The Relationship I Lost When I Got Married
Words: Meilan Carter-Gilkey
When a single mom and son duo becomes a trio, there’s a necessary but difficult shift, writes Meilan Carter-Gilkey.
I was the kind of mother who told you my son’s name before I introduced myself.
No one could get to know me without knowing Kamau because we were a unit. I was a single mother, just two months into being 20, and I took my child everywhere. As a baby his stroller was parked at friends’ college apartments.When he was 3, we’d each take a part of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?” and dance to Missy and Aaliyah. When he was 4 years old, I took him to in-stores to meet his favorite hip-hop artists and to parties where he was often the only child, happily chatting with adults. We were road dogs. Together we watched X-Men and laughed at SpongeBob. He was my best friend; I asked him for his opinion on my outfits and sometimes on my dates. Even if we didn’t agree, I wanted him to know that his opinion mattered.
Of course, I was not a perfect mom and he was not a perfect son but we were close. With almost no contact from Kamau’s father for the first 10 years of his life, I tried to compensate for the absence by making my son my purpose. Our unit was unbreakable, and he was the most precious part of my life. He gave me direction and inspiration. I was a proud mother and I always called him the love of my life. When it came to finding companionship beyond my son, I wanted to make sure anyone who wanted to spend time with me was ready to spend time with my son. In turn, Kamau needed to feel comfortable with whomever I was dating.
In the past I often felt torn between the opinions of my exes and Kamau; my loyalty to Kamau was at times too accommodating, but the black male lens sometimes felt harsh. I was accused of raising Kamau to be “soft” and criticized for having a mama’s boy. At times I tried to follow their advice but that was a mistake; I chose to stay with what worked for me and the love of my life. When I met my future husband David when Kamau turned 14, the love of my life grew twofold. Once I realized how serious my relationship was with David, I knew that we had to learn how to become a family—there had to be harmony between the two men in my life.
I think on the surface our transition was smooth, but there was a quiet letting go of our twosome. I had wanted a healthy, supportive, and loving relationship with a partner, but I never realized that I would miss my road dog. The bond that Kamau and I had as a twosome both shaped our identities and sustained us through our challenges. I didn’t know who I was outside of Kamau’s mother; living with and being engaged to David felt like I was living someone else’s life.
At the time I couldn’t articulate it because I was ecstatic to be with David and have a more nuclear family, but I now realize I was subconsciously mourning my relationship with Kamau. David and I became the new “we”; I now made decisions with him that I once asked Kamau’s opinions on. It felt a bit like a betrayal. Even though David and Kamau had things in common, including the X-Men and a passion for art, there was a difference in our home with him there. Decisions about what to eat for dinner or what movie to watch were now up for a vote. Kamau and I had our inside jokes that needed explaining.
Thankfully we shared so many interests that there wasn’t constant friction, but there was definitely a shift. Kamau had to answer to two parents and he and I had to share each other. Once David gave me his thoughts about the household and the amount of chores Kamau did. Although I knew I should have expected more of Kamau, having David say it made me feel judged and it felt like an attack on my son. I know it wasn’t, but I felt like I had to defend my son and myself. I am still very sensitive about my parenting decisions, but I’ve slowly learned how to share the parenting responsibilities—though there are still areas of Kamau’s life, like medical records, financial aid applications, and discussing sex, that I own. Now that David and I have another son, Mateo, parenting together feels more balanced because it has been a shared experience from the beginning.
David and I celebrated our 6th wedding anniversary this past weekend. This fall Kamau will turn 22 and Mateo will start kindergarten. We are now a family of five, including my mother who I care for. The days of my duo with Kamau feels like a lifetime ago. I now have three men in my life (with my father in my heart) who share my love and attention. Occasionally when it is just Kamau and I, we reminisce about the places we lived and the adventures we had. I think there will always be a small space between us that holds the life that we had that David and Mateo cannot share with us; Kamau will always be my first love. And once in a while, even after eight years of being with David, when I say “Sweetie,” they both answer.
Meilan Carter-Gilkey is a freelance writer and a writing coach, who blogs about being a parent of sons 16 years apart. She has an MFA from Mills College in creative writing and her work has appeared in Mutha Magazine, Heart&Soul, and elsewhere.