“It’s your fault we have never had a father. Nothing about this is normal,” he yelled in tears, surrounded by boxes in the galley kitchen of the small apartment. It didn’t matter that roughly a quarter of American homes are mother-only homes. It didn’t matter that I was educated and well-employed with the support of extended family. Middle son was right. It was my fault.
The year was 2009, and events of a Sunday night had led me to contracting an apartment to be moved into on Friday afternoon. When I told my then-husband about the move that did not include him, he said, “That’s fine. I have boxes in the barn you can use.” Not that there wasn’t angst or anger or acrimony; I guess we had both seen this coming.
The thing that middle son really pointed out that evening was that the gold standard of family life still consists of mom, dad, siblings, and pet or two. The same house to grow up in, visit on holidays from college, and eventually hold the estate sale when mom and dad are gone. In his mind, that was what was supposed to happen. That was the vision. That’s what he never had, and it wasn’t easy.
To this day, he can’t fully know why I abandoned the familial gold standard. When middle son was one, I divorced his father. He has no memories of ever living with his dad. When he was in middle school, I divorced his step-dad. Throughout those years, he, his brothers, and I struggled – separately and together – with what it meant to be “less than.” The church we attended had only back pews for families of divorce; the school they attended prized whole families showing up to every event; the friends they had did camping trips with dad and shopping trips with mom. That was not our family.
I sometimes wonder what would have been if I had been able to give up myself for the sake of either marriage; if I could have blended into the carpeting, allowing and even enjoying the tread marks. Would that have been golden? We will never know because those were the options I had but could not accept. So, I created a life that required a couple of moves; a mom working more than she wanted; and children who shared rooms and clothes. It wasn’t bohemian by any means; there were no drugs or mental illness or other made-for-TV movie drama points; and, after divorce number two, I boarded up the men’s entrance. But I created a life where there wasn’t really a dad. No picket fence. And very few shopping trips. No, we did not match the gold standard of a traditional American family, and I think about the trade-off and I wonder.
I wonder if in making such choices, perhaps my sons know it’s okay to quit something that doesn’t work for you. I guess eldest son (now somewhere in Peru) embraced living life on his own terms. I wonder if they realize it’s required to not let yourself be walked all over. I want to believe that middle son knows that there is not a one-size-fits-all life jacket you get along with your college diploma. Life isn’t about matching your neighbors; it’s about creating your own bits of happiness and moments of contentment. Youngest son is certainly carving his own path – and in middle school no less – the time when conformity is at a premium. (I know this for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was his recent huff, “Mom, my generation is filled with asshole narcissists.”)
Yes, it probably would have been easier for the boys if we could have lived in a predictably standard setting. But, I wonder if they would have developed into the opinionated, creative, beautiful souls that they are if they had lived among only gold bars rather than sparklings of silver, palladium, and ruthenium that made up the moments of our lives.
When middle son stood in that kitchen not so many years ago, I think he was scared. I know I was. But choices had to be made. Oh, children, I do hope that you have a plethora of things that come easy to you in life. I also hope that you are faced with hard decisions that chisel who you really are into your heart. And, I hope you define your own standards – gold or osmium – and live by them. You see, no gold standard exists – and that is both scary and liberating.