Once upon a time I was married and had babies and those babies preferred me over their daddy. Not because I was a better parent but because I was the one who was home with them all the time and I just understood them better. Also, I breastfed, which made me hugely popular at feeding times. I remember Kyle taking offense at this Mommy-centric love sometimes, or being frustrated he couldn’t soothe the children as well as I could, but I told him not to take it personally.
We now co-parent our four children by a 50/50 method of physical custody. I initially thought our youngest child, nearly four now, would have the easiest time adjusting, since he would have the shortest memory of us all living together. But what I didn’t expect is that the four year old also does not have the filter the older children have. That means when he’s mad at me for putting him in a time out or making him pick up his toys, he will snarl at me, “I want Daddy! I only want to live with Daddy!”
I knew that divorce was going to be hard on our children, but what ultimately made me decide to go forward with it, after I’d exhausted all my options trying to get Kyle to see the marriage was in trouble and try to convince him to act to save it, was that the kids would eventually have to recognize that both I and their father were happier apart. And now I can already tell I’m a less stressed, more present parent than I was during the dark days leading up to the decision to separate and the long legal struggle to get to the divorce. But the kids don’t know that yet, even if they can sense it – they just know they miss their dad half the time and their mom half the time.
At least I hope they miss me. No, wait, that sounds wrong. I don’t want the kids to suffer but I know how much I want to hug them at bedtime each night and wonder if they miss giving me hugs, too, when we’re apart. I don’t know if my baby cries out, “I want my Mommy!” ever when he’s with Kyle and it stings me deep to think maybe he really does prefer to be with Daddy. I look into the future and wonder if there will come a time when my kids, older and able to make their own choices, will choose to live with just me or just their Dad. How will I handle that, whichever side I’m on? My cousins’ parents divorced and as soon as the younger kids turned the age where they could decide, they left their mom to live with my uncle. In part because of the man their mom was living with, but still.
When my baby declares he doesn’t want to live with me I question my parenting skills and Kyle’s. Am I being too strict? Is Kyle too lenient? Is my house too messy or do I ask the kids to do too many chores? Do they miss their bigger space and yard at their old house, where Kyle still lives? Do I work too much when they’re with me? Do I have enough money to take them on fun outings or does Kyle outshine my efforts? Why do I feel like this is a competition? Kyle has dangled the prospect of a puppy in front of the kids’ faces and I can’t have a pet (not enough space, not enough time, not enough moola) – instead of being happy for my kids I worry about what this will mean about their love for me and the home I’m trying to make for us. The kids admitted to me recently they feel bored more often at my house than at their dad’s – we have virtually no yard, no friends in the new neighborhood yet, and they have chosen not to bring as many toys from the old marital home than I guessed they would. So I try to overcompensate by taking them to movies and play dates and parks and out to eat, but that can only go so far. I want to be Fun Mommy so that they enjoy their time with me when we have it, but I can’t ignore the life lessons I need to impart by us all doing things like putting away laundry and doing dishes and so forth. Divorce is no smashing party, but life goes on.
I know my kids love me and I know they love their dad. I don’t want it any other way. I just wish I could stop fearing that my kids either do or will someday prefer Kyle’s house and parenting to mine, because it’s a sharp little thorn, that insecurity.