The pain of being a part-time parent

Because I share custody with my ex-husband, balance is built into my life. But every time the kids go to their dad’s, my heart breaks and I want them back.

The pain of being a part-time parent


I walk through the front door and excitedly confront the mess before me. I’ve spent the past few days awaiting this moment: the moment I can finally catch up on life. The laundry piles are high, the dishwasher is full of clean dishes to put away, and the sink is overflowing with dirty ones. There are bathrooms to be cleaned, beds to be made and a refrigerator that needs to be replenished. I let out a huge sigh of relief: My home will soon be clean again.

Three kids, two homes and a 50-50 parenting split present me with five consecutive child-free nights. That means uninterrupted showers, a bathroom and a bed entirely my own, and sleep—hours upon hours of deep, peaceful sleep. Balance is built into my life via court order. Some people say that this is one of the perks of divorce. In theory, yes. But underneath it all, it’s not so rosy.

When I stop to survey the mess, I’m suddenly overwhelmed. Instead of rejoicing in my time alone, my thoughts are consumed with regret. I glance at the pile of clothes at the bottom of the stairs and hear my impatient voice from the day before: “Hurry up! I’ve asked you seven times to get your soccer uniform on. We’re going to be late!” I catch sight of the dirty dishes on the kitchen table and hear myself again: “Why did you ask me to make scrambled eggs if you weren’t going to touch them?” I look at the messy countertops in the bathroom and remember my daughter asking me for help with her hair. “I’ll be right there,” I said. But I never was.

Why didn’t I just drop everything and put her hair in a neat, high, bump-free ponytail? How many seconds would that have actually taken? And why can I only see this now? When we’re together—me and the kids—time is always running out, as is my patience. And then I start to count down the hours to when they’ll be at their dad’s and I can get caught up.

But then they are there, and I am here alone. And suddenly, I want them to be here with me, now and forever. I want a do-over. I want to make eggs, pancakes and bacon. I want to take the time to do fancy braids and be late to the damn soccer game. I want to be the mom that my kids deserve—the calm, loving, one-volume-and-it’s-a-quiet-one mom. I look around and see a mess, but I feel like a mess, too. Why don’t I cherish my time with them and let everything else go? Why don’t I remember this feeling from last time?

Three kids and their mom standing on a deck outside. PHOTO: COURTESY SUZANNE HAYES

It’s been six years—I thought I’d have the hang of this by now. With compassion, logic and a grown-up perspective, I’ve told my kids, many times, how they’ll get used to being at mom’s, then dad’s. Two homes can be a good thing. It will become routine. Yet, as I stare at the emptiness around me, I struggle to believe my own words. Regret and guilt eat away at me. Logic disappears. Are they playing happily? Do they miss me? Is Dad’s house fun? Is it more fun than mine?

I want a do-over because 50 percent is never enough time, and I want every moment of that 50 percent to be perfect. But I’m not perfect, and this mess holds our story, our memories, my sadness and my love: There’s the hat on the floor that came flying off my daughter’s head during our late-night dance party, the dirty bowl we used to make homemade chocolate chip cookies in the kitchen sink, the almost-finished Monopoly game when we missed bedtime. Sometimes I do better; other times, I fall short. Next time, I will tie that braid. But for now, I need to straighten up the mess because, before I know it, they will run through that front door and jump excitedly into my arms with stories to match the mess left at their dad’s.


This article was originally published online in November 2017.


This article was originally published on Feb 27, 2020

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