My Husband Left Me Two Weeks After I Gave Birth

On Moving Mountains to Save Myself and My Kids

Eliza White
Human Parts

--

Photo By Caleb Riston — Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=93987125

I was 38 and a half weeks pregnant with our second child when my husband told me he was thinking of leaving me. I was 16 days postpartum when he did.

It was a Tuesday night.

“Do you want to know what I’m going to talk about tomorrow in therapy?” he asked. His face crinkled into a sob. I touched his shoulder.

“I’m depressed. I still resent you for what happened in Baltimore. I don’t have any hope in our relationship anymore.”

In Baltimore, five years earlier, Bryan had wanted to quit his first full-time job, two months into it, after a year and a half of me supporting us. I had insisted he get another job first.

Bryan was in graduate school when we first met. Tall, boisterous, self-deprecating, with an easy laugh, shiny black hair, and no qualms about showing his interest in me — I was swept up by his charm. He was passionate about social justice and affectionate with children and dogs. He was hilarious, easy with money, and doting. He cooked me elaborate meals and wanted to be with me all the time.

We moved in together quickly. I distracted myself from his money problems, his impulsiveness, and the hints of his proneness to depression. Until he finished graduate school, I wanted to support us: this is what you do for someone you love, right? He’d said he’d get a job after graduating, but that’s not what happened. He became bitter when he sent out then received advice on resume improvements. He quit his part-time job prematurely. While I paid for rent and groceries and let him use my car, he overspent, buying rounds for friends at the bar. I stopped contributing to retirement and paid for his health insurance and cancer treatments for his dog.

When he began a teacher training program a few months after we got married, I could finally see an end to our financial troubles. Bryan, so good with kids, would surely be a natural. But his first paycheck had just hit our bank account when he told me he wanted to quit. “I’m not willing to risk my life like this anymore,” he said.

I had no idea what he was talking about. Risk his life? In my evening grad school classes, we were learning about panic attacks. People often think they’ll die if they have a panic attack, my instructor explained. I figured this is what Bryan meant.

I’d been suggesting couples counseling for months: now I insisted. In our first session, I told him that quitting this job — which finally, finally allowed me to breathe about our finances — was a bridge too far.

“Do you hear what she’s saying?” the therapist asked. He said he did. But he continued to spin. During a visit, his mom said, “If you need to quit, quit.” I seethed. Although his parents were wealthy, she didn’t offer to help out. She wouldn’t be providing for him: I would.

He called in a favor with a family friend and accepted a job at half his salary. We moved across the state line to Delaware, closer to my work, saddled with two dogs, less money, and more debt. I hated Delaware, but at least Bryan was working. We did a few more sessions of marriage therapy, and then I got pregnant.

In our bedroom, five years later, it was like an echo. Again, he wanted to quit.

“I don’t have any hope in our relationship anymore.”

I took a breath and focused on understanding, so I could figure out how to fix it.

We talked late into the night.

We’d been in and out of marriage therapy for years, discussing problems that never resolved: money, why he seemed blasé during sex, his temper, extended family conflicts. He was still at least somewhat the funny, gregarious, tender Bryan I’d fallen in love with, but I kept trying fruitlessly to recover the devotion from him I felt early in our relationship. There was a nagging feeling that he wasn’t in our relationship — invested in our growing family — like I was. I kept finding signs of it: his unwillingness to spend time together on the weekends, his reading me as being controlling into all my efforts to talk about it. We would fight, make up. Nothing was ever resolved.

But recently we’d hit a stride. A couples’ retreat 10 months before had brought us closer and renewed our commitment to each other. Or at least, that’s what I believed. Bryan had given every indication that he believed the same.

On Wednesday, I sent him an article about whether you know you’re ready for divorce, hoping he’d backtrack. Because that’s what he usually did. Bryan would lash out, but almost always came back later, apologizing.

This time, the article didn’t work.

With my induction scheduled for the following week and out of options, I dissociated, acting as if nothing was happening. But something was. Bryan avoided me. Against our agreement, he told his whole family that he was thinking of leaving. This wasn’t just a fight: this was real. I called my family on Sunday night. I could barely get the words out.

“Bryan wants to leave me.” I gasped for air between sobs, my swollen belly wedged behind the steering wheel of my car.

By Monday, I had lost five pounds. Through the course of our six years of marriage, I’d begun to internalize Bryan’s image of me: controlling, miserly, always needing to be right. I’d been trying to change, trying to understand him, had become better at tiptoeing around his moods. I clearly needed to change faster now. I found a step-by-step program online that helped you to “win back your spouse.” I began listening to the recordings immediately. They instructed me to launch a full-scale campaign that was a combination of love and groveling.

I wrote Bryan an email, telling him all the reasons I loved him. I begged him to hold on. He said it was the most meaningful email he’d ever received. I dared to hope that maybe everything would be okay.

When Bryan had told me that he was depressed, I had asked what he needed. “I need more time away from our family. I feel good with my work friends,” he’d said.

On Tuesday, the night before my induction, Bryan attended a happy hour after work, but said he wanted to put our 3.5-year-old, Jack, to bed. Jack’s bedtime approached and passed. We waited. I tried to distract the tired boy. Finally, Bryan barged through the door, saying he’d be right back: he just needed to change his clothes. But I heard him in the kitchen pouring himself bourbon, then on the porch, talking and laughing into his phone. We waited. Then I said, as calmly as I could, “Jack is waiting.”

“Oh! Sorry! Gotta go!” he yelled into the phone. In Jack’s bedroom, he began furiously scratching my back.

“This is the way to Mom’s heart, Jack. If you ever want to smooth things over, scratch her back.” His behavior was manic, alarming.

The next morning, the morning of my induction, I could feel the familiar resentment flooding my body. But I knew what to do. I would gently say how I felt, keeping only to this incident, and be open to his response.

“Bryan,” I said as I got my coffee, “Last night hurt. I know that you said you need to spend more time with your friends, but when you’re home, can you be home, with Jack and me?”

He whipped around, enraged. “I value friendships, and my friend was upset! He was upset because his friend was upset, because too many strangers were invited to his goodbye happy hour!”

The explanation was ridiculous. “We had been waiting a long time,” I said.

“This is what I mean! You try to control my every move!” He stomped away in fury.

That evening Bryan’s parents arrived to watch Jack while we went to the hospital. I asked for a picture on the porch. Bryan and I forced smiles, but Jack, reflecting the tension as children do, refused. On the drive, I asked Bryan if he was excited.

“I am,” he said robotically. The next morning, dismissive and rude to the cheerful obstetrician, he seemed far away from the delivery room. When my contractions accelerated, he mechanically stroked my head.

Sarah came quickly and easily. In the photos of that day, you can barely see my eyes, swollen from sleep deprivation, crying, and the physical trauma of delivery. Bryan’s siblings and their spouses arrived. Like a switch, Bryan became vivacious, charming. I was alarmed. He wasn’t depressed. He just couldn’t stand being around me.

He left shortly after they did. I descended.

I was sobbing when a nurse came in. I told her everything. She instantly notified the other nurses and relieved me of my baby. That night they held and nurtured Sarah in a way I could not. They brought me water, helped me to the bathroom, and asked the OB and psychiatrist to visit. These calm, empathetic, comforting women: I credit them with helping save my life.

But I could not sleep, could not sleep. My anxiety coalesced into rage. In desperation, I sent Bryan a long, scathing text, complaining that I couldn’t sleep or take care of our baby, that her first night was being spent with strangers: blaming him. His curt response dismissed me. My fear overflowed.

I called my parents. As they would over and over again in the next year, my family mobilized, like the nurses. They listened as I unloaded my desperation. They stayed on the phone with me for hours. But I still did not sleep.

In the morning, Bryan brought Jack to meet his new sister. The tender moment tragically juxtaposed with the desperate reality of our situation.

When we got home the following day, Bryan shared his plan: every other night he would sleep with Sarah in the guest room, and every other night, he would spend the night elsewhere with his friends or his brother. Not feeling like I had a choice, I agreed.

Day after day, I tried to convince Bryan to stay. One afternoon, instead of napping while my children were and turning my attention to something I could do to generate goodwill, I crept downstairs where he was napping. I told him he was handsome, funny, and a good dad. I asked him what he liked about me. He paused.

“Your intellect,” he said coldly. I touched him, worked him into hardness, then gave him oral sex.

We went upstairs, and he began to monologue about sex. He said he’d developed some unhealthy attitudes about sex when he was young and had said mean and sexist things about women. He said he thought it would be good for me to have sex with other people, that I needed more exposure. I balked — though lightly, calmly — and told him he didn’t know everything about me. He rolled his eyes. Then I revealed a secret about my sexual history , an experience he didn’t know.

I had intended never to tell anyone that secret, not because of shame, but because it was private, intimate. But I revealed it, feeling like a hostage. He was requiring more of me to stay — and I was complying. Contorting to keep the good opinion of my attachment or authority figure is reflexive, instinctual for me. Doing what I’m told has always been one of my most finely honed skills.

Years before, I’d decided to sell some expensive jewelry, gifted from my grandmother. We’d buy Bryan a car and pay down his loans, I thought, as I drove to a jewelry shop. The jeweler was dismayed that I was selling family heirlooms. He could only offer me a few hundred dollars. I took it. We needed the money.

Revealing my secret to Bryan felt like selling my jewelry for Bryan. Two things I will never get back.

But, sitting across from Bryan on the couch that day, revealing my secret past experience worked. He was impressed. He began to question me: What else had I done? Which neighbors, friends, colleagues did I find attractive? I demurred. He told me that if he cheated, he’d do it with his colleague, Marial.

My heart plunged. Whenever I glanced at his phone, there was always a text from Marial. I had asked him before if he had feelings for her. He’d assured me, no, they were just friends.

Hearing the news now, I knew not to react. Instead, I must meet his disclosure with another of my own, to show that I didn’t begrudge him. I told him that earlier that year, a colleague I worked out with in the gym had become extra friendly over text. I found him handsome and kind, and I’d imagined his long fingers inside me. So I knew to shut down the texting, responding curtly and late. My duty was to my marriage, my husband.

Bryan smiled, delighted. He moved closer. He wanted me to listen to a podcast about open relationships. I paused. “Would I consider an open relationship?” he asked. I didn’t say no.

He was thrilled. His joie de vivre — the reason people love Bryan — returned. He woke Jack from his nap.

“Let’s go to dinner!” he said. “This might actually work after all!”

We went to get pizza and ran into friends. I struggled to converse, on high alert, focused more on my husband’s mood than my newborn baby’s.

When we got back home he changed not into pajamas, but a crisp, going-out shirt.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“It’s my night off, remember? I’ll be back by 7 to get Jack ready for school,” he said. Then he left, our newborn attached hungrily to my dry breast, our toddler crying.

In the morning, I was back on the same place on the couch, trying to nurse, another night added to my endless sleeplessness, Jack throwing himself on and off the couch cushions. Bryan arrived an hour late. I had just risen to get Jack to school myself. My husband came in and took my place on the couch, lying down, still drunk. He had taken a Lyft, he said, because he had lost his keys somewhere the night before. I know a Lyft was $100, at least, and he would have to take one back to his car, or else I would have to drive him. Money we didn’t have. I broke for a moment and sighed. Bryan jumped off the couch.

“This is what I’m talking about!” he yelled. “You’re always saying I can do something and then making me feel guilty for it afterwards! I’m sick of it!”

I had not yet, until that point, fully absorbed the lesson that Bryan was teaching me: that I was no longer allowed to express annoyance or frustration with him. If I wanted to stay in my marriage, this would no longer be tolerated. I panicked.

“I’m sorry,” I said quietly. He lay back down.

One night, in an especially dark mood, Bryan poured himself bourbon, sat in the rocking chair, spun his wedding ring and talked about getting a tattoo of David Foster Wallace, who had killed himself. By this point, I had realized that he was suicidal back in Baltimore — and that I hadn’t known. Now I was a better wife. I asked if he was thinking of hurting himself. He paused.

“No,” he finally said.

My sister arrived for a visit, steaming with anger, but I convinced her to treat Bryan kindly. Having her there was a saving grace, yet I now had another thing to manage. Her justifiable rage couldn’t be shown to Bryan; his worst behaviors must be kept from her. I asked her to watch Jack while we visited our marriage therapist.

Sue was kind and sensible, yet I felt cold toward her. There I sat in a nursing bra, having only just discarded the massive pads and ice packs from my underwear, my baby in the car seat I had just carried in, my husband talking about his pain.

A few weeks before, she had asked each of us if there was anyone else. Both of us said no. Today, she asked again. Again, I said no, but Bryan paused.

Yes, he said. Marial. In fact, two days ago, when he was on paternity leave, he had taken her to lunch and told her he loved her. She said she had feelings for him too, but needed to focus on her marriage.

It sunk in. My baby made a sound. Pretty, young, and witty Marial, whom he’d invited over for dinner–with her husband and child–not a month and a half before. Next to her, 37 weeks pregnant, I felt both giant and small. I felt shy and like I was boring. I became incensed.

“I asked you about her,” I said. “Would you even be here right now if she hadn’t turned you down?”

“Wait a minute!” his voice rose in indignation. “You told me you had thoughts about someone else. Why are you allowed and I’m not? This is the double standard I’m talking about! And she didn’t turn me down!”

I was quiet. So was Sue.

After the session, a single sentence tumbled from Bryan’s mouth.

“I slept with a prostitute in Honduras, and I get hand jobs at a massage parlor during the workday.”

I said nothing. Then: “Your work trip to Honduras? That was two years ago.”

“Yes,” he said.

We drove home. I didn’t tell my sister.

It was amazing how long I could go without sleep, my body on autopilot, weight falling off like water. Yet, still my mind perpetually raced, turning over and over every detail, analyzing, searching for a guidepost to help me understand and tell me what to do. Okay, so my husband was even more damaged than I thought. But I thought of a friend at work, married to a traumatized, abusive alcoholic who’d fathered her seven children. She stuck by his side. I understood his confession from the afternoon before as a recommitment to our marriage. If Bryan stayed, I could stay by his side too, couldn’t I?

But in the morning, my calm at his revelation had sunk into jadedness. For a moment, I stepped off my determined track of devoted strength and let myself be. Bryan was taking a bath, soaking a plaguing anal fissure, and I went and sat on the lid of the toilet next to him.

“Bryan,” I said. “You told me you still loved me. But do you?” He pursed his lips.

“I don’t know,” he said.

Then, on his drive to work, he called. He was going to recommit himself to us, he said.

“Are you sure?” I asked. Yes. He was going to spend the whole weekend with us. He told me to buy him a fish to grill in celebration.

At Whole Foods, my sister was uncomfortable.

“What are we even doing?” she asked. I stayed on Bryan’s side, defending him. But it was hard. I was exhausted, unable to process anymore.

That evening the atmosphere was tense, artificially celebratory. I felt anxious and awkward. I laid out the tilapia I’d bought, poured wine that I didn’t want, and busied myself with cutting vegetables while my sister played with the kids. It was hot outside and hot in the kitchen. When Bryan came in the door, I gave him a stiff kiss. He barely reciprocated. I was scared, trying to convince myself not to be.

Then Bryan called me to the basement to talk privately. His earnestness — the Bryan I’d stayed married to for six years — hadn’t left from the day before. He looked me in the eye.

“I can’t do this, Eliza,” he said. He began to explain, but I couldn’t listen or fight anymore. In a fury, I began packing.

“You watch the kids for once then,” I snapped. I told my sister that I was spending the night with her at her hotel, kissed my children, and left.

We called the rest of my family, and I told them everything: about his infidelities, his verbal abuse.

“I never liked him,” my brother said.

“I never liked him,” my uncle said.

Texts poured in as the news spread among my extended family.

“I never liked him,” so many others would say in the coming months.

I slept that night, finally. The next morning, eager to get back to my children, we packed and drove home. I gritted my teeth and opened the front door, walking into my new life.

Bryan took the two dogs and left, almost instantly. My sister and I tucked Sarah into her car seat and took Jack to get ice cream that night. I felt alone and exhausted. But it felt like some semblance of peace was slowly arriving.

It wasn’t.

On Monday, the demanding texts began. Jack should start spending half the week with him at his parents’ house. Absolutely not, I said. Jack needed normalcy, to sleep in his own bed.

Was I restricting access to his children? Bryan asked. This was lawyer language that I didn’t yet know. We agreed that Jack would sleep at home that first week, but still he hounded me. When would I have enough milk to provide bottles for Sarah so he could take her? Was I even nursing her?

He began coming to pick up Jack for school. Barging in without knocking. Doing his morning routine in the bathroom. Helping himself to the food in the fridge that my sister and I had purchased.

One night Bryan and his dad came over to discuss the childrens’ schedules. My sister watched the kids in Jack’s bedroom, but Bryan’s dad sat on the couch.

“Why are you sitting here?” I asked. “I thought I’d be a neutral observer,” he said, not meeting my eyes. I glared.

“I’d like to have a conversation with my husband.” He got up and walked to Jack’s room.

Bryan began to lay into me, mimicking his lawyer’s words. A father needed to see his kids, to bond with his baby. It didn’t matter that he’d left, cheated, exposed us to STIs, neglected his responsibilities, and implied he might be suicidal.

My friend’s mother-in-law, a retired family lawyer, came over. I had to let him see his children, she said. And I should go to the county courthouse to see how Family Court treated women. I needed to be careful.

I got scared. My dad arrived and took me to dinner while Bryan took the kids for the evening, packed with bottles of formula for Sarah because I hadn’t been able to pump. Instead of enjoying the break, I was grief-stricken. I couldn’t eat; I couldn’t talk.

By this point, I’d interviewed two lawyers. Both told me the thing that depressed me most: I would be stuck in Delaware, down the street from Bryan’s entire family, across the country from mine, for the next 18 years. Because this is where the children lived now, the parenting plan and custody agreement would be established here. We would need to live near each other so the children could easily be transferred between houses for their time with each parent.

We had been trying to move for years. I’d applied and was offered a job in San Jose earlier that year. It was in a city I loved and near my family. Bryan nearly convinced me to take it: saying I could move and get settled with the baby, and then he and Jack could come later. He could work remotely and travel back occasionally. In retrospect, his proposal sickens me. How perfectly he could have set up his life to get what he wanted without having to give up what he already had.

But I found it hard to justify moving. Bryan was finally achieving success in his career and the job wasn’t my dream job, even if it was where we wanted to live. Something else would come up, I said. In consolation, we shopped for houses, until Bryan said I’d probably fall into a deep depression if we locked ourselves in Delaware. At the time, I received his words as loving. Now they seem anything but.

Still, it’s hard to ignore that, in addition to himself, he saved me.

Sleep-deprived and grief-stricken, I couldn’t decide which lawyer to select. Meanwhile, neighbors and friends mowed my lawn, took out my trash bins, brought meals, sent care packages, and volunteered as night nurses for Sarah. My aunt and uncle sent flowers. Friends and relatives came to visit, coordinating amongst themselves so I wouldn’t be alone. My sister taught me how to access Parks and Rec so I could occasionally laugh. Everyone was horrified by Bryan’s actions. His family’s housecleaner, Maria, checked on me daily, brought gifts and watched my baby.

My baby–my baby–was the calmest, happiest, sweetest baby. She warmed immediately to everyone taking care of her. She made me smile. At the worst moment of my life, blessings rained down.

A friend brought meals one day and asked how I was doing. As I shared details, her face pinched into fury.

“I’m so angry,” she said. “Remember, my sister is a divorce lawyer.” I’d completely forgotten. I took her number and called.

The lawyer, Emily, took control of the call immediately. She asked what I really wanted. “Well,” I said, “what I really want is to live in San Jose, but I know that’s not possible.”

“What you can do,” she said, “is go to San Jose with the kids before you have a parenting plan in place, and then stay long enough to establish residency there. Family courts everywhere are backed up by at least six months. By the time the court date arrives, the kids will have already built a life there, and there’s a good chance a judge won’t send you back.”

I tried to take it in.

“I mean, I’m not denying it would be very hard, and if you don’t want to make things more contentious — well, this is the nuclear attack. There’s a lot of risk…,”

“I can’t do that,” I said.

“Okay,” she said. We talked about the rest of the case. By the end of the call, she was my lawyer. Looking back, I count her as one of my greatest blessings.

Emily now directed all my communications with Bryan. What to text in response to his demands, to ask questions in response to his questions, to change all my passwords. I could insist he get his stuff out of the house and knock instead of barging in. I shouldn’t talk to anyone connected to him.

For a few days, I was propped up by the confidence this new powerhouse gave me. But a month of being unable to sleep or eat was taking its toll. My friends Kate and Julie had overlapping visits. “Eliza needs to get outside and go for a walk every day,” Kate instructed. The walls of my home were beginning to close in. My boss called. “E,” she told me. “It’s too much. You need meds.”

I got a prescription for Ambien, but it didn’t work. I lay in bed night after night, my mind spinning. My boss texted to check in. “I got Ambien,” I said. “E,” she wrote. “You need Zoloft.”

There were a few hours between Kate leaving and my mom arriving for a visit. Jack was in preschool and Sarah was down for a nap. I had just called Maria, asking if she had any news on Bryan. She’d been a single mother for a decade.

“At some point,” she said, “you just have to just look forward and move on.”

I tried to keep her on the phone. I needed comfort, but she had to go. I lay in bed and began to think about how I might kill myself. I’d go to the commuter station down the street and step in front of the train.

I could look up the schedule. Would I have the courage to do it? My children would be left without a mother, but Bryan and his family would take care of them, and at least they wouldn’t have a broken home. And I wouldn’t have to contend with all this anymore. I called my mom.

“Please hurry,” I said.

I talked to Emily on the phone.

“Eliza, you can’t think,” she said. “You need to get out of that house and take a break.”

“How?” I asked

“Take the kids and visit your parents. Tell Bryan you need a vacation.”

And so I did. To my surprise, he agreed. I bought tickets for three days later. Sarah would be six weeks old.

My mom and I bought a life-size skeleton for the front porch. I promised Jack we’d be back for Halloween.

My dad picked us up from the airport in San Jose. I could feel my body relaxing in the car, in the presence of these trees, so close to home, where I had always been taken care of. It was a relief — and yet — I felt resolute — I could not stay.

That night, I slept the whole night. Within two days, I had an appetite again. I resumed running. My childhood friends visited. My sister and parents and I took turns feeding Sarah at night. My brother visited and joined in.

But communication with Bryan was terrible. I asked Emily:

“What should I say when he asks when I’m going back?”

“Do you want to go back?” she asked.

“No, not yet.”

Bryan and I began communicating only in emails drafted by our lawyers. His bullying continued, but in my childhood home, surrounded by family, I felt stronger. But not strong enough to get back on a plane.

Despite my promises, we celebrated Halloween at my parents’. I searched for a therapist, took the children for a doctor’s checkup, and had video calls with Jack’s preschool class. One evening, he asked, “Mom, why are we staying here so long?” I explained that I needed to figure some things out. But I was tormented. Surely it would be best for my little boy to go back to his home.

The emails with Bryan escalated. Whenever he tried to FaceTime, Jack would run away. I would chase him, almost in tears, afraid Bryan would accuse me of turning Jack against him. I could barely cope. Sometimes my dad would ask, “How are you?” and I would burst into tears. I went to an escape room with my siblings, and Bryan began to harass me over text before we even entered. Try as I might, I couldn’t ignore him. I was scared, confused. I felt victimized and also to blame. I was wracked with guilt. There was no escaping: the outing ended in tears on the drive home.

Each day, I was wrecked with agony over my decision. I asked everyone for advice. I journaled. I prayed. I did not want to prioritize my needs over my children’s. I worried I couldn’t be a single mom. “Eliza,” my mom said, “you’ve succeeded at everything you’ve ever done. What makes you think that you can’t succeed at this?”

I visited my parents’ pastor. “Would I be a bad person if I stayed?” I asked. He seemed nonplussed. Why wouldn’t I stay in San Jose, where I had family support? Instead, he gave me advice about getting through something hard. What quotes, what pictures could I keep around to inspire me? I chose a snow-covered mountain as my symbol of strength.

Finally, one day, after a good night of sleep, I felt strong. I would go back and set up a home with my pictures of mountains, pursue my career, and spend time with friends. In time, I would feel happy. This was what a mother who placed her children above everything would do. I called the pastor and let him know what I’d decided. I notified Kate, who lived nearby. Everyone understood.

But the next day, my decision made no sense. Why couldn’t I love my kids and myself at the same time? I could no longer remember why I had felt so strongly that the only way to be a good mother was to do what I most did not want to do.

Making the decision to go back showed me that it was the wrong decision. I still hadn’t decided conclusively to stay. A message in my journal from that time begs God to grant me mercy for what I was doing. But I could not make myself get on that plane.

Emily told me that enrolling Jack in preschool would remove Bryan’s (lawyer’s) argument that I needed to return to get him back in school. I did so, and we composed an email notifying Bryan.

On Jack’s first day at the new preschool, the director appeared at my elbow. “I need to talk with you upstairs,” she said. “I heard from Jack’s father several times last night. He does not consent to Jack being enrolled.” I burst into tears. “He left me,” I blurted out. “…with a newborn and a three-year-old, after telling me he’d been cheating for years. I had to leave, to try to save myself.”

Her facial expression changed from hardness to blankness, and then to resolve. “My husband did the same thing,” she said. Emily spoke to the director, appeasing her worries, letting her know that the law only required one parents’ consent for enrollment. Bryan continued to call and email, but united with female counsel, Anne didn’t bend. Jack stayed in school.

Weeks later, Emily told me I was the luckiest client she’d ever had. “No other school director would have accepted a child when one parent is expressly against it,” she said. “It’s not worth the liability and bad press. But this woman did.”

Bryan filed an emergency petition with the court in Delaware alleging that the children were at risk of harm and needed to be returned immediately. As expected, it stated that I had kidnapped the children and was keeping them from their father and home. I had to write a reply. I included everything: Bryan’s infidelity with sex workers, his suicidal ideation, his binge drinking and pot smoking. That he had abandoned us.

“Can you promise me this won’t end in me losing custody of my children?” I asked Emily.

“I can’t promise you that,” she said.

“But Emily…” my voice quavered.

“Have you found a therapist yet?” she asked.

Emily orchestrated it so that the petition would be seen on the day a female judge was sitting. On the day of the hearing, I had foolishly scheduled a call with a work client. She was in a panic, but I was in more of one. I could barely hear the words she was saying. I ended the call and sat staring at my desk in my childhood room. Most of my clothes still in Delaware, I wore hand me down sweats from my sister and an old sweatshirt I’d previously discarded. Across the country, Emily and Bryan and his lawyer were in suits. My mother was downstairs with Sarah, trying not to disturb me. It was quiet in my bedroom, and the trees outside my window were stunningly green.

The strings of my life crosshatched in my mind. How had everything gotten to this moment? Was this the last moment of my innocence, my semblance of respectable control over my life? Was everything about to change? I tried to not let my mind go to the worst case — but it would not obey me. Over and over again, it fled there. What, oh what would I do if . . . ?

My phone rang. I didn’t dare to hope that it would be Emily already, but it was. I took a deep breath. I could barely speak.

“Emily?” I forced out.

“We won!” she cried. I sank, shaking in relief, to the floor.

Suddenly, I was staying. I signed the lease on a townhouse. My boss’ boss agreed I could work remotely permanently.

“Anything you need,” he said. “I never liked Bryan.”

As the reality set in of leaving all the good parts of my former life, I mourned anew. But slowly, slowly, things were moving toward resolution.

One day Bryan called. He started with his usual bullying, but then the conversation shifted. If he agreed to let me keep the children in San Jose, would I bring them back during the summer and let him visit? Would I promise not to let Jack become obsessed with guns and tell the kids their family heritage?

“Yes, of course!” I exclaimed. And just like that, he agreed.

I moved into my little townhouse and learned how unspeakably difficult being a single mother is. Bryan visited. The poignant, almost tragic image of Jack running to him on the sidewalk of the Airbnb, after four months of not seeing his father, imprinted itself in my head to call up whenever I scourged myself with guilt over taking my children away from their father, which I did frequently in those days. I steeled myself for the flight alone and took the children to Delaware. In the baggage claim back in San Jose, a woman on my flight told my mother that my mothering on the plane had been masterful, some of the best she’d ever seen.

Then COVID-19 struck. With news changing by the minute, and afraid they would close the state borders, Bryan decided to come to San Jose. He worked remotely and then got a local job and moved into an apartment. We met with a co-parenting coach, then agreed to 50/50 custody. With time, we learned to co-parent peacefully, and our children love their father as they love me.

Thinking back, I think I first started seeing glimpses of my capable self returning in a moment at my parents’ house, when they were in Delaware rescuing my possessions. With no one else in the house, I accidentally locked the kids and myself in a bedroom, without my phone, and with no one expecting to see or hear from me for days. It didn’t work trying to pick the lock. So I calmly set down Sarah.

“Don’t touch your sister, and do not follow me,” I warned Jack sternly.

I stepped onto the toy chest, removed the screen from the window, and climbed out onto the garage roof. I slid down the shingles to my parents’ tool shed, jumped to the ground, and located the spare key. In seconds, I returned to rescue my children. Jack was confused about how I had gotten there: Sarah hadn’t even noticed my absence.

I sat down on the floor and pulled them both over the peaks of my knees into the valley of my lap, and I hugged them close.

--

--