The Everlasting Goodbye of Shared Custody
“Love you, Mama!” my daughter says as she wraps her little arms around my waist and squeezes with all her might.
“Love you too, Chicken,” I respond dropping down to my knees. “Can I see your little face for a moment?”
We both reach up to move the mop of damp curls off her forehead. I cup her heart-shaped face with both of my hands and she cups my hands with hers. I lean over to look straight into her eyes.
“You mean the world to me,” I whisper. I kiss her forehead. She smells like lavender bubble bath.
“I know,” she smiles with the confidence of a well-loved child. She gives me another squeeze and a lopsided grin. She’d lost another tooth the last weekend she wasn’t with me.
She runs off to catch up with her Dad and her brother. They are already halfway down the many stairs of my apartment building. Our building the kids would correct me. She’d run back to get her sneakers and sneak in an extra hug. I poke my head out into the hallway to watch her. She disappears in a moment. I hear the three of them clomping down the stairwell, chatting away.
The three of them.
The three people I love most in the world are walking away.
One is gone for good. He will never forgive me for causing our family to be fractioned in a never-ending turnstile of hellos and goodbyes. He will never understand what broke in me so bad that I chose to live three blocks away. In a sense it is this very lack of forgiveness and understanding that I could never cope with in the first place. It’s the same cycle in a different context. Most times he won’t even look at me during the drop-off/pick-up ritual. His resentment emanating from him in waves that used to sting my eyes: I’m growing immune now. On a good day he will give me the most perfunctory of nods. He might even say “bye” as I shut the door behind him.
And yet I still love him. With a certainty that spans lifetimes. He doesn’t get this about me either. Most people don’t get this. I love him and I chose to leave and I refused to go back when he was ready to give me “another chance.”
In a way none of this matters anymore. Whether or not we learn to understand each other in this or another lifetime has no impact on where we are today. This is my life now. This is the life my children have now. Shared custody. A rotating schedule of days distributed so they may be with their mother and their father in equal parts.
Would I want full custody? To have my children with me every day, every week, every month of the year? To avoid the never-ending slew of goodbyes?
In a heartbeat.
And so would he.
The point of full custody is moot for many reasons. We live in Québec where equal custody is the norm, unless the parents agree otherwise or one can give compelling reasons why it wouldn’t be in the best interest of the child. For all of our differences I don’t think either of us has a bad thing to say about the other’s parenting. I know he is a devoted father and he has always said that I am an amazing mother. Our daughter and our son adore each of us and each other. A fight over custody — because a fight it would be if either of us were to claim full custody — would not only rip the stability we’ve managed to structure with our current arrangement, it would shred the hearts of all four of us more than they’ve already been.
Nobody wants that.
And so the next five days will be punctuated with phone calls full of I-love-you-Mama’s and when-are-we-with-you’s. I will give them updates on how the new inhabitants of our aquarium are faring: three guppies, six platys, and one shrimp. I will reassure them that the tenants have been adequately fed and I’m remembering to turn on the aquarium light for the plants to thrive, just like the guy at the aquarium store told us.
During those five days I will straighten up the apartment, fold little t-shirts and match socks that may be too small. I will catch up with my work. I will go to the gym, to spinning, maybe even to yoga. I will make time for friends over cups of coffee and glasses of wine. I will debate with myself whether I’m ready to date or not. I will half-heartedly try to organize my daughter’s art supplies. I will smile weakly when I notice the little paper figure with 3D arms jutting off the fridge door — for me to hug when I’m alone, my son told me. I will vacuum. I will read on power and conflict and facilitation for the courses I’m teaching.
I will write.
In five days time my heart will swell as my two loves pounce on me with hugs and kisses and cuddles. They will chatter away, at first calling me Da… Mama until I become just plain Mama again. They will swear up and down that the fish have grown tremendously. They will glance about to see if anything has changed in the apartment: You got cookies! Did that plant grow a flower? Are those new socks? They will mark their territory in the apartment: my son by curling up in his favourite corner on the couch and my daughter by dumping out some of her art supplies (so much for organizing) and getting to work on a new project. They will demand that we listen to a chapter of our latest audiobook.
I will smile. My heart will glow with the satisfaction of my brood being where they belong: with me. We will have a short period of bliss before the mundane reality of parenting sets in: Did you wash your hands? With soap? No, you can’t have cookies now, we’re gonna eat in five minutes. Please use a different tone when you speak to me. No, I’m not yelling. Don’t just complain about what you don’t want, propose a solution… That’s enough, you two! C’mon guys! Seriously?
Our days together will slip away, too fast. We will argue. We will hug. One, two or three of us will have a tantrum. We will stay up later than we should intently listening to that audiobook, speculating about where the story is going. We will end up tangled together in the early hours of the morning, victims to the too-soft folds of my squishy mattress. I will gingerly extract myself, wondering how I didn’t notice either of them creep into my bed. I will sleepily stumble to the kitchen to make myself some coffee. I will sit in silent wonder breathing in the morning air, grateful for the sleeping children in my room. I will pull out my journal to write. Conscious that we will soon be saying goodbye. Again.
That is next week. For now the scent of lavender bubble bath hangs in the doorway. I feel the imprint of my daughter’s fierce hug. I hear the echoes of three sets of feet and wisps of chatter getting farther away.
I close the door to my apartment. My eyes fill with tears. I sigh. I notice that my daughter left all her bath toys out. I trip over my son’s plush soccer ball. I glance over at the laundry that needs to be folded and the pile of course books that need to be read. I hear my phone buzz, the screen lights up with a text from a friend who wants to grab a beer.
I wipe away the tear. I have plans to confirm and stuff to get done before they come back.
This is my life now.