There are no family photos on my desk.
I worry that if I look at a picture of my two children, I’ll see my son, Ari, and start to cry. I worry that if I look at a photo of only my daughter Maya, I’ll see Ari’s absence and start to cry.
In New York City, when a child of divorce turns 14, he can decide where he wants to live. My ex-husband and I had long ago decided that if either of the children wanted to make a change, we wouldn’t require the kid to go to court, get up on the stand, and publicly declare parental preference. We’d just go along with the child’s request.
Of course, at that point, the kids were in elementary school, lived with me full-time, and visited their father once a week, on Thursday nights. I couldn’t imagine any other scenario; clearly I lack imagination. But over the years, their father eased himself into parenthood, and by the time Maya left for college and Ari was about to turn the magical age of 14, the children were splitting their time evenly between mom and dad.
The year before, my son was in an advanced algebra class and had a rough time with it. Part of the problem was his teacher, who had a strong background in mathematics, but wasn’t so well trained in teaching—and it was his first year in front of a classroom. So, every night, Ari and I sat together and worked on math, sometimes doing extra practice problems just to be sure he got the concepts down cold. He often had two or three days to do each homework assignment, so he arranged his schedule to do his math homework when he was at my home.
In June, Ari admitted, “Math was really, really hard this year, Mom.”
“Part of that was the teacher,” I responded, proud of how diligently he had worked all year long—and of his hard-earned grades.
“I did better than kids who were smarter than me,” he told me.
As I tried to figure out how to instill confidence without sounding like an annoyingly proud mom, Ari jumped in.
“I couldn’t have done that without you.”
Then, before my jaw hit the floor—what teenage boy makes such an admission?!—he scooted away.
I thought I somehow cracked the teenage boy code until, just before his 14th birthday, Ari approached me and said, “Mom, I want to make a change.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“I want to live with dad.”
“Why?” I whispered.
“Well, it’s mostly because I’m sick of going back and forth.”
“You could spend a week or two at each household,” I offered.
“That would still mean going back and forth.”
What did I do wrong? Was I too mean, too strict? Should I have allowed more screen time? I set a maximum of two hours a day, but their father allowed five during the week and unlimited on the weekends. Perhaps I am insufficiently vigilant in my fight against dust and dirt—that’s certainly a valid complaint, though Ari has to be reminded to shower and change his clothing periodically. Should I have considered parenting as an audition?
Maybe it was my response to his theft. He stole $80 from his sister Maya in my apartment and $300 in her dad’s home. I made him pay back every penny he lifted on my watch; his father decided Ari took the money because there wasn’t enough food in the house and responded by buying bagels.
We spent so much time together during what I now think of as our last year as a family. Ari wanted to check out 14 schools, some academic, some focusing on performing arts. For each one, we went to a two-hour tour, of course. But most also involved a test, sample class, interview, or for the performing arts schools, an audition.
It’s a hall of mirrors, each image showing a different story—but not adding up to a coherent picture.
Maya tells me she’s glad she’s at college, missing all the awkwardness, avoiding my sadness. She tells me she knew what was coming. “I told him how to say it to you,” she says. “But I thought he was going to spend more time with you.”
For my birthday last year, Ari went to FAO Schwartz and got me a purple stuffed bear. He knows purple is my favorite color and he saw how amused I was the year before, when his sister gave me a blue stuffed animal.
“He’s just being lazy, piggybacking on the present I got you,” Maya scorned.
“No, I think he just wants to give me something he knows I’ll like.”
The two animal siblings sat on my living room table for months.
This past Hanukkah, the first gift-giving opportunity under the new parenting regime, Ari gave me chapstick. Sort of a lip-care barometer, I guess.
So now I bumble along with our monthly visits, my ex letting me know how hard he works to get Ari to see me even this infrequently. Sometimes, on Ari’s visits, I try to hide my emotions, so our visits can be happy. Trying to build a foundation for a “reconciliation” at some point. Other times, I let him see my feelings, so he realizes that his actions have consequences.
I try to remind myself that as far as parenting goes, I’m batting .500. My daughter calls, texts, IMs, and emails frequently from college. She tells me about her classes, about how she gets around being below legal drinking age, and how lousy the dorm food is.
I’m not sure the right way to do this. I’m not sure if we’ll ever have a relationship; we won’t even have problems to work through. All I know I miss my son.