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It was the usual small talk around a getting-to-know-you dinner table. I was the odd one out; of the four of us the other three all knew one another, so the attention turned to me. They already knew about my spiritual work, which was the reason for our connection, but we hadn’t yet discussed my writing.”You’re a writer too? What do you write?”I ticked my assignments off on my fingers as I replied, “I edit an environmental site, I’m a contributing writer for a social activism site, and I write columns on parenting my son with special needs and about my journey as a non-custodial parent.”

“Non-custodial parent? What is that?”

I tensed, ready to explain my unconventional choice to someone who didn’t “get” it, and started with my standard opener. “My kids don’t live with me. They live with their father.”

“Oh, that!” the attractive, youthful 60-ish woman to my left, a nationally-known author and lecturer, smiled broadly at me. “I did that. It was the best thing I could have done. For all of us. My daughters got to really know their father.”

I had met another one. Another kindred soul. Another unconventional mother. Another traveler down the road not usually taken.

A year ago they started appearing. Before then, I had never known there were so many women whose stories echoed the one I was about to write in my own life, the story of mothers who mothered differently. From afar. But one by one they began revealing themselves to me: some shy, some grateful, some hurt by circumstance and by social pressure, but all confident and certain — especially after the years had passed and their children had become men and women — that they had made the right choice.

Cloaked as I was in my own uncertainty at the time, even a year after I first pondered a leap into an unconventional life that would change all our lives, hearing the stories of so many different, beautiful women who had made that leap themselves was an incredible gift. I saw their pasts in my future and understood that when we feel so strongly about life choices, we’re heeding the call of something bigger than we are, some deep inner understanding that things have a way of turning out well.

There is B., a member of the Red Hat Society, a group of over-50 women that was inspired by the opening lines of the poem “Warning”: “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple/With a red hat that doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me.” B. fits my image of the somewhat-unconventional older woman who is my imagined Red Hat lady and I can picture how well the red hat and purple dress go with her snowy-silvery close-cropped hair and her wide warm red-lipsticked smile. Her five children were raised by their father, a choice that raised plenty of eyebrows back then in the ’50s, but it’s a choice she still stands by.

There is M., still limping past the bitterness of an unfair court decision that separated her from her four children, but who also realizes that living apart from her children was a gift both to her and to them. There were years of feeling helpless from afar when she heard that her kids were left to their own devices much of the time, fending for themselves in the kitchen and learning that a clean house was a bug-free house. But at the same time, the grain-grinding, bread-baking, butter-churning mother she had been left no room to become the collaborative lawyer she is today, the confident woman who now changes lives and supports families in making decisions that benefit everyone involved.

And there is C., who loved her little boy so much that she was able to accept the realization that his father could give him a better life than she could as a single mom with little education and few opportunities. She made the choice to give up custody after listening to her heart and knowing, on all levels, that it was the right thing for her to do.

All these women’s stories are so powerful, so personal. I breathe them in and see my future in their past.

There is also Rebecca Spicuglia and her wonderful website NonCustodial Parent Community which supports and provides awareness about mothers and fathers who don’t live with their children. Rebekah led me to Maria Housden, who wrote the revealing book Unraveled: One Woman’s Story of Moving Out, Moving On, and Becoming a Better Mother. I read Maria’s story eagerly, hoping to find my own story echoed in its pages. Instead I found the one I wanted to live all along, the one that comes from joy.

I’ve been writing my story as I’ve been living it: through a magnification of the pain and judgment I feel in thinking that I failed to measure up as a mother, not in society’s eyes but in my own. Maria’s story helped connect me to my own motives, my own real story. It’s the story I haven’t been telling, not even to myself, that there is perfection in stepping back, in allowing my children to grow into the adults they are becoming.

There is such a thing as being too close to one’s children. I was a great nurturer but the nurturing grew out of my own fears: holding them close, holding them back, keeping them safe. Now they have a parent — a full time parent — who has no such fears. Despite what other shortcomings he has and the conflicts I feel personally with him, my children’s father encourages them to try new things and to grow.

Even though my children don’t have me close by they have something else, something they wouldn’t have if I was there: space to become who they are. Serena competes this weekend in the local “Idol” competition, singing a Kelly Clarkson song. This would never have happened with me; my own protectiveness against the hurt she might feel from failure would have stood in the way. It’s much the same with Nathaniel, who joined the 7th grade track team this year. I can picture him now, loping happily around the track, leaping over hurdles, but had I been there I might have pushed for the Chess Club instead: there are fewer social risks there.

I made this decision with the deep sense that it was the right thing for all of us. My ex husband is now the kind of parent he wanted to be, thinking of himself as the indulgent father and viewing his children from a laissez-faire distance. This distance was at odds with my more intimate style — I wanted to crawl inside the hearts of each of my children and hand them my own heart in return. My children can now see me from a distance that gives them more clarity. Away from them, I am in some ways more real than I was up close.

Now I have the understanding that in stepping away from something we can give it the most love. I hold within me an image of each of the amazing women I have met, trusting again that the future I am writing, that we all are living, is the one closest to joy.

 [originally published at Literary Mama May 31, 2009]

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