I had been married nearly eleven years when I told my husband I wanted to separate a while. We eventually divorced, with all the ugliness that comes with such an event. Then, things started going well between us, but it didn’t happen overnight, but we definitely have a better relationship now, than when we were married.
My ex-husband and I were forced to not only stay in contact, but learn to work together for the sake of our son. It wasn’t easy. There was hair pulling, biting and temper tantrums; and my son wasn’t so happy about it either. Then, one day, I did the unthinkable. I told my ex that I thought it was best my son be with him full time.
It was not an easy decision, but it was the right decision. My son’s father and I have joint custody, so the first few years, we split my son’s time during the week. That meant half the week he was with me, half the week he was with his father. It was a rotation of four days on, three days off, and the next week was three days on and four days off. Funny thing about that rotation, that was the watch schedule for my job as a Radioman, in the Navy. Four days on, three days off, four nights on, three days off. then back to days to do it all again. My body and mind never really adjusted to that schedule, and I was in my 20′s. That same type of schedule was not working for my son either. I had even moved into the same housing track as his father, step-mom and step-sister, but you know, my son needed consistency. Sure, it was great to be so close. And for us as his parents, it was nice to be able to be with him half of the time, but my son switching homes every four days reminded me of my childhood: Not really feeling at home anywhere.
Growing up, we moved a lot. I went to eleven different schools in twelve years; six elementary schools, two junior highs and three high schools. I know the name of every school, except for kindergarten. That was somewhere in Fullerton. I felt at home at my grandparent’s house, because that was where we lived most.
When my parents first divorced, I saw my dad more. We would go with him on Sundays to Fountain Valley Fun Center and ride bumper boats, play video games and drive the track at Malibu Grand Prix. It was great! My parents worked things out between them, mostly. It was far from perfect, but aren’t all parents winging it? I love my parents, and I would get frustrated with their choices and sometimes I still do, but since my own divorce, I have become less judgmental.
My son’s rotation was not working for me either. When I didn’t have my son, I stayed home because I was broke. I spent my money on the three bedroom house I rented and things for and to do with my son. I realized this was unhealthy, when a friend came to visit and I could not hear out of my right ear. I hadn’t noticed it, because I was constantly alone when not with my son. I went to see my doctor about my hearing, and I had so much wax build up, I could not hear out of my right ear. That’s when I realized I needed to make a change, because I did nothing when I wasn’t with my son. I watched TV. I wrote in my blog. On the surface it seemed like I had a life, but when people asked me what I liked to do, I had no answer. Then one day I realized that my son and I would both do better, if he were with his dad full time.
It wasn’t because I thought I was a bad mom, but because I felt it was what was best for my son. In addition to being broke, I had doctor’s appointments and hospitals stays. The nearest medical facility that could handle my complicated diagnosis, was forty-seven miles away. My commute could be anywhere between fifty minutes to three hours, one way depending on traffic. I was constantly late to pick up my son, or to his school events because of traffic.
When I told my son’s dad I thought it would be best form my son that he were with him full time, I had expected a fight, but instead it opened up our communication and cooperation. Look, it wasn’t perfect at first, but my son not only had a step-sister, he lived with his step-sister. They had met at age five. They are nine months apart and had already bonded as brother and sister when they were together, but once he lived with her full time, his behavior improved, and he seemed more relaxed.
Of course, I got the expected criticism from some family members. One aunt even said to me, “Karen, how can you let another woman raise your son? How is he going to know who his mother is?”
Of course, my son was sitting right next to me, playing Minecraft on his iPad. Because family will always question your parenting, right in front of your child. That’s their way of showing you they love you, right? I looked at my son and said, “Jake, who’s your mommy?”
“You are.” He replied without skipping a beat.
Then my cousin spoke up, in my defense, and a few other people did as well. I felt loved that day. My great aunt asked me an honest question that was hurtful, and my cousins stepped up in my defense. I was feelin’ the love that day.
Until recently, I felt I had to explain why I was not with my son full-time. I felt I had to explain that my son was with his dad and step mom not because I had gone off the deep end, or have a meth addiction. I was so insecure about it, I found myself standing on the sideline of my son’s flag football game, explaining to other parents why I’m not crazy. Sounds crazy, right? You betcha!
I would explain my need to be near a medical facility and I needed a hobby so why not stand-up comedy, but that happened only once at flag football. On my way back to LA after attending my son’s game, I looked over at the eleven year-old, tucked in under a down jacket I bought in the 1990′s, sound asleep. He had a great game, a great day and a great week. I no longer felt guilty. I felt relieved.
You see, even though I was in LA, his step-mom posted pictures on Facebook. Every time I saw a picture of him, I saw a happy, confident kid. I thought it was just me. Of course, this wasn’t just me. This past Friday,there was a pizza party after my son’s game. I sat next to my son’s step mom, next to her was my son’s dad, who was also the team’s coach. Across the table was who I thought was the assistant coach, and his wife. It turned out, who I thought was the assistant coach, was someone my son’s dad asked to volunteer to help him coach, which is something I always liked about my son’s dad. If he didn’t know how to do something, he would find someone who did and learn from them. Who I thought was the assistant coach, was actually a professional trainer of football players grade 1-8. Does his opinion really matter to me? Not really, except for that night at the pizza party.
This trainer and my son’s dad were talking about the game the team had just won. My son is the center. For those of you who know nothing of football, that’s the player who hikes the ball to the quarterback. The coaches have a playbook and some are referred to as plays for individuals who receive the ball. I had only recently heard my son Jake was a receiver in one of these plays. The trainer said to my son’s dad, “Be sure to use Jake’s play in the next game. He’s getting confident and he’s ready.”
Now, that seems like a pretty generic statement. But to a parent like me, who like all moms have a healthy amount of Mommy-Guilt, in addition to the guilt of not personally caring my son every day, I did a little happy-dance in my head. (I hope. I am pretty sure no one else saw me dancing in my seat. One can never be too sure sometimes.)
I was excited to hear from a total stranger, that my son was becoming more confident, and ready to take on new challenge That even though I left my son’s hometown to pursue what some may be viewing as a midlife crisis, my son was growing up healthy, happy, confident and a kid who knows he’s loved. As a parent, that is the best possible outcome, no matter what the custody arrangements or income.
So, next time you see a family and the ex-wife and step-mom get along, and it seems nontraditional to you, please consciously replace the word nontraditional with happy. Because no matter what the family dynamic, a happy family is one that works together to provide what’s best for their children.