what i learned as the invisible parent: a conversation with a fellow parent

“So how are things these days,” she says. And she is sincere in the question. So I talk to her.

Some things are amazing, wonderful, even nearly unreal and euphoric. Sure, it’s a tough time for us all these days– but the truth is my life is better for the quarantine than it was even before.

And my life wasn’t exactly thorny and desolate pre-Covid (I had just returned from a literal world trip. Actually slightly nervous I might have been exposed on the journey, but thankfully, no.) And one of those is that the munchkins get to live with us half the time (why not, learning is remote, anyway).

And then the inevitable comes up…

“I could never do it. I don’t know how you manage,” her tone reflects both pity and envy. And almost…wonder?

I hear that a lot in my somewhat unusual life choices. “I could never do it.” Not just choosing to be a stepparent, but living a poly or M/s 24/7 lifestyle. Not necessarily to me personally, but it’s part of the conversation and rhetoric around me. And it’s true, raising a non biological child– let alone MORE than one!- isn’t something anyone could do. It takes a patience and a self assurance that not everyone possesses. My friend, too, knows how difficult their mother is being right now.

But she doesn’t see everything…

I reply, “Well, yes, it gets hard. I deal with a nasty ‘baby momma’ and seemingly endless court battles. But in many ways, it’s no different from the challenges you face. Maybe you have a nasty mother-in-law who is constantly undermining you with the kids. Or there’s that group of judgy moms at the school who exclude you in so many subtle, but hurtful ways. And, unlike me, you don’t get to drag your mother-in-law to court and get them to make her do what you want. It’s expensive and a hassle– but it’s effective. Guess who’s doing half the driving for the kids now?”

But also, I get recognitions you never will. You are expected to do things that I am not (and it’s the same amount of work, but I get credit). I get thanked in near countless ways. I often do it ‘on my own,’ as in I do not know a lot of folk in my position that truly enjoy it, but my village? My support? They are numerous and enthusiastic.” And something else, which I will do my best to explain.

I get children that CHOOSE to love me.

So I tell her, “You see, my munchkins have to fight to love me. They risk being glares, yelling, being punished for months on end…just to have me with them on one of their special days. Just to have me in their lives, sharing moments with them.

Every single hug, kiss, soft expression of ‘I love you’ holds a weight to it, one that isn’t attached to someone you can love freely. You heard “I love you” sooner and more often than I did, yes, but for them to say it to me took a strength beyond what any adult, much less child, should be asked. For them to break past the disloyal feelings of “I’m worried if I love you, it will hurt my mommy.”

Every day I wonder, a little more than most, do they really love me? Yet every day, when I see them do something for me. When they hug me or say, “I love you, too!” and I know that nobody is pressing them to do that. Especially when they do so publicly, as a small act of defiance. Because that’s what it is. Rebellion for a greater cause.

But it’s different for you.

You’ve always had it given to you, which is wonderful, of course, but I know how love works. I know how the brain works, and, somehow, when we are freely given love, we actually get more worried. Do they really love me? Do they mean it? After all, so many will tell us “I love you,” very quickly–but just because they are trying to take advantage or use us in some way. So, even if those gestures flood us with warmth, a tiny niggling part of our brain says, ‘Do they mean it?’

And, of course, I feel the same even with my munchkins! I worry if they mean it, just like I worry about every single person who ever said they loved me. No matter what they say or do…or how long they keep it up. You know? No matter how much, say, our girlfriend or husband or master tells us, “I love you,” some days our brains tell us they don’t mean it at all. That we’re wholly and utterly unloveable.

But that doubt is tempered by constant, consistent reassurance.

I get daily little emotional boosts with my little ones that most mothers do not. And it helps when I get insecure, sure, but reason tells me, ‘Why would they lie? Why would they fake it, when loving me means they have to put up with so much crap? So much guilt and day to day hassles? When they know all they have to do is so, I don’t want you around, and I’d be gone?

What…are they just doing this as some elaborate ten year, lifetime plot to secretly jump out and say, ‘Hah! Fooled you. I only was nice to you for ten years so that I could really…uhhh…shock you! Bet you feel like an idiot now, huh?” Yes, I’m the idiot. The one that accepted love for a decade and lived this great life, while you spent it plotting to achieve a fleeting moment of smug victory. So, yeah, I sort of have reasons to not doubt that love.

I wish I could share that feeling with you, because I’m sure your kids love you just as deeply. But I can’t. Anymore than I can convince you that the rest of the people you feel are obligated to love you (they aren’t, but that’s how you feel some days) really DO love you. Because you can always say, well, they have to love me. They’re my mom/my dad/my siblings/my partner.

“So knowing makes it all worthwhile?”

I would like to say, yes. I like knowing. Except some days, I don’t want an objective third party with professional credentials telling me I’m an “angel.” I just want normal love and recognition and appreciation (which admittedly is almost none.). I don’t need to be the supermom. I just want to feel normal. Just go to a parent teacher meeting or have lunch with the kid at some stupid school event.

You know, you can have it all. But you can’t have it all with EVERY. SINGLE. PERSON. So the truth is I’m supremely grateful for what I have with my munchkins. And maybe I’ll have that normal relationship with a child one day– but I won’t have the things I get in this special, unique relationship with the children I have now.

And I guess that’s okay. Because I’ll have new special things with the child that grows up calling me mama.

Tonight, this evening when the kids are rummaging through the house doing their things, I think about all of this. Reflect on this conversation I’ve had time and time again– but I never responded like this, but usually more of a “Well, you know it has it’s perks.” And how I wish I had the courage or confidence or whatever to say all of what I said here. Because what I get from my munchkins is incredible, and I deserve to be able to say it all.

And then one of them wanders into my room to use my facilities and brings me back to reality. I open my mouth, but all that comes out is,

“You know you have your own bathroom that works now, right?”

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