I was talking with an old friend, tonight, an older woman in her 70s who grew up in Shanghai until the war sent her family to Hong Kong and then Taiwan. She lived in Germany for many years, married young, had children, divorced, remarried, moved to America. She is older than my parents, so her children are older than me, by almost a generation. In Chinese families, when you divorced, the children stayed with their father. My mother told me that this was because “children belong to their father’s family.” This ended with my generation, but even then divorce fractured a family in different ways than our American divorces with shared custodies and fathers living in bachelor apartments until they remarried someone slightly younger and moved into a new house. For us, kids would sometimes end up with grandparents or aunts and uncles, or in boarding schools in another country. The fault lines cracked invisibly at different angles.
My friend talked about her relationship with her daughter, and how different it is from my relationship with my own mother. But then we are all different people, connected in different ways. Her personality is completely opposite from my mom’s, and mine is not like her daughter’s. I think for a long time my friend carried with her this guilt that she had walked away from her children in order to get out of her marriage. A continent separated them, in the days before Skype and text messaging. Her daughter has long forgiven her mother for leaving, but it is still harder for her to accept. You make the choices you have to make, but you can’t erase them, only make another choice and move on. The right choice is not always the easy choice, and it is never going to be fair to everyone. You can keep looking back, or you can live in the present.
At the end of the day - and since I’m not a mother, I am totally making this up and you can tell me that I’m full of shit - you have to keep a piece of yourself alive that is totally selfish. That belongs to the person you were before you were The Mother. No one else is going to keep that part of yourself alive for you, no one else even realizes that it exists. I watch my friends struggle with this all the time, this burden of guilt and love that wraps around them like a living thing, and oh, how I ache for them. I don’t know how to tell them, go ahead, be selfish. Keep it alive. It will save you. It saved my friend, when it helped her walk away. In the end, she regretted the leaving, but not the life that replaced the past one. It was like a skin that didn’t fit, and she had to let it slip away in order to find a new one.