I woke up too early this morning with that feeling again: that slight tightness in my chest, the sense (despite the quiet orderliness of the new day) that something wasn’t quite right, the low hum in my brain that wouldn’t let me go back to sleep, even though I could.
I could, theoretically, go back to sleep, because my 8-year-old wasn’t going to pad into my room and into my bed and steal my covers sometime after 6 a.m.; I could, because an hour later, his older sister wasn’t going to try to convince me to reconsider my ban on electronics first thing in the morning. And even though I find these practices somewhat irritating, especially before I am properly caffeinated, this morning I was absolutely, uncomfortably aware of my lack of irritation.
More to the point, I was absolutely, uncomfortably aware of the absence of my children, who had spent the previous several nights at my ex’s house.
I miss my kids.
And I am, perversely, somewhat happy about that.
When my ex and I separated, we didn’t have to negotiate for a moment about custody: We had agreed, well before we even had children, that in the event of a divorce we would share childcare equally. In fact, in better days—those never-ending days with an infant and a toddler, for example—we used to joke about adding an escape clause to our putative 50-50 agreement: “If one of us leaves, that person has to take the kids.”
Even after we had actual children, and once we decided to separate, our theory held in practice. We both wanted our time with our offspring, but—and we both admitted this freely—we also wanted our breaks from parenting: time to regroup, work, socialize, get the house in order, travel, maybe even date. We wanted those cuddly mornings in bed and family dinners, but we also wanted to sleep in and have the freedom to eat cheese on crackers for dinner in front of the TV. Each of us having the kids half-time seemed like the only fair solution.
Deep down, though, I worried, not that I would miss my children when they weren’t here, but that I would resent them coming back. I worried that I would relish too much my time alone, get used to the lack of chaos, enjoy my freedom just a little too much. I worried that the stresses that had led to the breakdown of my marriage had also broken me, ruined me for parenting. I worried that I was some kind of monstrous, selfish mother, not in love enough with her children to want them around half-time, to say nothing of all the time. I worried that I wouldn’t miss them when they were gone.
Really, though, I probably shouldn’t have judged myself quite so harshly. The process of separation—even a relatively amicable separation—isn’t really the best time to judge how you’re going to feel about things in the long term. The months leading up to and following our decision to split were some of the most stressful of my life. My ex and I were trying—as gracefully as possible but still incredibly painfully—to share our space and to co-parent. A few months in, we began a partial moving-out process until he could find a place. We alternated time in the house with the kids and time crashing with friends. Either way, the matrimonial home became a place of great discomfort. Those many nights in friends’ guest rooms often felt like a respite from the stresses and responsibilities of it all. Still, they carried their own burdens. As one of my hosts said to me during that time, “You may have lots of safe places to stay, but right now you don’t have a safe place to live.”
The kids were no more or less demanding than usual during that time. (In other words, they were pretty demanding.) Given that my emotional resources were already stretched to the limit, it makes sense that parenting—one of the most resource-intensive of all emotional endeavors—felt overwhelming. It made sense that my time alone felt precious, even though at the same time I felt alienated from my family. And as for time to myself in my own house, that felt virtually nonexistent between packing and unpacking my suitcase and changing sheets and loading my stuff into and out of the car and trying to figure out what was in the fridge. My doctor had prescribed some anti-anxiety meds, which I used very sparingly. I tended to take them most often on the days I moved back “home.”
That transitional time is, thankfully, behind us now. My ex eventually found a place. We divided up furniture and dishes. The day his moving truck came and left with roughly half of our accumulated worldly goods, I felt simultaneously as though I could barely breathe and as though I could exhale deeply for the first time in months. The kids started moving back and forth between the “new” house and the “old” one. When they weren’t with me, I busied myself in a whirlwind of fairly obsessive nesting: painting, purging, organizing, redecorating. And when they were with me, I was calmer, happier to see them, and more able than I’d been in ages to, as they say in the parlance of mindfulness, “respond instead of react.”
And when they left, I missed them—not in any keening, visceral way. Just a sharp twinge at the school drop-off when I knew that they’d be going to the “new” house at the end of the day, or when I put away the books or toys or toothbrushes that I knew wouldn’t be used for a few days. (Right now, there’s an Archie comic in the bathroom next to the toilet. Every time I’m in there, I look at it and think, “They’ll be back here soon to read that,” and I smile.) It’s still strange not to know what they’re having for dinner, and what their plans are for the weekends when they’re not with me. By the fourth or fifth day without them, I’m edgy, itchy, not quite right.
So it makes sense that the first time I noticed those twinges, that edginess, I was, paradoxically, relieved. I wasn’t some monstrous, failed mother, more concerned with my own agenda than that of my kids. I was–I am–a woman emerging from a really shitty year, a parent deeply in love with her children, a mother absolutely committed to creating a secure and half-time home for them, even as my heart is 100 percent theirs. I miss them when they aren’t here, but the good news is that they always come back. In the wake of separation, I’m not sure I could ask for much more.
When my kids aren’t with me, I’m busy. Sometimes my solo dinners consist of cheese and crackers with a glass of wine in front of the television. I work, I socialize, I exercise, I meditate. I’m contemplating dating. I enjoy myself, and even as I enjoy myself, I miss my children. And I’m happy about that.