The drop-offs for visitation proceed like clockwork, with the yellow Steelers backpack of books and papers, the blue duffle of clothes, and the red backpack of toys transferred from one back seat to another. My son has become accustomed to this routine because he has no choice, and I look forward to hearing the truth when he gets older: how it was for him. His old-soul eyes seem to take it all in with a quiet concern that belies his usual exuberance; his internal temperature seems to drop as the exchange approaches. And then, a week later, it takes him a while to warm back up to the boy I know. I have heard this from other parents, the ones like me who feared and still fear the effects of a dead marriage on the children but who saw no other choice.
The phone calls come every two days during the week or so he is away from me. The most recent one came after a custody hearing and in the midst of a move. I propped myself up on my elbow in the hotel bed and reached for the phone on the nightstand. "Hey Buddy!" I chirped, waiting for his voice in return.
He was in a mood, maybe bored at the moment or maybe annoyed at something. He gave me a quick report. It was a short phone call and then it was done. I laid my face in the pillow and wanted my boy there with me so I could see this mood on his face, understand it in context. Whatever the mood was, I wanted to see it, hear it and understand, see if I could help. But I could not.
Split parenting is like walking around on a fake leg. Sometimes there's a hollowness where there should be flesh, but you have to keep walking. And I think the experience has made me a better and more aware parent, but then again maybe I have to believe that because I have no other choice. I cried into the smooth hotel pillow and realized that I was in a mood myself: exhausted. And despite the small upheavals, my boy still loved me.
I have known and heard about parents of failed marriages who put so much stock and intensity into those phone calls with their absent children. When the children are moody or brief, there is a subtle hook in the parent's voice, a begging to stay on the line, to show love and perform childhood, a quiet guilt trip of "Don't you want to talk to me?" or a "Just tell me one more thing about your day." For the absent parent, this is a more desperate exercise than a silent ride home in the car after school. There is no gesture, touch, or even smell to connect the present moment to all the past moments with your child.
How hard it is, and how necessary, to remain the adult, to control the displeasure at not feeling affirmed during that small window of time, with mouths to phone receivers miles and miles apart. His voice, I told myself, is not the measure of my parenting. The response I give, however, is.
My bored, annoyed son needed to be bored and annoyed, to let me hear that in his voice. I might have wished he would chirp in his perfect excitement and tell me how much he misses and loves me. If I wanted that, I suppose I should have given birth to a cartoon bubble instead of a human being. I laid on the bed, counting on my fingers the days until I saw him, and then I reached for gratitude for my son, for his seven going-on-eight going-on-thirty going-on-four self in all its incarnations.
Let our absent children be children on those brief windows into their lives. Let them be brief and annoyed and not want to talk. If we don't, we risk the alternative of forcing them to learn to lie to please people. I tell myself: Say "I love you" and say "thank you for calling." When I say this, I want to mean, "thank you for being annoyed and brief to the depths of my heart. Thank you for the window into a real child's heart. I expect not Pinocchio but a real boy."