Credit Giselle Potter
At 5:25 p.m., my mother pulled into our driveway. I saw my dad’s Cadillac waiting for us and glanced at Mom, whose broad smile instantly flattened. At 10 years old, I could already read her thoughts: Pickup time was 5:30, and she wasn’t willing to suffer accusations of tardiness, just because he was Mr. Punctuality.
Six-foot-five with jet-black hair, my father cut an intimidating figure, even if I knew that he liked nothing more than to turn his long arms and legs into props as he made up the words to songs and did goofy dances. Now, he was all business, and gestured at his watch angrily.
“I still have five minutes,” my mother said. She was generally vivacious, but when feeling threatened, she could transform herself into an ice queen.
“What’s the matter with you? Daylight saving time,” my father said. He’d been waiting an hour. She had made this mistake at least once before.
The color drained from my mother’s face as indignation gave way to embarrassment. Now, in the era of digital clocks that spring forward and fall back automatically, and cellphones that make it simple to communicate, it’s easy to forget that something as ordinary as daylight saving time could once have been so disruptive. But it was 1991, and ever since my parents got divorced, the day after we changed the clocks always felt slippery. My dad prided himself on his superior organizational skills while my mother lived in a house littered with scribbled notes-to-self to compensate for her bad memory.
That evening, I rushed out of one car and into the other. I didn’t need an overnight bag; my parents had done what they could to avoid a situation where I’d be packing and unpacking twice a week, and I had two rooms outfitted with essentials and beyond — two pairs of pink-framed glasses, two closets full of clothing, two favorite stuffed animals. Dad backed out of the driveway quickly, and said very little until we made it past the traffic light at the end of the block.
“Your mother,” he started, his lip twitching. I waited while he paused.
He opened his mouth to speak and then closed it again. Then, his jaw softened. “How long do you think she would have gone until she figured it out?”
I laughed, utterly relieved. “At least another day.”
I would learn, eventually, that all families have rules that – when violated – threaten to dismantle the whole arrangement. At the time, however, I thought I was the only kid in the world with two houses and a handwritten schedule in either kitchen; at the start of every month, my father listed the nights I would spend with him and then presented my mother with a copy. His diligence was a safeguard against situations just like this one, when he rang the doorbell to an empty house and then let the frustration and resentment wash over him.
My mom never made that mistake again. Daylight saving became another scribble on a Post-it note, another thing she was careful not to let her busy mind forget. And my dad let it go, for the most part – her blunder became a private joke for us, shorthand for the way such a smart, put-together woman could also be so ditzy.
My parents broke up when I was 5 years old, which means memories of life before shared custody are available to me, but limited. They set the terms of their divorce under the guidance of their lawyers, and I – as many young kids do — adapted and accepted the new parameters of my childhood.
But as I tipped into my teenage years, switching back and forth became more difficult. There were, of course, small aggravations, like when I accidentally left something I wanted at the other house. Yet that didn’t account for the new anxiety I felt at those twice-weekly hand-offs.
My two homes could not have been more different. By that time my parents had both happily remarried and they’d created new lives: my mom went back to school and our house was quiet, our conversations intellectual. My dad had two more little girls, and every time I stepped through the front door, it felt like I’d joined the circus. Mom stressed the importance of academic achievement; Dad pouted when, in our limited time together, I shut my door to do my homework. My mother thought manners were a sign of good breeding, and she frequently appended a “please” to the end of my requests. When I asked my father for “a glass of orange juice, please,” he ribbed me for behaving like a guest in my own kitchen.
My father’s car had become a portal between two parallel worlds. Somewhere along the way, every day had started feeling like the Sunday after daylight saving time. I straddled two time zones, both familiar, but conspicuous.
Now that I am an adult, with a husband and young son, I sometimes let myself feel sorry for the girl who frequently woke up in the morning not knowing where she was. And the Sunday morning after the clocks change still makes me uncomfortable.
But I know that not all children of divorce are lucky enough to have two parents who work so hard to stay connected. I’ve also come to appreciate the ways my childhood shaped me. Growing up across two households with two distinct sets of customs has made me observant and adaptive: I’m bilingual, in a sense.
That anxiety that plagued me as a teenager is gone, replaced with confidence in my fluency in both families. And like children who actually learn two languages from birth, that innate ability to switch back and forth serves me well, especially when I find myself in unfamiliar settings. It’s not just me: I often admire the way my husband, another shared-custody kid, moves so easily through new environments. He’s good at parties, but he’s also the kind of person who lands in a city for the first time and, within 24 hours, gets asked for directions.
The expected legacy of a joint custody childhood is a craving for stability, which my husband and I share. The unexpected one is real agility: a knack for adapting, switching gears, understanding the language of families, blending in.
We’ve learned that a family needs to be strong, yet flexible. Just as we can’t control the changing of the season or the clocks, we have to accommodate hiccups in the rhythms of our lives.
Rachelle Bergstein is the author of “Women From the Ankle Down: The Story of Shoes and How They Define Us” and “Brilliance and Fire: A Biography of Diamonds.”
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