By Erik Raschke
“Momma was crying last night,” my seven-year-old son said. “She was crying because you left our family.”
I know that when my son hears his mother crying, blaming her sadness on me, I must find a way to talk to him, explain without animosity, why his mother blames me, and I must do this much in the way my own father explained to me, why my mother blamed him.
My mother married my father for the same things she eventually wound up hating him for—his dreaminess, his devotion to books, his choice of intellectual solitude. When I was born, my father was starting out as a professor. He was focused on curriculum, lectures, and department meetings. He and my mother tried to split the responsibilities of childrearing, but my mom became impatient and eventually resentful of his ego, his clumsiness, and his inclination to open a book during the most impractical moments.
By the time I was four my parents were in a spiral of unhappiness. My mother was professionally unfulfilled. My father was enjoying the celebrity that came with being a white-male academic in the nineteen-seventies. They eventually separated and my father moved into an apartment several blocks away. The divorce was simple enough. He took nothing except himself. She kept the house, his records, his books, the car. And in the end, she changed nothing, left the furniture, kept the family photos in place.
For my mother, the pain of my father leaving was so acute, the rejection so intense, that she went into a kind of survival mode. She blamed him for everything from our car breaking down to Ronald Reagan’s presidency. She had boyfriends, but with each break-up, her disappointment with love multiplied, a disappointment directed at “men” in general.
Out of my mother’s frustration, I learned that men were little more than a collective of conceited assholes. Anything with a penis was automatically a malicious brute who behaved selfishly, acted thoughtlessly, caused wars, and inflicted untold harm upon humanity. I grew up hyper-vigilant of my “maleness” and became insecure of my natural instincts. If she happened to point out “good men,” there were no distinguishing traits other than they had remained married.
Often I found my mother looking at me with confusion, a “male” whom she loved with all her heart. “Please, please, never become a man like your father,” she pleaded. This became her mantra and my deepest fear.
Almost thirty years after my parent’s divorce, my mother and I were crossing Puget Sound by ferry. She’d just been informed that her cancer had spread to her liver. The sunset was in her face and her melancholy was tempered by marvel.
Then, seemingly from nowhere, she asked what my long-time psychiatrist, a woman older than my mother, thought about her. It was a difficult and surprising question. At this point, however, lying seemed disingenuous.
“Erik, you’re always blaming your dad for leaving your mother,” I told her my therapist said, “but I can’t for the life of me understand why you don’t blame your mom for the divorce. There are two people in every marriage. And the way she made you feel bad about your father, blaming him for everything…”
My mother waved her hand in the air, cutting me off and was silent for a while. Finally she replied, “Your therapist is right. I pushed your father away. Then I blamed him when he left. The pain was unbearable. You were all I had to get back at him with. No child should be put through that.”
A few days later, I was holding my mother’s hand when she died.
Even though I saw my father on the weekends, it was my mother who raised me and, within those years, she formed me into the kind of man who would never treat a woman badly, who would never leave his family. She molded me into the kind of man who would never become my father.
In the end I became, in an oblique way, the man who my mother did not want me to be. I became the man who, technically, left his family, even though my children are with me half of the week.
When the mother of my son blames me for leaving, and my son asks why she blames me, there is little for me to do except explain to him, much in the way my father did with me, that the relationship between his mother and I did not hold, that we were not happy, and that while I made the decision to leave her, I did not leave him. It is hard to explain to a child why his parents are separating, especially when there are no clear reasons, but it is even more difficult to refute a mother’s accusation of abandonment.
Last year, Disney released “Coco,” a movie where a father is blamed by the entire family for leaving. My son had seen it with his mother and it had resonated so profoundly that he wanted me to see it as well. After the movie, he squeezed my hand and said, “I don’t blame you, poppa,” and it was the first time, since I had left his mother, that my guilt lightened.
I loved my son’s mother much in the way my father once loved my mother. And I love my son much in the way my father loves me. But the love I had for his mother is no longer there, while the love I have for him has become my guiding light.
When my son sees me cooking with my mother’s pots, when he hears me playing her records, when my father visits and eats the food I have made from my mother’s pots and listens to the music from her records, my son will slowly understand that blame is fragile, that to continue to blame is a choice, and that what is important is that we are remembered by how we loved.
Erik Raschke is the author of The Book of Samuel (St. Martin’s 2009) and lives in Amsterdam where he raises his three boys.
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