Lessons from a divorce five years out

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My first husband and our son about a year before we got divorced.

I was talking to a friend

The other day

Who is going through a divorce.

One of a few friends

Going through it right now.

She had the shell-shocked look

I remember from my mirror six years ago.

“This is so

Fucking hard,”

She said.

“It’s

So

Hard.”

I nodded

And nodded,

And could relate:

The hopelessness leading up to

The decision.

Then finally the decision is made and

There’s relief.

But now the process to

Wade through.

I listened to her grapple with

Her partner

Behaving with inexplicable

Cruelty.

The things that are said,

Unprintable even in my

Immodest blog.

Fear masked as anger,

Contempt,

Indignation.

You were partners in

Instinctive survival:

Food,

Shelter,

Sex,

Provisions,

Parenting.

And now it feels like

This person is threatening your

Ability to survive and thrive.

S/he wants to take your money,

Your time with your kids,

Your home.

Both of your survival instincts are flared

And pitted against one another’s.

Even the most amicable divorce

Requires concessions that,

By their very nature,

Feel cruelly unfair.

My biggest fear was that the

Pain

Would last forever.

The pain that was so much more

Complicated

Than just

Getting dumped,

Or breaking the news to the kids,

Which is how I’d conceived of divorce

Until I went through it.

It was a dense and many-layered pain that,

At its peak,

Felt like it might be a major part of me

For the rest of my life.

But here’s my miracle:

Today I had a phone chat with my

Son’s dad

That wasn’t just civil

Or even friendly,

But was truly affectionate.

And the other day I stood on my

Front porch and chatted with

My husband’s ex-wife and

Her new boyfriend and

Was

Truly

Happy

For her and

Hopeful for her future and

Unattached to what it all

Means for me.

My husband came home the other night

From meeting with his ex-wife to

Discuss some weighty matters

About their kids.

And the conversation,

As he recounted it to me,

Was so

Reasonable and

Productive,

I got choked up listening to it,

Observing how this

Relationship between

My husband and

His ex-wife has

Grown since I’ve known them.

It’s not all perfect.

There are still difficult decisions ahead.

But I cannot tell you how

Grateful

I am to

Get along with both ex-spouses in our family’s life.

It is a truly

Stunning evolution.

How has it all come about,

This friendliness?

After fucking things up good

And learning hard lessons from it:

I learned to make concessions to

Simply keep the peace with my ex-husband.

I sensed it was better for my son

For me to let him go for periods of time

Than to fight to keep him all the time.

That meant I was physically separated from him for

About six months

On three occasions.

And now he spends summers with his dad.

As of this writing,

I haven’t hugged or touched

My 7-year-old boy

For about 50 days.

Yep.

I miss out on events in his life.

But I saw not fighting over my son

As a loving act,

Although to the outside it might look–

Well, who fucking cares

How it looks?

Also, I don’t care about fairness anymore.

There is no truly fair outcome of a

Divorce,

Especially with kids.

Everyone gets screwed.

If you pay child support,

It feels like too much.

It you receive child support,

It feels like too little.

The schedule is never quite right.

You might have to spend

Mother’s Day alone–

I did for three years in a row.

My ex-husband hasn’t had his

Son on Father’s Day since 2007.

Completely unfair.

I got used to it,

And then saw the weird beauty of

This little life lesson

Which has served me well in

Other parts of my life.

We can try for fair–

We do try for fair.

But we never truly achieve it.

These days, I prioritize my relationship with my

Son’s dad and

My husband’s ex-wife.

We try to do small things

To keep it friendly between us.

Little actions to build good will have

Countered any ill-will we once had,

And then some.

Besides which,

I truly care about both of them.

Honestly,

My friendly relationship with my ex-husband

And his family

Is one of the proudest achievements of my life.

And it’s not just about our son.

It’s about my ex and me, too.

It works for us to have an

Affectionate relationship that

Doesn’t revolve around our son at

Every moment of every conversation.

Time doesn’t heal all,

But it does help a hell of a lot.

I’ve heard bitter tirades from

Parents of grown children,

Divorced decades ago.

So obviously time isn’t a panacea.

But time is important.

When I look back

Six or seven years to the middle of the divorce

And right afterward,

My imagination was limited

As to what my life might look like,

Or what my ex’s might look like.

It felt like we would be

Forever tightly linked in this

Shitty,

Cruel

Web of mutual distrust and

Animosity.

But today,

I’m free.

As I was standing talking to my friend

About her impending divorce,

I was noticing how physically

Tall and

Strong I felt.

Loose-limbed and agile.

Healthy.

I said to her that

It was the hardest thing I’ve

Ever been through

In my life

By far.

But I wouldn’t go back and

Change anything.

Summers without my boy

It’s not a simple question for me:

“How’s your summer going?”

The answer requires

A deep breath,

A quick assessment of how

Forthcoming

I want to be

With this person.

My six-year-old son

Spends summers with his

Father’s family

In Finland.

This summer,

He’s gone from

June 11 to

Aug. 25.

I’m Minnesotan;

I come alive in the summer.

I emerge from my

Black down coat with

Browned limbs,

Sun-lightened hair,

Tan-lined feet from my sandals.

Smile at strangers whose

Faces are liberated from

Scarves and hoods.

When my son is gone though,

I have to steel myself for summer.

I hate wishing time away—

Especially the rarefied days of

Light and green—

But I can’t help

Counting the summers down.

I’m not

Quite

Myself

When my first-born is not

Physically near.

I can function.

I’m fine;

I’m okay.

But a part of me is

Missing.

I’ve described it like

Temporarily

Losing my left arm,

If you will.

A survivable wound,

But disabling.

You can adapt to the loss,

But it’s obvious nearly every

Hour of

Every day.

Describing it to people,

I put a desperately positive spin on it:

“He has so much fun,” I say.

“The only grandchild.

All the attention on him.

Plenty of time outdoors.

Healthy food.

He always grows a mile.”

“What a great experience,”

People say kindly,

Even enthused for him.

I’ve never felt judged.

Thank you for that.

It’s a fear, I think,

Of many divorced parents.

Being judged for decisions we’ve made

That have given our kids

This

Story.

Yep.

I left.

I did it.

It was me.

And now my son’s story includes

Airports,

Backpacks full of toys, books, drawing material

For the plane.

Ability beyond his years to

Operate the seat-back entertainment system.

And me?

I haven’t bothered with 4th of July fireworks

In years.

I go to bed at 9,

Get up for work the next morning.

Just a day like any other.

To be gotten through.

This summer though.

I feel guilty saying it:

It’s been easier with Rocky,

The new baby.

I don’t have to

Turn off my

Maternal energies like a

Faucet

For 10 weeks.

There’s a small body to

Hold and squeeze,

Chubby cheeks to kiss the

Tears off of.

Joe and I joked,

Before Rocky was born,

We’d have him

All the time.

No one to hand him off to

For the weekend.

I’m glad.

I don’t want to share him.

I want to have access

At all times.

Make all the decisions.

I want to learn to let go

His freshman year of college

Dropping him off the dorm.

Not in security lines in airports.

I would never want Victor to think,

Though,

That Rocky has somehow

Replaced him.

I can’t wait to hold Victor’s

Larger,

Tougher

Body on my lap,

His long legs dangling,

His hands,

Dirty from outside,

Squeezing my fingers.

Rocky takes the edge off,

But Victor’s absence still yawns.

Seven more days until the airport.

Till Victor comes through the

Security doors

With his backpack,

Signaling the end of

Summer,

Finally.

Step parenting is hard

I broke my own rule the other night:

When Joe is disciplining my son,

And I don’t agree with what he’s saying

Or how he’s saying it,

I support him at the moment in order to provide a

Unified front,

And bring it up with him later,

In private,

In our bedroom,

After the kids are tucked into bed.

That’s the ideal.

But it didn’t work quite that way on Friday.

Me, Joe and my six-year-old Victor

Went to a circus-like burger and malt shop for dinner,

Magenta and azure murals of dancing cartoon figures on the walls,

Us glaze-eyed from a long week of school and work.

My boy wasn’t listening:

“Don’t run,”

And he’d run.

“Don’t put your burger on the table,”

And he’d put his burger on the table.

The more he didn’t listen,

The more Joe fixated on him not listening:

“If I have to talk to you

One more time,

You won’t get a root beer.”

Victor tried to climb into my lap.

“Mom, I get a root beer, right?”

“Not if Joe says you don’t,”

I said wearily.

It went on like this for a few minutes:

My boy lapped at his water like a dog,

And Joe told him not to.

My boy blew bubbles in his milk,

And Joe said, “Stop.”

I tried to restrain myself,

But I finally couldn’t.

My mouth just opened and

Brightly, I said to Joe,

“Let’s talk about what Victor’s done right today.”

Joe’s gaze swung across the formica table top

To me,

And then he and I started going at it:

“You need to lay off.”

“But he needs to listen.

It’s a safety issue.”

“But this isn’t working.”

“He’s doing it on purpose.”

“No he’s not. He’s six.”

“Well, something needs to change.”

“Does it? Is something wrong?”

And on and on.

So here’s the underpinning of this

Conflict:

Joe doesn’t love Victor like he’s his own son.

Victor has a dad,

And Joe has children.

Those roles are filled.

Same with me.

Joe’s kids have a mom;

They don’t need another one.

We both love our step kids;

But not in that

Blindly unconditional way we do our own.

When Victor doesn’t listen,

I assume he’s just a distracted six-year-old

Developmentally incapable of following

Every

Single

Direction

He’s given.

Joe sees some insolence,

Some intention in the behavior,

That would

Never

Occur to me.

The thing is,

We’re both right.

And sometimes,

We can both admit that.

Step parents can offer a lot:

They aren’t befogged by unqualified love–

Their objectivity can clarify the most

Confounding parental delusion.

Joe and I can do that for each other–

Not every time,

But enough to be hopeful.

Somehow,

On Friday,

It happened:

We had a productive conversation about

Step parenting

At the moment of disagreement,

In front of one of the kids.

I truly witnessed Joe’s face

Soften

With hurt feelings as he described how

Victor ignores his attempts to

Ask what happened at school

Or at wrestling practice.

And he listened

Non-defensively

To my points about

Developmentally normal behaviors

That don’t always need to be

Disciplined.

Afterwards,

It was Joe who was the lightest of all

Walking out of the restaurant,

Jokey with Victor, and flashing

Grateful looks in my direction.

So it worked

This time,

And for today.

Maybe it was the malts.

Got my son back

People asked in the days before I left

To bring my boy home,

“Are you excited?”

“Yes,” I would say

Slowly.

“Of course.”

But the truth is,

It’s not excitement I feel.

It’s relief.

Relief because this

Separation

Is nearly at an end.

Relief because I’m nearly whole again,

Whereas when my boy is gone,

There’s a bit missing.

So excitement?

I don’t get excited about much these days.

I’m a tough sell.

Steadiness and

Peace,

My watchwords,

Preclude excitement

For good or bad.

Relief is the right word

Relief to squeeze the small body to me.

(It is painfully unnatural to

Not

Touch your child for

Months on end.

Painfully.)

My separation time is over for now,

Which means his father’s is just beginning.

At the airport

His father watches us go through security.

I hoist the boy up three or four times to wave.

His dad stays until he can’t see us anymore.

Six days till I get my boy back

On Friday, I fly to Finland to

Bring my son home.

We’ve been doing this for three years,

So I’ve got some experience with the

Airport reunion.

Last year

When I went to get him,

I hadn’t seen him in person for

Seven

Months.

(Every-other-day Skype chats

Make this all possible.)

At the Helsinki airport

I came out a different door than

He and his aunt were expecting.

As I came up from the side,

I could see him

Standing on his tiptoes,

Looking for me to come through the

Security doors.

Smiling.

He was smiling.

That’s important.

I grabbed him from the side;

He never saw me coming.

The body was stout and thicker than I remembered;

The giggling face rounder.

Leaving the airport,

He became shy with me and

Ran up to his aunt,

Grabbed her hand.

No way, I thought.

I scooped him up,

And gave him a fart kiss on his belly,

And he laughed,

And had no problem holding my hand after that.

After seven months in Finland

He wasn’t speaking any English.

There were times I had to ask his aunt or his father,

“What’s he saying?”

But I decided:

I’m the mom,

And I’m not going to waste one minute not acting like it.

I’m not going to

Ruminate on

What it means

That I have to ask someone to

Translate for my own son.

No.

Stop.

Act like the mom.

Take him to the bathroom.

Pay for his lunch.

Help him put his shoes on.

Choose his clothes, and help him get dressed.

Don’t stop and think.

No analysis and no self-pity.

(Even jet-lagged.)

Because there he was at a Helsinki park:

Scampering to the top of a small cliff,

The sun in his butter-yellow hair.

He pointed to where he wanted me to stand,

Then leaped off the rock,

Laughing,

His solid body hurtling toward me,

Completely trusting that I’ll catch him.

“Saada minut!” he yelled.

Get me!

I will, buddy.

That’s why I’m here.

Divorced parenting with benefits

Before I say anything,
A disclaimer:
Of course
I would always prefer to have my son
Here
With me,
Playing with toy cars on the
Rainbow-striped pile rug
In his bedroom.
But,
I have to say,
My husband and I have had a couple of
Very nice kid-free weekends this summer.
Between two co-parenting schedules
For three adolescent kids,
We get five to seven kid-free weekends
Per year,
Mostly in the summer when my boy
Is with his dad.
On the Friday of a kid-free weekend
We look at each other across the
Weirdly tidy living room and say,
“What should we do?”
Mostly,
We can’t think of
Anything.
It’s my fault.
Joe comes up with ideas–a movie, a late concert–
And nothing feels momentous enough for me.
(Or else I’m too tired.)
The other night,
I was so determined to think of something
Amazingly adventurous and fun,
And I was so completely unable to do so,
That I spun suddenly into the
Sadness death spiral
Where I miss my son so much
That I want to crash to the rug
And lie there unmoving,
Not even crying,
Just blinking and staring at the dust heaps
Under the couch.
(I did rally that night,
And we played cribbage and listened to music,
The death spiral averted.)
The best kid-free weekends are ones that are either
Planned far in advance:
Tickets bought and
Time booked (concerts, camping),
Or the spontaneously inspired ones:
Yoga classes together,
Playing cribbage and listening to music,
Even grocery shopping,
Just the two of us,
Feels like a date.
But the best parts
Are the moments when,
Undistracted by other people’s needs,
I’m fully attentive to my husband
As he’s talking.
And I realize
I haven’t seen him clearly
For weeks or even months;
Seen who he is,
Not what I need him to do next.
Is being away from
Our children
Worth those rarefied moments?
I don’t know.
It’s our life
And I’ll take it.

Grace

The Skype window flickered on,

Revealing my boy and his dad

Granulated and dimmed by a

Few thousand miles of ether.

They were giggling together.

My boy on his dad’s lap in front of the computer

Trying to squirm away

The dad’s large hands

Gripping the narrow ribcage

The thick fingers digging in

For the tickle.

Both of them laughing

White teeth flashing.

“What are you monkeys doing?”

I asked,

Feigning disapproval.

My boy

Broke free and

Scampered to the other side of the room,

Where he stood panting and laughing,

Watching his dad.

Who said,

“Okay, it’s time to talk to Mom.”

The boy walked out of the room,

And his dad said,

Apologetically,

“He’s hungry.

He’s gonna have some ice cream in the kitchen.”

No tears for Mom,

No wails of longing,

Or I miss you.

Later,

Thinking about my boy

And our Skype time,

I was glad

That my boy is

Having fun

Without me.

I get it now.

That parent’s mantra:

“All I want is for you to be

Happy and safe.”

Incredible, the

Complex and paradoxical

Layers of

That kind of love.

That I could be happy and grateful

At the same time I’m

Sad and grieving.

When other parents say to me,

“I could never do what you do,

Be away from your child for months at a time.”

I always say with the assurance of

One who has experienced grace,

“Yes you could,

If you had to.

I hope you never have to.”