A local mom deals with the pangs of guilt she feels when her kids visit their dad, from whom she is divorced, and shares what helps her get through the tough times.
"Can you come for a play date, Mom?" Johnny, my 6-year-old son, asks on the phone. He and his two older sisters, Olivia and Sophia, 9 and 10, are at their father's house this weekend. I imagine Johnny's small chapped hands gripping the receiver, his blond hair tousled over his blue eyes. "Not today, Champ," I say, the words a seam in my throat. "I miss you, Mommy," he says.
This has been our routine for five years now; my children spending alternating weekends at their father's house, just a few miles away from mine. It hasn't gotten much easier. I still feel lost when they're not with me. I'm unable to fully enjoy my time alone with my husband.
"I have nothing to do, Mommy" Johnny says. I click into the habit of mothering by phone. "How about if you draw a picture? Or read your baseball book?" I say, but I know these suggestions will not help my son, who just wants to come home.
"I'm worried, Mommy," he says.
"Nothing is going to happen to me, Champ. Do you have your worry box?" Johnny's worry box, a cigar box shellacked with photocopies of baseball cards, is a place to contain his difficult thoughts. "Did you write down your worry and put it in the box?" I ask. "It doesn't work-the worries stick," he says.
I think about my sensitive son who just last weekend made me a birthday breakfast in bed with the help of his sisters. "Don't diet on your birthday, Mommy," he had said, snuggling in next to me, holding the tray of toaster waffles with gobs of chocolate syrup and whipped cream on top, just the way he likes them.
"Goodbye, Mommy," he says. I hang up and guilt clings inside me like a husk. I managed my bad marriage by getting out of it. I was left with the loss of a broken relationship, but my children were left with new schools, two houses, and a visitation schedule for spending time with the man with whom I could no longer spend time.
Seated in the kitchen chair, my coffee cup cold in my hands, I wonder if Johnny will sit on his bed all day and if my ex-husband will remember to bring Sophia to the birthday party at 2:30.
I try to move on with my day, then dress in the evening for a date with my husband Eric. We sit in plush seats at the Oyster Bar, sipping chardonnay and eating sea bass. "How's the website going?" Eric asks. But I'm thinking of the color yellow and my rainbow bedtime ritual with Johnny-how when I tuck Johnny in, I always say, "I'll meet you on the rainbow."
"What color?" Johnny always asks. "We're on red," I'll say. "The red team, you pitch and I'll catch." Always, however, on nights when Johnny is with his father, we meet on the yellow rainbow, because as Johnny says, "Yellow is your favorite color, Mommy."
Eric puts his hand over mine. "The kids will be home tomorrow. They'll come home, and they'll all be fine." For a moment I am present, I see the man I adore, who does not tell me to get over it, to relax and enjoy myself.
In bed that night I think of the days when I was first separated and my ex-husband, Larry, came for his visitation, taking the children to the apartment he rented at the time. I remember Johnny, just a year old, crying in my arms as I handed him over. I watched Larry click Johnny and his two sisters into their car seats. They were so small-Sophia, my oldest, just 5. After they drove away in the red Jeep I stood where the car had been, my slippers covered with snow. When they were out of view I sat down on the icy driveway, until my neighbor Michelle came over and brought me back into the house.
The rest of the weekend passes. At 6pm Sunday night, the official drop-off time, the children crowd into the door. Johnny is smiling, his winter coat hanging below his knees. "Group hug!" Johnny says. The three children close their arms around me and slowly the pieces of me settle back together.
"How are my little love bugs? What did you do this weekend?" I ask, remembering how hard it was when Johnny was too young to even tell me how he spent his time with his father. "We went ice skating," he says, excited. "Daddy even skated!"
I wish I'd known, so I could have had a happy image in my head all weekend, my three children holding hands, slipping around the rink. I tell myself I'll try to do better when the children are away. They're okay, I think, at least for now, and because of that, so, I suppose, am I.
Marcelle Soviero is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in "The New York Times" and on Salon.com. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and five children.