Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Non-Custodial Mother

So what do you think of when you meet or hear about a non-custodial mother? A mother with small children who live with their father… hmmm….. Do you think drug addict? Adulteress who left her kids and ran off with her lover? Mother who cares more for her career than family? Someone who got pregnant on accident because she really likes sex, and wanted to continue having it without the snot nosed, demanding accompaniment?

When people criticize other parents, I always think “uh oh, you’ve just jinxed yourself.” I am sure that in the past, before I became a parent, I heard of a non-custodial mother and made some snap judgment. I’m sure I jinxed myself. I’d love to believe that what I’m living through now is the result of some stupid jinx. It’d be so much easier to deal with – accepting with grace some cruel twist of fate. Finding myself guilty of only a “snap judgment” in the past. But, being a citizen of the Real World, it’s not so simple.

*I* am a non-custodial mother. I AM a non-custodial mother. I am a NON-CUSTODIAL mother.

Which part of that sentence do I want to focus on?

The *I*? Me? How could this happen to me? I’m a devoted parent, I am always the one who took up the slack when the other parent was lacking. I’m the one who has altered her lifestyle, career goals and financial situation so that I can provide the sort of life I think my kids deserve. *I* am now lumped into that category of uncaring, drug addicted, adulteress losers. ME! Me, the woman who has always done everything with the best of intentions… and who recently realized that it’s incredibly na├»ve to assume that acting with good intentions will get me to the desired end.

Do I focus on the “AM” part? I don’t have to be a non-custodial parent forever. I can win her back. I can buy her a car for her to use when she’s with me, and surely she’ll want to come here. I can decorate her room and put in a dance floor, sound system and disco ball. I can fight through the court system till her father has no money left and has to give up. I have incredible powers of stamina, and I can do that. But I also have too much sense to waste the money and my family’s emotional energy. I’m not going to buy my kid. Let someone else do that if they so desire, but the values I want her to learn have very little to do with money or stuff. On the contrary, we want her to learn that money and stuff are poor substitutes for the things that really matter, and are really only a tool to reach a goal anyway.

I am NON-CUSTODIAL. I do not decide where my daughter lives. In fact, when her father goes overseas, she gets to stay with her step mother. Yes, the court has decided that staying in place with her step mother, rather than joining her mother, step father and THREE siblings, is in her best interest. It’s so hard to fathom… I am not sitting on the couch with her watching our favorite shows. I’m not the one who is constantly asking “do you need deodorant from the store? Are you sure? Cause I think you need deodorant.” I don’t fix her dinner nightly, nor do I wash her clothes and say “will you stop growing please?” I don’t take her bra shopping, or urge her to brush her teeth every night. I don’t get to observe the life cycle of her new pimples, her new crushes, her school projects. Inside jokes and routines are pretty thin on the ground between her and me. I’m the 2nd and 4th weekend and dinner on Wednesday parent.

It seems pretty cruel to me that in spite of this court ruling, I still have to get up in the morning, and engage with my husband, and care for my other children, and go to my job, and actually DO my job. I go to the grocery store and there are parents with their kids everywhere, and they have no idea that the I am walking around with a piece of me missing. We have a new camera, but still, where are HER pictures? I used to know everything about her – I could see something and think “she will love that!” … Now I see things and wonder “What would she think?” And not KNOWING my daughter like that is what hurts the most. I miss her company, I miss our jokes, and I miss seeing the milestones, but I have realized that it’s the not knowing that sucks hardest.

So, in the context of I AM A NON-CUSTODIAL MOTHER, I have chosen to focus on the mother part. The part that knows her daughter. The court and her father can keep me from witnessing the little ticks like nightly dinners, where she picks out all the broccoli from her stir fry, then sucks on it, never chewing and swallowing it. (what is up with that?) I don’t get to see the pimple from start to finish, but if I make the most of my visitation, I’ll know the pimple was there, and can talk to her about the things that work and don’t work on pimples. I can still observe, interact, and teach. Maybe, if she has a problem with pimples, I can be generous and buy her one of those expensive heat zapping machines – provided she understands that we’re buying it because it’s for her health and her self esteem, and not because we just buy crap.

I have tools at my disposal to be a mother – not the tools I used to use, but this is a new era. This is the era of regular emails from mom, regular text messages, regular phone calls. This is the era of being emotionally present and predictable so that she knows that even though I’m not there, I am HERE in a broader sense. My love is not conditioned on where she lives. It is not conditioned on the choices she has made in all of this. My love is constant and will be showered on her regardless. We’ve got to come up with new rituals and inside jokes, things that will develop through different routes that the regular “come home, eat cookies, do your homework, hang with mom while she makes dinner” sort of thing. Maybe stupid jokes sent every night at bedtime. Or talking on the phone while watching “So You Think You Can Dance?” Or sending silly pictures of cats back and forth via email with our own quirky captions.

I am still a mother, of her and of three other children who are hurting because of this separation. Being a mother means I will be flexible, selfless, creative, resilient, loving and constant. I have to be that for everyone, in a whole new landscape. I’ll let you know how it goes.

But in the mean time, I’d like to apologize to all those other mothers who may once have been a victim of my unthinking, quick judgments. Being a parent is about the BEING part. It’s a choice that manifests as an action, and is steady and never ending. …no matter where your kid is.