The silence when you walk through the door of your home is tangible and permeates every room. The toys lay lifeless on the floor, the toddler hairbrush sits on the counter without a purpose, and last night’s pajamas are inside out on the bathroom sink. I had forgotten to put Mr. Potato Head and Buzz Lightyear in my son’s weekend bag that he always takes to his dad’s house. Instead, they were still sitting on the kitchen counter. And I could tell they had been talking about me.
Every other weekend, on the first, third, and fifth Fridays of the month, my four-year-old son goes to spend the weekend with his father. From Friday morning until he is returned to school on Monday, I am in a quiet home without the responsibilities of soccer practice, birthday parties, meals, or bedtime routines. It’s a quiet that mothers often yearn for because absolutely, we all need a break. And in these moments of silence that I too often seek after a long day of work when my son wants to play fireman and rescue me from “burning buildings,” I would give anything for the noise. In periods when that little voice yelling out “MOOOOMMMM!!!” at 6am is absent, my connection to being a mother and being myself is not as strong.
I live in a space surrounded by clues of the life that I know and love. The LEGO police station we built sitting on the coffee table, scribbled pictures taped to the wall, the stuffed animals that we call “snuggly friends.” In this house that I share with my son and where I feel most at home, I very often am unable to place myself, the woman I know as a mom, when he is not there.
I equally struggled with my identity when I became a mother. Who was I in this foreign land that felt so unknown, despite all the books I had read and preparation I had done? Could I maintain my work responsibilities and advance my career? Could I still be sexy? Could I make raunchy jokes or use the “F” word? When could I work out? Is Sunday brunch still a thing?
Little did I know that all the women I had been in my twenties would come together into the woman I would become at 31: a mom. All of my life experiences had been preparing me to be a single mother. When things happen or you hit obstacles and you ask why, wondering if there is a greater purpose or lesson, I had my conclusion to what the world was training me for when I found out I was pregnant and going to be a single mom. I had always been an independent child, a nature that stuck with me. I left Texas after college, pursuing my career in New York. I did it on my own. It was a new chapter in my ability to make things work. I was resourceful and resolute. And I found my path. Seven years later, I came back to Texas for graduate school and to be closer to family. I met a man in my MBA program that would give me a new meaning to family; he gave me my son and made me a mother.
Yes, we tried to be together. Yes, it was clear early on we were very different people and a more serious relationship between us wouldn’t work. Yes, despite our best intentions and commitment to being parents, things got hard.
We worked with lawyers to create a visitation schedule, and it often became contentious. Despite disagreements, we ultimately settled on a stair-stepped visitation plan. In our son’s first year, while he was an infant with certain dependencies, visitations with Dad were frequent, occurring during the day on weekends and after business hours on some weeknights. At age 1, he started to go to his father’s home for one overnight. Age 2, two overnights, and by age 3, we reverted to what is known as the Standard Possession Order, which in Texas designates Thursday nights with dad and the first, third, and fifth weekends from Friday evening until Monday morning.
In year one, I was fragmented. I briefly coped with postpartum depression and anxiety, feeling burdens of sleep deprivation and identity loss. I did not feel like a typical single mom, because I had a tremendous amount of help and support from my family that I am forever grateful for. But with that help came a feeling of guilt that I needed others to help me be a mom. My own mother showed me how to put my son down to sleep. Another new mother at work helped me create a feeding, sleeping, and activity schedule that would make things more manageable. The teachers at his daycare gave me lots of tips, and soon I had other friends that I could observe and mirror. I could see who all these women were as mothers, but the glimpses of my own identity as a mother still got lost.
It started to shine through in the activities and care that I most enjoyed and felt like I was doing well. I really loved bath time and making homemade baby food. I liked reading and singing and tummy time. I enjoyed going to music classes or baby gyms, and I fell in love with watching the joy in my parents face when they held their grandson. I was lucky to sometimes leave my office and visit home or daycare during lunchtime. Just as I had learned to navigate the subway and understand the grid of New York City, I had started to uncover my map to being a mother and was in a groove.
When my son turned 1, I had a couple of free hours twice a week, and a little over 24 hours free when my son went to his dads from Saturday afternoon until Sunday evening. I didn’t miss him. I slept and ran errands without loading the car up, connected with friends, and made myself nice dinners. I began to feel far more capable and it changed how I saw myself. Because I had time to prepare for the week ahead, my highly organized, independent self kicked in. I did all my shopping, washed my hair, planned outfits for the week, made lunches and snacks, and carefully planned out my schedule. I asked for help where it was needed and felt more comfortable asking. I still felt tired and scared at times, wondering how to make it all work.
At age 2, when the dad’s weekends extended to Friday and Saturday nights every other weekend, I had accomplished what I wouldn’t call complete balance (does that ever come?), but what I would say was operational functionality between my work and home life. I was doing very well at work and achieving more responsibility. I still skipped team happy hours to come home to my son, and still sometimes had to open my laptop back up after he had gone to bed to catch up on emails or outstanding projects. While a morning almond milk latte became a regular part of my routine, and I accepted that a full night of deep sleep was likely going to be rare, I was doing it. I wasn’t just technically a mom. I felt embodied as a mother. I would have a career. I started to say yes to being set up on dates, and would feel sexy. I would work out. I would tell raunchy jokes and still say the “F” word, just not in front of my kid. Sunday brunch as I knew it was not a thing. But Saturday pancakes were. I found new capabilities and confidence in myself, and a greater depth of love for the family I had made. I would build shelves and rediscover my joy in home décor in my son’s bedroom and playroom. I’d appreciate my attempt at crafts when we would make butterflies from toilet paper tubes. I’d take pride again in my independence and ability to create schedules, book activities, and plan vacations. I was still me, just a better, more deeply rooted version of myself. All of the times I thought being a mom was hard brought out the best part of me, and allowed me to resurface the skills I had acquired in past lives to a new application in my life as a mother.
But the same way a baby’s schedule and routine changes just as soon as you’ve settled into them, at age three I started a new transition. My son was gone for four full nights, from Thursday until Monday. The long break no longer felt welcomed and instead felt like time apart. The condensed free time I had to take care of things was extended and just felt too long. I felt irresponsible. I didn’t know what my own child was doing on the weekend. I didn’t know if he slept well, what he had for dinner, if he made a new friend at the park, pulled up his own pants, or learned a new song. And if anything happened to him, if heaven forbid a call came and he was in the hospital, I would arrive with no idea of how he ended up there. Some of the responsibilities I had in being a mother were no longer present.
On one hand, I was very grateful that my son had a strong bond with his father and they had this time together to make that richer. In knowing his own identity, I knew his father/son relationship had to be prioritized well above my missing him or the control I typically had in his plans, or insights to his day. On the other hand, I felt ostracized. My son’s dad strongly feels that this time should not be confused with any interaction between families. To secure their father/son bond and connection, it should be dedicated dad time without any exposure to mom.
When one person’s individual path and lens is not in alignment with yours, especially over issues so personal, so vital, surrounding a child, it is a hard thing. I wanted to respect his need to build his own identity as a dad, create their own world together, and design their own schedules and routines. I also wanted our son to be supported in transitions, and for him to know that no matter who he was with, his family was always his family. I ultimately was able to have FaceTime written into our decree for both parents, every Sunday night. And I also had to learn to let go and be respectful of his father’s path and beliefs.
And with that, I started to build my own world and fill in the weekend time with who I was in this new circumstance. I became very dedicated to my yoga practice. I planned girls night dinners. I dated and found myself in a very nice relationship. I would see bands play, sometimes be hung over, get my nails done, take workshops, cook, read, nap, volunteer, sit at coffee shops, and rediscover my passion for writing.
I would also stay involved in the routines that connected me to the side of myself that was mother. I became grateful for the laundry, appreciating every little stain I could remove and clean t-shirt I folded. Changing the bed sheets from crocodiles to dinosaurs and fluffing the pillows warmed by heart. I’d do my budget, work on the weekly schedule, set play dates, reply to school emails, clean up toys. I made an art center and a reading nook. Whether I was cutting up watermelon, vacuuming, or taking a bubble bath, I felt assurance that every action, thought, and feeling was a part of “me,” and that “me” was a mother. And I was still connected to my son.
Now at age 4, I confirmed that both parents are always legally permitted to attend our child’s practices, games, performances, etc. My son’s last soccer practice fell on the third weekend of the month, his dad’s weekend. They would be awarded their certificate for completing the season and soccer medal. I messaged his father asking if he would feel comfortable with my attending. He didn’t reply, and I decided to attend nevertheless. I arrived to a giant hug and smile from my little soccer star, and perhaps some confusion.
“Mommy, is today a mommy day?”
“No honey bunny, it’s a daddy day. Mommy is just here to watch soccer.”
He smiled, gave me a thumbs up, and went back to playing. I was there for about eight minutes. His father scooped him up and said it was time to go. I wasn’t allowed a goodbye until our little boy cried, demanding it. I came over, touched my son’s face and held his hand, and told him he that did great and I was proud of him. And now he got to go have more fun with daddy. He asked if he could have the juice pouch I brought for him. I said yes and gave it to him. As they turned to leave, his father took the juice pouch and threw it at me. While I don’t think it was intentional, the juice pouch hit me in the chest.
He did this in front of his fiancé. He did it in front of the other parents and coaches. Most importantly, he did this in front of our son.
Within every experience, good or bad, we discover tools to be who we want to be as a person and still be a mother. Some have failed pregnancies or experience loss and are still mothers. Children become teenagers and don’t always want us around. Eventually, they are no longer living with us and our identity as a mother shifts yet again.
Sometimes I have to be away from my son because his father and I are not a couple. By default, my son and I, and my son and his father alike, have to be apart so that time is spent with each parent. His father is still coping with his own anger, and needs this distance, too. I have to give that space, not because it is philosophically right that a mother can’t attend her son’s soccer practice, but because it is the support his father needs right now, and that makes it the right thing for my son.
In being a mother, my identity is now made up of seeing outside of myself. It might mean doing things that I don’t agree with or that are hard for me. But the upside is what it brings for my son. It’s the best version of myself I’ve ever been. In part, because it is hard. Because sometimes I want to sleep in and I lose that but gain a laugh in the morning. Sometimes I want to tell my son’s father he is hurtful and wrong, and I lose that release but instead have an inner peace. In unexpected moments where I have to find new solutions and strength, I am more creative, more patient, and more accountable. I love how life looks. And I love seeing myself in the mirror, and saying, “Hi, mom.”