I lost my three children ten years ago after a contentious custody battle. The judge's decision came down two weeks before the World Trade Center crumbled in a pile of smoldering ash. Being a New York State resident, my new husband and I took our children (six of my eight stepchildren) to lower Manhattan in order to witness the devastation to the city's psyche. Union Park, normally a funky enclave located at the perimeter of the West Village, had become a makeshift shanty town for friends and families who had lost a loved one in the devastation. Faces of the missing posted on storefronts were illuminated by shrines of melting candles and scattered bouquets of flowers. We walked through Union Square listening to music and low chatter. And though the devastation was terrific and smells of concrete dust burned our nostrils and eyes, I hurt not for the survivors. I hurt for me. It seems self indulgent now; but at the time, I felt envious that the missing at least had survivors who pined for them. Though my stepchildren, mere babies, fought over the right to hold my hands, I pined for my babies, the ones who seemed to have forgotten me.
The term "custody" is such a limiting word. While It insinuates possession and control, it doesn't address how love and a mix of emotions continues to hold the mother and child hostage, long after decision-making rights are terminated. As a mom, I had taken many privileges for granted that losing custody had terminated. I could no longer engage in the most trivial yet intimate experiences with my children. I couldn't make them breakfast, except on an occasional weekend. I couldn't pack their school lunches, fight with them over showers and toothbrushing, and I couldn't hear their afterschool tales. Most of all, I could not recapture through telephone calls what living together provided--a physical manifestation of maternal love, a random hug, kiss, a touch on the cheek, or a shared joke.
I know it was painful for my children and being young, it was easier for them to simply pull away. A flurry of phone calls in the beginning wained to weekly and sometimes biweekly calls. Conversations were generic and superficial. "Did you call your grandmother?" "How is school?" The lack of physical togetherness over time stretched and weakened the grip I thought I had over them. I stopped fighting for the right to be involved in their school events. Internet copies of their report cards held little emotional impact. Missed Mother's Day phone calls became an expected casualty of the distance.
I also pulled away. It was easier to compartmentalize the desires I had to be with my children than to walk around with an open wound. I did a masters program. I did a nonfiction writing program. I focused on personal accomplishments and on the day-to-day successes and trials of my stepchildren. It was the only way I knew to cope, albeit not the most effective.
When my ex-husband hospitalized our daughter for a bout of depression and ritual cutting, I listened to him recount the tale with detached interest. When my youngest performed in a school play and asked me to drive four hours to see him, it was a perfunctory act to tell him I couldn't come. Little by little, I had become increasingly detached and emotionally uninvolved in the lives of those I lived and breathed for.
Last week, ten years after losing custody of my children, my eldest son posted photos of his prom on Facebook. I had not seen them. I have a vague recollection of the event, don't remember the name of the girl, and looked at my son with renewed interest. I marveled how much he resembled uncles in my family and how handsome he'd grown to be.
We have a relationship these days. He calls me on a daily basis, and looks up to me (though I find it strange) the way a child sees a superhero. My daughter, the one who was hospitalized five times before I had her committed to residential treatment for bipolar disorder lives with me. And my youngest son, the one whose mind I could read like my own, lives with his father and calls when he remembers. Ten years later, I feel okay but realize the relationship I have with my biological children isn't standard. It's like a peer/mentor relationship. I have no need to control their lives and they come to me without provocation to share the most intimate details. My eldest son talks about his love life, and in the wee hours of the night asks me for my opinion with the female species.
My daughter, now 20, works full time and sees her life with me as a partnership. She contributes to the household, looks up to me, cares for me and tells me how grateful she is that we live together and that our relationship has blossomed from what it was before the custody fight.
And my youngest has all but blocked out the pain during those early years after the custody battle. He doesn't remember details of those early years -- some good; some awful. He just lives in the moment, which is probably a good thing.
And me, I have permission to revisit this loss, but with greater introspection and wisdom. Most of all, I feel as though I have permission to be involved in my children's lives in any capacity they permit. I have permission to heal and I have permission to admit that I'm not a flawed or bad mother just because my relationship with them was defined by "custody."