When You Are Not-Mama

When You Are Not-Mama

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Surviving those weekends when an abusive ex takes over

Sometimes I’m a mother without a child.

It’s a strange feeling, both liberating and unsettling, to give my four-year-old over to his father every other weekend for a visit.

On the one hand, I am free to eat peanut-butter toast for dinner and can paint my toenails in the living room without the risk of a catastrophic mess. I can go out to a happy hour or a doctor’s appointment without paying anyone to watch kiddo. I don’t have to share that good piece of chocolate I’ve been saving, and I can read without interruptions and watch all the HGTV I want, sans whines about wanting to see the same episode of Team Umizoomi (“The one about the aquariuuuuuuuum!”) again.

But I miss my favorite limb. And it isn’t just about missing him; it’s also that I worry about him. My son’s father was abusive to me and to every woman he was with before me, and he has a new girlfriend, so . . .

ESME’s former Domestic Violence Resource Guide, writer, and Solo Mom, Kelly Sundberg, keeps a beautiful blog about her survival, and in a July 22 post, she shared, “Sometimes I feel judged because I haven’t fought harder to get sole custody of my son.” I feel the weight of this statement even as I understand her reasoning that she wasn’t likely to get it anyway and that her boy is old enough to have decided he “loves his dad and doesn’t want to hurt his dad’s feelings.” Her third reason: “I enjoy the time that I have alone.”

Sometimes I do, too. Maybe it will be better when my son is older; for now, he can tell me only disturbing bits and pieces of his visits with his dad but not a complete narrative, not one a court would ever hear. He is too young to say, “Mom, my dad scares me, and I don’t want to go there anymore,” or even, “Mom, my dad scares me, but I can handle it, and I love him and don’t want to give up my time with him. I know you’re always here to talk to me about things when I come home.”

So my alone time is tinged with fear. What does my son see and hear when he’s not with me? Who am I if I’m not protecting him, talking to him about feelings and treating others the way we want to be treated, guarding our routine and relationship, standing sentrylike outside his room for one tender moment every night while he sleeps?

Who am I?

I’m not-mama. This is the name I’ve given to my identity during the weekends Jax is away from me and I have all the mom feels but none of the responsibilities.

I am ecstatic to lounge in an Adirondack chair with a glass of pinot and a new memoir, then nervous, tapping my fingers on the wheel while driving to pick him up, thinking, Is this the day his father decides not to bring him back to me? To wake up early on a Sunday morning with an image in my mind; to make the coffee and throw open the patio door; to sit in the shady, breezy summer morning with my laptop and favorite mug and write, and not having to stop when Jax barrels out of his bedroom begging me to fish the favorite green straw cup out of the dishwasher for milk—this is unadulterated bliss, as long as I don’t let myself think about the last visit. (“Daddy threw a glass and it smashed all over the kitchen, and he yelled at me to go hide in my bedroom so I wouldn’t get cut!”)

I have been through the legal system, so I’m here to tell you firsthand that although judges might acknowledge how damaging it is for kids to witness abuse and consider domestic violence when determining residential custody, they will deny the abusive parent visitation only in extreme cases in which the child was or is in imminent physical danger. I left to save both my son and myself, but on my darkest not-mama days, I wonder if my son isn’t in worse danger now than before. At least I was also there before. . . .

What do I do?

I’m in this limbo four days out of every month, and have been for three years, and I still don’t know how to handle it. It’s jarring to live 85% of life in a whirlwind of mothering solo, then be suddenly alone for a few days; the chaos is comforting, and the calm is eerie. Up is down. I obsess over what could be happening where I’m not but my son is. I try to talk myself down from worrying about the unknown by making a plan for my son’s support system at home. I try to relax, I really do. I know I’m supposed to enjoy my me time, but mostly I feel torn in two. Mostly I feel like I don’t know who I am when I’m not trying to tame that boy’s corkscrew curls or championing him as he masters writing his first name—on the coffee table, in permanent marker, of course.

So I stumble through every other Saturday and Sunday, lunching with a friend I hope doesn’t ask how I’m holding up, telling myself I love having a break from my role as Solo Mom to an Energetic, Strong-Willed Little Boy, Instagramming aerial photos from the mountains I climb to keep my mind off what it inevitably wanders back to as soon as I sit down those evenings. I try to catch up on laundry and fuss over his little pants and T-shirts, kiss his favorite stuffed koala with my wine mouth. I read and write and cook and do weirdly comforting, nesting stuff such as organize my accessories, but it’s all part of the same anxious countdown to getting my son back in one piece, body and mind.

Yes, I worry my son will be physically harmed or neglected.

Yes, I worry my son will grow up to physically harm others because he’s learned that behavior.

Yes, I worry I’m worrying too much.

What else is a mama to do when she’s not-mama?

Have you been in an abusive relationship? Join our tribe of moms who understand and can support you through the lingering challenges.

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