Last week I kept the kids an extra night, since my ex-husband had a fancy dinner for work. This is not unusual: despite our nominally fifty-fifty custody arrangement, I pick up extra nights on a regular basis. As I was tucking my younger son in bed, he began to sniffle.
“I miss Dad,” he whimpered. I froze. This is unusual.
My ex-husband lives a mile and a half away. The kids spend two nights a week with me, two with him, and alternate weekends with each of us. On holidays, sick days and whenever school is canceled or out of session, they spend the day with me and go to their dad’s on “his” nights when he gets home from work. I see them every weekday unless I’m out of town (the younger one gets dropped off before school, and both kids take the bus home to my house.) It closely approximates our schedule when we were married, though the kids see more of their father now than they used to. Since we split, neither kid has said much about missing him; to be fair, I don’t think they miss me terribly when they’re at his house, either. This has been one of the most shockingly pleasant surprises of the divorce; the kids, knock wood, are all right.
I rubbed my son’s back. He’s in second grade, a cheerful child, but thoughtful. His sniffles increased, and there were tears. “I just miss him,” he said. I murmured consoling things: he would see his father tomorrow, and they would spend the whole weekend together. I said that his father, too, wished they could have been together, and would much rather have been home than out with a bunch of scientists. (This is probably true, though the restaurant he scored a free dinner from is a very nice one. My ex-husband is not a terribly social man.) I sang some old James Taylor songs, and kissed and hugged my sad little boy. Soon he was breathing calmly, asleep in my arms.
There were years when I had a sleeping kid in my arms at least once a day, and often for half the night; nowadays, that sweet weight is rare, and so I held my oversized baby a while, absently grazing the top of his head with my lips. Downstairs, I could hear my older son puttering around. He likes for me to sit on his bed and chat after lights-out–was he sad, tonight, as well? Two emotional bedtimes in a row–I braced myself. This hadn’t happened in a long time. I tried to think how long, exactly, it had been. And then I remembered.
Shortly after we separated, my ex-husband got serious with a new girlfriend. Make no mistake, this was a welcome development. I was extremely curious about her–not just because I wanted her full name and address so that I could send her a thank you note, but also because she suddenly started spending almost every weekend with the kids. It happened very fast–one minute I barely knew she existed, and the next the kids had not only met her, but spent a solid 48 hours with her. I hadn’t been warned in advance.
When they came home that Sunday evening, neither would look directly at me. They acted bratty and unpleasant until bedtime, at which point the little one suddenly burst into tears. “I miss…Dad’s girlfriend!” he wept, and wept, and wept. I was already slightly tipsy, as was my wont of an evening, back then; during the eternity that followed, between rubbing backs and singing songs and smoothing brows and kissing foreheads, I managed a few extracurricular trips to the liquor cabinet. By the time everyone settled down, I was quite drunk indeed. I staggered to the kitchen, slid down to the floor with my glass in hand and my back against the dishwasher, and sobbed.
Which, even at the time, seemed a bit melodramatic.
“He wasn’t crying because he really missed HER, you know,” one of my oldest friends told me a couple of days later. I did know. But I was still bothered by my overreaction–obviously, I told her, I was not insecure or naive enough to take “I miss Dad’s girlfriend, whom I just met this weekend,” at face value. However, something had certainly upset the kids, and seeing them so undone made me furious at their father. Who did he think he was, foisting a girlfriend on my innocent babes, then snatching her away so that they’d miss her? My friend smiled kindly, and put the kettle on for tea. “When Mark and I separated,” she said, “he had a strange almost-romance with a woman who lived in his building. She never slept over when the girls were visiting, but on Sunday mornings, the four of them developed this elaborate, ritualistic brunch.”
My friend’s two girls are just older and younger than my older son; our kids have known each other all their lives. We met in college, lived in apartments across the hall from each other with the men we eventually married after graduation, and were bridesmaids in each others’ ill-fated weddings. Her divorce was a messy, painful ordeal–she, too, left her husband, and he resisted mightily–that took years to finalize. But she’d made it through to the other side, and was on the verge of getting married again. I’d leaned hard on her since my separation.
“So they’d make French toast, and have orange juice,” she went on, as we dipped our teabags and swirled our spoons. “Fucking fresh squeezed orange juice, which drove me absolutely insane. And they’d come home all full of themselves about this woman and the breakfast and how great it was at Dad’s house and I swear to God, I could have made them filet mignon and baked bread and made piecrust from scratch and it wouldn’t have impressed them nearly as much as the stupid brunch they’d eaten together.” She shook her head. “Because they liked the symmetry of it. The two-parents-at-the-table thing, even though they knew she wasn’t a parent.” She practically spat the last word, to my great surprise. She is without question the least malicious person I know. “Being alone with their father was one thing; being with him and someone else was a family.”
As if on cue, her own family materialized. Her daughters came home from school, and her fiancé, who had moved in a few months earlier, came home from work. It got dark. The apartment was lively and colorful, all of a sudden–the peace of afternoon moving seamlessly into the pleasant chaos of evening, the way it always does in houses filled with parents and children. I was invited to stay for supper, of course, but it was a school night and I didn’t really belong. I kissed everyone goodbye and left, and when I got outside I was hit by a wave of loneliness so strong it was almost unbearable. I wanted to throw my head back and howl.
It’s not quite the case any more, thank God, but for several months the mere mention of “family” made me cry. This was shocking–as if I, a lifelong and vehement atheist, suddenly discovered I had been in secret thrall to some deity all along. I grew up with divorce, happy in spite of divorce, happier, I would argue, because of divorce–easily as attached to my step-relatives as to anyone related to me by blood. I had, or so I thought, absolutely nothing invested in the ideal of an intact family. It was actually embarrassing–instead of a happy-go-lucky bohemian, I was a big old reactionary. “I’ve destroyed our family,” I’d think, lying in bed, sitting at lunch, driving in my car…and no matter where I was, every single time, the tears would well and fall.
I tried to overcome sentimentality with reason–telling myself, for instance, that even my dramatic suppertime exile from my friend’s happy apartment rang untrue. I knew her history, knew what she’d been through, even knew that her present situation, despite its structural similarity to a happy happy family, was far more vexed and troubled than my cursory evening visit could possibly reveal. I did not begrudge her one single atom of bliss, and I knew precisely the ways in which her bliss was hard won. But I wanted, more than anything, that simple thing she had. I wanted what I’d gone to so much trouble to give up–parents and children living together, with light and noise and simple familiarity till bedtime.
This is something my kids and I have now, from time to time. When my boyfriend and his girls visit, and the six of us sit crowded around the table in a way I can’t be bothered when my kids and I are alone, the ease and happiness of it are so sharp that I have to remind myself there are teenagers present, lest my newfound sentimental streak manifest awkwardly in front of everyone. And when they leave, I miss them all–the noise and mess they make, the chaos they cause, the way they take up space and use up time. So if my second grader gets confused and sad at bedtime, and cries, and says he’s crying for his dad, it’s possible I’ve done yet another harm–this time, under the guise of doing good. By reminding my kids what family feels like, I’ve reminded us all what we’ve lost. And it’s possible, I’ve discovered, to lament the loss of people you couldn’t wait to leave. It’s possible to cry real tears for things you don’t truly miss, for huge and hackneyed constructs in which you never quite believed.