It started at Hedgebrook.

By Rahna Reiko Rizzuto

Categories: Alum Experiences,

After two weeks of nurture and building fires, of re-dreaming the structure of an old novel in my Waterfall cabin, I ambled down to the pumphouse where I could connect my laptop to the internet and sent an essay I had written six months earlier to an editor at Salon.com. No one had been interested in my essay when I first finished it, but Hedgebrook is magic. Sarah, the editor who accepted it, had a keen eye for cutting disclaimers and retitling.  Several days after I returned home, new novel finished and lifelong friends made, Sarah sent me a note that the essay would go up that night, with a gentle warning that comments on the site could sometimes be aggressive and I shouldn’t take them as a reflection of how the piece was being enjoyed by the larger readership.

I woke up to fifty pieces of hate email in my inbox.  By the next afternoon, the “firestorm” as one host on The View would later call it, had prompted an interview request from MSNBC-TV. Someone from the Today Show came to the green room while I was waiting for that interview, and by the time Meredith Vieira’s interview with me aired the next morning, the emails were coming every thirty seconds: I enlisted vetters since many were too vile to read. The hate was not about me, or my essay, or the very literary memoir that inspired it, about war and motherhood, which had been tapped for an award but otherwise had not attracted much attention.

It was about the essay’s title: “Why I Left My Children.”     

And the truth–the point of the essay–was that I did not leave my children. Even though I had never set out to be a mother, in the wake of my divorce I had found an unusual way to stay.

The vile responses came from men, noteworthy since it is the men who usually leave; ironic because, as so many people have pointed out, as a very present, involved parent who does not live in the same house as her children, I would be considered an excellent divorced father!  The pain and anger are a kind of mourning for the American myths of perfect motherhood and the model nuclear family that we long for, but that may never have existed. Our families are transforming: with roughly half of American marriages ending in divorce, our families are increasingly headed by single parents, divorced parents, grandparents, LGBT parents and adoptive parents. Our children are hurting: a recent CDC study found that nearly two-thirds of adults reported that they had experienced childhood abuse, neglect or household dysfunction.

We blame these failures on women, and on mothers in particular. Women are our primary caretakers–after all, we have been “created to create” as one email reminded me–we should be the ones who babysit our younger siblings, stay at home with our young children, cook dinner for our working husbands, care for our elderly parents. We are expected to be forever attached to our children by an invisible umbilical cord, and we are “unnatural” if we do not innately long to clean up from a night of vomit, fight with a teenager over his homework, or convince a preteen to brush his teeth and take a shower. The problem is structural. Even as we begrudgingly allow women to work and claim our own identities, we have not reconceived men’s roles in family and society. There is no “village” of communal love and support for our children: just the option, for a woman who can afford it, to hire other female caretakers to fill in until she comes home to start dinner. A father who loves and cares for his children is still a “saint.” We do not see him as a father, as a man, as a human.

Hedgebrook understands that women’s needs, in our society, come last. So at Hedgebrook, we are cared for, fed, cherished; our time and voices and thoughts are valued. It was a surprise, even to me, to realize how much of my time is still spent caretaking, even as a non-custodial mother. And to see how much I could do with that time when it was given back to me.

My sons are twelve and fourteen now. I love them absolutely, but I went to Hedgebrook for three weeks to write anyway. And on the night I landed in Seattle, a mother who doesn’t know me or my story, who was on a business trip herself, asked me, “Oh, but how can you leave your children?”

They left me, actually, to go skiing with their Dad for spring break. And in their absence, I rewrote–I finally finished–a novel ten years in the making.

A good time was had by all.

4 Comments

  • Naomi
    9:39 PM - 9 May, 2011

    A very moving post.

    My sons were about the same age when I went to Hedgebrook for 4 weeks last summer — 11 & 14. We all missed each other, but everyone survived & even thrived. My very supportive & generous in-laws flew up to our house & stayed with my husband & kids for one of the weeks I was away, and otherwise the kids showed great independence & my husband’s employer great flexibility about his hours.

    When I returned, my husband had one request: Next time, he asked, could I apply for a residency during the regular school year? That way he could share care-taking with the State of California. 🙂

  • Mari
    1:46 AM - 21 May, 2011

    So glad your stay at Hedgebrook was nourishing and productive (was it ever!), Reiko. I remember my six weeks there (back in 1999, around this time of year, in fact) as replenishing and healing — the land, water, and sky said: “Do whatever it is you need to do for your poems; you have our permission.” It was a pivotal experience, one that I’ll long remember.

  • Reiko
    9:47 PM - 21 May, 2011

    I had my hopes, but it was astonishing how much I got done in only three weeks. Hedgebrook will always be in my heart.

  • Leah
    8:55 PM - 26 May, 2011

    I was astonished to find my story in yours. I live in Texas. When I divorced, during the Bush administration, my boys were 13 and 15 and the judge told me to give up on getting them, that no judge in the state would award a lesbian custody. Besides, the boys were embarrassed when I came out and insisted on staying with their father, who, until then, had been a difficult and largely absent parent. Today, my relationship with them is deep and warm. We also had to learn to live together in a different way. PS Hedgebrook was a great gift to my memoir.

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