Tuesday, December 3, 2013

When will I stop feeling guilty?: Or, Further Notes from a Queer, Feminist Divorce

Ahhhhh guilt.  Hi there, old friend. Long time no see. (How I wish that were true). 

That familiar feeling of this mothering job, always lingering.  Sometimes it is less present, sometimes more. But the residual vestiges are there always.   

There are studies by credible scholars to tell you all about how you are doing it wrong, how you are causing damage.  As a case in point, earlier this morning I was perusing the interwebs for resources for kids struggling with the effects of divorce - and what do I find? Several (yes, several - this is NOT an exaggeration) current (in the past few years) studies (from credible universities) informing me that by divorcing while my children are young I will be hindering their 1. ability to trust, 2. ability to believe that I will be there for them as a steady source of support, and 3. (my personal favourite) their relationship with me as an adult will be permanently altered.  Other studies, of course, will tell me that by staying unhappily in a marital situation, I will also be scarring them. Either way, at least according to the field of psychology, I fucked 'em up.  

So - what's not to feel guilty about?


She whispers in the pool that she wants me to live with Mommy again.  It comes out quietly, but clear, insistent. 

It is in between diving and splashing and happens so out of the blue that I barely have fine to catch my breath and steady myself.  

She immediately busies herself with playing again, but I know her, and I know very well that she is watching and waiting for me to respond, to comfort, to say the right thing.


But how do I explain to her everything that needs to be said? How do I tell her that I made a life I couldn't live in? How do I explain Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born to a four-year old? How do I tell her that I had to go in order to rescue the very last pieces of myself, that I was hanging on by a thread?  Those things don't mean shit to a four year old who wants the comfort of her world back in order. 

I say the things I'm supposed to say: Mommy and Mama can't live together anymore because they were having grown-up problems. We both love you and Boy-o so so much, and it isn't your fault....

These things are true, of course. But it feels hollow.


There are crying drop offs again. Screaming. I try to talk through her through it, tell her I'll just be gone for a few days, that I'll miss her and think about her but I'll be happy because I know she'll be having so much fun!  I try to comfort her and squeeze away the sobs wracking her body that feels so small against mine.  And finally, I leave with the sounds of her tears ringing in my ears. I drive away with my hand pressed against the freezing cold of the driver's side window.  

I force myself not to cry until I am safely round the corner, and put the car in park.


He tells me on the way to drop off that another child in his class has divorced parents. He tells me that this makes him feel less alone. I marvel, for a second, at how divorced supercedes queer, and then I tell him that soon enough (for better and worse) he will have more and more classmates and friends with divorced parents.  I tell him that almost half of the people that choose to marry will eventually divorce, and the fact that his parents are no longer living together will eventually no longer set him apart in the crowd.  

"Why, Mama?" He wants to know.  "Is it because they didn't choose the right special people, like you and Mommy?" 

Again, a sharp intake of breath, a pain in the chest. 

Again, I don't know what the 'right' thing to say is. So I opt for my truth, and hope that at the age of not-quite-seven, he can hear and understand it.

I tell him that his Mommy and I were the right people when we found each other - two gorgeous people who were wildly in love and who worked incredibly well together, and then eventually, who didn't work so well together. I tell him that I think our culture dooms us to failure with talk of there being one special person for everyone, and that I truly believe there are lots of special people in the world for each of us.  That each person we love teaches us something about themselves and ourselves and about love and growth, and that sometimes we love and learn from each other for a long time and  sometimes just a little while. But each of those experiences of love are important. And special. And right.

I hope I have said the right thing. I hope and hope and hope. . . 


In my own research on queer parenting, I recently read an article by Rachel Epstein in which she said this: 

"So what does it mean, in the context of parenting, in the context of loving and aching to protect our children as much as we possibly can, to question the ways that the pressures we experience can lead us to desire “normal.” “Normal,” I would suggest, is not always better – for us, for our children" (91).

She also said this: 

"[I hold my breathe] when I realize that my children are witness to my own romantic/sexual life that doesn’t follow a traditional trajectory. I hold my breath and then I let it out because I realize our children can handle more than we think..." (102).

I realize in this parenting endeavour, that all of us hold our breath. This is the stuff of the work and the stuff of loving, and the stuff of not knowing how things will turn out.  But it is perhaps, particularly difficult for those of us who choose a different trajectory in the world, who refuse the appeal to de-queer their own paths, finding spaces in which we can calmly exhale can feel few and far between.  

The stuff of mothering, for me, is a constant push-pull between my beliefs/politics/work and the incredibly magnetic and often all-consuming force of the emotional side of mothering.  The fear, the guilt, the worry that they bear the brunt of, and are fated to experience the collateral damage of my decisions. And I also experience the joys, of course.  Too many to list. But there aren't many messages from the world at large that will very often tell me I'm doing this thing right. I'm a queer, divorced, grad student, half-time single mother (and all-of-the-time mother because contrary to popular belief, there is no magic button to turn this mothering bit off) and this is a life that I chose. 

For positive reinforcement of these choices, I have only my own beliefs and instincts that the most honest route is the best route. For all of us.  

(And Holy Jesus Christ On A Cracker or on a Floating River Raft or on a Cross or Wherever Else the Little Baby Jesus Hangs Out! Right now I am clinging to the hope that my beliefs and my instincts aren't dreadfully off the mark.) 


Guilt.  Guilt.  Guilt.

*****Epstein, Rachel. “Queer Parenting in the New Millenium.” 21st Century Motherhood: Experience, Identity, Policy, Agency. (Ed. Andrea O’Reilly). NY: Columbia University Press, 2010. 90-103.

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