I miss you Leading Man #1.
No dis to my ex, but he spoils our son at Christmas. No sooner does a hot video game or new game system hits my son’s Christmas List than TheEx has it hidden away in the gift closet for him.
That’s usually September. Yes, we start our Christmas shopping early around these parts.
Sometimes, TheEx gets his hands on a hot deal AFTER we’ve discussed who is getting Leading Man #1 what for Christmas. One year my son got a Google Chromebook from me AND, thanks to a last minute Walmart “we must clear our shelves now” deal, a Playstation, or PS, 4 from his dad. Needless to say, the Chromebook was not a hit in the face of that.
Occasionally, I pounce early and get something before kiddo’s dad can. One year I went Christmas shopping for a Nintendo Switch in late August. Other times, I just do my own thing and steer clear of my son’s stated Christmas Wish List. I had 7 blissful years of Christmas gift hits courtesy of the Lego store. Then my son outgrew Lego.
I used to have a formula, when my son was in his pre-teen years: a book, a game (I had a great run with Monopoly for a number of years), 2 sets of Christmas PJ’s (one for Christmas with me, one for Christmas with his dad), a Lego kit, and something “big” he had asked for, i.e. a larger Lego kit, or a specific video game console.
When kiddo turned 16, that more or less went out the window. Autism and Disabled do not mean “doesn’t want the same cool stuff every other teen does.” Unfortunately, as kids get older, the presents get simultaneously smaller and more expensive. The Switch came in a 18″ x 12″ box but ate nearly my entire holiday budget that year. Thus the space under the Christmas tree every year after all the gifts are set out increases but my Christmas budget remains the same. Over the years I have found clever ways – read: clothes on sale at Kohl’s – to fill the space under the Christmas tree.
The key to gift giving and co-parenting is this: stick to your budget and don’t try to match or outdo your fearless co-parent. Maybe you can. You don’t want to. Kids don’t remember the stuff. They remember that you were there. Witness my Google Chromebook Complete Miss of 2016. I don’t think my son remembers the Chromebook. He does remember watching The Polar Express, and seeing the newest Star Wars.
Our mission as non-residential parents is to stay connected to our kids. It is not to spend beyond our means on them. It is not to ply them with expensive gifts. We just need to be there. We just need to show that we are always there for our children, even when we aren’t with them.
You don’t need money to do that. You need time.
In my September 29 podcast, Holi-DAYZE!, I talk about how on holidays such as Easter and Thanksgiving, which alternate year to year, when I don’t have my son that year, I celebrate with him on the last regularly scheduled visit I have with him before that holiday. So this year, we decorated the Christmas Tree – a Thanksgiving tradition – on November 10th. Last year, we colored Easter eggs and had an Easter Egg hunt, complete with clues and a basket, in late March. Christmas came a week early last year: on December 16th.
Time is the gift I give my son – the one I think he appreciates the most – always but especially at Christmas. On Christmas I shut down the rest of my life completely, something I do not do the rest of the year, even when I visit my son. There are no work emails that day. I don’t accept calls from the office. I don’t respond to texts from friends. I don’t check email. I don’t answer the phone (much to Leading Man #2’s never ending chagrin).
Time is a gift I give myself at Christmas, too. I cherish Christmas with my son. I’ve kept Christmas traditions alive for a full 18 years, only 4 of which I was married to kiddo’s dad. Every year, we do the same things: pizza, shopping, cookies and milk for Santa, the Polar Express on DVD, and Christmas presents the next morning – whatever morning that is – at an ungodly hour. Then we go back to bed for an hour – or I try to. We get dressed, go to the movies, and hang out together for the day. There are the Christmas PJs, and one gift to open on “Christmas Eve” (whatever “eve” that falls on). The next morning (whatever morning that is) is Christmas morning.
I get it. Time is not enough. You do have to give your kids something for Christmas, or whatever you’re celebrating this December. You don’t have to feel like it’s a spending contest. You don’t have to give them the “Mega Present.” Give them something store bought that demonstrates how well you know them – such as a book they’re interested in, or a board game you know they’ll like. Give them something you’ve made yourself. Over the years my son has forgotten most of the toys I’ve given him. The Star Wars quilt I made him nearly nine years ago still sits on his bed.
Christmas is not a competition between co-parents to see who can give the best gift. Christmas – any day, actually – is about celebrating the best gift you’ve ever been given: that child.
Happy Happy Merry Merry!
Last year, I engaged an attorney to take on my ex-husband and fearless co-parent about an issue involving our son. It was the first time since our divorce I had ever felt like I needed to. Yes, co-parents argue from time to time. Yes, TheEx and I have our moments. Mostly we just lock horns and let things go because whatever we’re currently arguing about is not worth exposing our son to the argument.
This time it was important enough to me not to let it go.
The Mother Rogue, blog and podcast, is both an advocacy and sympathy site for non-custodial parents, long distance parents, and in particular, non-custodial Moms. Most people do not understand that living without your child is not something anyone does by choice. There’s also a social stigma around those of us who do live without our children.
I want to make people aware of the former and end the latter. I spent 14 years feeling that stigma, even from, for 9 of them, 2 states away. I never want anyone to feel the way I did. I never want anyone to go through what I did. Preferably, no non-custodial parent would make the mistakes I did.
Back to TheEx. Last July, I was honestly afraid to take TheEx on legally. The entire time I was doing so, I wanted to retreat. The something I was engaging a lawyer for was something I knew I could not retreat from. What the something was doesn’t matter. What did matter was that I was engaging in a legal argument with a man who knew how to press my buttons when I most needed to stay calm. The moment I lost my legendary temper, I would lose, no matter how right I was.
To keep your calm when you are fighting with someone, you have to understand why you care enough to have that fight in the first place. You have to know what is it about them that allows that person to dig under your skin and chew down to your last nerve.
When I hired that lawyer and pushed that one issue, to prepare for TheEx pressing all those buttons, I paused and asked myself that question. I stopped to consider how I felt – really felt – about being non-residential custodian.
I realized I never, in at the time 13 years, done so. I divorced. I remarried. I justified. I built a career to fill the gaps where I wasn’t being Mom. I told everyone I gave up custody because my son needed the home, school system, stability, and support system TheEx could provide and I could not. I went on and on about how I couldn’t afford a house in Bergen County, New Jersey (who can?), and my job as an editorial project manager that kept me at the office late hours. I stammered about how when I was getting divorced my newly diagnosed as autistic son (his choice to be called autistic vs. an individual with autism, I did ask), was in – at that time – a proactive school system while other parents of autistic individuals were hiring advocates.
I defended the WHAT. I never acknowledged the WHY.
So TheEx continued to get under my skin, and I continued to react. I still cared about him, I felt guilty for giving up custody, and I knew, somewhere deep within myself, I wasn’t being honest. I wasn’t wrong when I told people why I had given up residential custody, but I wasn’t entirely truthful about it.
The primary reason I gave up residential custody was because I knew I would be outspent in a custody battle. When you decide to fight for custody of a child, the courts order psychiatric evaluations. The courts get testimonies. There are motions, and mediations. Whoever has the most money to spend on the best lawyers, the best psychiatrists, on all those motions and mediations, often – not always but often – wins.
I didn’t have those kind of financial resources. TheEx did.
I also pictured a child, stuck in between 2 adults who both loved that child fiercely, each of us pulling on one of said child’s arms. I didn’t want that for my son. I wasn’t even willing to find out how much it would cost to fund a custody battle, because I did not want my son to go through one.
When I realized that, not only did I win the legal issue I was pressing, which benefited my son, but I started building a more constructive co-parenting relationship with TheEx.
My son has a happy life, and a successful one, and he enjoys 2 parents who are friends and can, even when they’re fighting, as we still do on occasion (Rome wasn’t built in a day or even 365 of them), be in a room together.
I have a lot of wasted emotional time to make up for. I wish I had stopped after my divorce, taken a beat, and looked at my feelings before I spent 14 years arguing with a man I still care about. I wish it had not taken me 14 years to acknowledge and let go of all of the real reasons why. I wish I had not been so self-righteous. I shouldn’t have wasted a second justifying who I am as a Mom, and make no mistake, I am a MOM. I am not just a biological mother. I am a Mom. I am connected to my son. Over the years I’ve learned that proximity is only one component of good parenting.
Don’t be me. 14 years is too long to live like I did. Take emotional stock now, and invest the time you save in your new partner, yourself, and your kids.
No matter how it is that you are a non-custodial parent, you are a parent. You are Mom. You are Dad. You are dedicated to your kid(s), and you are brilliant.
Long Beach, Littleton, MA
Originally Published on Various Shades of Blonde Nonsense in December, 2012.
Mostly I consider myself a decent parent – for the role I have in my son’s life, which is by no means that which society considers a mom should have.
Or me. Three years later, I really think I should be there in person more often.
Hey! Hadn’t Roddenberry, Clarke and Kubrick promised us teleporter technology by now? What gives scientific community? Surely the demigods of classic sci fi could not have been wrong in there predictions.
Even worse – Lucas gave it to us a long time ago…
Moving on, since Toyotas are brilliant, but even they get cranky driving 500 miles round trip once a month.
One of the tics and quirks of Autism is perseveration. An autistic person’s mind will get locked on a topic and stay there. They will talk about the topic non-stop.
For the last few months Leading Man #1 has been perseverating about an internet video game (we’ll discuss how it is an “M” game he was not supposed to have access to and how he bypassed his father’s internet security protocols blocking the site later. I’m not done groaning over that one sufficiently to type about it yet).
My ex installed new industrial content blocking software on J’s computer, but I decided something more needed to be done. I asked that my son’s IEP (Individualized Education Plan) be modified to address the issue. My concern was that once J. stopped perseverating about Randy’s Empire, he’d go on about something else.
One well tapped email and a call to the principal later, my ex, myself and Stepmom received an email from the behavioral specialist at the school outlining their plan to assist my son and modifying his IEP.
I know, I know, all in a day’s work for a custodial, in person parent, but I did this from 250 miles away, on a break from my full-time workday.
Parents, but NCPs especially, need to celebrate our little victories. We need to give ourselves credit for how involved we stay in our children’s lives. We know it is all in a day’s work for us, but others do not.
I, especially, am thrilled when I can successfully advocate to make my son’s life better, on the spectrum and off.
It’s 10:43 p.m. In just over 6 hours, I need to be up and rolling for a BNI meeting that will include a 45 second commercial featuring a typewriter.
Not a word processor. Not a laptop. Not an old IBM Selectric Electric typewriter.
An actual typewriter.
So the bottom line is I should be asleep, or at least trying to get some rest before a 14 hour day of proposal writing and freelance writing gets underway. Instead I am awake in the spare bedroom that functions as a library, sitting on a futon with a pile of books at my feet, contemplating a 30 year old (at least) Rush song.
My son and I pulled the books off the shelves yesterday with the intent of sorting them by author by the end of the week. Ever the English Teacher, I thought going through the hundred (conservative estimate) books in my collection might inspire my son to read. I am paying him $10 an hour for doing this: $2 more than NJ Minimum Wage and $2 less than Massachusetts Minimum Wage.
I was advised my son needed structure and a job even during his summer break, but also the books actually need to be sorted. Kurt Vonnegut is intermingled with John Updike, who is interspersed with Joyce Carol Oates. Various unread tomes by Janet Evanovich are in a conjumble with Jodi Picoult. Meanwhile, Neil Gaiman snuggles up to Liane Moriarty, and Jim Butcher rubs shoulders with Sophie Hannah. I honestly don’t know what I’ve read and what I haven’t anymore.
Getting back to Rush.
Time Stand Still, off the Hold Your Fire album, was omnipresent the 4 years I spent, between 1987 and 1991, at what was then William Paterson College in Wayne, New Jersey. At the center of campus was a student center with an arcade. The arcade had a large CD jukebox with equally loud speakers and perennially open doors. Every time I walked through the Student Center, Time Stand Still was blaring out of the arcade. I always seemed to be hit it right at the chorus:
Time stand still
I’m not looking back
But I want to look around me now
Time stands still
See more of the people
And the places that surround me now
Time stands still
Freeze this moment
A little bit longer
Make each sensation
A little bit stronger
I listened to those lyrics with idealistic, bittersweet young adult ears. I knew college was a short interlude between being a carefree teenager and an adult with responsibilities.
My son is the age I was the first time I heard that chorus, and shortly, he’ll be leaving his father’s house and moving to an out of home placement. For the next 2 weeks, though, he is mine. For 10 years I have dreamed of spending this time with him, where once again I am just Mom, juggling work with making dinner, assigning chores, admonishing him to step away from the X-Box and get at least 5 minutes of fresh air, hanging out with him, and occasionally administering discipline. Tonight, as we were watching Dr. Who (the newest Doctor) together, it hit me, how badly I want time to stand still.
This time, that I can feel slipping away, even as I take in and treasure every moment. I could have let college slip away without notice or regret. Time with my son I cannot. I will have 2 weeks at home with my son again. I just won’t have this 2 weeks, at this particular age and stage, with Leading Man #1 again. Children grow up. Parents grow older. I never want to look back and wish I hadn’t tried to freeze, or at least fully appreciate, this moment, or any moment with my son, a little bit longer.
I want to shut down my office computer, shove these books at my feet back on the shelves, and cancel my appointments for the next 10 days. I want to see more of what surrounds me now.
Time stand still.
I won’t do any of those things. I’ll keep working. I’ll keep my appointments. We’ll continue to work on the books.
Ok, maybe I’ll prune the books a bit – at least set up a library book sale donation box. There are far too many of these that I’ve already read, and with rare exception, I don’t red the same book twice. There are too many others I want to read.
First I’ll go check on kiddo again. For the last 45 minutes I’ve been savoring the sound of his snores coming from down the hallway.
That sounds creepy, but it’s really not. It’s a mom thing.