefer to call it immersion parenting. It's true I don't have a parenting partner, but I would rather concentrate on the intensity of the experience, rather than the aloneness. I am the one responsible for everything; I am also the recipient of all myriad gifts of mothering my sons.

The boys, all four of them, are noisy, smelly, ravenously hungry, and come with the familiar daily challenges: orthodontist appointments, music lessons, sports practices, and endless mounds of dirty laundry and shoes in the foyer. My days are also full of hugs from little boys (and sometimes the big ones too), chord progressions from Nirvana songs, innovative new Lego inventions, pots of home made macaroni and cheese, reading James and the Giant Peach aloud, the smell of freshly shampooed hair and clean pajamas.

It's a heady, concentrated distillation of parenting-- stressful, intense, familial, comforting. It's the blood in my veins. It's also the reason I'm up until midnight or 1 a.m. every day, trying to keep up.

So when they do head over to their other home for a week with their father, I'm often ready for a break.  I admit it's not a bad thing, the chance to catch up on the laundry, for the cook and kitchen to stand down for a few days, for a few earlier-to-bed nights. I am not routinely miserable-- there are magazines to read, glasses of wine to drink, blog posts to write.

I also admit I used to get so angry when married mothers would tell me, "I'm so envious of all your time without your kids. How nice it must be to have regular breaks."

I was tempted to yell at them, "do you really think this is something to envy, you idiot?" But I've softened over time, because really, they are only expressing a universal truth of all motherhood. We do need breaks from our children. Not because we don't love them. But because parenting is hard even when we're doing it right, whether as a couple or on our own.

However, being ready for a break and wanting it are two different things. My head tells me my children's healthy relationship with each parent is important. It tells me this arrangement is the best case scenario for everyone, considering all possible and far unhappier outcomes of divorce. Sometimes my head even tells me that it would be nice for a clean room to stay clean for longer than 15 minutes. But my heart tells me a different thing, and that's what makes it difficult to stand in their empty bedrooms while they are away.

The one consolation I take away from all this is the improvement of my parenting in the precious time I do have with them. When I was married, I wasn't the best parent I could be. The toxins of the unhealthy adult relationship were literally shedding off into my mothering, and I was emotionally exhausted, scolding, tense, perpetually dissatisfied, motivated by guilt and resentment. While I was far from a terrible parent, I was far from my best.

Now, with all the personal and family turmoil of the last five years beginning to resolve itself, I have emerged to find that I'm a relaxed mom, who sees her four sons as amazing, developing individuals whom I have the privilege of watching grow up. I still have days where I haven't had enough sleep and more often than not ones with dirty socks and popcorn on the floor. But the one gift in those silent, absent interstices is the realization of how much I've been given. I think about that every time I am baking a pan of brownies, waiting for the sound of the door to open again.


  1. Oh, Laura. I know every word of this. Initially both of my kids were on the 50/50 plan. My son still is (but my daughter is with me more). The first few raw years all the weeks felt so hard. The weeks with them because I couldn't keep up, the weeks without them because I missed them so much. It felt like feast (to the point of painful discomfort) or famine, all the time.

    My son is gone on a 2-week trip with his dad right now. I know, too, the way you plan all the things you'll get done in their absence, and how the time gets piddled away because your heart just isn't in it. Once again, wishing you lived here in Oregon. I'd come over and we could scape some paint together. We'd drink wine while doing it, and talk besotted mom talk about the boys we miss.

    1. Oh, Rita. Thank you so much. Your comment made me feel so much better. Especially the wine part. :) On the upside of this deal, I have thrown out 30 billion back issues of Sports Illustrated, cleaned under the beds, and read multiple magazines cover to cover without being interrupted. And they'll be home on Sunday! Yay! Cue besotted Mom talk!