Jess Webb is an Executive Summit Manager at Google. She has over seven years of experience in the event planning arena and coordinates content and logistics for an average of 200 events per year…
I am a divorced mother of a millennial. Today I speculated that the last 30 years of my life have been misspent on delusion. Wasted on the belief that raising my son to be a good, decent, kind, generous person superseded all my plans, opportunities, and dreams I had for myself. I know the two should not be mutually exclusive but in my mind they were.
Like so many, I married my high school/college sweetheart too young and for the wrong reasons. We were engaged in college. He joined the military while I planned to study abroad the following year. After boot camp, he was stationed in Okinawa, Japan for a year. During the summer, before my next semester abroad, I spent a month in Japan with him. I realized during this time that he had become almost unrecognizable, not physically but emotionally. We had grown so far apart. Thus, once I arrived at my new school in the former Soviet Union, I mailed him a letter ending our engagement. Then I met, Alexei, and fell madly in love for the only time in my life.
I was studying at North Ossetian State University during the fall of 1992. It is located in the Caucasus Mountains in the republic of North Ossetia. I was not aware or informed by my university that there was a state department warning against Americans visiting that area. On October 31st, residents of a neighboring town, between our city and Chechnya, attempted to reclaim the land that Stalin had stolen from them fifty years ago. It was surreal. The ensuing battle is now called “The Ossetian-Ingush War.” As a student of history, I am grateful to have witnessed and survived, but it definitely left me also unrecognizable emotionally, and physically. I left the love of my life at the airport and have never seen him since.
When I finally got home, all I wanted was for life to return to something I recognized. I made the snap decision to beg my former fiancé to marry me and he happily accepted. My bruised mind thought this would fix me and life would feel normal again. Later diagnosed with P.T.S.D., I realized it was the wrong decision.
Simply, I am attempting to explain what I meant by married for the wrong reasons. My 22-year-old confused, and frazzled brain decided the next year that we should have a baby. I realize this is a story older than time. Needless to say, having a baby did not magically fix anything. Although, having my son has always been the most important thing I will ever do.
By the time my son was five years old, his parents had married and divorced each other two times. His future irreparably disfigured due to my poor choices. Unfortunately, they did not stop there.
I agreed to joint custody as that was the established norm in the nineties unless one of you were unfit. We weren’t. I never considered for a moment who my ex might bring into my son’s life and mine. It just never occurred to me. Believing him to be a truly nice guy himself, despite all the evidence over the years to the contrary, I imagined he would move on to some nice woman. Wrong again.
This is the reality of joint custody. Suddenly, whomever either one of us deemed suitable to be in our child’s life, had basically the same legal right as one of his parents. Literally, a few weeks after my ex started dating his now wife, he gave her the right to pick my 5 year old son up from day care. A stranger to me, could now at her whim remove my son and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.
Unfortunately, my ex quickly re-married my worst nightmare. I assume out of insecurity; she tormented me daily for the first 3 years. Despite my initial attempts at being warm and welcoming to her and her children, she despised me for simply preceding her. According to my son, he was treated like the “red-headed stepchild”, despite the fact that he was told to call her “mama”. I actually regret letting her ever become a part of my son’s life so much, that if I had known then what I know now, I would never have divorced his father and simply tortured him for the rest of his life. Hind sight.
As a child of the 70’s, I was in the “latchkey” generation. It seemed like most parents got divorced. It seemed normal.
But back then, custody was different. Most of us lived with our mom’s and went to our dad’s every other weekend or some such arrangement. For me home was with my mom and daddy became a visit.
He remarried, had another daughter. Replaced me. I was welcome anytime I guess and invited to major holidays but never really felt included in the “family”. Never asked to join them on vacation, or come over for a cookout, or just go fishing. Over the years I basically lost touch with that side of my family. When I did get married at the age of 21, we moved to the coast. I had not spoken with my dad in some time and one day I wondered if I didn’t call, how long would it take him to check on me?
Ten years later, I made first contact. Simply because my son was curious about my father. Who lived in the same small town. Whom I had walked by in a restaurant during that time, and he did not even acknowledge me, nor I him.
I sent him a card and told him that his 8-year-old grandson, whom none of his family had ever met, wanted to meet him. Was he interested? He called a few days later and we went about piecing some sort of relationship back together.
We are so much alike, but I just feel no parental bond with him. He’s not a bad father. He’s a really good person. I’ve never asked anything from him that he was not glad to help. I love him. There is just some wall that got built at some point that I have never been able to completely knock down.
This of course led to major “daddy issues”. I spent years and years thinking “If my own daddy doesn’t love me then why would any man?” (I say this in my head with a whiny voice too.) I made my ex-husband miserable and several men since constantly denying and testing their love. Those relationships paid the price for his silence and for that broken part of me.
Thus, with my young adult damaged mind frame, when I got inevitably divorced, it was incredibly important to me that my son not grow up feeling alienated from half of his family, which is why I gladly agreed to joint custody.
In my delusional naivete, I thought we would remain amicable, remarry more compatible people, all have family barbecues together in J. Crew sweaters, fancy beer in hand, laughing, and my son would be joyously raised by two happy well-adjusted parental units who all worked together for the children’s sake in a suburban yuppy utopia. Wrong once again.
It did not take very long to realize that this was not a healthy way for a child to develop. I cannot imagine that he felt like he had a real home. He grew up feeling like a guest everywhere he laid his head. I knew this could not be healthy and long term I wondered how he would ever be able to put down roots if he had never experienced feeling rooted?
Then there was the issue of consequences. You can’t ground a kid for 2 weeks when they aren’t even going to be with you next week. I know, I could have grounded for the following week but to be honest, I was always just so glad he was home it was almost impossible for me to deny him anything. He knew he had me wrapped around his finger. Still does.
I felt so guilty for so long about how I had really messed up both of our lives. Discipline was difficult in this situation, and I would only spank him -3 swats on the butt- when he did something I deemed dangerous for him. I had a horrible paranoia that persists to this day of losing him. I know most parents fear such a thing, but I was really neurotic about it and still not much better today when he is a 28-year-old man.
Another consequence of this arrangement was my son quickly understood that he could use it to his advantage and did. It made him a master con artist from a very young age. He learned entirely too young how to manipulate people and situations in an almost pathological way and honestly, I can’t blame him. It was his best means of survival of the crazy childhood I imposed on him.
So, getting to the point of the banality of never chasing my dreams in order to be available to my son.
For one, among the other evils of joint custody, there is also the realization of how geographically limiting it is if you actually want to be a relevant part of your child’s life. So, the fact that I had a degree in Russian, Soviet, and Eastern European history was rather a moot point in Nowhere, NC.
I was offered some great opportunities such as the training and office suitable to become a stockbroker, sales and management positions. I soon realized these types of careers require a huge time commitment in order to be successful. How could I do that and be available for my son at a moment’s notice? I had no family that was close, to fall back on. I did not trust anyone else to take care of my son. For me, every day was about my son’s needs coming first. That was my paramount priority.
I realized that I just needed steady income and a reliable schedule, so I settled for jobs that were basically mindless but allowed me the freedom to be a single mother. I didn’t want to not be available to him because I was too important at some job, I wanted the opposite.
Also, I thought it would be a good life lesson for my son. To see a parent, struggle a bit, to understand the worth of a hard-earned dollar. If you have never had to put something back at the grocery store there is just a little bit of character development that you’ve missed, in my opinion.
This was flawed reasoning and fear. I’m ashamed now that I had so little courage or fortitude. All I wanted was time with him while he still wanted time with me. Our time together was already cut in half. I just couldn’t see a better way but to keep trudging forward and be true to myself.
The redeeming moral of this story is that somehow despite all my stupidity, cowardice, crazy thoughts, mistakes, and misjudgments, it all turned out okay!
I actually did manage to raise a man who is good, decent, kind, and generous, occasionally. He is also intelligent, handsome, polite, funny, loyal, empathetic and I could not be prouder of him. Of course, I think he does make some poor choices sometimes. But then, who am I to judge? I have always been completely honest with him about the mistakes I have made along the way. Hoping at least he might gain some insight out of my ignorance.
The more I think about it, I don’t truly believe that I did surrender any dreams to devote myself to him. In fact, the relationship between us is more than I could have dreamed of. We have our own language in a way. We have “a song.” There is no career success or amassing of wealth that could have possibly been a better use of my time.
So, now that he is raised with a nest of his own — Time for me to start chasing dreams again.
Side note: Really not a fan of joint custody, just saying.
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