In just over six weeks I will voluntarily relinquish custody of our three children to my former spouse, crossing my fingers with unfounded hope and trust, and leave them. Perhaps indefinitely. The person I thought I was will no longer exist and in her place will stand someone else entirely. I'll sell or give away most of my belongings, pack my car with what remains, hug my kids, and drive away. Alone.
Until now I could not have imagined this. Leave my children? With him? I could not have imagined it as I slowly sank under the weight of my abusive marriage. I could not have imagined it when I quit my job thirteen years ago, newly married and newly pregnant, to move across state to a small Stepford town to create an empty image of the happy wife and contented mother. I could not have imagined it in the intervening time that became a blur punctuated by three births, countless birthdays, and the stifling weight of the cloak of motherhood I wore.
I was the quintessential mother. I breastfed. I co-slept. I baked bread, sang songs, read stories. My children's lives were mine and I gave everything I had in return. I wore their hurts for them and contorted into a splendid facsimile of myself who smiled and soothed and cooked. In my spare time I knitted toys; at bedtime I told stories; at night I stayed up with the baby, nursing to a milk-induced coma before sinking into exhausted semi-oblivion.
Every waking and sleeping moment was spent with at least one child. I inhaled them in long gulping breaths, trying to keep from suffocating in the narrow identity of motherhood that covered me, choking out air and light. I knew everything about my children: their fears, their hopes, their desires. I knew almost nothing about myself.
Finally three years ago I left the emotionally disconnected and controlling man who fathered our children and ran far away west with them, thinking that the farther I got from him the closer I would be to myself. Before long I was caught up in an acrimonious custody fight waged over 1800 miles and untold legal fees. War. I thought I was the only parent who could properly nurture and support these three children. After all, they needed me. I had made myself their life. A judge said otherwise and I returned, tail between my legs, into the shame of shared custody. The children weren't mine after all. I was devastated.
I know what people think. "Shared custody? There's plenty of freedom in that!" Theoretically it's true: co-parenting between two parents who hold their children's welfare paramount is challenging but can offer the best of two people and two worlds. It can.
It didn't for me. I have the same abusive prison as before but in a different form. Worse. The Ex is still the Disneyland Dad while I am still the sole nurturer. He dictates my life and my schedule because he's the main wage earner, an airline pilot with an erratic schedule that changes at a moment's notice, dropping off inconveniently sick kids at my door. His laxity means I supply meals and do laundry for now two households. I'm trying to build a career after thirteen years off-market but how much can I do after the kids are in bed asleep and I'm exhausted from a day of being the mom and the dad?
Both my attorney and a psychologist told me to lay low for awhile: "Don't complain, accept everything, and he'll soon tire of the game and leave you and the kids alone." That was nearly two years ago. He's still not tired of it.
The bike changed everything.
When I ran away west the first thing I noticed was the bicycles. They meant freedom and a taste of the new life I wanted. When we moved back east I brought my new bike with me and now I pedal past cornfields and barns, my iPod piping Death Cab for Cutie into the folds of my brain. My thoughts merge with the relentless action of my legs; while riding I do my best thinking. The forsythia is a peripheral blur but my thoughts acquire a clarity they don't have when I'm buttering breakfast bagels.
"Leave them, leave them," chants the growing corn, stretching their green arms skyward. "They'll be fine. They'll grow with you or without."
"Freedom," promises the dilapidated old barn.
The spokes on my bike's wheels shiver a little, waiting for my response.
"You're not defined by motherhood," they finally sing.
If I'm not defined by motherhood, the identity I've been breathing for thirteen years, then what?
"Children are everything, aren't they?" other mothers remark to me confidently. In our emptiness and judgment we tell one another that we must give up everything for our children, that their lives are more important than ours.
In leaving my kids I am giving them their lives.
They'll still have me, but in a new image. I'll be the mother who loves herself enough to break from the bonds of her old limits, who knows what she wants and creates her life. The connection we forged goes back centuries and lives in our very cells. There are so many ways to love someone: in the past I loved them by doing, by surrounding them with things to fill the holes I felt in myself. Now I will love them by showing them their strength, showing them they don't need me in the kitchen baking bread to feel complete.
Six weeks. I have six weeks to disentangle the cords that twine us together and lay them straight. Six weeks to teach them everything they'll need to know about life and themselves. Six weeks to release my hold on my guilt, to give them a lifetime of love. Six weeks to breathe in as much of their childhood as I can.
Like a deep-sea diver, I'm getting ready to hold my breath, perhaps forever, by taking measured long breaths now. And counting. Six, five, four, three, two. One.