Leaving my child by boat, like my ancestors did

P1040960I had never left

My first boy

In such an ancient way:

By boat.

Shiny, modern airports

Have always been the scenes of

Our parting.

Tears in the security line,

And then the suddenness

Of a plane trip

Away from my boy.

And a mere few hours later

I’m eight time zones,

One ocean,

And half a continent away from my son.

This time was different.

This time, at the end of our

Big family trip through Europe

The five of us

Said good-bye to Victor for

His summer in Finland with his dad,

And we got on a boat

In a harbor in Helsinki,

And set off into the

Baltic Sea for Germany,

Where we would fly home.

Once on the ferry,

After the craziness of getting

The rest of the kids out of the

Car hold and

Our stuff deposited in our

Cabin for the 30-hour trip,

Joe took the kids

And I had a few minutes alone.

I sat on the bed and

Watched out the window as

The boat chugged along the

Pine-forested coast of Finland and

Out into the Baltic Sea.

The steady rate at which the boat moved

Me away from my boy

Felt humane and natural

Compared to the

Otherworldly shock

Of the airplane lift-off.

With every few meters and

Knots the ship moved,

I acclimated to my boy’s

Physical absence.

It was a slower,

Gentler parting.

And I realized,

As I sat cross-legged on the bunk

Watching the sea swirl and foam,

One that I’m not the

First in my family to have made.

At the turn of the century,

My Finnish great-great-grandparents

Left for America

By boat,

Leaving behind their

Teenaged daughter–

My great-grandmother Selma–

And her younger brother Toivo.

A year later, in 1906,

The siblings would make the

Trip together:

A 16-year-old and a 12-year-old,

Traveling for weeks across the

Atlantic to

Meet their parents in

Their new homeland in 1906.

So as I sailed away from Finland,

Leaving my son behind for the summer,

I thought of my great-great-grandparents

Doing essentially the same thing

110 years earlier.

My situation,

Of periodic, international separation

From my little boy,

Feels abnormal from my

Low-boil heartbreak perspective.

But I know it’s actually not.

Parents and children

Are separated in our world

All the time,

And they always have been.

Whether through

Wartime chaos,

Arbitrary national boundaries,

Military service,

Difficult circumstances and decisions,

Sickness and death,

Addiction,

Incarceration,

Parents parent from a

Distance as best they can–

Or are unable to parent at all.

I think about the

Parents I know who

Don’t experience separation from

Their minor children

Sometimes with envy,

Until I remember that

Those of us who do

Endure it

Are only experiencing a

Premature and

Exaggerated

Version of what every parent

Eventually has to do,

Which is

Let

Go

And turn our children over to

The world and

The universe with

Trembling hands.

Whether they’re eight or

Eighteen or

Twenty-eight,

It has to be done.

What was that like for my

Great-great-grandparents,

I wondered as I watched the

Sea pass beneath our ship.

Did parents experience the

Maternal and paternal instinct in the

Same way back then

And back there,

When infant mortality was

30 times higher

Than it is today

And many families lived in

Third-world conditions?

I imagine they

Loved and grieved their children

With the same ferocity

As we in first-world modernity,

But perhaps there was a

Certain resignation

We don’t have today

To the fact of

Tragedy and pain,

Such as through separation from

A child.

It’s always been a comfort to me

To know that,

Though it feels like it sometimes,

I’m not the only one

Enduring the absence of my child

In this world.

The idea for

The novel I just finished the first draft of,

Firebird,

Comes from the stories of

Undocumented worker parents in our country

Deported,

Leaving their children behind,

Sometimes separated from them

Forever.

Those stories hurt my heart

So I wrote about them to

Soothe myself.

I’m fortunate.

I know I can get out my credit card

And my passport

At any time

And be with my boy within

24 hours, if I really needed to.

Not every parent in my

Situation has that luxury.

And certainly my

Great-great-grandparents didn’t.

In a few weeks, it will be time to

Go to the airport and

Wait outside the frosted glass

Sliding doors of

International arrivals,

Craning my neck to watch for him

Every time the doors open.

Maybe this time I’ll

Think about my great-great-grandparents

Waiting at the train station in

Waukegan, Illinois for their

Children whom they hadn’t seen in

More than a year.

How much taller would they be?

Was everything okay on the trip?

And most importantly,

Which train car would they step off?

There my boy will be,

Bigger and wearing new clothes,

Pulling his suitcase and

Pushing his glasses up on his face.

When he sees me

His mouth will twist up into the

Sly, embarrassed smile he gets with a

Rush of strong feeling.

I’ll squeeze his bones like a

Bundle of long sticks

And lift him off the ground,

Which I can just barely still do.

On the car ride home,

I’ll tell him about his

Great-great-grandmother’s journey from

Finland to America.

He’ll probably have questions about the

Boat and the

Train.

Logistics are important to him.

And he’ll know

That he’s not alone

In this family by

Splitting his life between two countries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Antidote to mommy guilt?

MOMMY_guilt__470x4510One of my boys has

Challenges.

I won’t get any more

Specific,

Because it’s his story to tell

If he ever wants to tell it.

But he’s got some

Characteristics

That are going to make his

Journey

A little more

Strenuous

Than the average

Kid his age.

And it’s funny.

As I’m discussing him

With his various providers and advocates,

I’ll make a

Weak

Joke

About damage

I must have caused him,

And they always look at me

Sharply,

Concerned.

“You don’t blame yourself,

Do you?” they ask.

Their attention suddenly shifted

From my boy

To his mother possibly about to

Start weeping.

They’ve seen weeping mothers before;

They know the signs.

I want to laugh.

Of course I blame myself.

Are you kidding?

You can slap down

All the research you have about how

This doesn’t cause that, etc.

But I want to smile kindly and say,

“I know you’re trying to make me feel better,

But please,

Don’t bother.

No matter what you say,

No matter how many studies you show me,

I will blame myself.

You might be able to

Convince my twitching brain,

But in my gut,

I know

It’s my fault.”

The guilt and self-blame feel as inevitable as

Winter.

You can’t stop it.

It will have its way with you

And leave you pale and depleted.

The saddest thing I heard about

Motherhood was how

Guilt

Will put up a

Wall between

You and your child,

Will hinder you from loving your child

Wholly and completely.

I’ll admit I’ve

Given in to it,

Let it so twist me up that

All I can do is gaze down on my boy

From miles above him with

Mortified eyes,

Or snap and growl when he only needs

Softness and warmth.

But there’s this

Woman

I think about

Who gives me hope.

A mother of four boys,

I knew her when she was

Already elderly and

Dignified.

Two of her boys had had

Very difficult

Tragic lives.

Addiction and violence killed them

When they were young men.

And I remember her saying things like,

“He wasn’t able to get well.”

Or

“He wasn’t willing to use the

Resources available to him.”

And somewhat even

Shrugging her shoulders.

Now,

Some might see that as

Cold or cruel,

But the way I saw it, she was

Placing responsibility for her sons’

Dissolutions

On her sons.

She didn’t blame them,

But she didn’t blame herself,

Either.

I wish I had gotten a chance to ask her

Before she died,

How she at least seemed to not

Blame herself

For her children’s suffering.

I imagine she would’ve talked about

Using her own resources,

Because I saw her doing it.

She was busy with church

And service and grandkids.

I’ve been talking to

A lot of people,

Friends,

Who’ve shared their own stories,

And given me information,

Tools,

Support.

A friend just yesterday

Observed that

This is probably a lot harder on me

Than it is on my son.

And I had to stop and frown,

(I frown a lot when talking about this)

And contemplate that.

I think she’s right.

I guess I’ll take a cue from my elderly friend:

Give my boy all the resources I can,

Then step back and let him use them.

And if at some point in the future he

Stops using them,

Let him do that, too.

And meanwhile,

Stay busy, looking around me

At the world

Instead of staring

Hysterically only at

Him.

A chat about fear with an 8-year-old

Jaws Movie Poster iPhone WallpaperWe were at the school bus stop

When my

First boy

Dropped one of his

Existential bombs on me:

“Mom,

What are you

Afraid of?”

Oh my son,

Where to even begin?

A litany ran through my head

Starting with the ones that had

Awoken me at two o’clock

That very morning:

First Boy,

Getting hit by a car.

Baby Boy

Choking on a piece of food.

Or vice versa:

Getting a call from school that

First Boy

Had choked on a carrot at

Lunch, or

Baby Boy darting out into traffic and getting

Spun

By the fender of a car.

(I can envision it in

Precise

Detail

In my mind,

Watching his perfect blonde head

Explode red

And our lives in that instant

Deformed

Into something I cannot imagine.)

A car accident (Joe).

A bike accident (me).

Paralysis, long-term illness, loss of limb, sudden death of any of our

Many loved ones.

Just pull out the

Fine print section of any

Life insurance policy,

And you’ve got a good idea of the

Possibilities I can

Give space to in my

Mind

When I’m in that kind of mood.

And that’s just the

Base

Instinctive

Type of fear.

There’s still the ego-fears to cover:

Job loss.

Loneliness.

Relapse.

Obscurity.

Poverty.

And oh yeah:

Sharks.

First Boy was watching me.

He wanted an answer.

What was he thinking?

Ghosts?

Robbers?

Thunderstorms?

Darth Vader?

“I think the thing I’m

Most afraid of is

Something bad happening to you

Or Baby Boy,” I said.

First Boy considered this for a moment.

“Like us getting hurt

Or something?”

“Yeah,” I said.

Then I perked up at the

Chance to impart some

One-day-at-a-time,

Power-Of-Now

Wisdom to my

First-born,

Thus:

“But you know what

Grandpa once told me

When you were born,

And I told him

I couldn’t believe how much

I loved you,

And I didn’t know

What I would do

If something bad ever happened to you?”

“What?” said my First Boy.

“He said all you can do is

Be grateful,

At the end of the day

When everyone you love is

Tucked in bed,

That everyone was

Safe and healthy

On that day.

‘Cause you can’t do

Anything

About tomorrow.”

My First Boy

Stared off into the

Middle distance,

Frowning.

Pondering the

Metaphysical wisdom just

Bestowed on him

Through the generations?

Or wondering if

They were serving

Chicken nuggets

For lunch at school

That day?

I’ll never know.

The bus pulled up

Just then and

My First Boy

Got on without responding to

What I’d said.

“Have a good day,

Buddy.

Love you.”

“Love you, too,”

He said over his shoulder.

Lessons from a divorce five years out

-1

My first husband and our son about a year before we got divorced.

I was talking to a friend

The other day

Who is going through a divorce.

One of a few friends

Going through it right now.

She had the shell-shocked look

I remember from my mirror six years ago.

“This is so

Fucking hard,”

She said.

“It’s

So

Hard.”

I nodded

And nodded,

And could relate:

The hopelessness leading up to

The decision.

Then finally the decision is made and

There’s relief.

But now the process to

Wade through.

I listened to her grapple with

Her partner

Behaving with inexplicable

Cruelty.

The things that are said,

Unprintable even in my

Immodest blog.

Fear masked as anger,

Contempt,

Indignation.

You were partners in

Instinctive survival:

Food,

Shelter,

Sex,

Provisions,

Parenting.

And now it feels like

This person is threatening your

Ability to survive and thrive.

S/he wants to take your money,

Your time with your kids,

Your home.

Both of your survival instincts are flared

And pitted against one another’s.

Even the most amicable divorce

Requires concessions that,

By their very nature,

Feel cruelly unfair.

My biggest fear was that the

Pain

Would last forever.

The pain that was so much more

Complicated

Than just

Getting dumped,

Or breaking the news to the kids,

Which is how I’d conceived of divorce

Until I went through it.

It was a dense and many-layered pain that,

At its peak,

Felt like it might be a major part of me

For the rest of my life.

But here’s my miracle:

Today I had a phone chat with my

Son’s dad

That wasn’t just civil

Or even friendly,

But was truly affectionate.

And the other day I stood on my

Front porch and chatted with

My husband’s ex-wife and

Her new boyfriend and

Was

Truly

Happy

For her and

Hopeful for her future and

Unattached to what it all

Means for me.

My husband came home the other night

From meeting with his ex-wife to

Discuss some weighty matters

About their kids.

And the conversation,

As he recounted it to me,

Was so

Reasonable and

Productive,

I got choked up listening to it,

Observing how this

Relationship between

My husband and

His ex-wife has

Grown since I’ve known them.

It’s not all perfect.

There are still difficult decisions ahead.

But I cannot tell you how

Grateful

I am to

Get along with both ex-spouses in our family’s life.

It is a truly

Stunning evolution.

How has it all come about,

This friendliness?

After fucking things up good

And learning hard lessons from it:

I learned to make concessions to

Simply keep the peace with my ex-husband.

I sensed it was better for my son

For me to let him go for periods of time

Than to fight to keep him all the time.

That meant I was physically separated from him for

About six months

On three occasions.

And now he spends summers with his dad.

As of this writing,

I haven’t hugged or touched

My 7-year-old boy

For about 50 days.

Yep.

I miss out on events in his life.

But I saw not fighting over my son

As a loving act,

Although to the outside it might look–

Well, who fucking cares

How it looks?

Also, I don’t care about fairness anymore.

There is no truly fair outcome of a

Divorce,

Especially with kids.

Everyone gets screwed.

If you pay child support,

It feels like too much.

It you receive child support,

It feels like too little.

The schedule is never quite right.

You might have to spend

Mother’s Day alone–

I did for three years in a row.

My ex-husband hasn’t had his

Son on Father’s Day since 2007.

Completely unfair.

I got used to it,

And then saw the weird beauty of

This little life lesson

Which has served me well in

Other parts of my life.

We can try for fair–

We do try for fair.

But we never truly achieve it.

These days, I prioritize my relationship with my

Son’s dad and

My husband’s ex-wife.

We try to do small things

To keep it friendly between us.

Little actions to build good will have

Countered any ill-will we once had,

And then some.

Besides which,

I truly care about both of them.

Honestly,

My friendly relationship with my ex-husband

And his family

Is one of the proudest achievements of my life.

And it’s not just about our son.

It’s about my ex and me, too.

It works for us to have an

Affectionate relationship that

Doesn’t revolve around our son at

Every moment of every conversation.

Time doesn’t heal all,

But it does help a hell of a lot.

I’ve heard bitter tirades from

Parents of grown children,

Divorced decades ago.

So obviously time isn’t a panacea.

But time is important.

When I look back

Six or seven years to the middle of the divorce

And right afterward,

My imagination was limited

As to what my life might look like,

Or what my ex’s might look like.

It felt like we would be

Forever tightly linked in this

Shitty,

Cruel

Web of mutual distrust and

Animosity.

But today,

I’m free.

As I was standing talking to my friend

About her impending divorce,

I was noticing how physically

Tall and

Strong I felt.

Loose-limbed and agile.

Healthy.

I said to her that

It was the hardest thing I’ve

Ever been through

In my life

By far.

But I wouldn’t go back and

Change anything.

A summer break from homework–for me

photoBeginning of summer

And my First Boy

Has been gone for a week to his

Dad’s overseas.

It was a hard school year

For both of us.

My First Boy with his

Two languages

Needs extra help with school.

And as his first grade year wore on

Through the interminable winter,

I slowly realized that

I will need to

Work

Hard

With him.

Not just on his regular homework

(Which there was kind of a lot of

For first grade, IMO)

But on all the

Extra resources his

Excellent teachers provide us.

I have to admit it:

At first, I

Dreaded

Helping him with his

Homework.

Sitting together at the dining room table,

Me thinking of all the

Stuff I needed to get done,

Him squirming around and

Saying he had to

Go to the bathroom

Halfway through his

Spelling sheet,

Taking his glasses off and on,

Doodling his letters instead of

Writing them nicely.

Some days,

It felt like he wasn’t trying very hard,

And we’d get half done and I’d say,

“Just forget it. We’ll stop here.”

Because I was

About to

Lose

My

Shit.

And as I came to see that,

For him,

Homework won’t mean a quick

15-minute easy exercise after dinner,

But rather at least an hour of

Intensive

Teaching

On my part,

I felt  sort of

Panic.

Yet another part of

Parenting I was

Wholly unprepared for.

Not only must I provide for his

Physical needs and be his

Moral and spiritual guide,

But I’m also supposed to be one of his

Academic teachers.

I

Didn’t

Know.

It wasn’t that way for me

Growing up,

That I remember.

Which is ironic since my

Parents were both

Teachers by profession.

I honestly don’t remember

One instance of my

Parents sitting at the table,

Helping me with my homework.

So if I was using them as my model,

I had

No

Idea.

Like so many parenting skills

With my oldest,

Though,

I feel I’ve learned to

Give him what he needs

Just in the nick of time.

I had an epiphany one day that

I cannot

Dread

Helping him with his homework.

Because not only do I have a

Good decade to go with my

First Boy,

But my Baby Boy is only one.

I’ve got nearly

Two decades of this

In front of me.

I have to find a way to make it a

Pleasant and even

Meaningful experience for

Both of us.

I had to send out a call to the

Powers That Be

For this one.

I asked for patience and

Strength.

And as usual,

I was given what I needed,

And what he needed.

A new perspective.

A fresh way of seeing a situation that

Hadn’t even changed.

I saw that my First Boy

Actually thrives

When I teach him.

That he basks in my

Undivided attention.

That though he’s struggling,

He’s not frustrated,

He keeps trying.

That when he succeeds and I

Get to praise him,

He practically glows.

(Quietly, with an

Embarrassed grin.)

I see that this is

Precious time

That I will look back on

With pride in us:

Mom and

First Boy,

Working together

For him.

I was ready for a break, though.

Ready to turn his

Education over to his

Finnish family

For the summer, and I know they’ll

Work hard with him, too.

Meanwhile, I’ll gather my

Strength for

Second grade;

Work on my own projects,

And in August,

Start putting together

Homework schedules and

Practice schedules.

Schedule my life around

His needs

As much as I am able.

God, that’s still so

Hard for me to do.

But I know,

I know

It’s worth it.

Life happens to kids, too

photo-56Maybe I’m just trying to soothe my

Anxiety

Over the decisions I’ve made.

But I was cheered by a radio program

On which a

Child psychologist argued that

Some adversity

Is good for kids.

They learn resilience and

Independence from having some

Challenges,

And we don’t do them any favors by

Protecting them from life’s trials.

“They are hard-wired for adversity,” she said,

“As long as they are loved and supported through it.”

I thought of Victor

At the airport,

The scene and symbol of his own

Difficulties.

He was leaving for the summer

To be with his dad.

He didn’t want to go.

In the security line,

Tears were leaking out his eyes and

He hid his face in my stomach.

No wailing,

No tantrum,

Just quietly in my ear when I knelt down next to him,

“I don’t wanna go,

Mommy.”

But he had to go.

And he knew it.

Kneeling down,

So my face was at his level,

I saw him prepare himself.

Widening and then blinking his eyes to stop the tears,

Looking off toward security,

Where he was going.

Not looking at me.

Closing his mouth into a

Straight, grim line.

Ready to go.

Six years old!

I was proud of him.

And you know what?

I’m grateful he has this experience.

A special challenge,

His own journey.

The urge is to protect him from these

Difficult

Adult

Situations.

But life happens to kids, too.

And I think these

Plane rides and

Doing what he doesn’t want to do,

Will help him be resilient,

Adaptable,

Flexible.

As long as he receives

Lots of love on

Either side of the ocean,

I think this trial will be part of his

Character,

Not part of his problem.

Summers without my boy

It’s not a simple question for me:

“How’s your summer going?”

The answer requires

A deep breath,

A quick assessment of how

Forthcoming

I want to be

With this person.

My six-year-old son

Spends summers with his

Father’s family

In Finland.

This summer,

He’s gone from

June 11 to

Aug. 25.

I’m Minnesotan;

I come alive in the summer.

I emerge from my

Black down coat with

Browned limbs,

Sun-lightened hair,

Tan-lined feet from my sandals.

Smile at strangers whose

Faces are liberated from

Scarves and hoods.

When my son is gone though,

I have to steel myself for summer.

I hate wishing time away—

Especially the rarefied days of

Light and green—

But I can’t help

Counting the summers down.

I’m not

Quite

Myself

When my first-born is not

Physically near.

I can function.

I’m fine;

I’m okay.

But a part of me is

Missing.

I’ve described it like

Temporarily

Losing my left arm,

If you will.

A survivable wound,

But disabling.

You can adapt to the loss,

But it’s obvious nearly every

Hour of

Every day.

Describing it to people,

I put a desperately positive spin on it:

“He has so much fun,” I say.

“The only grandchild.

All the attention on him.

Plenty of time outdoors.

Healthy food.

He always grows a mile.”

“What a great experience,”

People say kindly,

Even enthused for him.

I’ve never felt judged.

Thank you for that.

It’s a fear, I think,

Of many divorced parents.

Being judged for decisions we’ve made

That have given our kids

This

Story.

Yep.

I left.

I did it.

It was me.

And now my son’s story includes

Airports,

Backpacks full of toys, books, drawing material

For the plane.

Ability beyond his years to

Operate the seat-back entertainment system.

And me?

I haven’t bothered with 4th of July fireworks

In years.

I go to bed at 9,

Get up for work the next morning.

Just a day like any other.

To be gotten through.

This summer though.

I feel guilty saying it:

It’s been easier with Rocky,

The new baby.

I don’t have to

Turn off my

Maternal energies like a

Faucet

For 10 weeks.

There’s a small body to

Hold and squeeze,

Chubby cheeks to kiss the

Tears off of.

Joe and I joked,

Before Rocky was born,

We’d have him

All the time.

No one to hand him off to

For the weekend.

I’m glad.

I don’t want to share him.

I want to have access

At all times.

Make all the decisions.

I want to learn to let go

His freshman year of college

Dropping him off the dorm.

Not in security lines in airports.

I would never want Victor to think,

Though,

That Rocky has somehow

Replaced him.

I can’t wait to hold Victor’s

Larger,

Tougher

Body on my lap,

His long legs dangling,

His hands,

Dirty from outside,

Squeezing my fingers.

Rocky takes the edge off,

But Victor’s absence still yawns.

Seven more days until the airport.

Till Victor comes through the

Security doors

With his backpack,

Signaling the end of

Summer,

Finally.