In February 2019, I wrote an email to my lawyer saying that I wanted to give up all rights to my children. I felt like I was being pushed out of their lives emotionally. I felt incapable of being anything they would ever look up to. I was heartbroken every two weeks when I had to give them back to their dad. I was over whelmed by post-cancer debris and I was desperate to remove all traces of their father from my life. My boys were 23 months old at the time.
In the email, I said their father could raise them, that I wasn’t needed, but the agreement would have to leave a provision that would let their grandparents (my parents) continue to be a part of their lives.
I was very attached to this thought process yet the actions that put the decision into motion were outside of me somehow. It was as if I was sitting on the windowsill of a stranger’s bedroom watching her do the hardest thing she’d ever done for the betterment of her children. From the windowsill, I watched this woman send texts to her family saying she couldn’t do it anymore. I saw her curl into a ball when her dad texted back, “Big mistake.” That was all he said. That’s exactly what it would have been.
I watched the strange woman with the hollow chest and frizzy, red hair collapse into a ball. I watched her punch the bed and bite the pillow. I watched her suffer with a cruel detachment. Who is this person? What are these decisions? What kind of a mother would voluntarily give up her children? Children she went nearly broke to have to herself during the custody process because she did not want them around alcoholic or manipulative behaviors. Children she removed from a toxic environment. Children who saved her life.
But I was determined to do what mothers are supposed to do—provide the best life they can for their kids. And at that point in my life, as I was getting back into my hardworking self, I thought the best I could do for them was provide financial support. Work is the prism of my confidence. When all else fails, I know I can work hard. I know I’m good at what I do. I know I can make money. Yes, I have to write down far more than I used to. Yes, I forget tasks that I never would have, but the one thing cancer hasn’t changed for me is my ability to grind. Physically, I felt (and still feel) ugly. Internally, I was shattered. The woman I watched from the windowsill was a peeling, dehydrated husk. Persona non grata. Or so I thought.
To emotionally get to a point where I thought I could give up the boys, I had to reject them. For a few splintered moments, I convinced myself that they’re not smart, that they’re nothing like me, that we don’t have a bond. I had to tell myself, “They will be fine without you.” And I had to tell my ex that the woman of his dreams, the woman he constantly threatened to replace me with, would suffice as their mother.
My family swooped in, thank God. My brother shared his pain associated with not seeing his child as often as he would like. My sister, who is a teacher and a damn good one at that, spoke to the practicality of things. Children who lose their mothers tend to have psychological issues. Where a father’s exit is harmful, a mother’s is detrimental. I spoke to a friend whose mother had left and then returned years later. I filled my Google browser with articles from Psychology Today. And then I read an email from my lawyer:
“Raising two children to become good, productive members of the human race is indeed doing something really great with your life. Einstein’s and Edison’s mothers are not really remembered in the history books, but their sons sure made an impact and where would we be without them having raised their sons?”
This email caused me to backtrack, to work my way back into myself. I re-read the texts on my computer that confirm that the situation I had removed my children from was the crazy maker, not me. I looked at the screenshots of love and support sent my way from friends and family. Through their eyes and by reframing my definition of productivity, I started to see the beauty that remained despite cancer’s beastly attempts to destroy it.
I will never be proud of almost surrendering custody of my kids, but I’m no longer ashamed of it, either. When a person feels they have nothing else to give, when they are incapable of offering themselves a minutia of grace, they cannot do for anyone else.
I know my boys need me. The rational me has never wavered from this point of view. The emotional, desperate post-cancer me has. The boys need me not just because I’m their mom, not just because I’m their favorite person in the world. They need someone to teach them to travel. They need someone to teach them empathy and compassion. They need someone to show them what it means to cultivate a worldview. They need someone to teach them how to work, how to achieve goals, how to consume knowledge, how to think, how to value higher education, how to be honest, how to be a kind. They need someone who can show them how to be their authentic self, flaws and all. I’ve devoted my life to these things. Thankfully for my little trio, my family has devoted the last 1.5 years of their lives to saving me. To saving us.
I started writing this several months ago and finished it on a return flight from Nairobi. I love to travel. I love to write. I love thinking that these two passions might allow me to contribute to the greater good. Before I had children, traveling and writing were my babies. But they’re not anymore. Now there a way for me to teach my children how to be whole even if that’s something I struggle to be myself. My children are the coolest, kindest, most curious human beings I know and they’re a part of me. These wonderful things didn’t come from accomplishments, failures, or tax returns. They didn’t come from a dried husk that has nothing to offer. They came from me.
Mothers, if you’re feeling like you’re not good enough for whatever reason—maybe you have postpartum depression, maybe it’s been a tough week, maybe your world is falling apart—know that you are. Society places enormous pressure on women to be everything to everyone, but you’re really only accountable to yourself. Love yourself, be gentle with yourself. See your children as they see you.