It was 27th June, 2006. My six-month old daughter was in a sling as I held my crying four-year old son at the security line at Los Angeles International Airport. I was trying hard not to cry; to be the re-assuring adult. But I was losing the battle. In the end, I had to walk past the security line and he could not follow. The final words I heard that day were...I'm never going to see you again, Mommy.
Of course over the past two and a half years that has proven simply not to be true. We speak everyday on the phone and visit two to three times a year, including 8 to 10 weeks each summer. We actually have a close mother-son relationship despite being separated by over 5,000 miles for most of the year. You see I am one of a growing number of non-custodial mothers.
You may be like many other people I meet. The moment you read those words you may have automatically judged me. Slag. Bad mother. How could she leave her own child for a man? I have heard them all. I have also heard the silence that speaks volumes more. I realise that by writing my story I am opening myself and family up to even more of it.
But I believe that I have reached a point where I am strong enough to handle it. I hope that after hearing my story one or two of you may even understand the complex modern issues of separation, re-marriage and international immigration that forces an increasing number of very loving mothers to face these difficult choices. But most of all I hope to offer hope if only to a single mum who may be facing the very real pain of those choices and feel alone in her plight.
So how does it happen? How does a mum end up on the other side of the world and leave her child behind? For me, it began eight years ago. I had divorced my husband after fourteen years of mental abuse. I admit it; I was vulnerable and on the rebound. I became involved too quickly with someone and before I knew it we shared the bond of a child. This article isn't about the what-if's that every person on the face of this earth has. It is about making the best of the place where you find yourself.
Having stayed for 14 years in a bad marriage for the sake of my older children, I realised that this was not an option. All I will say about my former partner is that while I could not live with him, he was and is a very loving father to our son. So when my son was two-years old, I moved out.
From the beginning, we negotiated a shared custody agreement; 50/50. When we first separated, I moved to an apartment just blocks from my former partner's home. We would alternate nights. One night at the Mama house and the next at the Papa house...as we called them. Being young, our son readily accepted the arrangement as normal...for him. Then about a year later we moved to another town in Los Angeles county. Daily exchanges were no longer convenient so instead we switched to a ¾ split; three days with Mama and four with Papa...and the reverse the following week. It might seem unusual...and I admit at times it could feel really difficult. But we kept coming back to the simple truth: our son needed both his mommy and his daddy, even if we could not live in the same house.
Then just before my son turned three, I meet my now husband in a chat room online. I had pretty much sworn off men; I had my career and my kids. I had male friends and casual relationships, but did not think I would ever re-marry. But by the time that he left in February 2005 after a five week visit, both of us knew that this was something more than friendship. We discussed marriage.
Since he had no children of his own I felt that it was only fair that we have one together. Of course at almost 40, I was not sure how easy that would be. I actually consulted my midwife who said that it would probably take a year to eighteen months of serious trying for us to conceive. So you can imagine my surprise, when I discovered we were pregnant in June 2005, after only three visits together.
But we still lived in different countries and trust me international relationships and immigration are not easy. During my pregnancy, I was unable to travel due to complications. Paul visited us twice, but he had work obligations. He missed so much; all my ante-natal appointments, the ultra-sound when we found out it was the little girl we both wanted, the first kick, and even his child's birth. Since I had two previous caesareans, we planned on a scheduled third. His ticket was purchased for a week before she was supposed to be born. But on the 3rd January, I went into labour...four weeks early. That experience alone is another article.
But the point is that as a society, we have assigned some magical value to motherhood. As a mother, who has nurtured and fed my children, I understand that to a degree. But the truth is that the same sword which mystifies motherhood by default denigrates fatherhood. Is parenthood for a man any less valuable because he cannot feel the child grow within his body? Or nurture his child at his breast? The truth is that for men like my husband and my former partner fatherhood is every bit as important as motherhood is to me. For the sake of our children, we need to recognise and encourage this type of fathering.
After our daughter's birth, we began the US immigration process. We knew from our research that we would likely face a six to nine month separation while the application was processed. But since I was not working at the time, my husband kissed his two-month old daughter good-bye at the same LAX. And for the next four months I was a single mother again.
What we were not prepared for was that a new law had come into effect just days before we filed our application. And as only bureaucracy can, they had failed to consider how to deal with this change. So the whole system came to a full stop. To make things worse, once you file your paperwork, the applicant is no longer free to visit the US. So my husband was watching his only child grow up on a webcam and I was alone and cried myself to sleep almost every night. Post-natal depression and our situation meant that I was not the kind of mother I wanted to be to any of my children.
So after weeks and weeks of talking and thinking about it, we decided that it would be best for us to move to London with Paul. But from the beginning I knew that there was no way that my former partner would let me bring our son with me. I knew too that it would not even be fair to ask him to let his only child go. As I said I might not get along with him as partner, but I know how much he loves his child; every bit as much as I do. So instead we sat down and negotiated once again a shared custody agreement.
In the end we agreed based on the common goal that we always shared of giving our son both a mommy and daddy. I have unlimited phone and Internet access; this means that we speak on the phone almost every single day. As for physical visitation, if my son is not in school I have the right to have him. This means that usually I get him for two to three weeks at Christmas and about 8 to 10 weeks or so during the summer.
But what may seem odd to other people is that it also means that we share the spring holidays. The pictures are of our unusual family at Magic Kingdom in 2007 and Disney World in Orlando in 2008. The funniest time was when my husband and ex ran off to ride a roller coaster; leaving me sitting in the shade with a two and six year old. The look on the older lady next to us was priceless when my son innocently asked...Mommy, how much longer til our daddies come back?
Is our unusual family what I think is ideal? No, I wish that all my children could have been raised in the loving and secure marriage that I know share with my husband. If you look at the happiness and confidence of my daughter when she runs screaming to her daddy every night as he comes in from work, you would understand too.
But that does not mean that children whose parents cannot live together do not still deserve two parents who love them and work together in their best interest...even when it hurts like hell to do so. As the world shrinks due to the Internet, more and more families are having to face these complex issues and balance the best interests of everyone. With a lot of work, communication and always putting the needs of others above our own, we can find solutions that will work in the best interest of the child...and that is what it is all about...the innocent children.
So if you ever run into a mum like me who has made some really hurtful and difficult choices, if she trusts you enough to bare her soul and open herself up to you, I hope that even if you can't understand her unique situation you will remember other difficult choices that you may have faced, paths you had to take and at the very least offer her your empathy.
And if you are a mum who like me has had to make choices that no mother ever wants to, then take heart; you are still a good mum. You may face difficulties and there may be days when you feel down, but know that you can make this work out for your child...and you will.
Terri is the mother of six; 3 caesareans, 2 VBACs and an adoption. She has over fifteen years breastfeeding experience as well as peer supporter training with two organisations. Terri has completed the Childbirth Educator, Birth & Post-partum Doula certificates with Childbirth International. In addition, she also holds a BS in health education from Texas A&M University.
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