And just like that, they’re gone.

Not forever, no, and not without six or seven hugs, kisses and “I’ll miss yous” and even an “I don’t want to leave.” But they’re not here now and the silence is equal parts refreshing and deafening.

Half of me takes a deep breath and cracks a cold beer and sits. Dear Jesus, I can sit down for a minute. It’s gratifying. An exhale. A break. I know you quarantine moms envy me for a moment. But split custody is a break that feels good for the shortest of times.

And then, then the worry sets in. Like a heavy man sitting on my chest, my breath gets shallow.

What will they do while away at their dad’s house for a week? Will they apply sunscreen? It’s supposed to be hot. Will they remember to wear their bike helmet every time? I know sometimes he gets excited and forgets. Who will remind him to look both ways? What if they have too much screen time? What if I can’t reach them?

Welcome to the weekly dance of the mom with split custody.

I have a brand new marriage. Though not the idealistic period we envisioned for our first year of marriage in this age of COVID-19, we are happy, well-matched. The alone time together to nourish our new union is a gift. It is enjoyable. We sleep in and mountain bike. We socialize with friends via Zoom Happy Hours and can even stay up way after bedtime. Sometimes our sole custody friends envy aloud our split-custody freedom.

But I’d be lying if I pretended that — even after the most romantic night of music, wine and conversation — I won’t indulge myself in a sidelong glance to those closed doors, those empty bedrooms with a heavy heart, my eyes welling up.

For the 500th time, I tell myself I’ll use this down time to really get ahead for their next week. I’ll craft! I’ll meal plan! And I’ll learn to finally play that guitar! And perhaps I will. At the very least, I’ll finish another puzzle in the long line of COVID-19 puzzles. Maybe I’ll workout. Anything to keep my brain too busy to acknowledge the hole in my heart.

And these things all help; they do. But they don’t shake a stick at having a full-time family. They can’t define me the way motherhood does. Wholly and all encompassing, “Mom” is who I am. It’s what I am and what I have been since 6:48 p.m. on October 6, 2011.

I don’t know who to be when I’m not Mom. It’s 95% of my heart. Perhaps that’s unfair to my husband, but he’s a dad too, so I know I need not apologize.

You all know this. Whether married, divorced, split or together — only moms can understand the fullness in our hearts when our children are sleeping cozily in their rooms. That exhale when we lay down, knowing our offspring are tucked in, so safe and warm.

Perhaps we take it for granted.

For the next seven days, I’ll pray to God that for the next seven nights, they are tucked as safely as if there were here. But I can’t hear them call out after a nightmare. I can’t snuggle them as they sleepily say goodnight. I can’t wake to their bright faces in the morning.

It’s the reality of the split custody mom. And it hurts.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s got to be a puzzle I haven’t done.

split custody