I met him on our last day in Nicaragua in a coffee shop. As I chased down my 17-month-old I heard him say he was the owner of something having to do with yoga. It inspired me to strike up a conversation and when I did, I got a lot more than I imagined. It was a loud and crowded place. He patted the seat next to him for me to join them. He was an endearing man; open and honest right from the jump. Within 30 minutes of meeting him he told me that his wife had left. She’d gone back to the states to pursue a degree in nursing. He said she “hadn’t done anything for herself” and that motherhood hadn’t turned out to be “fulfilling” so she left to “get an education.” She was the yoga instructor at his yoga retreat that is now “restructuring.”
He had a two-year-old girl sitting on his lap with a white-blond, tangled mess of spiral curls. A seven-year-old, brown-eyed boy across the table and a barely dressed five-year-old with the same hair as her sister sitting to his right. Each of them had that perfect, enviable, golden tanned skin with glints of blond hair shining on top. By the end of the conversation he offered us a ride home in his extended cab pickup truck. We all squashed in; him, me, his three kids, my two and my husband. You can get away with things like that in Nicaragua because seat belts are optional as are car seats.
Speaking of seat belts, I had a major revelation regarding them during our 14 day stay in Nicaragua. Did you know that they are not actually for safety? Sure, they provide some sense of security, but the biggest argument for the mandate of seat belts is to keep children who possess endless energy and a lack of social boundaries, contained to a manageable state while operating motor vehicles. If I could bottle up the euphoria I feel the moment both of my children are securely fastened into their five-point harnesses, I would get an hour of QVC primetime and be an instant bizzillionaire.
As a result of this lack in restraint, the 15 minute drive to our place was absolute chaos. The seven-year-old was sitting in between the two front seats which happened to be exactly where the two-year-old wanted to be. She wailed the entire time in unintelligible shrieks as the seven-year-old purposefully blocked her every attempt to see out the window. The father, distracted by driving on roads with no traffic signs and no official traffic rules while having a conversation with my husband amidst five unconfined tornadoes, could not discern the true nature of this deafening conflict. In the relatively short (and by that I mean excrutiatingly endless) drive from the coffee shop to our condo, this endearing, honest father congratulated his son for sitting quietly no less than three times and told the two-year-old that he couldn’t “hear her” because she was screaming. He then launched some loosely veiled threat regarding the loss of “points.”
At one point in the drive the seven-year-old boy looked back at me and I said, “You know what you’re doing. Will you please let your sister see out the window?” He glared and said with a heavy speech impediment, “I don’t whisten to you. I whisten to my Mom and my Dad onwey.”
I tried not to judge. I try very hard to be Ms. Nonjudgy McNojudgerson which is exactly why we agreed to have a “playdate” later that day at their pool.
On the ride to their place the seven-year-old and the five-year-old sat in the back of the truck because, well, it’s a Third World country and no one bats an eye at such things. This provided a lot more sanity for the people in the cab except for me who kept looking behind my shoulder to make sure they were holding on every time we approached a bump, which, let’s face it, was pretty much the whole time. First, we went into town for ice cream. There were lots of unabashed screaming over how much and how soon everyone would get their ice cream. Essentially, more chaos coupled with mass stickiness and tears. Then we got back in the truck and went to their pool another 15 minutes away which was more chaos combined with the potentiality for drowning.
The moment we got to the pool I asked the seven-year-old where I could find a restroom. He led me to it, then stood in the doorway and snickered at me because I didn’t notice the urinals. He laughed saying, “Ha! Ha! I twicked you!” Over the course of the next hour the kids continued to fight over toys, flotation devices, rules and their father’s attention.
We went back up their house and the two oldest immediately got into a physical fight while I was the only adult in the room. The five-year-old wanted the seven-year-old to leave her bedroom. He wouldn’t leave and she kept yelling at him to do so. It was then that I noticed she had the same speech impediment as her brother. He grabbed her face and began squeezing her head with every ounce of his small, impotent fury. My three-year-old was next to me and I quickly stepped in breaking them up while yelling at them both to stop. When the father rushed in, the seven-year-old flat-out lied about what happened and I excused myself from the room not wanting to further over-step my bounds as a guest. I heard him take away all their points.
Soon thereafter he banished them to their preferred electronic devices, the boy to the computer, the girl to the television. During the few moments of relative peace that followed, I noticed how hard he was trying. There was a sign above the kitchen table that read:
Rules: 1) We say please and thank you. 2) We talk in normal voices; no shouting. 3) We ask before getting food.
On a dry erase board in the hallway there were the rules to the “point system.” Each child started the day with three points. They needed all three points to be able to watch television or play on the computer.
Again, I tried with every ounce not to judge this situation or act as though I wanted to run out the door as soon as possible. I didn’t want to run because it was chaos. I have two rambunctious toddlers, a pair of geriatric cats, I work a part-time job while going back to school AND I’m in therapy. Chaos is nothing new here. But this chaos felt different. It was sad, angry, desperate chaos. There were huge disproportionate reactions toward minor infractions behind every unstructured, uncontained corner.
I kept looking for a picture of their mother but couldn’t find one. I was left to imagine her face by squinting at her children. I kept thinking about the father’s words about why she left. I certainly understand the need to fulfill your life’s goals. I certainly understand that motherhood is simultaneously much more, and less, than one could ever imagined it would be. I can certainly understand the day-to-day exhaustion and monotony of raising young children, but I also understand that the indescribably bond supersedes all those things. At least for me it does.
Either way, my heart broke for that father. He wanted so badly to do right by his kids and you could see how very much he loved them, but he was clearly in over his head. Heck, Mary Poppins would have been in over her head. My heart broke for those kids. They seemed to be lacking something essential, whether it be their mother or not, and the fact that they were so, so young. I know I’m probably projecting my own sense of “normal” onto this situation, and maybe this is why I can’t stop thinking about it? I feel compelled to understand the most foreign of human places which is partly why we were in Nicaragua.
Life has taught me to proceed with caution when tempted to condemn another person’s circumstances. When I do, I am usually smacked upside the head with how horribly imperfect and flawed I am and mercilessly reminded that I have no right to such condemnations. But each time I look at my children and imagine making the same choice, I can’t help but feel a tad bit judgmental of this mother who I cannot see even when I squint. I know when I feel this way, life is pushing me to reach further for the compassion. I realize that everyone has their reasons for making their life’s choices, and I also know that I only know a fraction of one side of this story. But I keep silently wondering: what was the final straw? What was it in her character or circumstance that made her make this impossible decision? And were the children like that because their mother left, or did the mother leave because her children were like that? Does that even matter?
It seems that no matter how much I try, I can’t understand how someone walks away from them by choice… regardless of how you feel or what you want?
Do you know the other half of this story?