Well before I married Elizabeth's father we talked about children. In those early conversations we didn't talk about financial weight so much as the emotional and support commitments; those nebulous things that go well past shelter, clothing, and food. To be clear, shelter, clothing, and food through the age of eighteen is what the foster system provides. That, and no more. It doesn't matter if those resources are financially limited or if a kid's sitting alone in a 10,000 square foot home with a stocked refrigerator. Sometimes the greatest tragedies happen in those 10,000 square foot homes. And I can't say much about the foster system either. Parents can do only so much to provide stability and a trauma free childhood, but in the end we get what we get and we are who we are. The offset is that 'being there' business.
The conversation started because I had a need that couldn't wait. Well, it could wait, everything can wait; but there's a price to pay on the hold. The response I got was, 'I just can't right now. I can't just turn it on and off.'
To be fair to Elizabeth's father, this was probably the first time someone had ever asked him to be emotionally available while his emotional bandwidth was sapped. That's a thing we have to learn and some people never do. I asked him what he though being a father meant. I talked about the immediate needs of a newborn, the emotional requirements of a toddler, and finally, the absolute chaos of ever after. We don't have the luxury of not pulling our heads out of our asses when somebody else's shit is hitting the fan.
Elizabeth's dad got it. He might have had to get there by brute force, but he SHOWED UP and stayed in place, like a mountain. I don't believe she has ever had cause to doubt that mountain.
I understand circumstances. I understand that sometimes life and choices put us in a place where we cannot, or believe we cannot, be or provide what is needed. That, also, is a fact of life. However, it's one of those things that can be mitigated by an offset.
We are in the middle of the ocean, Elizabeth and I. We're on two tethered lifeboats that bump together three days out of seven. That doesn't sound terrible, does it? We kept telling each other that three days out of seven were good enough. Good enough for what?
When Elizabeth's the in-the-house-daddy vanished, she began to keep her own counsel. We thought it might have been trust but it was more than that. Children who have been abandoned by a parent before the age of eighteen have abandonment issues which are fraught with trust but also survival. That's very clinical and we don't have to think about it much. What we might say, hear, and think is this:
The vanishing parent exits by way of a bulldozer and the family members who pay the highest long-term price are young children. They haven't the language to tell themselves what they feel, and that pit is good and deep. An event that might seem tenable for one child may have the capacity to be terminal for another.
Elizabeth and I are bobbing about in the middle of the ocean. She knows I'm there because she can hear me and she can see my face on the small screen of her phone. We are working on organization skills. I have constructed a kanban board with the seven primary lanes that represent her life. A Kanban board is a tool used mostly by software developers in an Agile environment to visually track separate tasks by deadline and dependency. Think of each task as a post-it on a white board. Because it is web based, both of us can see and edit.
The columns on her board were: Not Started, In Process, Complete, and Archive. Each row represented a swimlane that classified, and separated tasks. I don't much care to use swimlanes, but Elizabeth is not a build, she's a person.
Her seven swimlanes were distinct categories: School, Work, Boyfriend, Friends, Homework, Self-care, Parents. We built the cards together and she managed them. The board allowed her to look at her bandwidth with regard to physical time, but more importantly, she could see and manage life balance.
Kanban Board example
This was sixth grade all over again, but without the board.
I thought we were doing fine. She probably would have said we were doing fine. We're both terrible that way; we don't actually know there's a problem until we fall off a cliff. She fell off a cliff.
I think it was a Wednesday night call, but I'm not sure it matters. She was sitting on the couch with her computer open so she see me bigger. I don't know that we had much conversation before the Elizabeth I understood evaporated on the screen in front of me. She went from speaking quietly, which is a flag, to crying, then wailing, hair in face, snot everywhere, and nearly unintelligible.
Four words. I heard only these four words:
Why aren't you here?!!!!
I can't be certain, but I believe I drove home that night, sat with her on the couch for the 15 minutes I could spare before I needed to get my mandatory 4.5 hours. I left at 4:30 the next morning and returned the same night, as expected.
I talked to my boss, not that it really mattered because I was still at the Basking Ridge office four days a week. I made the decision to come home on Tuesday nights. I left again on Wednesday morning and returned on Thursday evening. That reduced the three nights alone to two single nights of separation. It made an enormous difference, but it wasn't enough.
In a lot of cases, a company does not want to incur travel expenses for all days utilized. Also, the flight in and flight out impact can be difficult to manage. Verizon kept new consultants on site for the first four weeks, after that, they were onsite every other week. Technical Project Managers handling resources and business relationships needed to be in the building. We agreed up front that working remotely two weeks out of the month might be detrimental.
When I realized how detrimental my absence was to my child, we had another conversation. Good client, good relationship, good performance; these things go a long way. Unfortunately, we didn't get to this place until the end of the school year but that left the entire summer to weather the next couple of storms under the same roof.
Are they extraordinary storms? Not really. They are things young people bump up against now and then. They are the things that cause a young person to look up and say...Mom? Mom?
Yeah, sweetie, I'm right here.
Shortly after the meltdown, the bedtime story was reintroduced. It was just a poem, the same poem every time, and she didn't necessarily need it every night. It is recorded because I sent her to college with it. So she could have it any time; a little bit of Mom on tap.