On growing up

In September, Jessica announced that she was moving in with her father. I have been her main caretaker since, well, her entire life, so as you can imagine my immediate response was WHAT THE HELL????

She dropped this on me the day I picked her up from school after she’d had her monthly visitation with her dad, and I said, as steadily as I could, which wasn’t very steadily: “Oh. Okay. Why is that?”

Thinking, Don’t you love me? Do I suck that badly as a mother? I sacrificed health, sanity, and gainful employment for thirteen years to see to your needs and this is the thanks I get!?!!??!!

But I knew those were my problems, not hers, so I shoved them in the closet where I keep them, and I tried very hard to listen to what she was saying, and not to cry in front of her.

“Linda and Chase  are moving in!” she told me, her whole face glowing with excitement. “I want to move in, too!”

Linda (not her real name—she didn’t ask to be on my blog) is Jessica’s father’s partner, and Chase (also not his real name, etc.) is Linda’s son. I knew they were headed in this direction, but being well-acquainted with my ex, I was expecting it to be 2032 by the time they got around to it, so it took me by surprise.

“Well,” I said, “I suppose you could move some of your things over to your dad’s house.” She already had books and toys and clothes there, but a ceremonial box or two from our house would make her feel like she was “moving in” and I didn’t see the harm.

She folded her arms across her chest and got the mulish expression on her face that I know oh-so-well.

“Then tell me what you want,” I said. “Don’t make me guess.”

“I want to go live with daddy.”

Christ, maybe I should have stuck with guessing. I tried to breathe. The rejection was so complete and so unexpected that I didn’t know what to do or say. My brain just shut down. Nobody loves you, nobody has ever loved you, don’t you know by now how unlovable you are? Not even your own daughter loves you.

I stuffed that in the closet with my other neuroses. “Well,” I said. “I’m still your mom, and I still want to spend time with you. How about if we change things so that you get to spend more time with your dad?”

“Yes,” she said immediately. “Yes, I want to spend all my time with my dad and see you one week a month.”

Jesus Christ, I wanted to say. Can’t you learn to lie a little? What I did say was, “Your dad and I will have to talk about this.”

So we did, and we agreed to a more even split of time with Jessica, where she alternates weeks with us. We have always shifted our visitation schedule to accommodate for our needs as well as hers, so this was just another adjustment, but for me it was more devastating than any of the others.

“Oh, she’ll find out that life at her dad’s house isn’t the party she thinks it is,” more than one of my friends advised me. “She’ll want to change it back soon enough.”

But I didn’t think so. For one thing, her father’s house has a family in it; a father and a mother and a brother and a dog. Parties and sleepovers and relatives coming to visit. Things Jessica lives for and thrives on.

Jessica is an extravert, for all of her difficulties: she wants to be around people and interact with people and talk with people, and this is the point of greatest conflict in our life together. She always wants to be doing; I prefer to be. I am a classic introvert. For that reason alone, being Jessica’s mother is the hardest thing I have ever done. People drain my energy, and I need lots of alone time to recharge. For Jessica, alone time is punishment.

It took me a long time to realize that this does not make Jessica wrong, or defective in character; it just makes her different from me.

I like my quiet house. I like no television blaring in the background. I like that we never have unexpected visitors. I like that we have our social life on a schedule, so that I can prepare myself for it. I like that whole days can pass without my ever stepping out the front door. I have changed my life as much as I can for my daughter; I have become as social as it is possible for me to be, for her sake. But it is still not enough, and at some point, I can’t change anymore and still be authentic to me, a thing I am entitled to be.

It is no wonder that Jessica, on seeing a chance for a life more amenable to her personality, seized it.

Jessica has this wonderful ability to know what will make her happy, and she tries to get that thing, and then she is happy when she has it. I am less able; I think I know what will make me happy, and then I get it, and it doesn’t, and I feel cheated.

So when Jessica thinks that making a certain change will make her happy, I believe her. I have always believed her; I think that is a gift we can give to our children, especially our disabled children, who are thwarted so often, every time they try to express their independence. They can never be independent, but that doesn’t stop them trying.

“I miss you when I’m at my daddy’s,” she said to me the other day.

“I miss you, too,” I said. Then, because I am just human: “We can always change, you know.”

“No,” she said. “I want it to stay like this. I just miss you.”

It must be like your soul is torn in two, when your parents are divorced. No matter where you are, you are missing part of your soul.

“I know,” I said. When she is gone, it is the same for me: I am missing part of my soul. I miss the weeks we once spent together, week after week of just us. The two of us against the world, that was what it was always going to be, until it wasn’t.

I forgot a thing, or maybe thought it didn’t apply. Children grow up, all of them, even the ones like Jessica, and they will shape their own lives to their own ends, and we must let them. We even have to show them how, even when it hurts, even when it tears our souls apart.

We sacrifice our health and our sanity and gainful employment, and this is the thanks we get. We agreed to this when we became parents, even if we didn’t know it then, or understand just how hard it would be.


  1. Gawd, kids can be brutal. Starts with "you're the meanest mommy in the Whole Wide World" after a time out, then just goes downhill from there. Letting them go in whatever context is gutwrenching. Would love to offer platitudes & condolences & my unique brilliant insights as a child of divorce myself (kidding!) but my son just told me he was going to take back all his kisses if I don't get off the computer…

  2. Oh god I am so sorry, this must suck big time, what do you need from us? Telling you it will be ok? Hating your x for you? Tell us what you need, we can provide it. Sending you hugs from Boston

  3. This same thing is happening for me right now. I have been IT for my kids but I have hit a wall and I have to learn how to take care of myself too and they are growing past me. I'm not healthy enough to bear this. But I have to learn to be. I loved it when they were little so much. I hope there is another beautiful part of life out there for both of us.

  4. Oh Jennifer, you write so very well. For me, this post ranks up there with THE Jessica post – you are so open, agonizing, perceptive, introspective and wise.
    This is your very own version of the judgement of Solomon, in a way, and your love for Jessica won out. Not only are you loveable, even to a perfect stranger, but you're the mother she deserves.

  5. Same here, Jenn. I LOVE reading your posts about Jessica – everything about them – from the conversational tone and raw emotion to, as a previous post said, your introspection and wisdom!


  6. My kids are special needs, and I have always been the one who was "there" for them — doctor's appointments, school appointments, everything. Their dad couldn't even tell you who their doctor's are, and if you asked him their meds and their doses he'd have to go pull the medication I give him for them out of the cupboard to check. He doesn't know what size clothes or shoes they wear. And I keep thinking that somehow this buys me "more" of them than he gets, and its so amazingly difficult to hear either of them say, at a time they are supposed to be with me, that they want to go to their dad's. Something inside me seizes up and withers. My stomach turns acid, my palms sweat and the tears just come on their own. Its so hard to realize that my wants for them have nothing to do with their wants for themselves.

    Coming from the privileged position of having parents who always were together – are still together – I have no idea what its like for my children to want their family to be whole and there to be no way for all of us to be together at the same time. I just know how hard it is for me to see them go, and to have to keep my feelings to myself.

    I understand where you are.

  7. Wow! This is raw stuff. Touching. Real. And I know this place. Right now, we're raising our grandchildren — ages 8,5,3. Their parents love them. They love their parents. I love their parents! But this is the way it has to be for a while. And I know that one day it's very possible that they will be able to leave, will want to leave. I hope I can love them enough to let them go as gracefully as you have been. I think that grace will be rewarded … with a lifetime of Jessica's company.

  8. I'm not going through this with my own child so I can't speak to that side of the issue, but speaking as a child of divorce, you're doing the right thing, Jennifer. She needs you to be okay with this. I had a parent who guilted my brother and me for not wanting to live with him full time and that is *not* an okay way to be with your kid. As much as it hurts, parents need to realize that sometimes, choosing not to live with one parent has nothing to do with the parent and everything to do with what the kid needs at that point in his or her life. It doesn't mean the parent is being rejected at all. Having said all that, I know that it must be gut-wrenching for you. I can't even imagine it.

  9. I wish I knew my children as well as you know Jessica. Maybe this is good in the long run – you can change your own life to be more how you used to be?

  10. Reading your articles since 'For Jessica'… Didnt know what to say all these days. I worry that the words used to reach out will seem hurtful at worst…
    No children, so how would I understand special needs?
    You have a great sense of humour… your words are funny & touching at the same time.
    I wish for u the strength to go through this and know that we are reading u all the time.

  11. "But I knew those were my problems, not hers, so I shoved them in the closet where I keep them, and I tried very hard to listen to what she was saying, and not to cry in front of her."

    This, just this.

    My "closet" is actually a wooden crate in my brain but closet/crate, same thing. Sometimes I have to put a metal band around the crate to keep it closed. I don't know if a closet door would be strong enough.

    My children (now grown) are happy, healthy kids but they were children of divorce and my ex was NOT a prize. I still had to shove stuff in the closet.

    For you to understand your daughter so well I am amazed.

    Very nicely done. I don't know if she will ever understand how much you had to shove in your closet. My daughter does now and it feels good to see her understand how much I didn't say when things like that would happen. It's gratifying.

    You are giving your daughter a beautiful gift. Thank you for sharing it with us by telling us about your journey.

  12. Jennifer, you're preparing me to become the mother that I will be when the time comes. Thank you for letting me be a part in your beautiful struggle as the person you are born to be.

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