Sometime during middle school, our teacher pulled an ancient incubator out of the supply closet and prepared us for our upcoming “adoption” of twelve fertilized chicken eggs. (In hindsight, getting a dozen eggs for hatching seems like a sad irony.)
After checking our eggs for signs of life nearly every day for what seemed like an eternity, we finally saw the first tiny beak break through. In the days that followed, seven other tiny beaks made for eight hatchlings in all. After we mourned the loss of four unhatched chicks, Mr. Santos divided the class into groups and assigned a hatchling to each.
Greg, Tamara, and I got the one we wanted — a chick with a darker yellow spot on its head who appeared to be a badass. As soon as she broke out, she threw her little body up against her yet unhatched brothers and sisters, seemingly communicating, Hey! Get the heck out of there, losers… last one out is a rotten... well, you know. Of course, that’s how we interpreted it — she was probably just disoriented and stumbling around — but all the same, we were very happy to get the most energetic chick of the bunch.
In my mind, she was a teeny, tiny, fluffy little ass-kicking linebacker. I wanted to name her ‘Bear’ after the Chicago Bears, my grandfather’s favorite football team. Tamara wanted to name her ‘Yellow Head’ because Tamara was boring and unimaginative. Greg sided with me, and so ‘Bear’ beat ‘Yellow Head’ by a vote of two to one.
During the week, Bear hung out with the other chicks in a classroom aquarium lined with soft-looking wood shavings. On the weekends, Greg, Tamara and I were supposed to take turns caring for her at our houses. In this way, our teacher explained, each of us shared custody for our chick.
According to Mr. Santos, ‘shared custody’ meant that although just one of us cared for Bear on the weekends, each of us was equally responsible for her health and happiness. The decisions of any one weekend caretaker would impact her even when she was at someone elses house the next weekend. We were all equally responsible, even though the burden of responsibility wasn’t shared equally at any one time.
When Bear was at my house, I fed her, bathed her (or watched as she bathed herself), and entertained her (I tried, at least). I imagined Greg and Tamara did the same, because at the end of the project, we said goodbye to Bear and her siblings (all in good health) and sent them off to a family farm a few miles outside the city.
Besides Bear (who was a chicken, a science project, and a life lesson), I’ve never shared custody of anything with anyone. Not a child, a pet, a houseplant, and not even something inanimate like a car or an album collection.
Until now. (Sort of.)
I’ve recently come to realize that J and I share custody of our relationship. It’s not something we talked about, or wanted, or agreed to, but it’s the best way I can describe what happens with us. We share custody.
Sure, we’re in it together and we’re equally responsible for our relationship’s success or failure. But, at any given moment, our work towards maintaining the relationship can be pretty one-sided. We both put in equal effort, but almost never at the same time.
I guess that’s what happens when you’re with someone but living separate lives, often disconnected by time and considerable distance.
I’m not there to support J when he’s feeling down. I can’t pick up the slack around the house to give him extra time to work when he’s struggling to finish a project. I can’t make him a sandwich when I realize he’s been working for hours without a break. He’s not here to make me a drink or wrap his arms around me at the end of the day when all I want is a cocktail and a hug. He can’t force me to shut down the computer and relax when I’m over-tinkering a project in the hours before a deadline. We can’t share those burdens because we don’t live together.
When one of us is stressed, distracted, or down, the best thing the other can do is offer words of support and tend the relationship alone for a while, keeping the fires hot and the feelings fresh until we’re both back in it again. I know that’s not how a relationship is supposed to work, but it’s worked for us so far. It’s working now.
At the moment, J has custody of the relationship. He’s been tending to it for more than a week, since before last weekend when I told him I couldn’t see him because I had too much work to do. I’ve been checked out, not feeling well physically, and professionally and personally pummeled by some setbacks at work. I take those setbacks hard, I don’t recover easily, and so I haven’t felt much like sharing, or talking, or writing. I’m distant and detached because my attention is elsewhere.
J has done his best to fuel me from afar, but there isn’t much he can do. I’ve had to swallow my pride so often in my professional life that I’m damn-near full. There’s little room to consume anything else — not his lovely words or his sweet gestures. Feeling meek and small at work bleeds into my personal life, and I’ve not felt confident enough to snap up what he’s offered me, nor have I had the energy to ask for anything more. I can’t reciprocate right now. I don’t have the time, the energy, the confidence, or the will to be his partner, his girlfriend, his dominant, or anything else I hope I am to him.
He’s on his own for the moment, left to tend this thing we share all by himself, at least until I can give him (and us) more of my attention.
I trust him to do it. I’ve done it for him.
I know he trusts me to return to us and take responsibility for my share when I can.
I will. Soon.