From September 2016

I Choose My Husband Again, and Again, Despite Our Childlessness

From the Editors: Writer Sylvie Beauvais explores the complexity of remaining with a beloved partner who does not share a desire to parent.

In June, I went sea kayaking in a bio-luminescent bay in Puerto Rico with my husband. We shared a two-seater kayak: he sat in the front of the boat and I sat in the back. There were other couples in other boats. As the sun set, we navigated the mangrove in the near total dark guided by the tiny amber lights at the sterns and bows, marking our group of boats. This seemed like the ultimate metaphor for marriage—navigating by faith, in the dark, with partial information, but with the support of a chosen companion.

Neither of us had ever been in a sea kayak. In the dark. In a bay. Surrounded by other uncertain boaters. All of us in couple formation. As sometimes happens in group settings, it was remarkably easy to make snap judgments about the other couples navigating the waters and their way of paddling together.

I could see couples with power struggles—one partner dominating. There were couples that couldn’t coordinate their paddling, their boats getting stuck in the low hanging mangrove trees. There was one boat where the man ignored his resigned wife’s cries and the directions of our guides, speeding ahead, somewhat out of control, constantly ramming other boats. Some boats moved slowly, but worked well together.

What my husband couldn’t see was that our paddling strokes were even and perfectly synced, that we were moving in harmony better than any other couple sharing a boat in our group. We both have broad shoulders, and now I realized our arms were the same length, so our paddles reached the water at the same time. We were moving quickly and efficiently, harmoniously, and he didn’t know. Another metaphor for marriage: each partner has different information about why the couple works or doesn’t work.

Ours is a childless marriage. My husband set this boundary to our relationship. What follows are my struggles. My husband is a private man which I will do my best to honor here.

At four a.m. in Washington DC, our first sleepless night in a friend’s guest room, I turn to my husband and want to ask him a question I have never previously envisioned through all our conversations about children.

“Honey, I have a hard question to ask you and you don’t have to answer right now.”

“I’m not in the best mood.” We have spent several uncomfortable hours tossing and turning in a strange bed.

I know my timing’s not great, “Okay, I won’t ask.”

My husband is patient with me, he breathes in and then exhales. He says, “You can ask.”

“If you knew I wanted children, why did you stay?”

I’m turned towards him in bed and he is looking up at the ceiling. His face is in shadow. My arm is draped over his chest. He says nothing for a few breaths, thinking. I consider what I know about us. I answer for him, “I think the short answer is that we love each other.”

He turns towards me and says “Yes, and I guess I felt it was your decision to make, whether to stay or go.”

In the moment I feel the sadness he must have felt, not knowing what I would choose. But this exchange also reminds me how inconceivable the choice to go has always seemed–how once my heart opened to this beautiful partner, it felt impossible to go. I lay in the bed a little sad, but also feeling the wholeness of my love: how large and generous the experience of loving him makes me feel.

After a moment of silence, he turns to me, looks at me and says, “That’s a nice hat.” I’m wearing my sleep mask on my forehead.

I answer, “It’s the required fashion accessory for sleepless nights.”

He says, “It’s true, I have noticed the actors wearing it in all the ads for sleepless nights.”

We laugh together and the sadness fades, and all I can feel is his chest hair tickling my forearm as he breathes and his warm leg along mine. In the moment what I feel is the certainty that I am in love, and it suffices; it feels vast. After I write about this exchange, I share the text with him and we cry together, holding each other tenderly.

We have had many conversations over many years. When I met him he was ambivalent and I was neutral to positive on children; I was a little unsure. My desire for children always hinged on finding a partner who was enthusiastic about the idea. Forcing someone ambivalent to have children is to me ethically repugnant and deeply unfair to both partner and imaginary child.

In our years together, I kept hoping his ambivalence would resolve and the vastness of our love would answer his questions and make him curious. No one moment felt like the decisive moment where the conversation about children ended. I stayed a little blindly hopeful and he was steadfast. During all that time in conversation, our love grew. As our love grew, we also got older. Thirty-eight when we met, I am now 44, closer to 45, and from a fertility standpoint the question is essentially moot. I never wanted the path of medical intervention for procreation. In the heat of our discussions after I had moved in, when I was 40 or 41, I tried to imagine leaving, finding a new partner, falling in love and trying to get pregnant. I thought that this path would be a time consuming gamble: by the time New Partner might be ready to commit to parenting, my fertility would be unsure. And then, as today, letting go of this love was inconceivable. Love is partly timing.

When I found myself praying to Aphrodite for a partner seven years ago when I was 37, I did not know that I would receive exactly what I asked for: the love of my life. Our childlessness is the most difficult choice I have ever made. I am deeply in love and also frequently (but bearably) in pain wishing our relationship could encompass parenting. It is a delicate, excruciating tension. I embrace the joy and fulfillment of being partnered with someone I deeply respect, truly enjoy, and with whom I share ecstasy, intellectual stimulation, and travel. We continue our conversation. The person who causes me the most existential tension (my loving husband who doesn’t want kids) is the person who comforts me through my tears and helps me laugh. Despite its sorrows, the mantle of our love sometimes feels magical, both protective and reparative.

The choice to stay, to love, to share my life with this person is made anew with varying frequency. I make the choice again and again, knowingly, in regret and in celebration. My husband’s definition of parenting is narrower than mine. I would parent by any means possible, fostering included. I do not require a biological offspring where he would. This gives me more options and I have considered them. Yet, I do not leave and go find a divorcee with children so I can step-mom.

The choices I embrace are to be my spouse’s partner, and to spend time with all the young mothers in my circle. Living with children in my life, but not my children, sometimes renews my grief but also gives me the joy of children’s company. I previously spent some time as a child therapist, so for a childless woman I am unusually comfortable around kids, and enjoy their humor, curiosity, and tenderness. Parents often notice, and frequently remark upon, my ease with children. Each comment tugs at the old familiar twinge in my heart. Then I go about the business of enjoying the moment and being present with the children. This weekend I was introduced to Ever After High characters by an enthusiastic six year old. She wanted me to help her find the evil queen’s lost shoe. At the end of each day with children, I go home with my husband. I enjoy the quiet. I might shed some tears. But I get a sound night sleep.

I’m not sure how all of this will play out in the end, the subtle wear and tear on my marriage. But I also feel writing this essay has helped me heal my heart, say what needed to be said, look clear eyed at the past, how I made the choices that brought me to this moment.

I keep rowing in the dark watching my husband’s graceful movements–so grateful for his presence. Sometimes, the grief is small, light as a feather, and sometimes it is a tornado. The tornadoes have been fewer lately. Writing helps. Feather or tornado, I love my husband and continue to be nourished by the wonder of this primary relationship.

Sylvie Beabeauvaisuvais lives in Philadelphia. She is a writer and psychotherapist who writes fiction, personal essays and reflections on social work.  She received her Master of Liberal Arts and her Master of Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania. She blogs about life, travel, and writing at www.sylviewrites.com, and likes to post to instagram.

 

Love is a Choice: Adopting an Older Child

From the Editors: Writer Oceania Chase shares the real challenges of adopting an older child as a single woman. 

It’s a beautiful sunny day and I’m desperately trying to hold on to my composure. My daughter is lying on the ground; repeatedly screaming at the top of her lungs “It’s not fair!” Her arms and legs are flailing and she is turning scarlet with anger.

My inner voice is reminding me: this is good; she’s allowing herself to feel angry, she’s right it isn’t fair, deal with her at the age she’s acting; she’s acting like a toddler, treat her like a toddler. Watch her; keep her safe, she needs to feel the feeling.

My pride is telling me to grab her up off the floor and frog march her back to my car immediately; this is embarrassing. People are watching us. I can see them making snide comments to each other, casting judgment. Why am I allowing this? What’s wrong with her? What’s wrong with me? Should they call the police?

So I sit, watching over her until she calms down naturally. Ready to help her when she’s ready. It feels like it has gone on for hours, if not days. In reality it was only about 5 minutes. She is 9years old and looks about 12.

I desperately wanted to shout out “it’s not my fault!”Whether intentional, or not, people can seem very judgmental. When I’m dealing with my 9-year-old daughter in public as you would a 3 year old – don’t judge her or me. You don’t know what she’s been through. You don’t know that she needs to have the developmental experiences of being 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8. That she’s never had them, and despite being 9 now, that she still needs to be held like a toddler at times, that she doesn’t know how to play, how to interact with her peers, that she needs to be cued socially just like a toddler. When she’s lying and stealing – that it takes time for her to learn that attention-seeking behaviors that were ignored for the first 7-8 years of her life are no longer acceptable. That she really is only just learning better. Those are the times when I’m certainly no saint. When I want to scream “I’m not a bad parent, I didn’t do this!“ Instead I swallow my pride and get on with parenting my daughter, as she needs to be parented right now.

You might be wondering, why a single woman would adopt a nine-year old girl who needs this level of care?

Actually, the hardest part of adopting an older child is managing other people.

When people say that they couldn’t do it or that I’m a saint, I’m sure they mean well. When people ask questions such as what I would do if her ‘real’ mother took her back?, I get that it is out of ignorance of the adoption laws.

I’m no saint! I’m just a woman who didn’t adopt out of a belief that love would be enough but in the acknowledgement and understanding, based on years of working with children in a variety of ways, that it takes more than love, like a lot of hard work, to raise children to be healthy adults. That having been through a lot myself as a child, felt drawn to adopt an older child, who are often considered unadoptable, because they’re no longer a cute baby and easy to explain to friends and family.

It might surprise people to know that I struggle with feeling selfish. By adopting my daughter as a single parent, that I took away her chance to have both a mum and a dad. I know intellectually that the government matched me with her based on her needs but when she latches on to every man in our life as a potential Dad, I worry that I did her an injustice. Knowing that if I hadn’t been her match that she would have probably ended up in foster care, or a group-home, helps me deal with that but I still struggle with it.

Thankfully, I have a good support network in terms of people being there for me to talk to but it’s taken me most of the last 16 months to recognize that I also need time for myself for me to be a better parent for her. That it won’t hurt her to spend time with other people once in a while and that it doesn’t make me a bad person if I find people that can take care of her occasionally. Yet, I have to be very careful who takes care of her and that they understand why we have a strict routine and why it must be adhered to (She has anxiety which is very much helped by enforced routine). Interestingly, talking with other adoptive parents this discomfort with letting others take care of our children seems to be a common problem. It’s as though we fight so hard to get our children that once we have them we forget that we’re only human and just like all other parents aren’t superhuman!

When you adopt an older child, you grieve for the lost years. You think that there won’t be any sleepless nights as there are with a newborn; that you’ll have missed many of those first experiences. Some of which is true. I certainly didn’t get to change her diapers; however, I do get to deal with poopy panties and help her learn how to listen to her body and to go to the toilet appropriately.

Additionally, for my daughter, her past circumstances meant that she didn’t get to experience many of the ‘firsts’ that you’d usually expect a child her age to have had and as we work together towards her emotional health, I find that I still have those prized moments with her that I thought were lost in her babyhood. Just the other day she was cuddled up on my knee as I gently moved the rocking chair back and forth. ‘Our song’ is playing and the play therapist has moved so that she’s out of sight. The moment is simply ours. My daughter gently reaches up and mimicking something that I’ve now done with her for over a year, each and every bedtime, she gently reaches up with her hand and strokes my face and stares into my eyes.

Just days before I’d watched a newborn do the same thing – bonding with their mother. Other such moments are seeing her face light up when she saw fireworks for the first time, giving her her first children’s birthday party, taking her to see a kids’ movie, her face when she experienced her first visits from the tooth fairy and a note from Santa! Of the night she confessed her biggest secret –crying, snot running down her face, gulping air frantically, near hysteria and silently screaming inside, curled up in my arms and holding on to me so tightly, as she confessed what she’d never dared voice before – knowing that this meant that she finally felt safe and loved and therefore could trust me with her deepest darkest fears.

For months I dreaded putting her to bed. Not that I hated the bedtime routine – I loved it and still do – but that was when she’d start talking about her past experiences. It broke my heart so many times to hear her talk about her past life. Those were the nights that email and our social worker kept me sane. Thankfully she’s now coming to a place when she’ll talk about these things with me at other times and not just at bedtime.

My daughter was seven years old when she was placed with me and I already loved her. I’d prayed for her for years. I’d gone through multiple hoops and hurdles in two different countries before finally being blessed with her. Yet, once she came I found that I had to make a conscious choice each and every day to love her. It took many months to break through her barriers and find the real child behind all the pretense and barricades she’d created to keep herself safe. Yet, it was that moment when the walls came down and she let me really see her – warts and all –and started to really believe that she was now safe and that I wasn’t going to ever send her away or leave her – that I fell truly in love with this daughter of my heart.

Love is a choice and one I gladly continue to make each and every day.

Oceania Chase is a writer based in Northern Ontario, Canada. She writes in a variety of genres, including pieces based on her personal life experiences, and is currently completing the background research needed for her first novel. She can be contacted at oceaniachase@gmail.com