I was on my way to work when I heard about the Newtown massacre. The horror itself was bad enough, but I had a first-grader -- the same age as those fallen children -- and so the nightmare lodged in my heart every minute of that day and beyond.
I could constantly summon the sounds and smells of my son's classroom, but what I couldn't find was my son. He wasn't in class, and my ex wasn't answering his phone.
Deep down, I knew he was safe, the way we have faith that the day will unfold much the way yesterday does. My ex-husband is a great father, and so when I don't have my son half the week, I don't worry too much, not like I did when we first split custody three years ago.
I've learned, for the most part, to assume my son is OK, that he's content, that he hasn't had a bad dream or skinned his knee and wants a hug from mom.
But that day, I needed to see Dylan, or at least hear his voice. It was hours before I found out my ex had taken him out of school for a day errand in another town. I finally talked to Dylan later that afternoon, imagining his face as he told me he missed me.
That's one of the tragedies of split custody; sometimes, depending on the warmth between you and your ex, your child is out of your control. It might be for days at a time. You have to bury your worry and love, so that you don't waste the time you're apart -- so that when you do get your child back, you're not a clingy basket-case.
And when you're reunited, you have to withstand the urge to put your life unnaturally on hold because of the yearning to focus on this little boy who's been gone for four days.
It's a pendulum life: full-time with child, then full-time without. Such a life creates a strange rhythm; it's like trying to dance to a song forever out of tune.
Sometimes the separation isn't so bad. You distract yourself with work, with rest if you can get it. And when the grief comes, if you have a man in your life, you ask him to hold you to stop the shaking.
But then Newtown happens.
And every other year you spend Christmas morning alone while your child opens his gifts in another house, in another town, and maybe you'll see him that evening and maybe you won't. Plans change, snowstorms pour down from the sky. And suddenly your child's room is empty for an extra day.
Then there's your ex -- who will he meet? What kind of woman will she be? Will she treat your child with the love he needs? This too is out of your control, and such thoughts can keep peace forever out of reach.
So when I wrote a blog recently for this site about the challenges of dating as a single mom, I was naively surprised at the hostility, the criticism, and the sheer self-righteousness that spewed forth from both single and married moms. The theme of these comments was that half-time moms have it easy.
But we can all envy each other for something, can't we? Single women get all the pity -- they get the martyr's brass ring. Married mothers -- stay-at-home and working -- soak up society's approval for shouldering the dwindling dream of the American Family.
And half-time moms like me? When our children aren't around, we're either shooting up the ladder of success or having a wild sex life and partying like rock stars while living off our ex-husbands. We have no right to complain because we broke the rules and got divorced -- never mind that getting divorced is, as Barbara Kingsolver wrote, "as much fun as cutting off your own gangrenous arm."
In the end, we're all carrying clichés on our backs. Maybe it's time we took them off. Maybe it's time we stopped making assumptions about how much greener the lawn is in the neighbor's yard.
I can't speak for fathers (though I want to know), but my theory about mothers is that we all have so much guilt that we hold on onto what makes us feel better, even if it drags another mother down. But resenting each other for what we don't have is both ugly and cruel. I don't see the point. Aren't we all under the same pressure to be a good mother?
I know you have it tough in a hundred different ways, whether you're a Working Mom, Stay-at-Home mom, Single Mom, Half-Time Mom, Step-Mom, or some other category.
I also know you feel the same joy when your child runs into your arms for a hug, or says -- just when you need it most --"I love you, Mom."
So if you see me at the park with Dylan, please don't envy me or resent me. How about this: just be my friend.