In 2008, I did the unthinkable — I left my children. That heartbreaking decision sparked within me a deep desire to take back my life, stop holding back, and to start living like I mean it. I sold everything I owned, moved 3000 miles away, and embarked on a deep healing journey. What I found out changed my life. At first I felt terrible shame about my decision even though I knew in my heart it was the best for all of us. Over time I healed and found my way as a strong, capable, nurturing mother — but with a twist. I don’t live with my children. My journey also birthed The Better Mothers Project, an international conversation to help mothers everywhere shape a new future. Read more about my decision to leave my children.
The thirteen essays below — beginning with Countdown and continuing to Fine on the next page — first appeared at Literary Mama, a widely-respected online literary magazine, over an 18-month period beginning October 2008. I approached Literary Mama when I knew I would be moving to the Pacific Northwest, 3000 miles away from my children, and they found my story compelling. These essays chronicle my deep heartache, emotional process, and wayfinding as I navigated the wilds of a mother who lives apart from her children.
For Serena, on the occasion of her 13th birthday
Dear Sweetcake, Have I ever told you the story of your birth? You were incredibly wanted....
For Nathaniel, on the occasion of his 17th birthday
Dear Nathaniel, 17 years ago, I met you for the first time. Do you remember? Perhaps not,...
In just over six weeks I will voluntarily relinquish custody of our three children to my former spouse, crossing my fingers with unfounded hope and trust, and leave them. Perhaps indefinitely. The person I thought I was will no longer exist and in her place will stand someone else entirely. I'll sell or give away most of my belongings, pack my car with what remains, hug my kids, and drive away. Alone.
The Picture I Carry
A picture has been burned into my retinas. It haunts me. I close my eyes and it is there, often unbidden. It comes to me in the middle of the night and at unexpected times throughout the day. I long to push it away, but I need this picture. It's all I have: a mind's-eye picture of my children, of a single moment from the last time I saw them. June 21.
On Mother's Day this year, a month before I left, I cut Nathaniel's hair for the last time. He sat on the porch stoop in a t-shirt and shorts, shivering in the unspringlike cool, bending his long body to conserve warmth and to make his head more accessible to my awkward scissoring. I held up curling dark-blond strands of his hair, overgrown since his last cut in midwinter, and sheared them short, as if in doing so I could make that last time of such casual intimacy between us stretch into forever.
"There are two exciting things I can't wait for!" Serena's voice over the phone was breathless from excitement when we spoke in early December. "Christmas -- and your visit!"I'm glad to be ranked up there along with Christmas. And I'm even ranked ahead of Serena's own birthday, looming on the horizon. Our weekly-or-so phone calls make only a tiny dent in the enormity of time and distance that stretches between us.
The bus lurched to a stop, its distinctive orange-yellow easily visible in my rented rear-view mirror. A knot of kids emerged and I struggled to locate my daughter in the gaggle of same-sized girls wearing colorful winter parkas. It had been so long since I had seen her -- would I know her? I saw a girl of about the right size and hair color break free from the group. Was that Serena? I couldn't be sure. Then I saw her, so unmistakably Serena that I almost laughed at having doubted my ability to know my own child.
The Blue Witch
She had blue hair. A particular shade of blue. French blue. Dusty blue. Periwinkle. I hate those colors. Her hair had a peculiar texture, like Barbie's hair. Thick, straight, and sort of like plastic. Not real hair.She had blue hair. She left strands of it throughout the school for me to find, so I would know I was never safe. In my dreams she was chasing me -- slowly, methodically.
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."
Breaking the Mold
All my life I've watched women in movies and TV of the '50s and early '60s and thought secretly to myself that I would not be like them, that I came from a different generation, the one after bra-burning, and that things had changed for me. I was wrong.
Art, A Mother’s Legacy
My mother was no artist. One day when I was eight she brought out a boxed art kit and drew fantastic trees with wonderful wild wiggly branches and roots. I drew my trees that way for weeks, but Mom put the art kit away. No matter how much I wished it would, the art kit never came out again. I wanted to see inside her, for her to wear her wild wonderful soul -- like the trees she drew -- on the outside, but she put herself away along with the art kit and became older, smaller, and less of herself every year.
Three Magic Wishes
Before Nathaniel and Serena stepped off the plane here in Seattle, I had a plan. I would grant myself three magic wishes. One wish was to practice what it felt like to be a different kind of mother from the one I had always been. This new mother allowed her children to stay up as late as they wanted to at night. Meals were haphazard and no one minded. There was lots of laughter. This new mother stepped back, let go, and trusted. This new mother reveled in each moment of being with two of the people she most loves. First wish, check