The Hollow Woman
I read Lena Dunham's article about her decision to have a hysterectomy at the age of 31 with a great deal of interest. I've never been a big fan of Ms Dunham for all of her clunky clueless white feminism that leaves those of us who are white and poor, queer and disabled on the outer, when there's a heap of white feminists who are poor and pissed off and trying to make space for ourselves. but of course it's impossible not to feel a great deal of sympathy for Ms Dunham having to make such a heart breaking decision. Even so, I find myself second guessing the choice. Maybe it is human nature to think we know better, stemming from a subconscious need to protect ourselves, thinking that it, whatever it is, can't happen to us because we know better. If she wanted a child so much, why didn't she have just one and arrange the hysterectomy at the same time as the c section?
This post isn't about Lena Dunham though. It's about me, and the other women like me. The mothers who don't have primary custody of their children. Except it's not called custody anymore, someone will tell you, sometimes after you've just poured out your sadness to what you thought were sympathetic ears. You don't have custody because no one has custody any more; we now call it being the primary carer. It should be legal to slap those people.
Don't even get me started on men's rights groups, the ones that claim women are favoured in custody cases. Very few Australian custody decisions end up in court, and of the ones that do, the courts nearly always leave the children with the parent they're already staying with. No matter if that's the mother or the father.
The next thing people want is to know to why. It's still so unusual, after all. As much as we give lip service to the notion of shared care, most people still believe, deep down, that a mother should be with her young children, and they wonder if something is wrong with you - is it drugs? Violence? I've written about my struggles with mental health, is it that? Actually, in the end, my situation is pretty simple. My ex husband and I were living with his mother when we separated, so remaining separated under one roof was never an option and I was the one who had to leave. I wanted to bring my son with me, of course I did. But my ex decided that it was better if Mr G stayed where he was, in the neighbourhood he was used to and I couldn't afford to live in. I had to leave without him.
Maybe you think you'd never give your kids up without exhausting all options, without fighting to the end. Maybe you would. If you ever find yourself in this situation, drop me a line and let me know how you're getting on. You might find things are a bit different than how you imagined, if it ever happens to you and I really hope it doesn't.
It's happening to me though, and I can tell you it's horrible. Maybe we should be beyond biology, past the stereotypical gender roles that women belong with their small children; but I am not. I feel the pain deep inside, of the child I bore being taken from me, I am the hollow woman, I am the cat going crazy when her kittens are taken away, I am Medea, I am Rachel, refusing to be comforted. I am not there to feed my child dinner, give him a bath, read him a story; my little boy goes to bed without his mother to tuck him in and kiss him goodnight. I have missed a thousand hugs, drawings, imaginary cups of tea served from toy kitchens. Divorce is one thing. It's very sad, but it can in the end be dealt with. But this? All my pretty ones? Did you say all?
I get to see him once a week. That's if I'm lucky, at the moment, because that separation has made him so attached to his Dad that he doesn't want to leave. Do I give in to my own broken heart and insist he comes stay at my house, or do I try to make my child happy by saying he doesn't have to come with me this weekend? What do I do in this awful situation? What on Earth do I do? There have been times where I've insisted, and he cries for his father at bed time. There have been times I've walked away from scheduled pick ups, gone home alone, collapsed on the floor sobbing, closed the door to his room because it hurts so much to see his things, to see his toys lined up forlornly waiting for him, thrown out the kids' yoghurt and crumpets he likes, that I could hardly afford to buy, because they've passed their expiration dates, uneaten.
Time marches on, months turn in to years, and the gulf between us only grows. I am told how lucky I am that to have so much time to myself, how good my ex is for stepping up. Yes, it is good that the man I share a child with is able to capably handle parental duties. You know what would be better? If my child lived with me.
"I couldn't stand it if that happened to me. I'd just die!". Here's the thing, though. You don't just die from pain, no matter how bad the pain is, you don't just stop existing, as much as you might wish to. And you still need to eat, drink, sleep and ablute. You try to take pleasure in the ordinary details of life, and I do, most of the time. But then you've some painful reminder how how skewed and chaotic life is. This isn't what I signed up for. You see and hear children everywhere, and they're not yours. Sometimes you see children being hit, pinched, sworn at. Other people mistreat the children they do get to live with. There are children brought into the world unloved and mistreated. The bitter unfairness of it all, and there is no where to put your pain and rage.It's not like your kids going away to camp. Please don't tell me how sad you were when your kid went to camp.
There are things you can do to try and bear it, and I do try. I lived next to the beach for a year, went on long walks in nature, and the loneliness drove me mad. I have exercised, with tears running down my face as I wracked up distance on the rowing machine. There are at least the wonders of modern psychiatry to rely on. There's a delicate chemical balancing act in my body with the rainbow of medication I taste every day. It's not quite perfect. My legs and feet are swollen to the point the only shoes I can wear are some ugly old men sandals; this is merely a fashion problem in a Sydney summer but it will be an issue as the weather cools. I'm reluctant to upset things by changing medications. There are legal avenues available. I know the ins and outs of the system.
So if I don't want your advice and I don't want you to tell me how you wouldn't cope, what do I want? I understand the desire to fix things, I do. But I'd like to be able to speak up without feeling judged or derailed. Decisions made years ago brought me here, and there's no easy fix. I'm still a mother. But that means something different to me, something my darkest thoughts could never have imagined.