My children grew up, all at once, the day before Thanksgiving.
It was unexpected. If having children felt like the world stopped turning and then began to rotate in the opposite direction–everything the same and yet fundamentally different, then the day they grew up felt like an earthquake. Not fundamentally different, but everything upheaved. I savagely peeled potatoes, the earth smell on my fingers, and my hair tied up in a knot. My kids were all in the other room, watching an anime with my partner, lying on their stomachs in my bed with dirty feet in the air. I heaved my knife through the starchy flesh of the potatoes, cheeks pink and heart racing. I had never intended to become a mother, but when it happened, I forgot to anticipate them growing up. I was only thirty-three, and they were only about to be twelve, ten, and eight. We were supposed to have years left.
They were supposed to want to stay with me.
They were the only family I had.
And despite the turmoil of divorce and divided households, I still carried a domestic dream in my heart of my children always by my side. I had fought and bled for them. I had left for them. How dare they?
And yet, they’d gotten into my car that day after work, talking about my upcoming move to a different town–and when I thoughtlessly, carelessly, asked them how they wanted to split the time with me and their dad, assuming since I’d always had the role of primary care provider, they’d always need me–they answered with confidence.
“We’ll Facetime you, mama.”
I couldn’t breathe, I was so surprised. They heard summers and holidays with me, and immediately began bargaining to spend holidays with their Dad instead.
The world roiled and heaved under my feet. “Can you help me understand?” I asked.
“We miss Dad.”
I plopped the potatoes into the pot. I had onions caramelizing for the stuffing, five pounds of potatoes I was peeling and cutting, chocolate chip cookies started, homemade cranberry sauce with orange zest and bourbon cooling, and both a turkey and a little ham I was making for the next day. I worked a strange shift, making shit pay, so I could drop them off and pick them up every day from school. I would finish cooking and get them ready for bed and talk to them about the story they’d just watched. I had nursed them. Homeschooled them. Rocked them. Stayed up all night with them. I had slept with one ear open for the last decade.
And now they didn’t need me?
“They don’t know how to miss you,” not one but two of my closest friends told me as I cried about it later.
But I couldn’t imagine beyond my own existence wherein I was constantly evaluating my parents’ love for me, and my belonging inside the family. And so the idea that I might have succeeded in making my children thoughtlessly confident of it both thrills me and feels like an ultimate heartbreak.
My ex-husband, their father, is the kind of parent who is charming and charismatic, engaging and warm. When he is there, everyone feels his warmth like sunshine. It is searing and heady. And when he is gone, it is cold. He is fixed. When I face deep space, there is no sign of him. When winds tear and clouds cover, what does he care? He is still shining. The problem was, I was only one of the planets that orbited him. He wanted to have a fourth child, and even though I was two years away from finally divorcing him, at the time I said “I will not have any more of your children. I can’t raise them by myself.” This didn’t bother him–there were other planets. He got a dog I took care of instead.
I cover the stuffing with tinfoil and the cranberries with plastic wrap. I supervise my daughter putting chocolate chip cookie dough onto parchment paper covering my one cookie sheet. I’ve spent all my money on this meal. I have a cavity on one side of my mouth I can’t fill and my car is making a new noise. I have done this for two years, scrape by, think only of surviving, making nothing into something. I have gone to food banks. I have fed them and gone hungry. I want to buy a house, but I can’t even pay my electric bill for another few weeks. I could have gotten more in the divorce, but it would have meant litigation–- and I didn’t want the kids to go through that. I could be making enough money to buy a house and not go hungry, if I moved out of the expensive area where their father lived, but I have to rearrange custody to do it. And they were too old to not have an opinion. There was no option to stay. I had to move on. I just always thought I’d do it with them.
“I’d like to say I want to stay with you, because I don’t want to hurt your feelings,” my daughter had said, back in the car. I have twisted around in the seat, trying not to look bewildered. Trying not to cry. “But that’s not how I really feel.”
I nodded. How had I sacrificed and worked constantly for children who were so unconcerned with my role in their lives? I was the reliable parent! They were supposed to pick me! But I only swallowed and said. “I’m so glad you told me how you felt. I’m here to support you no matter what.” Then I turned around and burst into tears.
“Why are you crying?” My son asked.
“I can support you and still feel sad,” I cried. “It’s a lot of complex feelings!”
That was a good enough answer for them to move on. I drove us home through my tears.
It felt like rejection — like my dream of the family we could be was shattering all over again.
I grew up, like many white Christian people in the United States, with the firm importance of a nuclear family — one father, one mother, disciplined children — cemented in my consciousness. Life got in the way, sure, but the ideal was there for a reason. Even when I longed for something else, I could only imagine a binary: either be completely alone or be committed to this fixed ideology of the family. At first, it was easy to sacrifice myself — that’s what I had been taught about motherhood after all. It was up to me, the woman, to keep this vision of family alive. To keep my family together, to keep my children cared for, to keep my husband from cheating. I was supposed to be strong enough, wise enough, thin enough, beautiful enough, self-sacrificing enough. I never succeeded at any of it. When I tried to leave my husband for the first time, he looked me in the eyes and told me the reality of what our family would look like. He wasn’t wrong, looking back, it was as hard and as terrible as he painted it. In that moment it seemed clear — I could ruin my own life, or everyone else’s, and so I chose to ruin my own. “I think this is the summation of the experience of being a woman,” I wrote in my diary the next morning, when life seemed to go on as normal, me alone grieving at my funeral. My dreams of family were the gravity that kept me in this crushing orbit, but I was a desolate, cold planet trying to sustain life. When I did finally leave, I did without the support of my family. I had failed their ideals, after all. One planet wobbling was a threat to the system, and so I fell further into the dark. It was my friends who stepped in to mother me, loan me money for a lawyer, guided me through the process. I knew then my idea of family could change, could grow, but still. . . it was always with my children firmly fixed to me. They were my moons. They were in my orbit.
Only they aren’t.
My ex comes to pick them up Thanksgiving night, even though they’re supposed to spend that time with me. I don’t have the heart to say no. My feelings are raw and bleeding, and when I look out the door into the night, my ex has the van door open, music on, he’s smiling and bright and happy and the heat of his attention reaches me across the yard. I slam the door and go find my emergency weed. When I smoke in the silent house, I sit on the bed and stare into the dark, and the torrent of my sadness is this thing I can look down on now. I wish I could feel righteous about taking them with me, regardless of how they feel. I wish I felt, passionately, like the right thing to do was intervene in their relationship with their father, to force them to stop pursuing the light of the sun, to divert the path they are on. But I don’t think it’s right. I don’t think I can control the outcome. I know all I can do is be loving and supportive and there whenever they need me, whenever they hurt. I know I have to let them go. They are people. Not my moons. Not fixed to my gravity. I may have only ever been made as a planet, fated in a fixed rotation I will spend a lifetime breaking away from, but these children of mine were stardust and heat and universes of their own. Short, loud people, but growing and complex and thoughtful people.
Like all mothers, I knew a day like this could come.
But goddammit, no one told me it would come today. The day before Thanksgiving, when they aren’t even taller than me yet.
I knew, sitting on that bed, I had to let them go. I had to accept this new role. I had to find a new vision for my family. And maybe I had become too dependent on being physically needed. Maybe they were saying they needed something different from me now. I crossed my legs and made a face. Maybe they’d miss me in a month and beg to stay with me and I’d feel smug and needed again. But maybe I had too long carried this flawed vision of a family I could force us all to be, and missed the reality of the family we might become.
And so, I moved and they stayed. I bought us a house and reliable car, and when they visited every month and on all their breaks, I could finally feed them and buy them the little sundries of childhood I hadn’t been able to. Everything around us became easier and more stable than it had ever been. The job I got allowed me to be home again, working alongside their video games and stopping to eat and chat and live life with them. Still, every day, I find myself litigating my choices again, weighing the decision to let them go, wondering if I should have tried harder at any point, or suffered more for their sakes. Was it better to be there always, no matter how desolate, or to be alive and well, but sometimes gone? I look at real estate and rentals near their dad and I still can’t afford to support them there. I know other people would make different choices and I try not to feel their imaginary (or real) condemnation. After all, you can’t play a royal flush when you only have a pair of twos in your hand. I did the best I could with the hand I was dealt, and I know one day they will reconcile with my choices and I will have to accept it. I ask them if they’ll stay, but then they answer things like “My friends are here, my school is here, and honestly I don’t think I can handle more change at this point.” I’m heartbroken and in awe. They are not my moons, or their father’s planets, and I am lucky to watch them outpace us both. “I can’t argue with that,” I say. “I’m proud of you.”
It’s been almost two years since that Thanksgiving, and this summer I stood in the river, seven months pregnant with their new brother. The cool current split around my hips and I watched them swing off a rope into a deep section off the bank. My partner skips rocks beside me and we shout praise after each child surfaces with their hair plastered to their foreheads.
My oldest is now a teenager and he paddles toward me with a big grin. He’s taller than me, calls my partner “dad” sometimes, and is slightly horrified that his mother is pregnant again.
It’s been a strange parenting challenge —
to find ways to stay emotionally connected even when I no longer change their diapers or pick them up from school.
But we are doing it, I think. They say I am. It doesn’t look anything like I imagined, but I feel the difference. They are not part of the fixed orbits and terrible gravity I once knew, and I no longer feel like a cold planet. It feels now like a mycelium network, in rich earth, stretching over distances, separate and yet connected, everything alive and growing in all directions. It is something more earthy, more rooted. It feels alive and weightless, which sometimes scares me because all I ever knew of love and family before this was a dreadful weight. I wiggle my toes in the soft mud and bask in the pleasure of their proximity. They decide to walk up the bank so they can come back down through the rapids. I am nervous, as always, and being this pregnant means I can’t dive in after them if they get into trouble. “Remember, I can’t save you,” I yell in warning as my son paddles back to his siblings and they scamper up the dirt bank and disappear into the trees. For several long minutes, it’s just us under a brilliant blue sky and the tight folds of the mountain the river snakes through. My youngest son turns in my belly. For now, my baby is connected to me, tied to me, but as soon as he is born, the cord will be severed and he will be his own person. Someday, I will grieve his growing up too soon. My partner takes my hand. We stand in the river, watching as they come back to us like sleek otters with big grins through the white water.
They don’t need saving.