Even two-plus years into it, the 50/50 custody thing is hard to digest. In the beginning, it was necessary and therapeutic, even heady and thrilling to be granted days and days of kid-free time. It was one of the few things that compensated for the overall awfulness of the experience.
Prior to that, whenever R& I unloaded the kids on grandparents or babysitters, we used it for “we” time–to see movies, go out to dinner, or take vacations. A true stint of solitude was a completely foreign concept.
There’s an established rhythm to the custody routine at this point–two days on, two off, five days on, five off–and as time passes, I become more and more estranged from my children’s other life.
When the girls go for their 5-day stretch with R, here is what happens in my world:
- I breathe a huge sigh of relief, do some neck rolls, and look forward to days of not having to think about nutritious meals or deal with the sibling bickering, teen-daughter madness and mother-daughter drama that regularly ensues when they’re with me. Then I feel guilty and worry that something bad will happen to them as punishment for wanting them gone.
- I straighten, clean and prettify the house and it stays that way. (I also throw out anything in the girls’ room that they’re not likely to notice has disappeared.)
- I debate whether it’s OK to put away my younger daughter’s complicated set-up of Playmobil or Calico Critters that consumes the entire rug in our TV room, usually decide it is, vacuum and spread out my exercise mat so I can do my workout videos in that space (this as of 1/1/11, when I made resolutions to be more fit).
- I am, by default, the prettiest girl in the house and feel younger, sexier and more carefree than I really am. When I look in the mirror, I think to myself: “Damn, you look good for a woman of your age.” I might even blast a Barry White song from me to me.
- As the days go by, I start to miss my kids and wonder what they’re doing. I become painfully, acutely aware that they are living a whole chunk of their lives without me, much of it spent with R and his girlfriend and her sons, who live in another state. Sometimes they call me, sobbing that they miss me, and sometimes I call them and they seem annoyed by my call. Either one makes me feel bad and sad and horribly left out. But as their mother, I have to rise above these childish feelings and pretend I’m a grown-up and that it’s OK that we live this way.
Here’s what happens when they return to me after five long days away:
- We hug and tell each other how much we missed each other. My younger daughter talks non-stop for as long as I’ll let her. My older daughter–the teen–lets out whatever she’s been holding in, which means she cries, or gets irrationally furious at me, or hugs me a little too often and too hard. One or both of them come into my bed that first night, call me “mommy” in a babyish way, and I love it.
- My younger daughter gets upset that I disassembled her Calico Critter or Playmobil families and sets them back up with a vengeance. The relatively beautiful, static physical world that I’ve created for myself in our home is violently disrupted with coats and backpacks, Ugly Dolls and socks (what is it with the socks?) tossed on the couch, the floor, the table, the counter tops.
- My older daughter–the teen–activates her freaky radar that immediately, and often angrily, registers any tiny little thing I’ve acquired in her absence. (“OMG, you got a new toothbrush?!?!?”) Betrayal.
- I am the least-pretty female in the house and seriously consider a life without mirrors (while my teenager wishes we had twice as many). When I catch a glimpse of myself, I think: “Whoa, you look like hell,” as I am now surrounded by the relentlessly firm, smooth, glossy-haired perfection of my daughters.
- I see the metaphorical lipstick on their collars, the little items that prove they’ve been having an affair with another mother (or mother-mistress) and her family: Tote bags sporting the name of the town where she lives, a T-shirt from the day camp one of them attended with her son, fart jokes and a revived enthusiasm for Harry Potter that they’ve picked up from her boys. Their innocent infidelity can inspire in me a jealousy worthy of Greek tragedy. But no tantrums on my part are allowed. Instead, I must remind myself to sweetly inquire about their other lives, to try hard to be happy that they’re making new connections with decent people.
- I’m hyper-aware of the distinctly R-ish quirks they’ve absorbed–a way of whistling, certain turns of phrase and points of view. Some induce nostalgia, some make me cringe. I wonder if they, similarly, infuse his world with my once-familiar little habits.
As we get to day four of the stretch, my nerves, reinforced by the days without them, begin their bi-monthly fray, even as it hurts to see them go. My daughters pack their bags, I send them on their way, and the cycle repeats.
Christina Frank lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her two daughters. She has written hundreds of articles for magazines, including Parenting, Health, Redbook, Good Housekeeping and Working Mother. Check out her blog Living in Splitsville: Notes on a Midlife Makeover.