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“I could never leave my child,” said my good friend.
Being a long distance wife was never something I’d considered. I had been a single parent for almost ten years and looked forward to remarrying and having a large family. Never once did I envision that family would be scattered across the country.
At 32, I met Mike: a tall, handsome, African-American Army officer. For three years, we courted on the west coast, as I juggled work, school and raising two boys. When we tied the knot, I was not prepared for how quickly our bond would have to stretch. Two months into our marriage, with a new baby girl, my husband had to report to a new duty station in Arkansas. I made the heartbreaking decision to leave my older sons in California to each live with their fathers.
David was 15 and Tracey was 13. They were California boys attached to their friends, classmates and the good schools I’d worked hard to make sure they could attend. For six years we’d lived in an award-winning school district and I wanted them to maintain continuity of education during a critical time in their lives. Given the ages of my sons and the availability of their other parent, uprooting them was not in their best interest.
Although I wouldn’t be their primary caregiver anymore, the boys would spend long holidays and summers with me, sort of a weekend parent, only the breaks would be more spread out. But my friends and family weren’t ready for a mother to leave her kids. It infuriated me because regardless of how much I prepared a solution for every possible challenge in our new arrangement, I always heard, “But you’re the mother. You can’t leave.” I replied, “They’re with their other parent. I’m not going to Mars.” I hated the double standard placed on mothers. I was caring, planning and providing for my children the way I always had.
As an only child growing up in the 80’s, I dreamed of having a lot of siblings. I was fascinated with families with loud dinners, and backyard cookouts. I idealized television shows like Family Ties, where the older brother always teased his sisters. I exalted the Cosbys because they represented everything I thought a family should be.
After my first two relationships failed, I lost hope that I’d marry again. The first time, I’d married too young to escape my abusive father. I left my second relationship after six difficult years. I chose what was best for my kids and always prioritized their needs despite how unpopular some of my choices seemed to others.
When I met my husband Mike and we decided to start our lives together, my children were my biggest concern.
(Photo: Courtesy of Sharisse Tracey)
Ideally, I wanted my family to live together but my boys were teenagers with girl crushes, testosterone to spare and their own ideas of what our family tree should look like. They tried to bond with the man that would be their new stepfather but held onto the idea of only the three of us—the way it had been for so long. My oldest son, David, had just started his freshmen year in high school. His eyes lit up the first time we passed it six years prior when we moved into our new neighborhood.
“Mommy, I can’t wait until I’m big enough to go there,” he said.
He was happy that I’d found someone to share my life with but wasn’t looking for a replacement father. I couldn’t bring myself to ask my youngest son, Tracey, to make another transition after he’d recently changed schools and was making good grades. The idea of moving 2,000 miles to Arkansas had no appeal to a kid raised in the California sun.
The thought of moving to a rural town in the middle of the Bible Belt wasn’t the adventure I’d imagined as a new military bride either. Leaving the Golden State for a town so unfamiliar terrified me. Our first duty station would be a two-year assignment. I spent the time before the move — our honeymoon months — separated from my spouse in order to help my boys better transition to life without me. I learned fast that in a blended family someone or something was often missing. Being military just added another component to the feeling of being lost. My ultimate goal was to bring my sons to the next Army post we would be assigned to. After that, I was hoping they’d want to stay with us permanently. The plan was to see my oldest off to college and get my youngest through high school.
Upon learning that my ex-husband needed a place to live, I didn’t hesitate to offer him the small house I worked three jobs and attended night school to buy. Next to my sons, that house meant everything to me. In the past, I would have never imagined turning it over to anyone—even an ex-husband I had a good relationship with. But he needed a place to stay; I was moving, and most of all it would keep at least one son in the house we’d been in for years. It was the best possible outcome. One of the reasons I bought the tiny house, far from where we once lived in the San Gabriel Valley, was because it was a great neighborhood. I felt confident my boys would receive a quality education and be able to walk safely to school for the first time. My youngest went to live with his father 45 minutes away and attended a quality school.
“I don’t know if I could live here, mom,” said Tracey when he visited our apartment in Arkansas for spring break.
“It’s different from our home,” I said, “but I’ve met some really nice people here. They just don’t recognize you. That’s all.”
A week was the longest I’d been without my boys, and that was only once for summer camp. That first stretch between Christmas and spring break seemed unbearably long. We’d already planned our first visit, spoke on cell phones I’d purchased before the move and sent texts and email messages. But soon after I arrived in my new home, I was miserable. I missed my sons and the only home I’d known so much that I bought a plane ticket and my infant daughter and I were back in California for two weeks. It hadn’t even been a month that I was gone. It didn’t matter that we would be reunited for spring break and tickets were already purchased for the hot season.
My husband worked a summer assignment so the kids and I went to my mother’s. We spent time at the beach, movies, park, just driving around, hanging out in the backyard, having carpet picnics when it rained or playing Monopoly—a favorite. My boys witnessed their little sisters first step and heard her first words. That summer was the happiest I’d been since I moved and even though my sons were teenagers and wouldn’t admit it, they smiled and laughed for two months when they weren’t being typical brothers and arguing. The time between August and December was the most difficult. Thanksgiving wasn’t a long enough break from school to travel so far and money was tight. I had no choice but to tough it out the five months in between. But when Christmas arrived that year we reunited again, and it felt much like that summer had only our time was shorter and the weather was colder. On that holiday visit to my mother’s, we were all together as a family.
When we received orders for a small town in upstate New York with great schools and small class sizes, during the end of our time in Arkansas, I strongly encouraged my sons to make the move with us. They weren’t managing as well without me. Tracey’s grades slipped and David spent too much time unsupervised. My heart was heavy. I was so far away and despite how often I spoke to them, I felt helpless to make a real difference. I’d hoped a reunion would get them both back on track. Neither boys were overjoyed about a move but both agreed to give it a try this time.
“Love is not always convenient,” I said to my friend. “Your husband isn’t a soldier.”
David missed his friends but quickly made new ones and graduated prepped for college. Tracey didn’t adjust to the east coast but later moved with us again when we were stationed out west. He graduated as valedictorian of his high school. I would have liked to keep my family all in one place and minimize some of the pitfalls my boys experienced but that wasn’t my path. My sons watched me struggle as a single mother to having a second chance with a man who defends our country with honor and for that I am grateful. But what brings me the most happiness is that my sons have more than one place they can call home.