(This is a little different than my usual posts on cinema.)
My kids are about to go on their yearly summer trip with their mom. This will be the third summer we are taking separate vacations, after my ex and I separated in early 2021 and were divorced in 2022. I would like to say it’s getting easier being away from them for long periods of time, but it isn’t. I’m certainly getting more accustomed to it. I’m not shocked by my feelings of loss. And I have better and more diverse coping mechanisms. But it’s still difficult. Something else I’ve been thinking about is I imagine I’m actually getting better prepared for when my kids are older, and will be spending less and less time at home, and eventually leaving to be on their own.
|Camping with the boys.|
I’m already experiencing this a bit with my older son, who is sixteen, has a “significant other,” is very busy with after school activities, and has a robust social life. The weekends I have custody with him, I have to plan not when he might see his friends, but when he might spend time with me. I’ll say, “do what you want during the day Saturday and Sunday, but please be home for dinner Friday and Sunday night. And if you don’t have anything planned yet for Sunday morning let’s try and go to the park with your younger brothers.” If I’m lucky he can squeeze me in. He’s actually very conscientious about spending time together, and if I need him to help babysit his siblings so I might have the whiff of a social life independent of the kids, he accommodates me. But it’s different than when all three of my boys were all under fourteen. Then, we did everything together.
My younger boys, eleven year old twins, still look to me for their social activities. It’s sweet. I keep them busy. We keep each other busy. We have some hobbies we share, others that they do on their own. We fish. They play music. I like to go to the beach, visit museums, explore forest preserves. We play board games, I show them old movies. We have elaborate dinners. Much of this we share with the older boy.
I defined much of my married life as being a devoted father and (I felt) a doting husband. I worked less than my ex and was therefore responsible for much of the daily care and management of the family, especially the kids. My ex was the primary breadwinner, and she had her own things she did with the boys, but I was the day-to-day, go-to parent. So when the divorce came, and I lost the kids six days out of every fourteen, it was a big blow not just to how I felt about losing the kids, but also to my identity as a parent.
At first, I didn’t know what to do with myself. When you spend your time taking care of others, and those others aren’t there anymore, it’s a shock. I cried, a lot. I even wailed the first time I came home to an empty house. How did my life come to this?
I’ve always worked part time. I have hobbies. But having my REAl job as a parent effectively cut in half, I had to adjust. I started making sure I had one thing to do on the calendar, every day. A scheduled run with the runners group I joined. Drinks with friends. Even buying tickets for a movie, ahead of time, to make sure I had something to do. I started dating, probably too early in my separation, partly so I would have dates to look forward to and plan.
It’s been almost two years since my ex and I agreed to the shared custody arrangement we use today, and I’m doing better. Exercise has become very important to me, especially running. I’ve always cooked, but now I work my way through cookbooks, pushing my skills. I’m reading more. Writing more. Bowling more. Playing music more. Working more. I have a social life. And I have a girlfriend! (But the logistics of two divorced parents with shared custody of their kids provides its own problems, for another discussion.)
June is the time of year for graduations, and I have many friends with kids starting their first year of college in the fall. I feel for those parents who are going to go through, for the first time, what I’ve been going through the last two years. In a lot of ways I feel better prepared for when my kids will begin leaving home. I know better how to take care of myself.
I’ve also been thinking about all the parents that feel a need to manage or control their kids. The parents worried about what books their kids read, or what gender they might feel they need to define themselves, or what religion they adhere to. When do those parents learn that they don’t ever really own their kids? You share responsibility with others, not just in your family but also in your community. And at some point those children leave. You can’t control them forever. You can’t take care of them forever, even if you might want to. If you’re lucky they might still come to you for help and guidance, but they aren’t exclusively “yours.” They never were.
So, my kids will be gone for much of the next two weeks, on a vacation with my ex. And, I’ve learned, her boyfriend. That’s another thing. I get jealous imagining this guy on vacation with MY family, being mistaken as the father of MY kids. (I don’t miss the ex much anymore. She really hurt me and I’m much better off without her. I still do mourn the loss of my family.) Again, I need to remind myself that while they are my kids, there are other people in their lives that I will not have control over.
I have a lot planned for myself while the kids are gone. I’m teaching a summer class, so there’s work. I have runs on the calendar. My girlfriend and I are making some dinner plans and other date nights, around her busy schedule with her own kids. She’s a lovely person and she’s very understanding of what it’s like to be a parent struggling through custody - she has her own issues and we commiserate. I’m looking forward to spending more time with her.
And I have my own family vacation to plan, with my kids, in another month. I think it will be a good summer.