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.