Summer Sharing: The Stress of Increasing Shared Custody
Each summer, I like many parents, meet at parking lot to unceremoniously exchange my child to his other parent. With strange attempts to avoid eye contact with his father, I kiss and hug my son goodbye wishing him a fantastic week of adventures with Daddy. My son leaves my embrace too soon, crawls into his car seat and announces to get on the road. “We have 45 minutes to go!”
I drive away feeling I left my heart in that parking lot. Every time. I notice things on the drive home I wish I could point out: a cool motorcycle, bad drivers or a field with running horses. I listen to podcasts to shift my brain into a different mode. This time away is important I remind myself. I will relax and catch up on laundry. I can volunteer. I’ll take the dog for walks. I won’t need to cook or buy groceries for a week. Damn it celebrate this precious alone time! Cherish the break.
But I can’t.
No one really prepares you for the harsh realities of sharing your children. Weekends, vacations, holidays, birthdays--- all of it becomes bargaining chips in a quest to keep your heart closer to you, or in my case, The Bear. You hold back tears when you miss milestones and feign excitement when your child reports back about amazing new experiences. He can’t know how sad this all makes you.
He can’t know sharing him puts you in the vulnerable space of unfair comparisons.
Case in point. You feel envy you can’t buy the same toys, fly to fun locations, and eat at exotic places with friends and family. You feel boring in your square house with no gaming system and yard without a trampoline. And yet—you have a house. You have a space dedicated to your child. He has clothes he loves and replacements for beloved stuffies that never returned after his last stay with his other parent. You remind yourself that this boring square house keeps you safe, warm, and so much joy occurs here. This home symbolizes the stability you fought for when you left your marriage and your new beginnings. This house matters more than a vacation. You wish your child understood that. He will never understand how while you have little you two have so much more together.
You attempt to Facetime to see your little darling—has he lost any new teeth? Can he tie his shoes now? What did he eat for dinner? Is he happy? All of that keeps you awake when your ex-spouse doesn’t answer. You try to schedule a call via Talking Parents and text. There is never a good time to talk to your child. He’s busy. You ache.
The tasks you planned to accomplish while alone fall to wayside. Suddenly in a week’s time you now keep a finger on the pulse of all the drama of Lisa Vanderpump and the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. You’ve changed your hair color a couple times. The sink overflows with cereal bowls. You’ll get to it soon but for now you need distraction from noticing the empty space in your heart.
The next weekend, in that same fast food parking lot, you welcome your child with open arms. He does that same quick goodbye to his father and climbs in his car seat. He requests his favorite NPR game show “Wait, Wait” and falls asleep listening to jokes from Paula Poundstone.
At home he reminds you how un-cool you are and reminds you rules need to change. He throws fits at dinner and stays as close as possible to you. He wants held. His head hurts. His leg hurts. He thinks he has a cough. He refuses his normal bedtime so at 10 pm you invite him into your bed to snuggle. He falls asleep watching old Disney cartoons while hugging you tightly. In fact, all night he sleeps almost on top of you. He needs to know you’re close. And honestly, so do you.
He isn’t a baby anymore but you shower him with hugs and kisses to make sure he feels all your love. He confides in you about problems he faced while away, tells you about sub-rate dinners, and you can tell he is wanting to make sure you know he loves being with you too. And that feels both comforting and sad.
The next couple of days he adjusts. He stops using a baby voice to ask for things. He’s independent again. He smiles, tells fart jokes, and suggests spaghetti for dinner. It feels good to be back into the swing of things.
He has no idea this whole week felt like equal parts joy and angst for you. His other parent hounded you to make different decisions outside the court orders for next week. You silently calculated the bill each time you involved your attorney in the communications and you dread the next drop off date. He doesn’t know the persistent pressure closing in on you at work. He can’t see your anxiety over the dishes, the laundry, the yard and errands. He doesn’t read the mail to know which bills need paid.
And oh the shame! He’s home. Your heart came back and you feel tired just thinking about the exhaustion of your task list. Why can’t you just be the parent with the easy time? The fun? The vacations? With the family that watches your little while you sit and drink bourbon in the backyard?
But the reality is…you aren’t that parent. And it’s ok. Take heart sweet friend. You’re the mama and you’re brave enough to share without making each off week terrible for someone else. You’re wise enough to love on your little and push the stuff to the side once dinner time hits. You know the importance of snuggling on the couch watching Sharkfest. Be that mom. The one that models good sharing, spends quality time, and suggests making dinner together. Ask your little about his day, compliment his strange outfit choices, and show consistency.
It’s the culmination of all those little things that make the back and forth for him easier. Remember he didn’t choose your separation—so understand no matter how you slice it he suffers a bit. Be the cushion for the collateral damage. And for Pete’s Sake don’t feel guilty you missed him.