The tears have a life of their own.
They come involuntarily, bubbling up and out of the ache in my chest after I drop my children off at their father’s house.
These waves of grief don’t surface as often anymore. It takes a few triggers to open the floodgates.
It might be a holiday that does it, perhaps coupled with some memories of what led to the separation. It could be the kids chatting about family friends who used to be mutual ones. It could be a vacation or a change in the custody routine.
Whatever starts that snowball rolling, once it grows, I begin to struggle with divided attention. It’s almost like when I was pregnant, interacting with the outside world while something inside bumped around with a life of its own. In times like this, though, it’s not the magical distraction of a baby. It’s my own pain inside competing with my kids for attention.
I hate that.
I’ll notice the force of the emotion building, and I’ll hold it in until I’m alone, driving home. Then I let it run its course.
I know I’m not the only one. I’m one of many women connected to men we’d probably never see again if it weren’t for the children we share. Most of the time, the transition goes well and I miss the kids, but I’m occupied while we’re apart. Other times, I feel like an orphaned mom after I drop my kids off.
I remember a dream I had when I was first dating their dad. There were bunnies and a pomegranate in there—clearly full of symbolism. My deeper dreaming self must have known I needed the lessons heading my way. My soul chose this path.
The bunnies were about procreation, as if I knew I’d have children with him. I even dedicated my dissertation to the patient souls out there waiting to show up through me. That was bold—we weren’t even engaged yet. The pomegranate points to the myth of the grieving Demeter, whose daughter Persephone swallowed six seeds, and thus seasonally leaves her to be with Hades, returning each spring.
I don’t know what’s harder: the cycles of hello and goodbye or my ongoing anxiety about what may become of their innocent love. Have I grounded the electricity of the divorce enough to protect them from the “adult things” I endured? I’m still working on learning the lessons presented to me in that clever, painful package. Have I healed or grown enough yet to have any wisdom to give? When in doubt, I try to choose kindness, and to have a positive impact, if possible.
So I provided the string for all those friendship bracelets my daughter and her friends made on the way to the lake house last summer with her dad. That was satisfying. When she wanted to paint a picture for him for Father’s Day, we went to Michael’s and bought the supplies, including a mug for my son to paint. I did get a piece of chocolate with caramel for myself—a token reminder that I’m not a total martyr. We stalked Bob Ross on YouTube to inspire some happy trees. He helped. The painting and the mug both came out great.
Too often, my thoughts return to the intact family we once were, and how it all unraveled. I shudder and shake it off. It would take more than a thousand words to describe how that picture changed. I don’t need to go there, not on the hard days. My mothering has enough anxiety in it already. I always identified with the dad in “Finding Nemo;” I try to be more like Dory and just keep swimming, but I have such trouble letting go. Oh, what I would give to have her short-term memory loss and sunny disposition at times like this.
One thousand. That’s also the number of peace cranes to fold before a wound mysteriously shifts and begins healing. I have a paper crane tattooed over my heart, right where I want the peace to be. She longs to get beyond the heaviness in my past, to become strong enough to assist others, and light enough to fly.
She also reminds me to persist in the hardest challenge I have. This one is not about my children or their dad at all. It’s the practice of learning to be gentle and loving to myself.
I fold paper cranes to ease my grief on the hard days. I imagine the most peaceful, loving things her wings might whisper to me, and to you—the other mothers in similar predicaments. If any of these words happen to resonate, fantastic. If they don’t, let them go.
But consider what she might have to say. Don’t be shy, my peace crane, speak to us.
>> It’s alright to rest. You don’t have to solve everything that could possibly affect your children today. Downshift from mama overdrive. They will be okay.
>> Don’t wait until you know everyone else is cared for to tend to you. Meditate. Get some exercise. Eat nourishing, delicious food. Remember the airplane analogy and the necessity of donning your own oxygen mask first. Neglecting yourself serves no one.
>> Remember Desiderata. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars—you have a right to be here. Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
>> Remember the serenity prayer. Let go of the things you cannot change. I know, the wisdom to know the difference is the hardest part. If you’re unsure, let’s assume it’s beyond your control and let that go, too.
>> Stay in the present. The struggle with the past can be like quicksand, pulling you further into the darkness. You know this. Grab my wing, lift your gaze, let’s find something brighter and lighter to focus on today.
>> Peace is a process. Healing is too. Integrating the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful of what you’ve been through is hard work. Just for today, it’s okay to compartmentalize and put the worst of it away.
>> Make some space for play as you engage in daily tasks. Mow your lawn, pull some weeds, then rest in your hammock or read a good book. Play music and sing at the top of your lungs while you’re cleaning. Take advantage of the fact that there’s no one but the cats here to hear you.
>> If you still struggle, you don’t have to alone. You can reach out to a friend who gets it. You know you have one or two who do.
>> Try a loving-kindness meditation. Follow your breath and repeat these words. May you be happy and live with a joyful heart. May you be healthy and have a body that gives you energy. May you be safe and protected from harm. May you live with the ease that comes from well-being. Then send those words to others on the wings of a peace crane, or whatever you imagine carrying goodwill. Send them to your children. Send them to your ex. Send them to the whole world. And especially, send them to yourself again.
To the mothers who grieve in private on the days you’re no longer a part of: You’re not alone. You can do this.
This peace crane is for you.