By Michelle Fitz, Trans-Atlantic American Entrepreneur, author, management consultant and coach
As I made the agreement, and was praised by a family court judge for my "child-focused compromise," my heart sank and all I wanted to do was exit the courtroom via a magical floor lift into a dark place, where I could cry.
The months that followed were bleak. In fact, I don't remember much other than feeling as though someone had died. The first several weeks were spent in bed with curtains drawn. The reality was, although my children were not dead, my life as a resident/custodial parent was, and in the aftermath, I struggled to reconcile my new existence. I suppose, in many ways, I was the one who died a bit that day.
You see, whether you mean for it to happen or not, when we have children, our career choices, logistics, purchases, meals, activities, social connections and pretty much every other decision we make revolves around their needs, wants and commitments. Suddenly, as I sat in a puddle of tears, under a princess canopy bed, in a vacant room lit by ambient pink Ikea flower lighting, it was as though I had lost purpose and relevance -- for my children, for myself and even in the world.
I was the parent with the career, with the responsibility always on my shoulders. I had worked hard and made sacrifices for my family, which I felt was my role. It was my role because I was the capable one, and I was happy to fill it, in all honesty. A child of the 80s and 90s, I was told that women no longer needed to choose between career and a family. In fact, when I was young, my father warned me to make a way on my own, without an assumption that a husband would be the one to provide.
There is no such thing as a part-time mother who works full-time. We do both roles, and the only way we manage is by sacrificing many of our own needs and wants. But in my case, it was as though none of these sacrifices were for any greater good at all.
It was as though the fact that I did my best at being "mommy who kissed bruised knees and planning birthdays," and "mommy who worked very hard to provide," was completely discounted. Reduced to a simple mathematics equation that resulted in my no longer being the custodial parent of my daughters.
I stayed in that dark place for about a year, though the Ikea flower wall light was long removed from my line of sight for the sake of my sanity. I was suffering from post traumatic stress, so moving helped tremendously to separate me from the ghosts of a ruined marriage.
Then, about a year after the agreement became final, I decided that it was time to really live again-- to dream, to want, to smile. I decided that this would not be the end of me, of my relationship with my daughters, or of my dreams for them.
People often ask me how I began to cope as the non-resident parent, and I suppose that although it took quite a journey, I realised that there is more than one way to love, to impact and to raise a child. There is more than one way to be a mother. I cope because I know now that I am still their mom and that I have all the love, hope and pride for them that all mothers have. I cope because they are not gone - and neither am I.
And though there is still some societal judgment-- a taboo, if you will-- about mothers who are not custodial parents, I have chosen to move past it, after recognising that among those I know, only I seemed to give it much stock. Lots of children live away from their mothers (and fathers too), even out-of-state or in different towns.
Whether this situation is forced upon you or has been decided with heavy heart as "for the best", I know that the heartache is the same. In my case, I was told I had less than 50% chance at a judgement in my favour, considering status quo rules and the acrimonious nature of our relationship. So I understand that sometimes a "choice" was really never a choice at all, and certainly does not indicate any less pain.
The only advice I have for those in this transition is to focus on what you still have rather than what you think you have lost. See what is in front of you, which in my case consists of two bright, strong, beautiful young ladies who are still very much a part of my life, and who add to the richness of my existence. We are together and we are "there" with and for each other - no matter where we are physically.
I have embraced the role of mentor to my girls, and I also see that I have a unique perspective to add to their experience, in part because I am not caught up in the day-to-day thick of discipline and guidance. I see them as people-- people who are struggling through life's lessons, simply trying to be happy and fulfilled, as we all are. I offer them a role model, as a hard-working mother who provides for their future whom they can admire and love.
I can only continue to strive daily to be the best mother, businesswoman and role model that I can be. I count amongst my blessings people all around me-- some of them professionals, some of them friends or family, some of them simply souls that I have met along the way. These are the souls who have helped me to see that I am worthy, I am beautiful, and that no matter what, I will always be my daughters' mother.
So, in addition to my advice on keeping perspective on what you have, in the midst of this transition, seek out people who can support you if they are not already amongst you. You cannot carry the pain of this process alone. The good news is that, if you allow it, you will see that the inevitable pain is really only love. Return to love and you, too, will survive.
Michelle Fitz is an Trans-Atlantic American Entrepreneur and author who has devoted her life to helping people transform their lives, through positive psychology with an emphasis on knowledge-sharing, spiritual and professional growth. She is a management consultant who specialises in Strategy, Digital and IT Transformation, and has a thriving business consultancy and life coaching practice. Learn more about her at www.HatTrickStrategies.com