Disclaimer: This story mentions abuse and may be triggering to some.
“I am a mother of five children. Three are natural born from me, two are my bonus children. Together with my husband, we are a family of seven. I met my husband through a good friend at the time. They were married, I was married, and as first marriages go quite often these days, neither of our relationships lasted, but our friendship never failed. His marriage ended about a year and half before mine, and during that time my friendship with his wife faded quickly, but we continued to connect. We both had a strong desire to keep our children connected, as they considered themselves to be best friends. Both of our oldest children are boys, his first, Cayden, is currently twelve years old, and mine, Toby, is eleven. Then we both had girls within the same year, Aliena and Joella, and they are nine years old. Years down the road, we had one of our own, Avett, who is two years old.
In order to really understand everything, I think it is important to know the ins and outs of all of the relationships involved. Our oldest child is adopted. His mother is his biological mother, but his father, my husband, adopted him when he decided to get married to his mother. He says repeatedly one of the main reasons he wanted to get married was because he fell in love with Cayden as a baby and did not want him to grow up without a father. Then they decided to have a child, and that is where Aliena came in. Cayden was three at the time and struggled with the addition of someone whom he had to share the love of his parents. Before Aliena turned two, they were divorced.
My first marriage was wrought with fighting and feelings of hatred. My husband was a recovering alcoholic, and it felt as though we were always struggling to stay in the recovering part. While I don’t consider myself to have been in the most abusive situation, we did on more than one occasion get physical, including a time when he blacked out and I ended up with a bruise the size of a baseball. The real turning point was when my best friend at the time started dating Andrew and I was so upset by that. Why did I care so much? I should be happy that my two best friends were together, but I knew it was not going to end well and I did not want Andrew to get hurt. How could I care this much about another guy while I was supposed to be married and happy? Andrew’s dating relationship ended, and soon after so did my marriage. We continued to stay connected, getting together on the days he had his kids so our children could still see each other. We hung out with other friends, casually dated other people, but I knew I did not want anybody else. Andrew was kind, considerate, friendly, very handsome, and a great father! What more could I ask for?
Against all odds, we started a relationship and it was amazing! Our kids loved seeing each other as much as they could, and highly involved grandparents made it so Andrew and I could go on dates regularly and have much needed alone time. But our being together made others in our life fairly upset. Even though it had been a year since I had even talked with their mother, his kids’ mom was hurt I would betray our friendship and date her ex. My ex-husband also could not believe I was moving on and with someone who he considered a friend. This made co-parenting especially difficult. My ex spiraled into alcohol abuse and eventually drugs, and I now have full custody of our two children. Andrew’s ex often tells their kids things, like how I am a liar and that’s why we are not friends, or I make bad decisions, or I am not their step-mother because I do not have the same last name as Andrew. This created obvious tension in our home life, particularly between Cayden and I. Not to mention, Andrew was still in school attempting to get his first degree, and I was newly graduated as well. Money was tight, the house was feeling cramped, and constant transitions with Cayden and Aliena made life stressful, to say the least.
Then, one day shortly after settling a custody battle where Andrew managed to get more time with his kids, we found bruises on his daughter. After speaking with their mother and finding out the bruises were from a spanking given to her by her mother, we reported it. This did not feel like something we should just ignore, especially considering we had just witnessed her mother telling the judge she only spanks the children in times of danger and never when angry. But of course, DCF came back with no signs of abuse and told us it’s unfortunate, but since the bruises came from punishment, there was nothing they could do. Our report began a series of events in which their mother attempted to pin abuse on us, encouraging their highly emotional son to report false truths to the school counselor and having our home inspected. Just like with her, nothing was ever substantiated, but the overall feelings in the home became more and more negative.
At this same time, Andrew was attending a number of job fairs to get a teaching position after graduation. One of his favorites was the idea of teaching in Alaska. Initially, I was completely against the idea. I could not imagine leaving my current life behind, even with the turmoil. So he accepted his first teaching job in our hometown, but his first year was a disaster and led to him looking for another position. For a couple of months, he looked in our hometown in Kansas, then just outside of our hometown, then maybe a little farther, but nothing seemed to be working out. The idea of Alaska came up, and after just a week or so of looking, he found two positions and managed to get offered one all the way in Utqiagvik, Alaska, a village of less than five thousand people. The top of the world. The northernmost point of the United States.
So then came the deciding what we were going to do as a family. He would do this just for a year. Did that make it worth it for me to uproot my kids and take them away from their family? Should I just stay here and wait it out? I had always wanted to travel, maybe this was my opportunity to do so. Could I even survive a year without Andrew? And what about our toddler? Should he go a whole nine months without seeing his father? Eventually, I took a gamble and started looking for jobs in the same village and low and behold, they had a spot for a pre-K teacher, which was my forte! I applied, interviewed, and got offered the job all in the same month, which was June. We were moving to Alaska before school started sometime in August!
When we broke the news to the kids, there were mixed emotions. Toby and Joella were excited to be getting the opportunity to explore a new area of the world, but nervous to be leaving almost everything they knew behind. Cayden and Aliena were disappointed they would not be joining us, but hopeful in the fact it would not be forever and we could talk almost whenever they wanted. Andrew and I were ready to make enough money to get ourselves out of the debt we had created over the years and start building a life we could be proud of, a life our children could be happy about. This opportunity would bring as much as a whole other income into our lives! We would spend a year living frugally and paying off debts, and then we could come back and move on.
Cayden struggled the most with our decision. I remember one day not long before we were leaving, he became upset and started saying we did not love him and he was never coming back to our house. He never wanted to see us again, not even his best friend Toby. He loves video games as much as anything, and he took his profile on our family Switch and changed his name to ‘leaving.’ He was hurting and did not know how to express it in any other way. He wanted us to hurt like he was. This was hard for us, but at the time it made our decision easier. He wanted to be with his mother, we were going to give that to him. I don’t think either of us really understood what was happening at the time. The rest of the summer came and went with lots of prepping. The time to leave was quickly upon us. We said our goodbyes, boarded our planes, flew over four thousand miles, and arrived at our new home! Immediately, we loved the area. Being within walking distance to the beach was a first for all of us, then there was the new wildlife, the friendly residents, and the subsistence way of life we got to learn about and experience.
Utqiagvik is not as much of a village as we had anticipated. People drove cars, internet was mostly available, there were a couple of grocery stores, a handful of restaurants, and even a Subway. Not my favorite fast food place, but it was still something. Our jobs kept us occupied a lot of the time, and exploring the new area we were in, but it weighed on us heavily that a good part of our family was not with us. We tried calling, no answer. We had given Cayden a cell phone prior to leaving so he would always have a connection with us. Parental controls from his mother made it impossible for us to reach him. So we called their home phone, no one answered. We texted their mother, and she informed us they had to do chores before they could speak with us and they did not want to do their chores. The regular contact we thought we would get with them did not exist. Andrew was lucky if he got to speak to his kids once a month, but when we did speak, they seemed content with how things were.
Andrew decided to return home during Christmas break and take his allotted custody time with his kids. The trip went well, the kids seemed okay, but they missed him and their family. Living in a village in Alaska requires some getting used to. It took us longer than we anticipated to figure out how to get food without using our whole paycheck. It is really true you spend ten dollars on a gallon of milk at our grocery store, if they even have milk, which they regularly run out of. A week’s worth of groceries at the store would cost us four hundred dollars! The money we thought we would have to pay debts was much smaller than we had anticipated. So when the time came, we accepted another year in Alaska. It wasn’t all about the money, though. Andrew and I both had made connections with people and our students. We really felt like we were in a place where we fit in, a place we could belong. Toby and Joella made friends with other kids quickly, their teachers loved them, and Avett had an excellent babysitter who we really liked.
Everything we had been searching for in Kansas was happening in Alaska, just without our other children. COVID ended our school year early to a certain extent. We were offered the ability to work ‘off-slope,’ and so we returned to Kansas for the summer. During the summer, we got a significantly more amount of time with Cayden and Aliena. We had them for three weeks at a time, the most we had ever been given, and it was awesome! They were still transition times, but after a couple of days, everyone was able to relax and enjoy being in each other’s company. Cayden and I grew closer and closer over the summer and that was something I did not think would ever happen. We explored new areas of Kansas we had not seen before and spent time as a family. I became anxious about leaving for Alaska again, and their mother got divorced. Leaving the other kids behind was much harder the second time around, but we had already accepted jobs and would not be able to get out of our contracts without significant consequences. Then what would all of this have been for? So we left, again.
This year has been a little easier. We more regularly get ahold of Andrew’s kids. One thing COVID has given us is that everyone now knows how to use video chatting and everyone has some sort of device readily available for doing just that. With the kids in distance-learning school, the three-hour time difference is more manageable with a flexible schedule. But still there are the experiences they are missing out on. So this year for Christmas, we are bringing them up to Alaska to experience the crazy amounts of snow, the new and different wildlife, and the beautiful snow-topped mountains.
Who knows what the future holds? Currently, Andrew and I are working to buy a house in Kansas. We want our family to be all back together, but being in debt so much of our lives has created poor credit for us both. Each day brings us closer to our goals, and we just have to keep our eyes on the prize and cherish the time we get. For now, this Christmas break has been full of laughter and love, we will cherish this time and hold on to the memories until we can be all together again.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Katelynn Sanders. You can follow their journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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