If we could do it all over again, we wouldn’t join this rotten club. The Non-Custodial Moms. The Long-Distance Dads. The Every-Other-Weekenders. The Part-Timers. The Parents-Who-Aren’t-Really.
I have a daughter. She is 9 years old.
We haven’t shared a home since she was 4. Since then, I’ve been the non-custodial and, more recently, the long-distance mother to my only child. For five years, our relationship has been conducted during visits every-other-weekend, or once-weekly dinners, and now over the telephone and through snail mail.
The post office delivers another stuffed animal. A handful of Pacific Coast seashells in a small box of sand. A silly, hand-drawn picture of her likeness riding a rainbow unicorn. A hardcover book with highlighted passages that reminded me of her. A blank Polaroid on which I’ve written, “Our future together. Isn’t it beautiful?!”
I have a proclivity for detachment, but as I type this, I am strangled by disenfranchised grief and a scream trapped in my larynx, and I’m reminded of all the reasons I don’t share this part of my life with anyone.
Because, it hurts. Because it makes people uncomfortable. Because there is such guilt in being the “other” parent. Because “no one can possibly understand the way this feels.”
But, that’s a lie. I am not alone.
There are thousands of non-custodial and long-distance parents out there on the fringes, stigmatized and silent. You don’t have to say anything because I feel your loss. (And it’s real, and it’s valid.) I see you smiling vacantly as a friend chats with you about her kiddo’s upcoming birthday party or first day of school. You’re planning for your next summer vacation. You’re leaving another voicemail and buying more stamps. You’re listening to your empty house.
You are not alone.
I remember. I remember the first time I woke to an empty apartment, with the knowledge that my daughter was across town, and I wouldn’t make her pancakes or run a comb through her hair today. I had already hidden her toys and her Elmo toothbrush in a box until her next visit. Compartmentalizing seemed the most humane thing to do. Sensible, even. Shoeboxes of what-might-have-been and what-was-before taped shut and stacked up high, packed sensibly away.
I am not alone.
I can feel your shame, and it’s so heavy. You carry it around and set it on a barstool on a weeknight and order another cocktail. You’re wondering what your little one is eating for dinner tonight, wondering how it ended up like this, wondering when you’ll stop wondering these things. You’re calling a friend and making plans. You’ve got to stay busy.
You are not alone.
I stayed busy too. I did a lot of pacing the floor and lingering in doorways—neither in nor out, neither here nor there. I felt like a ghost, a figment of my own imagination, or maybe my own shadow. I told people I was doing OK. I said, “Oh, you know, it is what it is. Lots of people get divorced and don’t have custody of their kids. We make up for lost time when we’re together.” Change the subject.
A few years passed, and I got used to my daughter’s absence. I got used to regrets. You don’t think it’s possible, but you get used to these things, you know, and you keep living. Because the only alternative is to die. Every moment is a choice between life or death. “Will I drink this whole bottle of whiskey and run my car off the road, or will I go to work, come home, eat a bowl of soup and feed the cat?” Life. Or death.
We are in this together.
I can feel your determination, and it’s powerful. I see you doing what I am doing: building a new life around these new circumstances, slowly, surely. You’re realizing your bond with your child can’t be severed by time or space. You’re buying a card that says, “I love you all the way up to the moon.” And, you have every intention of proving it.
We are waking now to find that we are not ghosts or shadows. We are whole people and whole parents. We are accepting that things didn’t turn out the way we planned. We are acknowledging our folly and our losses and our responsibilities.
That hole in our lives where our children were will always be there, but we’ll no longer cram it full of people, places and things that don’t belong there. That’s the space we’ll hold open for gratitude to flow—our gratitude for this opportunity to become the people we would handpick to be our children’s parents.
Even if we could do it all over again.