Relinquishing My Custody to My Son's Father Was an Act of Love, Not Abandonment

My son's voice is always stronger than those in my head.
Publish date:
May 11, 2016
parenting, mental illness, motherhood, custody, schizophrenia

"Hi Mommy," he says, the sound of pans in the background. Today is Mother's Day. This year, our visit is a phone call.

I grip the warm cup of coffee on my lap, my eyes still bleary. Last night, I couldn't fall asleep, despite heavy antipsychotic medications, mood stabilizers, and sedatives. I have a condition called schizoaffective disorder. I've recently relapsed. Pouring my coffee before dialing, I could feel the residual fog, the pulsing of anxiety. Butmy son's voice is always stronger than those in my head.

Given my symptoms, I'm spending Mother's Day alone. Well, I'm not technically alone. I'm simply separate. My son and I share a precious few minutes on the phone every day. As I drink my coffee, I listen to my charming five-year-old tell me about how zucchini bread has a funny texture. This is the fabric of our lives. Sometimes, my son and I are pen pals. On supervised weekends together, we're equals, kindergarteners with overactive imaginations. On golden days, I'm a parent, a real one: a clean-your-room, call-your-dad, set-the-table mommy.

My son is five years old and his love is blind. He's sheltered from the harsh reality that some adults don't grow up, that instead they develop degenerative brain disorders, have relapses, and move back in with their parents. He doesn't understand that my active symptoms prevent me from holding jobs easily. While I adore my parents, I'm unable to live without them. During relapses, I split from reality on a daily basis. What would I do without the emotional anchor my parents provide? (Being a psychiatric patient is not a desirable lifestyle choice.)

Nor does a schizophrenia spectrum illness support responsibility for a child. The tragedy of my condition is not the condition itself. No, my frequent distress comes from being excluded from my childhood aspirations. In kindergarten, we were asked to draw a portrait of ourselves in our dream profession. For me, the answer was obvious. I thought of my mother. I desperately wanted to be like her. She'd wanted children so badly. For nearly a decade, she was a fertility patient. Enduring seven miscarriages, she kept the faith, moving forward into the rigorous process of adoption. Twice, she held our swaddled bodies in adoption ceremonies, triumphant at her patience.

"I chose you," she'd say, clutching us both tightly on her lap. "We made our family together." I'd never felt such a profound sense of belonging. To be a mother was nothing short of extraordinary. For my project, I drew a picture of myself in the dress my mother wore for my adoption ceremony. My kindergarten teacher didn't agree with my emotional ideals. "Motherhood is not a profession," She replied crisply. She was a curt, seventy-year old pianist with a genuine carpet bag. "People don't grow up to be mothers. They get jobs." She asked me to change my profession for the project. I refused.

Three years after my son's birth, I did change it. Formerly married and a stay-at-home mom, I relinquished my physical custody in the basement of a county courtroom. My illness reached a critical point. After an extended period in the ICU, I survived a suicide attempt. Deemed a danger to myself and gravely disabled, I was summoned to court. I could no longer pretend to be a mother, or even pretend I'd grow up. On the crisp March afternoon, dressed in a designer suit that shrouded my anorexic frame, our attorneys converged. My outlook was grim. This was the fifth hospitalization in six months.

His lawyer presented me with the document that would cease physical access to my son. There's a conception that when your life is ending, time slows. In mine, it spun in circles, obsessively clinging to the moment. I hovered with the pen, knowing I'd lost this battle. In the final moment before signing, I wondered how I'd gotten to twenty-four years old without developing a signature. With the paper before me, I signed it over and over. With each scrawl of the pen, I searched for some aspect of my personality that I could salvage from the disease. Eventually, an attorney took the pen. "The ink is dry," she said.

Motherhood is not a professional option. At least, it's not one that the State of California deems me legally qualified for. But, the door is not closed. To share space with my son requires me to be grounded in reality. For now, I can't offer that. While our physical visits are on hold until I recover, our phone calls are still encouraged. Each night around seven, I pick up the phone, waiting. "How was your day?" I ask, as I cup my tea and listen. Even on days I can't offer input, his conversational fodder carries me away, back to the days when we shared a home.

Of all the voices in my head, my son's is my favorite.