How my Solo Mom stopped the anguish of my dad’s noncustodial entry and exit
My earliest memory of my father is not of us walking through a park, getting ice cream, or him giving me piggyback rides. It is of me sitting on the living room sofa with my wool coat buttoned all the way up to my neck, knit hat covering my head, and white tights and patent leather shoes on little legs and feet dangling and poised to hop onto the floor and walk out the front door as soon as he rang the bell.
As the hours passed with sweat trickling down my face, my mother’s pleas to at least take off my coat and hat fell on deaf ears. He said that he was coming, so he would be there. Her doubt had nothing to do with me. My daddy was coming. He said so. All I needed to do was wait for him.
And so I did.
I waited until dusk turned to total darkness. I waited until my clothes were soiled with sweat. I waited until I woke in my bed the next morning—not in the place I last recalled being, not in the clothes I wore last, but in my bed to where my mother carried my limp, little body and laid me down after I had cried myself to sleep.
And there were more occasions like this. Many more. Each time, the pain of my father not showing up as promised cut deeper than the last. He was my dad. My hero. The man whom I craved to know. The first man I ever loved. Whether we drove around in his cool Pontiac Grand Prix with the sunroof open, went to Pelham Bay Park so that I could ride my Big Wheel, or listened to Marvin Gaye records in his apartment, simply being in his presence was everything to me. So when he did not show up despite his promises, I could not understand why. I began to wonder if it was me. Was I not fun enough or pretty enough or lovable enough to be around? And in my little-girl mind with my little-girl reasoning, I concluded that I simply was not enough of anything for him.
My father entering and exiting my life was a dreadful pattern that continued for years. Sometimes he was around; most times he was not. Sometimes he kept his word; most times he did not. Finally, my mother hit my father with an ultimatum that forever stopped the revolving door of his presence in my life. She warned him that if he continued to step in and out of it, she would take him to court for child support, something that she had never done before and something that he always feared would happen. So with that, my father decided to leave my life with no parting words and no way for me to reach him. He just disappeared.
I never blamed my mother for my father’s absence. I think deep down inside I felt rescued. Although I had no idea where he was and sometimes wondered about him (maybe even missed him at times), I no longer expected him, which neutralized my longing for him. His leaving my life, as hurtful as it was in so many ways, removed the torturous suspense of waiting to see if, this time, he would show up for me.
Some may judge my mother’s actions as being harsh or divisive, but as a mom now standing in her same shoes, I get it. No mother’s desire is to bear witness to her child’s father making guest appearances in that child’s life. It is a pain that the absentee parent has the luxury of never knowing. It is heartbreaking to watch your child have hopes as high as the sky to simply speak to her father, only to have them come crashing down when the phone doesn’t ring. Or seeing your child deliver gut-wrenching wails because daddy did not show up as he promised. Or watching your child desperately search for his dad in a sea of dads partnered with their sons at a Father’s Day event at school, only for him to realize that his is not there. That pain is palpable, and a mother will do whatever it takes to anesthetize it.
At some point, she has to make one of the biggest decisions that she will ever make. She has to decide whether to allow the door to her child’s life to continue to revolve or if she must stop it. There will be casualties either way. She may rationalize that barring a father’s entry into his child’s life is not her decision to make. She may conclude that some contact, no matter how little, is better than none at all. She may fear that not allowing the father “at will” entry into the child’s life will one day make her the villain.
Or she may tire of seeing her child’s spirit dragged by the weight of the revolving door. She may choose to dismantle it and build an impenetrable gate in its place—a gate that no longer grants open access to her child’s feelings, which are far too fragile, and her heart, which has been broken too many times. She may settle on the side of removing any expectations that are rarely, if ever, met. She may decide that poisoning her child’s life with rejection will no longer be allowed.
And no matter which decision a mother makes—to allow the door to revolve or act as gatekeeper—she is not to be judged. She has done her best in the worst of situations—one that leaves no winners, with her child standing to lose the most.
It is not judgment she needs. It is grace.
Tons and tons of grace.
Terri Linton, ESME’s Incarceration Resource Guide, is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, where she is currently pursuing a master of fine arts degree in creative nonfiction writing, and a graduate of Rutgers School of Law-Newark. Terri is a freelance writer and professor of criminal justice. She hosts and produces the podcast She Roads with Terri Linton, where she interviews women about their journeys of endurance and resilience. Terri’s writing has appeared in Ninth Letter, HuffPost, Motherly, and Mamamia. You can connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.