Most people hate Mondays, but hump day is the day I dread. Each Wednesday, per our custody agreement, my daughters go to their dad’s house for the second half of the week. In principle, I don’t disagree with the schedule we have in place; I firmly believe spending time with their father and sisters is definitely a good thing. But while our brief week together has gotten easier to bear, it has not become routine like much of parenting does.
The girls first started going back-and-forth between our homes when they were four years old. The first few years of our parenting arrangement, I felt completely at a loss with the silence that would follow their departure. I avoided going into their room or doing their laundry because their unmade beds and dirty socks on the floor served as a stark reminder of just how little they were, and how I wasn’t around to mother them. For a long time, I’d stay at work late to avoid walking in and seeing their breakfast placemats and a stray cup of milk on the counter. Everything, from what I saw to what I did not see, was a reminder of their absence and of my failure to give them an intact home and the fact that I was missing 50% of my daughters’ life.
When I remarried, my husband, too, learned to expect that on Wednesday night I’d be withdrawn and quiet, not wanting to flood him with the sadness I felt. While he was incredibly supportive and loving, I am sure my silence affected him, as he probably felt powerless to help. But what could he do? Raising children is a visceral and emotional experience rather than a rational and predictable one, and no amount of logic could have helped me. He waited patiently and lovingly, giving me space.
Eventually some Wednesdays became easier than others, but there were ones where the hairbrush and the hair tie would be so difficult to look at, I’d shut the bathroom door. There was the guilt over the half-full bag of gummi bears I had declared off limits at bedtime, and the second-guessing of discipline issued the day before — had I been too strict? Was it worth it when I saw them so little? We’d go from a crowded and dirty mudroom to tidy adult neatness in one Wednesday and back to chaos when they would come back on Saturday. We had to learn to live the unpredictable, chaos-filled life that involves children, and re-learn to appreciate the silence their absence left behind each and every week. The split week had to become our normal, and eventually time healed our wounds and we started to adapt to the constant change.
Eventually, I realized that while I did not have a choice about when I could have my girls with me, I did indeed have a choice when it came to how I used the time without them. I could shut down, feel terrible, and beat myself up for making the bed I now had to lie in. Or, I could use my childless time to do what I could not be doing if I had to be a full-time mom. I set goals, made appointments, networked with people and started ticking goals off my bucket list. I took care of my needs, which is quite rare when it comes to being a parent (especially a mother) these days. I cultivated a myriad of activities with my husband which bonded us and made our marriage stronger. I used the childless time to work hard, recharge, read and think – and to sit with the discomfort of being a part-time mother. I forgave myself for my role in the girls’ housing arrangement. I found a very deep empathy for parents, male and female, who have no access to the children they love for whatever reason. Longing for your child and not having access is unbearably hard, regardless of why.
Many gifts have come out of my Wednesday sadness, but perhaps the most useful lesson I’ve learned to date is that I am not in control of my children’s lives. One day they will leave permanently and have a life of their own guided by their own principles and rules. Most parents don’t have to learn this lesson until our kids start favoring their peer group or until we become empty-nesters. But when you are a parent who shares custody, you learn this lesson early. I can’t be there to wipe every tear or trim their nails. I can’t supervise every flossing, every outfit, every homework assignment. I can’t make every meal or ensure they go to bed on time. I can’t control every influence or interaction they have. I have to trust that they will be safe under the care of their dad, and eventually on their own.
Because of Wednesday, I’ve had to distill my parenting efforts to what really matters to me. These days, I try to teach the bigger lessons I hope to pass along to my girls –independence, self-reliance, speaking their mind, and understanding that when we treat others poorly, we are usually feeling badly about ourselves. Because the clock that keeps track of our time together is often ticking down, I try to be more present when my girls are home. Has it been easy to get here? Heck no. But it has become easier to let go on every inevitable Wednesday. Wednesday may have been breaking my heart for the last 7 years, but it has also managed to make me a better mother and person, and for that I am grateful. (But no, I still don’t like Wednesdays).
Whenever I drive past the girls’ school when they are not with me, I wonder what they are up to in there. I know the building holds the two most precious things in my life, and I imagine them in their checkered uniforms and sneakers learning, playing and eating their lunches. I know they are safe among their friends and the fantastic community of teachers and administrators, even if I am not there. And I drive on and let go again.