When He’s Gone

Few things depress me more than the sound of a childless house. Our time with my son comes and goes so quickly it’s difficult to adjust. By the time we’ve all settled in, he’s gone and the waiting game begins anew. He is not quite nine years old, stands at 4′ 10″. The days of curling up on my lap are over. The era of awkwardness and insecurity is just beginning. And I’ll miss a lot of it.

Then again, maybe I won’t. Something interesting began to happen this Christmas break. In the first three days he was here, we experienced what I can only describe as an outpouring of honesty from our very sensitive boy. As though he’d been holding on to every detail of his experience between early August and the end of the year, waiting to tell me in person all he feared to say over the phone.

It was stressful to say the least. There isn’t much a parent can do to console a child overwhelmed with reality. At best they work through it themselves. At worst they blame us for the unintended consequences of our actions. I can’t begin to explain the pain I feel every day when he’s not with us. A five minute conversation on the phone, at most a fifteen minute conversation on Skype is more like a cruel tease than a relief. Though I can readily accept he is in a safe environment it is hard to jump the hurdle of uncertainty when confronting the fact that we’re only half-way to freedom.

Between his sobs, quietly and honestly we listened to his stories, his feelings and fears. We expressed our support for his thoughts but were careful not to share our own opinions; a near futile attempt to be objective in a scenario that is anything but. It was a sledgehammer of a reminder that the ones who suffer most in split parenting are the kids. Even when you think you’re doing everything you can to protect them from it.

A child’s intuition is a beautiful thing. I’ve taken steps to listen to him more. Not just when it comes to the struggles we both face when he’s not home, but to the ideas he suggests when we’re working in the garage. Many times his matter-of-fact approach to the obvious is exactly what I need to hear when my over-processing motor of a brain is running full speed. It’s a level of appreciation for the way we challenge each other that I hold dearest. Moreover it gives me hope for the times to come.

From a macro viewpoint, this test of emotional breakthrough was actually a blessing. A few years ago the pressure for me to give up entirely on the idea I would ever have a normal relationship with my child was similar to what I imagine swimming at the bottom of the Marianas Trench would be like. Floating endlessly distant from shadowed light. Nothing else mattered, no one could understand just how bone-crushing the war for my son had become. Save for my parents, that is. Coupled with guilt for feeling like I’d robbed them of their grandson, and that I’d failed my child entirely I truly could not see a way that any of it would turn out alright. Divorced, lost, exhausted, broke (because lawyers) and depressed it was all I could do to try and begin again. But, after my then-fiancee decided she didn’t want me around any more either, I really thought I was done. Rather than find solace in starting over, I’d found myself climbing two mountains. It was like battling on two fronts, and neither opposing family wanted me around for multiple, made-up reasons.

It’s worse when friends and family want to help, but are just as powerless as we are. With questions they try to understand a situation we barely grasp ourselves. We can’t answer for the other parties involved; the inquisition falls meaningless, almost adding to the anxiety of it all. It’s hard enough to try and be a pillar of strength to a child. Having to be confident in the positive, prospective outcome of the future. To try and carry the weight of family members that only want to uplift, but are actually adding straws to the camel’s back, requires a level of tenacity that I’ve only developed out of necessity.

For good measure the universe has blessed me with the gift of extreme empathy. Which means I feel the emotions of others whether I want to or not. It’s a knotted ball of yarn I strive to keep untangled every day so as not to direct the wrong intent in the wrong direction. The complexity of it all baffles me at times. In my head I’ve had to hammer nails into a piece of plywood so I can wrap the yarn around different points to keep it from tangling itself. At least in this way it is a web of connections, rather than a cancerous mass. As a parent it’s all too easy to comment at a child who literally has no idea what you’re talking about and is only concerned with how much of their plate they need to finish in order to get dessert. If my boy’s ball of yarn is as knotted as mine, and it’s taken me this long to untangle it, I have no illusions that our war is over. For him, the knots will get tighter before they loosen.

This is why I write about choice so much. Because it saddens me to know that so many fathers around the world choose to give up the fight. It’s that debilitating. For all the encumbrance these plots can shove onto an individual it’s easy to see why quitting would be the only solution to preserve one’s self. If you asked me how I found the strength to get back up I’m not sure I could tell you. Part of it was support from new-found friends. Some of it came from within. Still more came from people I’ve known my whole life that I realize now will never abandon me. Ultimately though, I had to decide what to do.

The benefit is I have something from my experience to offer that others do not. I’ve laid out the problems, made strides to solve them. When he falters and needs help I’ll at least have the experience to relate to his anguish. I’ll never be able to untangle the knot for him but hopefully I’ll have some tools handy that will aid him in his journey. That’s why I keep getting up because at the end of it all if he thinks back on me and acknowledges that I tried to help instead of quitting, then I’ll take it. I’m not suggesting every father on Earth deserves a shot, or that they’re all innocent. I know I’m certainly not. That doesn’t mean that we don’t want to be a part of our children’s lives, that we don’t have something to contribute. It also doesn’t mean that we don’t have the right to move on with our lives and choose to be with partners that really make us happy.

To an extent I still feel like the armistice reached on that two-front war could give way at any moment. The thin red line, so to speak. However I’d rather choose to be vigilant and defend what I’ve fought so hard to maintain than become complacent and lose ground on my own precious family soil. It’s a choice, dig in and fight, or be steamrolled by machinations of others’ insecurity for which I bare no responsibility. Choose to take care of what you can.

Trading in my anger for love in both scenarios has proven to be the greatest form of arms race. Most importantly love for myself. After all, throwing dirt only ruins your own yard. Trying to be understanding, trying to keep things in context, perspective, that’s the new tactic. I know perfectly well we will have more conversations about talking to my son, not through him. About what is said in one household versus the truth. And I know those talks won’t always be easy. But for now it’s sufficient to know that he trusts my wife and I enough to share exactly what he’s feeling. All he expects is for us to hold him while he works through it to reassure him his only responsibility is to be a kid. Our happiness as adults is our own charge.

There are moments like this when I question whether or not it is appropriate to share this on a public stage. I know very well my voice joins a chorus of online songs of laboring through parenting and relationships, regardless of whether your kids live with you full time or not. I guess I hope this can serve as a small little light in the cavern of divorce that swallows so many families. I know it’s not just me and I want anyone else experiencing something similar to know that it’s not just you. We hold their hands and sometimes we fall, sometimes they fall. Sometimes we pick them up and other times we find them carrying us instead. It’s a challenge, for sure. But I can’t imagine any other challenge more worth conquering.

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