Posted in custody, distance parent, non-custodial mom, non-residential parent, parenting

Planning the Perfect Non-Custodial Parent and Child Reunion

November, 2019, Bergen County, NJ and August, 2020, Boston, MA.

Hello from New Jersey! I should be resting my eyes. I’ve been rolling since 2:30 or so a.m. this morning. Ok, 2:30 a.m. or so is when I gave up the ghost on trying to sleep, showered, walked the dog, unsuccessfully tried not to wake The Omen, and then got on the road.

…where, of course, even 2 hours before dawn, I hit traffic.

I love you Connecticut!

There are always, it seems, 1,000 things to do before a weekend with my son. Do I remember to do them over time starting the weekend before I’m scheduled to hit New Jersey? Heck no! I wait and scramble the 1 – 2 days before I reunite with Leading Man #1. I clean the house like my former, superlative ex-mother-in-Law, my current, Superlative current mother-in-Law, and my superlative mother were all coming to visit at once. I stock up on clothes in my son’s size. I make sure all his favorite foods are in the house.

Then I scrupulously plan out our time together to the last minute. I feel like I have to scram however many weeks I haven’t been around into however many days I will be. I have always done that. I have always felt that way.

I still do.

I know better. 

It’s not the perfection of the time we spend with our kids when we see them. It doesn’t really matter how scrupulously clean my house is, and, as I will learn 8 months now, my house is going to get cluttered and dusty no matter how scrupulously I clean. When you have what becomes 2 large dogs, 1 lumberjack, custom furniture building CPA husband, and a son who takes long walks, this dirt happens. Right now there is at least 1 dog in shed dog hair on my kitchen/living room floor. 

The Omen just swept last week.

Don’t go there. 

There is also the matter of work to consider. For some reason I cannot hit the road, even on a Saturday at 2:30 a.m., until I know each and every “I” is dotted and “T” is crossed in my professional life. How can I relax and enjoy this precious time with JR if I’m going to get interrupted by a sales team?

Actually, I can. The one thing I do well as a working mom is balance my career and my kid. One of my Canadian sales reps once called me as JR and I were crossing the threshold of Target at Palisades Mall in West Nyack, New York. I answered his question, carefully and precisely, got my then 10 year old son pizza at the Target snack bar, and together we made it to the movie we’d come to the mall to see with 15 minutes to spare. 

My point is, I get so wrapped up in making the time I spend with my son perfect for him in every way, I forget that perfect isn’t required here. A perfect parent is boring, or would be, if there were such a thing. Nor do I have to compensate for all of the time I missed between visits with my son. I am there, annoyingly if you ask him, on FaceTime and the phone twice a day. I don’t miss much of his life. What I do miss, I always catch up on quick.

The perfect moment doesn’t exist. The perfect time doesn’t need to be had. The best times aren’t perfect. Witness this moment, 8 months later, back home in Boston. My son is here, there really is the equivalent of an entire dog in dog hair on my open floor plan downstairs floor, and there are video games, and video game systems, everywhere. Also, The Omen is systematically tracking dirt in from the wooded area of our property where he is building a shed.

My son doesn’t mind this. He just came in from a long walk, and is singing along to what sounds like death metal music as he preheats the oven for dinner.

All of us non-custodial parents need to worry less about being perfect, or carefully planning perfect moments with our kids. Our kids are happy just being with us.

Yeah, I know. Maybe someday I’ll convince myself of that, too.

Posted in autism, parenting

On Autism: Assuming Legal Guardianship of My Son Instead of Attending His High School Graduation

For the last week or so I’ve been holed up at my favorite yoga studio, working out my frustration with and trying to figure out how I feel about signing off on my son’s Guardianship paperwork in a couple weeks. Leading Man #1 has Autism and Intellectual Disability on paper. He is unable to function independently. TheEx and I will assume legal guardianship on his 18th birthday and kiddo will become an “un-emancipated adult.”

So how do I feel? It’s gone in stages.

  • First, I got angry, really, really angry. Why did this happen? Why isn’t my son going to graduate in June like a typical teenager? Why does an  attorney have to explain to him in a formal setting that he’ll be under his dad and I’s care for the foreseeable future?
  • Next, I felt guilty. It had to be those peanut butter M&Ms I ate every day at lunch during my pregnancy! I gave up residential custody! I moved to Massachusetts when kiddo was 8!
  • Then I assessed blame. Mostly to the high school JR attended before he was placed out of district, to the school district in general, to the water quality in his hometown, to M&M Mars, to TheEx, and, of course, to myself.
  • After that, I got depressed, really, really depressed. On Facebook, my mom friends were posting senior prom and graduation photos and talking about which colleges their neurotypical kids got accepted to.

As happy as I was for my friends and their kids, seeing those posts sucked. Seriously, when did TheEx and I stop planning for college and start planning for a vocational job? When was the crucial moment where JR turned the corner from “With the proper supports he can…” to “He might not ever be able to”? I know I’ve been a long distance parent for the last decade, but I’m an active presence in my son’s life nonetheless. I wouldn’t have missed that pivot. 

Somewhere inside of me, through all of the specialists, the neurologists, the psychiatrists, the school social workers, and the wretched IEP meetings, telling me otherwise. I still believed we would never reach this moment. I honestly thought that if TheEx and I can just find the right doctor, the right Molotov cocktail of medications, the right …something, the frosted contact paper that seems to veil my son’s true potential from the world would be ripped away, and he would magically become high functioning. 

Assuming legal guardianship feels like I’m giving up.

“Seriously, when was the crucial moment my son turned the corner from “With the proper supports he can…” to “He might not ever be able to”?

I know better. I also know many autistics will scream at me and call me “Martyr Mom,” say I can’t accept my child as he is and my son is good enough as such. That’s not the problem. I love my son exactly as he is. I accept him. I know JR is good enough, because for me, there is no question he is “good enough.” Of course he is! He’s my son. Even during a meltdown, or, actually quite worse, the very neurotypical 100th blast of anime teen angst music from his bedroom, I wouldn’t change a thing.

My dilemma, and why I am holed up in a 100 degree yoga studio sweating out a downward facing dog trying to sort out my feelings, is this: JR is my child. I am supposed to take care of him. I am supposed to protect him. Somehow, by JR growing up atypical, it feels like I failed somehow…like I let my son down. Will JR hate me for assuming guardianship and taking his legal rights away? Will he hate me for not finding that “magic pill (therapy, etc.)” that would have prevented me from doing so?

Will Leading Man #1 ever know what, in the eyes of a neurotypical world, he “missed out on”? That’s a very valid question. The answer is as yet to be determined.

Did I fight hard enough to find that magic…whatever? Again, that’s a very valid question, and again, the answer is as yet to be determined. 

I know I shouldn’t mourn my son’s lost potential, but I do. Like most people, I am hardwired to believe in “normal” and to want “normal things” for my son. My son’s life is not normal. It never has been. That was okay until now…until senior year of high school…until TheEx and I were gently but firmly told guardianship had to happen.

In the end, I decide I feel horrid about having to sign that paperwork, about having to take legal guardian ship of my brilliant 18 year old. I let myself feel that way for one more downward facing dog, and then I let it go. Wallowing in the loss of what might have been won’t make what will be better. It’s also a waste of time. I have better things to do, like spend quality time with my son. 

I also think I’ll stay off Facebook until August.

Originally written Spring 2019.

Posted in autism, custody, distance parent, non-custodial mom, parenting

Reflecting on the End of the Pandemic…

Ok, I’m a realist, so not the end of the pandemic, but at least a lull long enough for me to see my son in person again.

Yes, I will settle for just a temporary lull in New Jersey COVID-19 new case rate

I’ve missed seeing Leading Man #1 in person, hanging out with him, having an excuse to stop working and play BioShock on my dusty PS4, and having someone to visit museums with. Yet, despite not being able to see JR in person, I did, through this COVID-19 enforced separation, see him every day. The Pandemic Mess’ Zoom Schooling Phenomenon allowed me to buzz into JR’s classes for an hour every day.

I think it may annoy the frack out of Leading Man #1 that I did that…

I don’t mind if he’s annoyed. Dropping into those Zoom Classes every day taught me a few things about how my son functions on the autistic spectrum, how he functions without me, and how much like me JR actually is. We have the same expression, right down to hand in chin placement, when we’re thoughtful.

I’ve also learned how smart my son actually is. I have witnessed him seamlessly calculate 18 x 4 in his head in practically seconds. I’ve heard him answer comprehension questions that left me baffled. I even learned to budget more effectively thanks to his classroom teacher.

I’m a long distance parent, but I’ve learned that I am no less a parent for the long distance between Leading Man #1 and I. TheEx works for a lab testing company, therefore I was the one, most of the time, making sure JR was “in class” (and reprimanding him to get in class when he wasn’t).

The pandemic also forced me to come off the road for an extended length of time. With multiple state quarantines and travel restrictions keeping me at home, I was finally able to learn what living in my house, with my husband, is like. Fun fact: I have a rhododendron that blooms purple in my front yard. Equally impressive: I can survive my husband (a CPA and Tax Director for a MetroWest Public Accounting Firm) working from home during tax season. Ok, that might be because he also cooks fantastic dinners every night.

Finally, the pandemic taught me to think first, and stress out later. Just because we’ve been divorced for 15 years and I have accepted that as non-residential custodian/guardian means I have very little say or insight into the day to day decisions made about my son does not mean I’ve stopped fighting for my son. It just means I’ve gotten choosier about my battles. I think my combat strategy through more carefully BEFORE I act. Some things – visitation when a pandemic is spreading like wildfire – aren’t worth arguing over…or getting stressed out about.

I have never liked being a long distance parent. I have never liked being a non-custodial one. Now, though, I’m a little more at ease with the situation, and a little better at co-parenting.

Not nearly enough, but something…

Posted in custody, distance parent, non-custodial mom, non-residential parent, parenting

Non-Custodial Pandemic Parenting: The COVID-19 Travel Rabbit Hole

I adopted a dog – a second dog, Rocky, our Boxer Mix, adopted us from  Lowell Humane Society back in October – to occupy the “Mom” part of my mind during the current, seemingly endless, COVID-19 Crisis. Ella, a rescue from Last Hope K9, is settling in nicely. Nicely enough that I gave up a whole Sketcher.

Not much of a loss. The Sketchers had pink glitter accents.

I don’t do pink. I don’t do glitter. Don’t ask me why.

Despite Ella, and Rocky’s best efforts – housetraining at 2:30 a.m. in the rain anyone? How about 140 lbs of dogs roughhousing on the bed while you’re trying to get to sleep? – my MomBrain is very much unoccupied, leaving it free to focus 24/7/365 on the conspicuous absence from my life of the best and most important part of my life, my son.

It’s been 4 months to the day since I spent time in person with Leading Man #1. I walk down to his room at the end of the hall – I store the vacuum cleaner in his closet because it’s mostly empty – almost every day and run my hands across the bed. I look at the white erase and chalk boards set up for this last, last minute-cancelled, visit. I take note of his X-Box games, and his sweatshirt on the chair.

I wish he were here.

I am sitting, patiently waiting for this Coronavirus insanity to reach its peak in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. I am hoping against hope that it will happen in the next week, and I can spend my son’s spring break with him.

I know it won’t happen.

Periodically I consider just disinfecting my trusty Toyota Camry with bleach, loading up on hand sanitizer, raiding my fabric closet and making a face mask, and hitting the road. If I get up at 3:00 a.m., I can make Boston to Bergen County in just over 3 hours with no need for a rest stop. I can dash into my son’s home, grab him and his gear, stuff him in the car – after I make him sanitize his hands – and hoof it back to Massachusetts, again with no pit stops. Yeah, I can do it. I won’t get infected with Coronavirus. My son isn’t infected. He won’t catch it in my car. TheEx isn’t sick. He can’t give it to me. Just in case I won’t even use TheEx’s rest room when I pick kiddo up. I can “hold it” for 7-8 hours total.

No, no I can’t. Not with the amount of coffee I drink, and will need to drink at 3:00 a.m. I’ll be lucky if I make it through Massachusetts without needing to pee by the side of the road. That would invite some strange looks and possibly a stop by one of MA’s finest.

Then there’s the matter of quarantine. Massachusetts has a 14 day self-quarantine to visitors to the state. Yes, I see this as my son’s home, but the Public Safety Department might go by my son’s legitimate address, which is, NJ, meaning he’s a visitor. Where am I going to quarantine kiddo for 14 days?

Also, I’d have to make it through Connecticut and New York. Connecticut also has a 14 day quarantine for visitors in effect. So does that mean kiddo and I would have to hole up somewhere in Danbury on our way back? Would I have to hole up in Hartford on my way down?

I check New York State and New York City’s government websites. More of the same. Oooh! In New York City I can be reported for not maintaining social distancing rules. Say! Does that mean I need to stay 6 feet away from my kiddo? Will people who see us together know we’re related?

All of this assumes I don’t get pulled over in New Jersey for violating its stay at home order.

Speaking of which, I don’t know what TheEx’s new wife or daughter have been doing. Have they been exposed and are just not showing symptoms?

What if I go down there and somewhere along the way, someone in my wide, loopy, coparenting family – 2 parents, 2 step parents, 1 step-sibling, and, of course, LM#1 – does get sick? How will I feel?

I am not feeling claustrophobic. I don’t feel a need to get out of the house, or interact live and in person with other people. I don’t want to stroll a mall, or visit a museum, or go out to dinner. My desire to hit the open highway was vanquished on a single 30 minute ride into the office last Friday.

I very much want to spend time with my son again.

Every day, I consider just hitting the road and going for broke to New Jersey. Every time I do, I fall down the travel logistics rabbit hole I just described. Can’t stay home. Can’t stay away. Need to stay home. Need to stay away.

This SUCKS!

This is Long Distance, Non-Custodial Pandemic Parenting.

Maybe I need to let Ella have at it with my REAL crosstrainers.

Posted in custody, distance parent, Holidays, motherhood, non-custodial mom, non-residential parent, parenting

What To Get The Kid Whose Other Parent Will Get Them Everything

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!

–CMR

Littleton, MA

 

Posted in custody, distance parent, non-custodial mom, non-residential parent, parenting

The Long Distance Parent Toolkit

When I first started my journey as a long distance mom, which I found infinitely harder for some reason than being a non-residential one, I scoured the ‘net for resources and support groups. I found DistanceParent.org.

Whether you are a long distance parent or a local non-custodial one, this is a great resource for staying connected to your kids. In particular, the Long Distance Parent Toolkit is particularly brilliant. I’ve used many of these “tools” over the years. They all work beautifully.

Check out the link below to learn more, and thank you to the site’s author, Carrie Norwood, for sharing her journey and making the rest of us feel like we’re not so alone.

The Long Distance Parent Toolkit

Posted in custody, distance parent, motherhood, non-custodial mom, non-residential parent, parenting

Letting Go Of All The Reasons Why

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.

–CMR

Long Beach, Littleton, MA