Shared Custody: When Joys Are Doubled and Halved

The kids are off. It’s time for their week with Dad, and for me to face the familiar cycle that begins at their departure. First comes the haunting, panting silence. No sneakers kicked off any which way, no empty plates on the sofa, no-one else breathing and moving, no-one you can call to ”Come quick!” when a bird hops on to the window sill and cocks its colourful head.

Young people have an exuberance and verve, an emotional richness that pulsates at every moment. It expands the space we all live in, brightens the spectrum and fills us with a sense of aliveness. They take that moveable feast with them when they go. Alone, love struggles to find ways of expressing itself. There is no-one to fondle and cosset and plan meals for, no chatter. Loneliness is a physical ache around the cavern of the heart.

Next comes the stiff-upper-lip phase, when my calendar is filled to the brim with work, yoga, friends and jaunts to the beach. It helps, yes, one cannot live a full life only every other week, and happiness comes from many sources. But it’s no good pretending that the bustle solves everything. The company of loved ones is a core need.  

Bit by bit, my body and heart adjust. There is more time to rest, work, write and listen. The creative spirit breaks out and takes over. Life demands my full attention, my mind races and my heart sings. I almost wish that the kids’ return would be a little delayed, just a day or two. I promise myself that I will hang on to the yoga and the writing schedule while they are with me, but I know that it will not work out quite that way. The creator must step back with regret, and the nurturer steps happily forward.

Then the kids are back! In they barge with all their belongings, looking taller and vaguely different from a week ago. A friend described once how he felt quite dizzy, as if he had walked into a garden of exotic flowers when his girls came back to him: ”their voices, their scent…they move angularly, like Bambis, and drop all their things on the floor.” They are so dear and familiar – yet the constant separations leave a mark. It takes a moment to overcome that slight, niggling sense of alienation that no amount of messages or phone calls can erase. My daughter says that ”the person I know best of all is my brother, he is the closest to me, because we are always in the same house.” We are animals, we need physical proximity to feel familiar and safe. The children bear the greatest burden, shuttling back and forth between two different worlds and modes of operating.  

A young man without children of his own once said to me: “It sounds like the best of both worlds. You get plenty of family life and every other week you can do whatever you like. The ideal arrangement!” On the days that the kids come home, I am in complete agreement. Couldn’t be better. On the days that the kids leave, it’s…different.

Over the years, what has helped most is simply accepting the loneliness when it comes, and realising that the inhale and exhale of our present lives mirrors the longer cycles of life. We are trained to let go: now the kids are with me, and the next moment they are not with me. One day soon, they will not be coming back to stay after a week’s absence. And another day, hopefully not very soon at all, the Great Divide will separate us.

I like to think that being separated from my children for half their childhoods has made me a better mother, and family life more valued for us all. It is easier to pick one’s battles, stop and really absorb their wishes and views in those periods of separation and silence. It makes the time we do have together precious. We don’t take it for granted. The separations are also a palpable reminder of how lucky I am to have children in the first place.

On a more practical note, Nordic employers take family obligations seriously, and I’ve had the chance to work hard when the children are gone, and have more reasonable hours when they return. No doubt this rhythm has helped me to achieve things in the workplace as well. So there are definite advantages, despite the heartache.

Perhaps the greatest change over the years has been this: I have understood that I can affect how long and how hard I am hit by the loneliness and pain of separation. It isn’t an inevitable fact of life that every other weekend is an emotional mine field. I can take those way too familiar feelings and speed them up. I can acknowledge the pain, the loneliness, the guilt etc. for an hour or two, and then I can, and will, turn around and pick up the yoga mat or open the computer and throw myself wholeheartedly into my life. I can train my mind and heart to revive more rapidly. Time is too valuable a gift to be given over to grieving a lost, imaginary perfection. And soon enough there will be sand all over the sofa again.