Fifteen years ago this week, I picked my eldest up from school. She arrived at my car sobbing, clutching what could only be a Mother’s Day art project, a gift wrapped with lots of construction paper, held together with even more scotch tape. When I asked her what was wrong, she explained between tears and hiccups that she only had time to make the one present. “But I have two mommies!” She whimpered. My heart broke into a million pieces. Gently, I took the gift from her hands and unwrapped it. It was a book. This was a problem easily solved. When I explained we could make a color copy, the relief on her face broke my heart all over again. We drove directly to Kinko’s. “See,” I said, holding up an exact replica, “One for me. One for Mommy M.”
Seventeen years ago, I sat weeping in my therapist’s office, terrified that I had made the biggest mistake of my life, certain that my life as a mother was over. I had just left my children, my partner and co-parent—my children’s other mother—had just moved out of our family home and into a tiny apartment, taking only my clothes, a CD player, and my 1964 Dodge pickup truck with its rusted out floorboards and no seatbelts. In a fit of youthful optimism I’d taken a job that would allow me to spend more time with our girls, keeping them out of daycare, a move that did not go over well with my co-parent. Long story short, she asked me to move out of the house, her house, launching us all into a long and painful custody battle. A war in which there would be no winners.
As I wept in that office, overwhelmed with despair, I could not visualize a way forward. I could not imagine life without my daughters, then six and two years old. We’d adopted both the girls as infants, first as single parents, then as a couple. We stood before the judge in the King County courthouse among family and friends and promised to be a forever family. Our names graced the birth certificates. Our little family seemed solid. I thought my decision to take job with more flexibility was the right one. My diminished salary would be made up in what we saved on daycare for our youngest and after school care for the oldest. We had worked so long and so hard to adopt the girls, had spent so many years dreaming this family into existence, it made no sense to me that we both worked full time and put the girls in daycare.
Full of bravado, and in spite of stern warnings from my partner, I had to follow my instincts as a mother. I had to do what I saw as the Right Thing. What did it get me? No house. No relationship. No kids. I thought, naively it turns out, that being a legal mother of both girls would grant me the right to be a parent, at least half time. Not so. While heterosexual divorced couples with children automatically get kicked into a custody process, “divorced” lesbian mothers, at least in 1996, got nothing. There was no divorce because there had been no marriage. Our commitment ceremony, while a fun little ritual, had no legal ramifications. Really, all that seemed relevant at the time was the fact that I did not have my name on that house title. I had to move out. Having no legal access to the house meant I had no access to my kids. I had no idea when I left that my soon-to-be ex would bar me from seeing our kids, that once I was gone, she would attempt to erase me from their lives.
My days suddenly silent, my nights stretched out empty, I spiraled into a deep depression. My identity as a mother slipped away. No diapers to change. No breakfast to make. No lunches to pack. What was I, if I wasn’t a mother? Everything I had been, I’d given up in our pursuit to adopt our girls, to be in this relationship, to become a family. One social worker along the way even commended me for giving up on being a writer and getting a real job. I’d sold my bookstore. I had become a Mother, and I loved being a Mother so much that I wanted to spend more time with the girls. That love had led me to here. To nothing, it seemed. If I couldn’t be a mother, then maybe I shouldn’t be at all. I thought about moving away, just leaving town. I flirted with razor blades and alcohol. My therapist reminded me regularly and forcefully of the damage done to those left behind.
I decided to stay. In town and on the planet. I upped my antidepressants. I got a lawyer. I worked three jobs and went back to school. I found two housemates, asked my grandmother for an advance on my inheritance, and bought a house. I made a home. I fought to remain relevant in my daughters’ lives. Not one part of this journey was easy. Co-parenting with someone who would rather I just disappear, with someone who had to be court-ordered to share custody sucked, but it sucked so much less than not parenting at all. My legal and therapy bills grew enormous. When I cried and railed against the unfairness of my situation, my therapist told me how fortunate my children were to have me in their lives. When I couldn’t breathe because the initial child support payments I had to make were more than half my meager monthly salary, she helped me strategize a solution. When I despaired that I would have no meaning in, no impact on my daughters’ lives, she reminded me that they would come back to me, they would be in my life, maybe not the next week or the next month, but in a few years, when they were out of school, in their late teens and early twenties. Mothering meant showing up and reaching out, even when I didn’t think it would matter, even when no one reached back. Even when the next week, let alone the next decade, seemed impossibly far away.
But I did it. I showed up. At games. At concerts. At parent teacher conferences. Doctor’s appointments. Most of the time, I felt awkward because the teachers, the doctors, the other parents didn’t know I even existed. I had to show up at the school with the Parenting Plan in hand to get my name on my kids’ emergency contact list. I had to request I be added to the PTA’s little booklet with the kids’ and parents’ names, phone numbers, and addresses. Every year. I had to introduce myself to coaches, principals, other parents. Sometimes, I missed events because I found out about them too late or was too embarrassed to call other parents to ask. The last time I called the pediatrician’s office to get information about my daughter’s medications they hung up on me, refusing to give me information even though my youngest was still a minor, even though I had the paperwork granting me joint medical custody. I had to take the parenting plan to the pharmacy to find out what medicine my child was taking. Often, I felt like a fraud, an imposter. So many times I wanted to give up, to crawl away in shame. The depression and suicidal thoughts stayed with me for years.
Still, I pressed through the fog and darkness. Even when I had to take a job 80 miles from home—I drove back three days a week, arriving in time to pick the kids up from school. I finagled time off. I found a way to be there. I got a MySpace Page. I got a Facebook page. I texted. I emailed. I called. I found a way. I made Easter baskets and bought Halloween treats, Valentines Day cards, swallowed my pride and left them on their front porch if I had to. And if my ex made other plans for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, I had presents and stockings and dinner with the girls on December 23rd. Because what day we spent together didn’t matter. First day of school? I showed up. The day my eldest left for college, I packed my mother in the car with me and we went along too. I refused to be erased.
And you know what? That decade passed and my girls are in my life. They finished high school. My eldest finished college. The youngest just started this year. These are the days my therapist promised. These are the days I couldn’t even imagine.
Happy Mothers’ Day.