Saturday, December 15, 2007

A Job Well Done

It's been about 25 years since I first met my friend Kathy. At that point in my life, I was only incidentally a writer. Mostly I was a party girl. It was the 1980s, after all. Kathy is 10 years my senior and, even though we had the same job, we were at very different points in our lives. She was newly re-entering the workforce, a mom with 2 junior high school aged kids, and in the process of a divorce. We had so little in common during those days that I wonder why we became friends in the first place. But we have gone through a lot of changes together and remain friends to this day.

When Kathy left her husband, she allowed him to be the custodial parent. She loves her children and thought this through carefully. She had been a stay-at-home mom during their early years, cared for them through illnesses, helped them with homework, accompanied them to camp, etc. Her husband, who also loved his children, had been working and missed a lot of their growing up. Her concern was, if he didn't get to know them now, before they got into high school, he would never really know their children the way she did.

So it was Kathy -- not her husband -- who had to be satisfied with nightly phone calls, dinner once a week, and a sleepover every other weekend with her kids. 

I was surprised by how hostile other women, especially other mothers, were to Kathy's decision. "Oh yeah, your friend who dumped her kids." I heard that and similar unsympathetic comments. As a woman who has never been a mother, but who has always been a feminist, these comments confused me. She didn't "dump" her kids at a firestation, she left them with their father. Divorced men whose children don't live with them aren't looked down upon. I didn't see why Kathy faced such insensitivity. I still don't.

Especially because she turned out to be right.

Her relationship with her son and daughter always remained strong. Rocky at times, for sure, but they were never estranged. Even better, the kids became close to their dad. When Jill decided to skip college and get married, or when Kurt stumbled scholastically, Kathy and her ex-husband dealt with these issues together. Not as man and wife, but as a family. 

Recently, Jill was preparing to deliver her fourth child. Jill's husband (the same man she married right after high school graduation all those years ago) was working construction at a site far away from the hospital and wouldn't make a reliable Lamaze partner. Kathy is in sales now and on the road, and therefore not a good candidate for Lamaze partner, either. Jill has become so close to her dad that she impulsively asked him to be on deck to go through delivery with her. He tenderly reminded her how much a Lamaze partner sees and they both had a good laugh about it, and she asked her sister-in-law instead.

Last month, Kathy's ex had emergency heart surgery. At the same time, Kurt's wife was in the hospital, delivering her first baby. Because her ex couldn't drive so soon after surgery, two weeks later Kathy picked him up and brought him to Kurt's house, where they all celebrated the baby's first Thanksgiving together. Kathy and her ex gave thanks for his recovery and their fifth (!) grandchild.

Kathy doesn't feel threatened by how close her kids have been to their dad. She's proud of it. It hasn't all been perfect, nor easy -- for example, Kathy was hurt by her ex's subsequent romance with a woman she considered their friend, and upset with the way the lazy way he's maintained the house they still own jointly. (Now that she's 60 and had been hoping for the proceeds of the house to help pay for her retirement, she's very upset!) But when it comes to their kids, Kathy and her ex have always been supportive and inclusive of one another.  It began with her decision to let the kids live with their father. It helped diffuse the acrimony a husband and wife felt about the break up of their marriage, and helped them focus instead on their roles as parents.

I admire Kathy for making the brave decision. For bucking convention, absorbing the criticism of those who called her "selfish." For putting her children ahead of her own ego. For giving the children -- and now her grandchildren -- the gift of a loving, cohesive family.