My nest was small but I tended it with great care and my only child – my son – occupied it joyously. But I was unprepared for the challenge when my son, at the ripe age of 14, became only an occasional visitor, a bird that flew briefly in and then quickly out of the proverbial coup.
His dad and I had experienced marital problems before Michael was born. And Michael’s arrival did nothing to ease the strife. After seeing six different marriage counselors, it became clear to me that the marriage was untenable. I became less concerned about the effect of divorce on my son than the effect of his parents’ palpable discontent. I knew it was time to leave.
By the time we legally separated, Michael was about to enter junior high school and become a Bar Mitzvah. Both his father and I wanted sole custody. We also both wanted Michael to have a strong voice in the decision about with whom he was going to live. After several discussions, Michael said that he wanted to live with both parents and was willing to alternate weeks at each home.
My new “digs” was a two-bedroom apartment in a complex that had a playground and an outdoor pool, a mile from what had now become my ex-husband's house.
I have vivid memories of the initial adjustment period, most of which were less than happy. My son, especially in the beginning of our new living situation, was more withdrawn. I could no longer interest him in playing softball together or going swimming. He remained embarrassed to have his friends over to my modest apartment, and hated having to be driven every time he went to their homes. His grades had also markedly dropped.
"Take me home," he insisted. "I don't want to be here."
Michael had audibly keyed me in to his disappointment almost from the get-go. “Another boring week," he often mumbled – although loud enough for me to hear – as he mounted the stairs. I was willing to admit that this transition wasn’t easy – for either of us. But the worst-case scenario – not having my boy with me – was unthinkable. Michael’s attitude could and would change, I told myself in my best self-delusional voice.
But the only thing that time produced was a reckoning. Several months later during one of the weeks at my home, I fearfully paired the words "homework" and "now," a little too often for my son's liking. "Take me home," he insisted. "I don't want to be here."
I felt the pounding in my heart, as I mouthed the first hackneyed and ironic statement that came to mind: “Leaving won’t solve anything. We need to work this through.” Michael responded by putting his packed duffle bag down and calling his father to pick him up.
The next time I saw Michael was several weeks later, back at my home, in the company of his father and future stepmother, to negotiate a new arrangement that would be more to my son's liking. This time – as I encouraged my son to talk – I not only listened, but also fully heard him. My son was unhappy with the current living arrangement. He didn’t like “mom’s place.” He no longer wanted to switch between my house and my ex’s. He wanted to live “at home.”
Michael’s words cut deeply. My mind wandered to the biblical story of King Solomon’s decision. Two women, both claiming the same baby was theirs, asked wise Solomon to act as arbiter. King Solomon knew that the real mother’s first objective was her child’s well-being. In an attempt to discover the real mother, he offered to cut the boy in half. At that point, the real mother was willing to give her son to the other woman, rather than have him die. Through her intent, she had revealed her true identity.
My situation was far less dramatic. When confronted with that ultimate test, seeing – without blinders – my son’s needs and then putting them before my own desire to have him with me, my heart broke. But to my surprise, it didn’t shatter. Instead, it broke open. In that opening I was able to see without self-recrimination, the mixed brew of maternal feelings and personal need and unwanted events and even best intentions. Loving Michael came down to two things: opening the window and fully allowing my son to fly from my nest, and doing everything in my power to create a joyous and loving relationship during the time we had together. Although I couldn’t change the situation, I could change the way I behaved. (I learned from my Jewish studies that feelings often followed behavior.)
If thriving for Michael meant living with his father and seeing me every other weekend and for dinner once or twice a week, it was a done deal. Michael need no longer be cut in half.
Each time I picked up my son, I chose to convey a warm, happy, attitude throughout our time together. It was only after I dropped him off at his home that I allowed the tears to fall.
In time, our relationship grew more open, more honest, and his living situation, less painful for me. While having dinner together, Michael shared parts of his daily life that I had missed out on. We also often spoke philosophically about relationships in general.
At one dinner’s conclusion, Michael nodded circumspectly. “Mom, I think I know the secret to success. It often involves putting another’s needs before your own.”
Yes, my darling, I thought to myself, as I hugged my son close. And that’s the secret of love, too.