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Red Herring

January 28, 2010

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.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. January 28, 2010 2:33 am

    By reminding my kids what family feels like, I’ve reminded us all what we’ve lost.

    I understand everything, except this, because do you think your husband has asked himself that while his new girlfriend was over there?

    Family is all kinds of things, including single and blended. I wouldn’t be beating myself up about it.

    Anyways. Hello there. Beautifully written words, as usual.

  2. Hawkeye permalink
    January 28, 2010 10:36 am

    That wave of loneliness you so accurately described while leaving a happy, laughing home of family… That hit me hard this morning – I love to spend hours with my married friends, feeling very loved in their little niche, but as soon as I walk out that door and get in the car, it is almost difficult to drive away. Thank you for describing that so beautifully.

  3. January 28, 2010 10:56 am

    I think the best thing you can do for your kids is continue to build a sense of family for them–whatever feels right for you. They don’t need someone else’s idea of family. They just need THEIR family. Peace to you!

  4. January 28, 2010 10:57 am

    I’m so glad I found you…I am in the middle of a divorce, and your words ring so true for me. My kids are 4 and 1. My ex started dating someone immediately, introduced our older to her after 2 months and I found out about her from my son, not my ex. It was awful and hurtful, even though I was the one to end the marriage. I wasn’t hurt about him being with another woman…like you I was torn between wanting to meet her to hug her or warn her. But to have this woman be with MY BABIES, to appear to outsiders to be their mom while the four of them were together….it made me sick. My older son is conflicted about it. He lied to me last night about where he saw a particular movie because he was afraid I would be upset if I knew he saw it at her house. I had to reassure him that he can always tell me the truth, I’m happy Daddy has friends, it’s okay to tell me, and since then he’s brought up that evening a couple times to tell me something different about it. I’m so much happier to be on my own, so much more relieved to be without this ass who was more of a teenager than a partner, but yes. It breaks my heart that it’s no longer the four of us together for our kids, and worries me endlessly that my FOUR year old is insightful enough to know that talking about Daddy’s girlfriend might upset Mommy. What a fucking burden for a preschooler. Guilt. Lots of guilt.

  5. Jefa permalink
    January 28, 2010 2:17 pm

    I think this sums up a variety of the tragedy I feel in my life, in the exact way I would like to express it, but can’t seem to. In general, I feel the loss of things I never had. I see other people interacting with their children in a fulfilled, ever-present wonderment of love, yet (knowing them better) understand that in the beautiful moment I am witnessing they are distracted, stressed, not fully present. Yet I wish I was living their moment in the way it appears to look at first blush. And I wish I would work harder at experiencing my life as a mother in a deeper more meaningful way.

    My 4-year-old son looks up at me and says “I want you to talk to this car” and then over-reacts when I won’t, and one day I say to him “I think what you want is for mommy to pay attention to you, is that it?” And he relaxes and says “Yes, yes that is what I want.” He wants to feel loved and appreciated, but what he says is “talk to my car.” Because he doesn’t know.

    I like my life in general, but having children has been a revelation of my own behaviours. Sadness, anger, joy… they occur on a different level than intellect. And the reasons for them are generally not ones that are easily verbalized. Through the lens of my children, I see myself more clearly.

  6. January 28, 2010 2:20 pm

    A trick I learned when I was first divorced as a single, working mom.

    Crockpot. Whole house smells of *home* when they walk in.

    Your words. Amazing…Your last post though, has left me in a puddle of tears.


  7. January 29, 2010 2:18 am

    Wow. Your writing is so evocative, I can taste the freshly squeezed damned orange juice.

  8. SydneyKate permalink
    January 29, 2010 6:24 am

    Julia pointed your way. I’m so glad she did. Great writing. Topic close to my heart. Thank you for sharing.

  9. January 29, 2010 9:34 am

    Please write a book. I would buy it. In hardback – not even used!

  10. January 30, 2010 12:12 am

    I don’t think an ‘every-other-week’ goes by that I don’t think how much I love my ‘little family. just the 3 of us.

  11. February 5, 2010 12:16 am

    Wow! I am so glad I got to your blog. This really moved me. I will be reading through your archives. Thank you.

  12. February 16, 2010 9:54 pm

    Will you write all my thoughts for me, so they’re this pretty and this magnetic?

  13. February 19, 2010 12:54 am

    “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”
    I do want to send my ex’s new girlfriend a thank you note. Would that be weird? She makes me feel less guilty for the fact that it was my choice to get a divorce and he didn’t want to. Knowing that he’s happy with her makes me want to say “see? I told you so!!!!”

    I would also buy your book. And buy 10 extra copies to give to anyone who was even thinking of divorcing. Finding your blog six months ago would’ve been the best thing for me. Better late than never.

  14. March 3, 2010 12:50 am

    You make me feel so very, very, very much less alone. Thank you. So very much.

  15. November 16, 2010 10:30 pm

    I too, was relieved and happy when my ex got a new girlfriend 2 months after our separation. It got him off my back, because he constantly seemed to want to get back together, and for me it was like coming out of prison when we separated.
    The drawback was, that she had 5 children of her own, so that my ex quickly went from wanting as much contact as possible with his children, to having as little as his conscience would allow. And believe me, that wasn’t very much!

  16. November 16, 2010 10:33 pm

    I too, was relieved and happy when my ex got a new girlfriend 2 months after our separation. It got him off my back, because he constantly seemed to want to get back together, and for me it was like coming out of prison when we separated.
    The drawback was, that she had 5 children of her own, so that my ex quickly went from wanting as much contact as possible with his children, to having as little as his conscience would allow. And believe me, that wasn’t very much!

    He is now in the middle of the 3rd breackup of the 3rd serious relationship since our divorce – and I am always curious about his women and to see how long they last, though thankfully I don’t have to have any direct contact with him outside of major family events anymore.

  17. May 31, 2012 10:36 pm

    I just found your blog, and I’m so glad I did.

    This is an incredible post. I will be going through your archives and catching up – thank you!

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 1, 2012 10:48 am

      Very glad to be of help….and thank you very much for the kind words.

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