Aches & Pains

The howling starts just an hour after I’ve put the kids to bed. I race upstairs to see what is happening, stop to peek in Veronica’s room, but quickly realize it’s Ivan. He’s awake but sleepy, tossing in his bed, tangled in his quilt. Between gulping sobs he cries, “My ear. Hurts.”

I comfort him for a minute and check his forehead – cool, good – and leave to run the water for a hot washcloth. I ask him to press it to his ear and go to get some ibuprofin. After a half hour, he is still weeping, so I give him a second pill. I offer to tell him a story to help him fall asleep.

“Jack and the Beanstalk.” he says, “No, Pinocchio.”

I try to cobble together the details I know: Gepeto, wishing star, candy store, Lampwick – and add details and flourishes to compensate for what I’ve forgotten. The whimpering subsides. Once Pinocchio has become a real boy, I turn out the lights and soothe Ivan to sleep, and finally drift off next to him.

Two hours later at 12:30 he wakes me with restless kicking and arm waving, which turns to crying. Once he can stop crying long enough to speak, he says through trembling lips,

“I want to go to Dad’s.”

Six words that sink my heart like a stone. As I’m helplessly wiping my son’s tears, I’m also batting away doubts and regrets that swoop into my head like so many birds.

“Oh honey, we can’t go to daddy’s. It’s the middle of the night.”

“But I really want to go! I miss dad!”

Truth be told, I wouldn’t mind taking him to my ex-husband’s house, if it would help. But it won’t help, and it would breach our tacit parenting agreement regarding such things. Almost exactly a year ago, Ivan had the croup, and I called Dave in the middle of night. I was still newly single, and scared shitless by Ivan’s small chest heaving as he gasped for air. The net result was a small bout of hysteria (mine), a passive aggressive stand-off (ours) and an ER bill I’m still paying off (mine again). This time I’ll handle it on my own thanks.

Ivan continues to plead to go to this dad’s, and then to the doctor.

“I know your dad would do the same things I am doing now. There is nothing else he, or a doctor even, can do. It stinks, but it’s true.”

I know that kids show parental preferences, and when they were toddlers and Dave and I were married, we actually joked about it. “Looks like your the favorite!” we’d remark with a grin as we passed off a screaming child, “she wants you!” and then go back to bed. It was cyclical, and I never took their preference for their father that seriously. Because at the time I was the go-to parent, when the dog bit and the bee stung. Times have changed.

I crush a tab of Sudafed and put it in a spoon full of sugar in desperation. “I just want to be in my high bed, that’s why I want to go to dad’s.” he says, still trying. I tell him it wouldn’t help his ear, while I stack pillows behind him in bed so he’s sitting up, to help the fluid drain. I’m calm, and kind, but my heart is heavy. I know it’s not the bed he wants, but  his father’s deep voice, slow cadence. Probably his smell, and the scratch of his cheek. But, I’m the mother. Aren’t I supposed to be the one who he calls out for at night? Shouldn’t I be able to deliver my own baby from pain?

And that, more than a fear of being the lesser parent, is what kills me. I can’t cure it. When my son asks for his father in the middle of the night, I cannot grant his request. And that this circumstance, this life of cold comfort and co-parenting, was my choice. Like everything that results from the divorce, it’s my fault. And while I can acknowledge in the light of day that the failure of our marriage was a group effort, at two in the morning it very clearly registers as mine alone.

After a long hour of efforts to distract and comfort, the decongestant takes effect, and Ivan begins to calm down. I bring him back into my bed, and offer a second story.

“Jack and the Beanstalk?” I ask.

“No, we always do that one.”

“How about Hansel and Gretel? Too scary?”

“No. I like it.” This one I know well. The stepmother shakes them awake while it is still dark. They wake shivering on the forest floor. The pebbles shine like stars in the night sky as they guide the children home. Breadcrumbs, birds. The walls are made of gingerbread and the windows of colored candy glass. Gretel gives Hansel a chicken bone. When the children return, their pockets are stuffed with emeralds and the woodcutter embraces them.

I hold Ivan’s tiny hand until his breathing slows and he is out. Another ear ache, another long night, endured. I lie awake and wish for sleep. I wish for happy endings and stars that lead the way to them. I wish for my children to have a life I cannot give them. I wish for medicine to chase away the ache that rises up from my chest when I feel the full weight of the choices I’ve made. And I fall asleep, telling myself stories.


6 thoughts on “Aches & Pains”

  1. I just have to tell you that you are doing a great job and as long as you are around Veronica and Ivan, you will be giving them what they need. A Mommy, the hardest job in the world.
    Keep up your hard work and all you can do is be there for them and love them.

  2. It is never easy, being a parent. I wonder how many times Ivan has wanted you while at his Dad’s. I would bet there have been times when he has wanted your smell, your hands, your soothing voice and loving words.
    Can Dave tell a story as well as you? I doubt it.

  3. How come these arrows of guilt shoot at us from all these angles even when we know that one of the smartest things we have ever done for ourselves and for our kids is to not be with their other parent? It is hard to remember that each parent is the favorite parent on certain days, certain situations, certain points in life. It is easy to overlook even the strongest and unambiguous reminders that tell us how and when it is our particular brand of love that hits the spot.

    The only thing that is worse is to think what it would be like for them if they did not have the other parent, even if one could claim that the reason that the two parents are not together is totally all the other’s fault. Unaddressed addictions, homicidal tendencies, major untreated metal illness and adherence to masochistic cults aside, to be the only note in the parenting song is a bit of a drag. I’ve had a few friends who have been the only one. Sometimes I envy them, that they get to call the shots, only have to deal with the kid drama and not with the drama of another parent who is pissed off that their fantasies are not getting fulfilled by the other parent, conflicts over who is really sacrificing the most and who’s the most important parent and who gets to decide what… on and on–if I could just call the shots or at least not get blindsided by them…. on and on…. And to be the only one would–really would be much easier.

    Going to the high bed at dad’s does not work in the middle of the night, but you can know that it is there if you need it some other day. In the mean time, don’t lose the confidence in what you are doing, now… and what you did that night. And sorry, it’s not going to be easy, but that’s okay.

    1. Thanks for your long and thoughtful reply, Clarence. I should say that I do not take my kids’ father for granted. I, and they, are really lucky that he is a top notch dad. We have very different styles, which makes those preferences more pronounced I think, but I appreciate many things about the way he cares for our kids. My father was barely a part of my life for many formative years, and it took it’s toll. Even though it sometimes is more complicated, I’m grateful for my ex-husbands deep level of involvement and commitment to our kids.

      1. I get that, not just with the reply but with the post. I hope that he reciprocates the same attitude. I am guessing that he does, even if you guys have different drummers.

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