My daughter is a pleaser. She’s always concerned for other people’s states of mind, always doing what she can to make folks happy. On the one hand this quality brings remarkable capacity for empathy and awareness; on the other, it can strip the self of boundaries, tear away a person’s personal ethics as they go further and further away from their own truth to live up to someone else’s. Children can be so so pliable, they bend and flex and cartwheel on behalf of making their parents pleased. Sometimes this bending stretches the supple muscles too far, asks too much of the body.
The other day I held my daughter’s growing-fast body while it shook and clenched and spasmed with grief. She screamed, “Why can’t he work at making things better, why do I have to do all the work? Why can’t I just be a kid?!” Three years after the fact, she still feels her father’s abandonment deep in the very core of her sensitive being. She tries and tries to make sense of her father’s leaving, of his disengagement from her life, her feelings. I did all I could think to do, I empathized as best I could, repeating back to her all the frustration and anger and disappointment she expressed. I gave her what she only wanted to receive from him. I stroked her hair and bit my lip and waited.
I couldn’t say, “don’t worry, it’s not so bad,” for that would only dismiss her sorrow. I couldn’t tag-a-long to her anger with, “yeah, what a jerk he was for baling on you,” for that would discredit my position as space holder. But I tell you what, I wanted to cry along with her, yell at the top of my lungs too, “how could he!” Somehow, I didn’t speak an ill word of him, focused on her suffering and solutions to it.
Are there solutions? How else to dispel disappointment other than just getting over it, resigning yourself, accepting the lesser version of a dad than you had hoped for. How do you account for a loss when the person you’ve lost is still technically there but also totally and completely isn’t. I ask this for her as much as I ask for myself.
I never wanted to parent solo, shit I barely wanted to parent at all. But after our separation, which was necessary, the co-parenting set-up really worked great. He had them for a week then I did then he did. Back and forth and we would communicate about big decisions, hell even little ones. We worked as a team, a family, albeit an alternative one. Though we didn’t live together, and we didn’t parent on-site together, neither one of us was alone in our parenting. We had the other to consult with, vent with, and make plans of action to tackle the latest developmental phase. So when he completely severed the co-parenting relationship–going from half time to barely ever time, to living in a different state time–we all were devastated. Yes, I’m using such a dramatic word even though this word can mean so much more in much more drastic situations, I recognize this. But I am using a large word for a huge gaping feeling in me, in my children, in the very center of my family’s pathos.
To lose the camaraderie of the other parent, the solidarity of two heads, the relief of pressure from sole responsibility, this is a type of devastation. When you are on a team going through life everything feels surmountable. To find yourself suddenly without compass or landmark, without burden sharer or reassurance, and to see infinite forks in any given direction–this arrests all movement forward. My essence was blindsided.
All I could think was how do I spare them hurt, how do I protect them from, well, from his leaving? How do you explain to a child that a father leaves but not for any fault of theirs? How do you convince a kid to believe they are his priority even while he is turning away, moving miles and miles and miles away–both physically and emotionally? You don’t. No words work. If bell hooks is right, if love is an action then, well, what do you call the inverse?
Every cell in my being shifted when he abandoned his children for a new life, with a sudden new family, and new rules and new ways of relating–or not relating. My certainty suddenly gave out and my ass got real sore from the fall. When he abandoned our pact to raise these kids, not as a nuclear family, but as an equally important type of family structure, I lost all faith in people’s ability to stay, to push through for each other. If a man cannot stay for his own children, how is anyone to stay for someone unrelated? Everyone knows the old saying about blood and water.
I lost a co-parent and very soon after, no surprise, lost my partner of that time. Loss atop loss, like dominoes shoving into each other. My kids lost their dad and then they lost their step-parent. So much heart loss in the span of a couple years. A couple years blow by, get swept in the current of flipping light until the winter comes and one parent and two kids alone together are grappling around in its dark. How am I to forge a strong healthy family bond? How do I remain present for these children when everyone else leaves, can’t I just leave?
My parent-self wasn’t fully formed until I was completely alone with it. Only once I didn’t have the other parent’s input, a partner’s input, or care, did I truly realize that everything I do in my life weighs on my kids tremendously. My every move is under pressure; my choices are not mine alone to contend with. To make good choices for a good self, working your way through a good, albeit difficult, life is already crazy making. Add to this difficulty the fragile lives of two un-autonomous beings and impossible becomes an active noun. Or rather, I feel impossible. The sensation that you are alone in deciding on behalf of three people weighs like a suffocating fog that blurs the landmarks, conceals the destination point.
“What exactly is most important for my children after basic needs?” “Is love a basic need or a bonus?” “How do I fill the void of their loss when I too feel lost?” “What do I need? And does that even matter at this point?” “How do you mend a broken family when some of the pieces have gone missing?” “What does family even mean if members leave and don’t look back?” All these questions to ask myself and answer myself. Or not answer.
You know I used to scoff at and feel angry towards the phrase, “a broken home.” But I agree now, our home is broken: we are distrustful of others and alone with each other and only one leg to balance with, we don’t let people in anymore, as if our threshold has shrunken to an un-findable proportion. Once a thing’s been broken there’s only fixing left to work at. I guess naming a home broken begins the long process of making a home repaired. Whether I like it or not, I must get to it.
Everything boils back down to just me. Just me and my two kids. And I don’t like it, and my kids don’t like it. No one ever says so, not at least, until my daughter is a flooding street on the living room floor. And then grief presents itself as if it was there the whole time, underscoring all the small moments. Each of us grieves differently but for every spell the time stops to kaleidoscope past events into the present while sucking the future down in. Every time one of us is taken by our grief I naively think it is the last time. Every time, I think it is the last time.
Ultimately, I would like to raise a whole person–two whole people actually–and I realize, of course, that I cannot protect them from hurt or abandonment or worse even. So how then, do I guide them through to the other side? And if I too, am not a whole person how then do I pass on something to them that is bigger and better than I am? I want more for them. I want them to grow believing in the fantasy that I rejected over a decade ago: I want them to believe that love is the greatest thing; believe that love and loving is what saves us all from despair. How do you pass on a tool you do not yourself wield? And how do I convince them that love is everything when it wasn’t enough to keep their dad near and engaged and actually parenting?
I don’t have an answer. And though it’s unsatisfying to not have an answer I do keep staring grief down thinking if it gets enough airtime eventually it will tire of surfacing. I suppose, at the least, I pass on resilience simply by making it through every time. And though I don’t let people in yet, at least I am fortifying myself, my home. And raising a self, or two or three, really takes it out of you. And building a home out of guesswork and trial and error and miniscule hope growing and letting the past out the back door repeatedly and waiting and waiting–the future is bound to show up whole someday. Let’s hope I’m done flipping off grief by then.