Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Fair Division

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My daughter won't read this until she's older, if she ever does. Right now, while I'm writing, she's snoozing away next to me on the couch. She's six years old, she's just lost her fifth tooth, and the number of her freckles is uncountably pretty.
When I'm done here, I'll carry her up to bed. Even though she's fast asleep, she'll hold on to my neck when I say so, and I'll counter the weight of her sleeping on the slow steps up the stairs. In the morning, she'll say, let's get up now, Mom, and I'll say five more minutes and I'll wrap her satiny pajama'd body back inside my arms for one more dream. When we get up, we'll make pancakes and then we'll climb Sugarloaf Mountain so we can look down on Marquette and map our tiny blackberry-bordered house on the grid below us. She'll count the steps out loud on the way back down and I'll wish the path went on indefinitely so she would never stop narrating the number line to me.

But I should step back a minute; the problem is this isn't true. She's not snoozing away next to me on the couch. She's probably tucked in her own bed (she'd better be, given it's nearly 11:00 on a school night) at her dad's house downstate. In two more days she'll really be here, though I can already sense her weighting the cushions, can already feel the featherlock of hair that I'll smooth off her face. I can hear her chewing in her sleep. In two days, she'll be with me for a long weekend, but tonight it's just me, typing away the minutes until I can go get her.

I'll wake up alone tomorrow, but in two days she and I will thread the lilac trees with a winter's worth of yarn scraps for the birds to use in their nests. We'll play Uno, and she'll say that when she grows up, she's going to be a horse doctor and we'll live together on a farm. She'll say she will buy me my own pony and we'll name her Lucy and feed her wild carrots. And then when I tuck her in I'll read her some more of the latest book it's taking us months to get through. When I put it down and shut off the light, she'll close her eyes, and I'll tell her stories about when I was pregnant. We'll imagine she was still there, inside me, her long legs stretching down my own and her arms threaded inside mine, reaching well past my elbows already. She'll laugh, but I'll wish it were somehow so, that she was still wrapped safe next to me where nobody could claim she wasn't a part of me.

Or maybe this time I'll whisper to her the story of King Solomon.

I will tell her about long, long ago and about two women who came to the king's court, one woman holding a baby's arms and the other woman pulling at his feet. Both women said the child was hers. Both women said the other woman was lying. Solomon only had their words to figure out who was the real mom. But they kept saying the same things over and over. So he took the baby from the women, and he laid him on the table. He held a sword over the child, and said that since he couldn't figure who was telling the truth, he would split the baby in two so each could have half of him. One woman said this was fair enough. The other stayed his hand; she'd rather the child be whole in the other woman's custody than that he be killed. And by this King Solomon knew who the true mother was, and he handed him over to her, all in once piece.

Now, I don't really buy that the first woman wanted to go home with half of a baby, but the point is, I'll tell her, that some people get caught up in numbers. They forget that numbers aren't real things but quantities of things. They're adjectives, really. Six, thirty-four, fifty-five--these aren't something you can pick up as much as words that describe the value we place on a thing. We can't always make decisions based on just numbers. If all the first woman heard was half for you, half for me--if it were an orange being divided and not a child--then sure, Solomon's judgment seems fair. What the other woman knew was that this quotient was worth so much less than nothing.

That'll make sense to my daughter.

It's one of the things she gets from me, how good she is with numbers. Her blue eyes come from both me and her dad. The widow's peak that crowns her forehead--that's all his doing. But her round little knees and her fair skin and the way she is so calm and her ease with math, she shares those with me.

Just the other day on the phone, she told me she loved me to the moon and back a googol times. That's a really big number, she said. I told her I couldn't think of a bigger number than that: a one with a hundred zeroes marching behind. And really, in the moment, I couldn't. A googol plus one, she offered. A googol squared. And if she hadn't already been my girl, I would have fallen over myself to love her right there.

They don't usually talk about people or happiness in math, but just like her googoled love, it's almost always about something more than the numbers. Like fair division, this odd subfield all about how to divide things up fairly. Not necessarily equally, which is easy, but in a way so all the people involved are happy. While the numbers part of it can be pretty messy, any good mom instinctively knows the rules of fair division. The classic example is how to split a cake into two so that both cake-eaters are happy with their share. Mom gives the knife to one kid, who cuts the cake in half, and the other kid gets to pick which piece she wants. This means the cutter will try to divide the cake as evenly as possible so that she won't be stuck with the smaller piece her sister leaves on the plate. But really, who lets two children split and eat a whole cake? A cookie might be a better example, but face it, if a mom has one cookie and two children, she'll take it into the bathroom and eat it herself, just to avoid the situation altogether.

Two children and one mother, this makes sense. But when the situation is two parents and one child, and it's the child's life that needs splitting, that's where the whole idea of fair really breaks down. The problem is that she is indivisible.

There's a recognition in fair division that monetary value is not the only value we place on things. When calculating a divorce settlement, for example, each person assigns value to what needs to be divided. How much could a couple's dog really be worth, on the market? Real estate, cars, these things can be sold and the proceeds split in half, but what of her grandmother's wedding band, his dad's canoe? We decide what we want most and we say so.

She asked me, early on, "Why did you leave me with dad?"

She should know that it's not because he and I made a list of all our assets and ranked them by importance and that my thinking chair or my library desk (the only furniture in our whole big house I took with me) were listed higher than her. I didn't leave with so many things I still wanted: my grandma's piano, at least one of the Scrabbles, the big blue mixing bowl. I wanted her bad. I still do.

But what I forgot to do was to say so loud enough. Fair division calculators probably forget to take into account when people are scared. Or maybe what I wanted most was to leave her dad, and saying that very hard thing left me without the strength to say the other things that still needed articulating.

With her dad she has a parent with a real job, with health insurance, she has a step-parent. She wouldn't have any of that with me, although she knows we'd work it out. She's said to me, "I wish I lived with you, and my dad only got one minute with me every year."

I know she was exaggerating, but that's about how fair our visitation schedule seems to me, only I am the one who gets the sixty seconds of her time for us to imagine her living with me.

I want to tell her, "Know that I didn't think I would be leaving you."

I thought her dad and I agreed about what was fair. Or I simply didn't believe he could leave with her to a new job seven hours south of here. When I trace back to what I did wrong, I am led to numbers and words: long, mean documents that measure and partition time and physical custody. But worse is what these things have come to mean: that I have to keep her bedroom door closed when she is away. That I have not taken a picture of her in two years because any album would reveal the white spaces between photographs. And she is so beautiful.

Because there's no fair division in the custody of a little girl like her. Nobody who doesn't get to see her to bed every night would be happy with that. Every time we meet midway and I pick her up, the world is an hourglass just turned over. When I drop her off, the weight of the empty seat next to me could nearly tip the car on its side.

When I tell her dad I need more time with her, he says, "I do lots to keep her connected to you. I always mention how good her mother is with numbers."

And I say, "I said I need more time with her."

He says, "I picked this elementary school because it has been part of a pilot program in math."

I say, "Listen."

I want to talk about time, and he speaks to me of numbers. I'm talking about our daughter, and he's talking about her report card.

No matter how specific, how official, the words and numbers, they all depend on us to interpret them with care. That's part of the reason I've never told her about King Solomon before: it's too likely she'll think that in that story, she is the baby and I am the righteous real mother--when that's not what I mean. Because even though the child's real mother got to take him home in the end, she was wrong. She really should have said the words out loud: Do not cut my baby in half. She's lucky it worked out for them both, but it might not have. It doesn't always.

And that's why I haven't been able to write this before tonight, on a day when I've met with a lawyer, a young man who will help me not be scared to say the right things out loud in a language the people who draw up these documents understand. Because I want to do so much more than apologize. I want to recalculate how we talk about everything.

It's not only my little girl who needs to remember that even if we are together only in discontinuous moments-visits and phone calls and emails-that it is the word daughter the stretches and settles to fill in the white spaces in between.

So sure, baby, I'll tell her next time she's with me, love your numbers. But remember to love more what's real behind the numbers. Love the dates on the calendar that are marked Mom, and love the inches sketched in pencil on the wall where I trace you growing, and love the digital radio frequencies that light up the dash as we sing our way north across the Mackinac Bridge to our house up here, and then back again, toward you dad. When the hours that you and I need to pass before we're together are too many, sweetgirl, imagine the Fourth of July. Think of us wrapped in a blanket, heads titled up toward the sky patterned with color. When time moves too slowly or too quickly, stop counting the minutes and miles. Tell me a story about the pony named Lucy, in the years down the road when the division of your time will be calculated you.


Jennifer A. Howard teaches at Northern Michigan University and serves as an editor of Passages North. Her daughter, Nora, writes adventure stories about cats.


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