Cancer is the mother of the zodiac.
If you know anything about astrology (and I’ve been a sucker for all things zodiac from a young age), you know that, in profile after profile after profile, the Cancer woman is known for her maternal nurturing (followed closely by her moodiness. Of course, these astrological profiles are never 100% accurate).
Say what you will about the legitimacy of horoscopes, I always felt a sense of recognition reading about my sign. Married at 23 and a mother at 25, I’ve been a caretaker virtually all of my adult life, a role that I willingly chose. Unlike so many of my Gen X peers, particularly those with my level of education and socioeconomic status, especially given that I came from a divorced household, I pursued motherhood young, enthusiastically, and in spades. On my 30th birthday, I was 6 weeks postpartum from my 3rd child (with 2 additional pregnancies ending in miscarriages).
For me, and I suspect for so many women, the role of motherhood goes beyond care taking and nurturing, beyond the financial support and basic needs, beyond loving my children unconditionally. It’s not just a core part of my identity, but perhaps the sum of my parts; I am a mother more than an educator, a runner, a daughter, sister, friend and wife. Despite my higher education in Erikson and Marcia, and admonishments to my students on oversimplifying characterization, my instinctive and immediate response to “Who am I?” is mother.
And so, five years after my divorce was finalized, I still struggle, every summer.
It is certainly easier than in 2010, when I found myself without my 3 children on a regular basis for the first time in a decade, for the first time ever. When well meaning but completely clueless friends offered laughingly “What I wouldn’t give for a break from my kids!” (word to the wise: that’s just about the worst thing you can say to a newly divorced woman, particularly one who had no choice in the matter) and experienced divorced moms, several years out, would gently suggest to “take some time for me”. Back then I wanted to punch pretty much everyone in the face, and counted the hours, literally, until my chicks were back under my roof.
It’s easier now. If time does not heal all wounds, it at least lets them scab over.
I still dislike not seeing my children every other weekend and Tuesday nights during the academic year. I hate hearing the other class of 2018 moms talk about “only” having their children definitively home for 3 more Thanksgivings and Christmas mornings and spring breaks, and knowing that for me, as this past year was “my” year, it is only 1. One. All the benchmarks and milestones that mothers triumphantly yet anxiously mark on the determined march to the empty nest happen to divorced mothers also, only it’s uptempo, beating twice as fast.
I have accepted it with resignation.
But the summer. The summer gets me the most.
Once upon a time, in the (singular) summer post-divorce but prior to remarriage, there was an agreement that the kids would not be away for an entire 30 day stretch. There was more flexibility then, more amicability, of working together to do what was best for the children despite the shocking circumstances of the marital dissolution. Slowly but surely, as so often happens within marriage and divorce, agreements were broken, promises forgotten, the rules changed without negotiation or even discussion.
And so it is that now, years before the expected 2022 empty nest, I find myself spending weeks at a time every summer in an empty house, off of work, with my kids 4 miles away but legally beyond my reach.
I fake it well. I make plans with my husband, with my friends. I come up with crazy fitness challenges. I run half marathons. I move. I teach summer classes and tutor and cook elaborate meals for my husband and organize every closet in the house.
I don’t say much to friends and family about how hard it is; they’ve heard it all before, and no one knows what to say anyway. By now, it seems, I should have a better handle on this divorced mom gig.
And in so many ways, I do. I am productive, and shed very few tears, and count down the days silently, to myself. I keep a stiff upper lip, and tell myself to suck it up, that I still have 3 healthy, beautiful kids (when so many don’t), and at least they are being well taken care of (when so many aren’t), and that, heck, in a few short years, they will not be bound by a decreed visitation schedule, and can come and go as they please (how’s that for the ultimate empty nest positive reframe?).
Generally speaking, I am proud of myself, how I handle the summers. How I handle it all. Everything. The absurdity, the ludicrosity, of my so-called life.
I just haven’t figured out yet, no matter how many miles I run, no matter how many books I read, no matter how many cakes I bake, how to feel like there isn’t a part of me, the essential part, the sum that is greater than all the other parts, gone missing without my permission or consent every summer.