The other day I posted a comment on Facebook about the sadness I was feeling at the end of my summer visitation with my sons. I did so to open a forum with others who might understand this unique melancholy. The floodgates opened. Literally hundreds of people responded who knew exactly how I was feeling. Along with people who were now grown, but were children that grew up between two families.
One friend suggested that I make something of this and write a column to a broader audience to offer a perspective on what they might be going through, went through, or are imagining going through. I thought that was a good idea. Emotional honesty might be the greatest gift any parent can give to their children, especially if they are on the non-custodial end of a joint custody agreement.
Twice a year I experience a feeling of loss that I simply cannot meditate away. I call it Post-Visitation Syndrome and it comes after Christmas and after my summer visitation with my sons.
My ex-wife generously gives me nearly every Christmas with my boys as she prefers Thanksgiving and so I get to have the Christmas Eve and mornings that were always a part of my family growing up. That’s the good part of the story. The sad part is when I return home, late on Christmas Day, after dropping my sons off, and opening the front door to see an empty tree. The paper and ribbon carnage of once nicely wrapped gifts are all that remain of a frantic hunt for treasure, just a few hours earlier, by two young boys.
The tough part of our arraignment is looking at a room strewn with those boxes and the toys that stayed at Dad’s, frozen as they were left. What were images of anticipation and joy are now ghostly apparitions.
I always dread picking up their Christmas dinner plates and unfinished glasses of eggnog and washing away the memory of having just set them out.
My sons always call the next day, though, and tell me what they received from their other Christmas and how much they miss me. And, then they tell me that something is broken already and what they want next Christmas…and my life resumes.
A more difficult parting, for me, comes in the summer. I get my boys for 3 weeks, but I try and stretch it to 4. Again, my ex is very accommodating and I don’t ever recall getting any push back for an extension request, but even extra days eventually come to an end. They have vacation plans with the “other” family or plans within their primary world of school friends, neighbors, a tennis camp or whatever, and the time comes when they have to go “home.”
The (near) month, from when school lets out to when I send them back to their mother after the 4th, is the only time of the year when I can come close to the dream I had of being a full time father. I plan meals and activities, take time off for a little vacation, play catch before dinner, barbeque their favorite foods, watch movies and put them to bed. I cram everything I can into that tiny annual window…until it closes.
Their mother will pick them up and I will, once again, turn back toward my living room to see the remnants of their lives with me; socks in a corner, a juice box on the floor, a t-shirt wadded up and thrown onto the couch.
I’ll go to the family room where our routine was to watch a movie before bed and the remote control will always be missing. I’ll think, “Those damn kids can’t put anything where it belongs!” But that’s only a temporary distraction from how I really feel. I wish they were still there.
I’ve been navigating the waters of being a non-custodial parent for a period of time where all of my cells have changed nearly twice, yet some things never change: The things that are missing from the non-custodial parent’s life with their children.
I dreamed when I started a family of taking my kids to school, picking them up, doing homework, and putting them to bed. Having their friends stay overnight on weekends or in the Summer, getting my son’s ready for a date, showing them how to shave, and playing catch until it’s too dark to see. I have my weekends (every other) and 3 weeks in the summer (and certain vacations) to do those things, but that only seems sufficient to custodial parents; we “non-custodials” know that it isn’t the same.
This isn’t meant to put custodial parents to blame or to shame, it simply is what it is. But to deny the difference does no service either. There are emotional bridges that come from understanding that can heal the sorrow and even shorten the distance. I’ve already felt buoyed by the outpouring of wisdom that came from a simple social media post and it validates through the recognition of those feelings what many divorced fathers and mothers go through.
I know people with better situations than mine, and some who have it worse. The point being, it is what it is. What does help, however, is sharing with others who experience divorced parenting and giving permission to the part of us that might feel guilty for the situation, or that we’re being indulgent from self-pity, to feel this way.