The Commuter Family: During the workweek, I’m a single parent.Shannon LC Cate
Sweeping up the crumbs from under the breakfast table while my older daughter cries and says, “Don’t go!” I think about how this arrangement must be only a bit better for her than a divorce. She has a primary parent she sees every day and one she sees on long weekends. The latter doesn’t always know what her current favorite DVD is or where we keep the rain boots or how many books are allowed before lights out.
The good news is her parents are married (in Canada at least) and are on the same team, even when they aren’t quite on the same page. We play a lot of catch-up, me emailing or calling once or twice a day to share all the cute but tiny details of the kids’ week while Cole is at work in another town. We haven’t figured out video conferencing yet, but we plan to get it up and running as soon as my partner gets high-speed internet at her new home-away-from-home.
The downsides to this back-and-forth family life are plenty. Almost any time I spend away from the kids has to paid for with funds that are limited. My partner misses much of the family’s daily life. The kids – particularly the older one, who remembers well a time when her other mom didn’t go away to work overnight, but got up and gave her breakfast every morning – have behavior “issues” around comings and goings. It takes about a day to settle in on either side of my partner’s traveling. That makes for a lot of rough patches in the week.
But we chose to live this way. Not because anybody wanted the time apart, but because my partner is the breadwinner in the family and her job is located in a small, Midwestern town that was draining the life out of me. The town where my partner teaches is a lovely place in many ways. It has leafy, tree-lined streets, good public schools and large be-porched houses that sell for reasonable prices. It has friendly people and a world-class university. It’s the kind of place people tend to say is a “good place to raise kids.”
But I am an urban animal and I missed the big city I moved from when I decided to commit to my partner. I missed it even more once we had children. For all it had, it didn’t have the urban life I had hoped to give my kids. The care of small children that gives so many new moms cabin fever felt that much more stifling to me in a small town. I longed for the ease of stepping just outside my front door and already being somewhere, with people around and stores with useful supplies like milk and apples within walking distance.
But these “lifestyle” issues paled in comparison to the main reasons my partner and I decided to live apart part-time in exchange for city life. We are white lesbians and our adopted children are African-American. The college town had some white lesbians with mostly white kids. It had a small handful of African-American professionals. But mostly our family stuck out as misfits everywhere we went. In our childless days, such things didn’t bother my partner and me much. But we didn’t want our kids to go through childhood feeling like they were oddballs – not on the basis of having been adopted, not on the basis of having same-sex parents, and certainly not on the basis of their racial difference from us and most others around them.
We know that no matter where we live, our family will be unusual. We differ from the mainstream in too many ways to find a colony of identical people. But living among people just like us wasn’t necessarily our goal. Our goal was to live in a place with enough diversity that our difference wasn’t as easy to pin down; where most people looked different in some way from the population of Mayberry. We wanted to be in a place where we didn’t deviate so much from the norm, because there wasn’t such an obvious norm in the first place.
Now things have settled a bit. That meant trading living together all the time for commuting three hours, twice a week, maintaining the expenses of two households and putting our kids through weekly separation from one of their parents.
For the first few months of our new life, the kids seemed upset enough at the routine comings and goings that I second-guessed the wisdom of our move. But now, things have settled a bit. Both kids recognize Cole’s ringtone on my phone. They rejoice at her arrival on Fridays in a way that warms her heart and makes her feel truly appreciated. And now that work is in another town, her time with us is of a higher quality. We devote unswerving attention to the kids every Saturday during our family explorations of the city, rarely miss church on Sundays, and never skip a date night. These are all things that used to slide when my partner’s office was five minutes from home. Now no one in the family takes anyone else for granted.