Sending kids off to school on the first day back after summer break is a lot of mixed emotions for most parents I know. I’ve never quite known how to feel on the first day of school — am I happy I’ll have a little more time to myself? Am I sad I won’t get as much free time with my kids? Nothing magnified this confusion quite as much for me as becoming a widow.
My husband died by suicide in March of 2012. At the time, I had only been living in my “hometown” for a few months after having lived all over the world as a military wife. My kids were 10, 8, and 6 and had reluctantly gone back to school after homeschooling for a couple of years. When my husband died, I wanted to retreat to a cabin in the woods and just hold my children — keep them safe from their grief and protect them from the inevitable tongues that would wag.
Of course, I couldn’t do that. Or, rather, I didn’t think that was really an option at the time. Pretty much as soon as my husband died, the whole world seemed to know what was “best” for my kids. The school principal promised me the “experts” say to “stick to a routine.” The counselors said to make sure my kids were getting time to grieve. The new widows I met told me to trust myself — and all I could think was that this didn’t sound like a very good idea at all.
Still, it is the same advice I give widows today. Trust yourself — only YOU know what is best for your kids. Not the pediatrician, the principal, or the small town school nurse. You.
That first summer without my husband, I ignored my intuition to escape to an island with my kids where we could just lean in to each other and figure everything out. I caved to the pressure of well-meaning friends and family and kept them very busy with camps and activities all summer. Nobody had enough time to grieve and everybody paid for it come September. One teacher told me that my kids should be over it by then, because, well, “she knew.” She had lost her 80-year-old mother just the year before. A local waitress shared her concern that she saw bedroom lights on late at night and early in the morning at my house and wasn’t I worried about the cost of electricity?
To be honest, every time someone brought a suggestion to me, I felt like I had to consider it. I felt like I had no idea how to raise grieving children. Surely, someone out there could tell me.
That all changed one night that winter.
It would be a whole other story to discuss people’s opinions about when a widow is ready to date. But, for some reason or another (and I refuse to judge myself or any other widow), I decided to meet up with an old friend who happened to be a man. My brother stayed with my kids. I went out, we had a nice night (reminiscing about our old musical theater days) and then we said goodnight. I was home by 10, my brother had everyone safely tucked in their beds, and that was that.
Until about mid-day the next day. I received a phone call from an assistant at the elementary school that my youngest was in the nurse’s office. My heart flew up to my throat. He has severe food allergies. A call from the school always makes time freeze for me. But, no, she was just worried about how “tired” my son was. Our conversation went (something) like this:
Her: He looks very tired.
Me: Hmm. Does he have a fever?
Her: Well, no. He just told me he’s exhausted.
Me: Okay. Is it possible he’s feeling sad?
<side note… remember this was still less than a year since his dad had killed himself.>
Her: No. I think… I think it is because you went on a date last night.
Me: Excuse me?
Her: He said that his uncle took care of him and they stayed up all night playing video games.
At this point I started laughing. But, it wasn’t funny. At all.
Me: Well. He’s 6. I’m sure it felt like all night, but I assure you when I got home at 10 he was already sound asleep.
Her: Children need a lot of sleep, Mrs. McCaddon. To perform well in school.
Now, I wasn’t laughing any more.
Me: No shit, Sherlock. (Okay … I didn’t actually say that …)
But, here is the point at which this school assistant changed everything for me. She took a deep breath and sang out her pièce de résistance.
Her: Mrs. McCaddon, I think it would be in your children’s best interests if you keep your dating to the weekends. They need you home during the week.
Cue head exploding, phone slamming, and a serious Trulia search for a new place to live 3,000 miles away.
I’m not saying that was the most mature response a human being can have.
I’m not even saying I’m proud of it.
What I am proud of is that from that day forward, I decided that absolutely no one was more of an expert on my life and my kids than me. Any support I would accept going forward would be because I asked for it. And any advice I took would be because I agreed with it.
Have I made mistakes? Plenty! Find me a good mom who hasn’t! Have I done my best? You bet, and that has included finding true experts on grief, suicide, and trauma to help our family through the hardest of times. Not one of them has had anything to say about my social life. Have near-strangers tried to weigh in over and over about how I was doing it all wrong? Yup! You know the worst offenders? School assistants and some school counselors (I’d like to pause here to say that our current school counselor is the best ever). It has come to the point that at the end of every summer I feel just a twinge of PTSD. Like, what’s going to blow up this year?
But, something has changed in me.
Now, I walk through the halls of any school knowing that these kids — they are awesome. Even though they have suffered and struggled, they are kind, compassionate, hardworking, and contributing humans. I’m damn proud of them. I don’t know if they are this way because of me, or in spite of me, or somewhere in between, but I know that I’ve loved them with my whole heart. I’ve brought them to the “real” experts. I’ve protected them from the big talkers. I’ve taught them to seek help from the right people and to trust themselves.
I’m happy to report that my children do stay up all night playing video games sometimes. But, only during the summer. It also seems that when you are a normal size fish in a bigger pond (I wasn’t kidding about that Trulia search), no one really notices if your kids say they were up all night. Most school nurses just send them back to class and tell them to go to bed earlier the next night. My phone only ever rings if they have a fever.
And I go on dates any damn time I please.