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Cause, effect

January 17, 2011

Kids will be kids. By which I mean this: kids will be selfish, manipulative little shits at regular intervals. And yet, since the separation, whenever one of my kids behaves abominably, a horrible thrum of self-doubt rises up in me. I have to force myself to remember that both of my children have been plenty dreadful, now and then, since the moment they were born. “My god, they’re ruined, I’ve broken them,” I think in panic, even as I am taking away privileges and stifling (or not–as I type this, my throat actually hurts from shouting at my older child several hours ago. Totally his fault, for the record) the toxic, overwhelming rage that I have never, ever felt with anyone other than my own children.

I have a bad temper. I am also easily riled. But generally I don’t lose my shit completely, except with my kids. Even in the most hideous moments of divorce, I never actually saw red. Before I had kids, I thought that was just an expression. It’s not.

My older son is now fourteen. Ninth grade. He’s a young fourteen, still a kid more than a teen, but he has always had a mouth on him that would have earned him plenty of thrashings out behind the woodpile if he’d been born into the Ingalls family. And if Pa were around. Which Pa isn’t, and never was, in fact…Pa was always at the lab, and even when he and Ma were married, Ma was the one tanning the children’s figurative hides. At any rate, leaving Laura and her admirable family out of it for the moment, I must say that I have often marveled at how seamlessly my pre-divorce life merged into the routine I presently have with my kids. I have not felt overburdened since the separation, because for the most part I do exactly what I always did. I write for a few hours a day, do domestic chores and errands, feed people, drive them here and there, make and keep track of their appointments, meet with their teachers, see that they mind their manners, invite their friends over, invite my friends over, and so on and so forth. Actually, life is easier now. Oh, sure, I’ve got no money (but who does? Let the record show that I got divorced exactly as the world economy was tanking, which I highly recommend: right as my husband and I split, even the media elite became more concerned with thrift than luxury. I was on the cutting edge!)

And I’ve got far more time to myself than ever before. Consider: every other weekend and two nights a week after supper, I’m free. Some nights, I don’t have to cook for anyone but myself, which means I end up eating exceedingly weird things right out of the container, alone, with a book, which is bliss. A few nights a week, I’m even spared bedtime.  I love bedtime (the snuggling!  the stories!) but let’s be honest: not having to put a couple of kids to bed is like having the day’s final exam canceled, if you know what I mean.

I often wonder what would have happened if my ex-husband and I had stayed married. Since he got tenure only a few months before we split up, I never reaped the benefits of his salary jump, or his sudden increase in leisure time. But would he be as devil-may-care with his lab hours if we were still together? I tend to doubt it. At any rate, despite all these apparent advantages (more time; fewer responsibilities) and despite the fact that my main roles (not-fun parent, disciplinarian, drudge) have not much changed since the separation, other things have definitely worsened. Since we split, I’m the mother I ever was, only less so.

Less? Indeed. I have less control, less authority, less money, less time with them. You would think that being the lone parent in charge most days and nights would translate into feeling more capable, more whole, not less. Closer to them, not more distant. But you would be wrong. Last summer I read this lovely meditation on the meaning of–oh, what shall we call it? “Single parenting” seems false, since I am certainly not my children’s only parent. Putting it unkindly, their father is a constant annoying dopplegänger, putting it kindly, he is presently much more involved. “Half-parenting” might be a more accurate term, except it’s not really half, no matter how evenly the custody shakes down.

When you’re living with your kids’ other parent, you unconsciously divvy up your roles. You have the luxury of playing to your strengths. If one of you is strict, and the other less so, it all evens out in the end, because two parents working in tandem function more as a unit–a parental monolith, if you will–than as individuals. “You need one person to throw you screaming into the sea, and someone else to towel you off and give you a biscuit,” the brilliant Jaywalker says. Well, yes. But I’d take it a step further and say that when you’re still together, the kids don’t particularly care who does what, provided somebody covers all the bases.

To kids, happiness just means that their parents complement each other with respect to whatever they, the kids, care most about at any particular time. As long as active marital strife isn’t occurring, I daresay that children would rather have their parents stay together. I keep smacking my head against this upsetting truth. Selfishly, you end your marriage to your children’s father–and selfishly, your children are annoyed. Even if you’re happier afterward, it’s your word against theirs. This is eerily reminiscent of the struggle to extract myself, limb by stuck limb, from the La Brea tar pits of my marriage. No matter how many times I told my ex-husband that we couldn’t be happy together, that I simply didn’t love him enough any more, he didn’t believe me. He raged at me, threatened me, begged and bribed me to stay. To him, anything was worth the cost of losing the security he apparently felt while married to me. And I think, though I hate admitting it, that children feel much the same way about divorce.

I asked my kids’ father for a divorce because I was miserable. If I luck out, they’ll eventually get it; if not, I was a bit of a shit to the people I love most on earth. And knowing this changes the way I feel about them, alters that love I held most dear. If your kids think you’re a selfish jerk, eventually you begin to look at them differently. Oh, I’ll show you who’s a selfish jerk, you might think in dark moments. You don’t care about my happiness? Well, guess what? I don’t care about your stupid adolescent happiness either, you ingrate. And then it all starts to go downhill.

I exaggerate, of course. My older son, recent tantrum notwithstanding, is actually pretty nice. Everyone else says so. Why, just this morning, his very father said, “He’s a prince at my house.” To which I said, “That’s because he loves you more than he loves me.” Oh, how we guffawed. Then we hung up, and I felt terrible. Did I fuck up my kids by getting divorced? They’re starting to sense they’ve got something on me, to test the waters of post-marital maternal guilt, I can tell. They’re sly, the two of them. They say things they don’t even mean, then slide their eyes at each other and at me, to see what sticks. If I were a nobler person, nothing would stick. But I let them get to me, despite my better instincts.

I dislike having to be everything to my children. I know for an absolute fact that I would be a better parent if my ex-husband were still around, though I’d be a much more miserable person. But if he were still part of the picture, making the money, home at opportune times? The kids and I wouldn’t come to a boil so much. He’d disable our hair triggers. Now, I’m unattractively aware of all the ways I fail them–I do not play wiffleball, for instance, with the proper enthusiasm. Sure, I’m perpetually around, but in a low-key way. I got up with them when they were babies and I still take care of them when they’re sick, but I don’t expect any medals for it. And even when we were married, my kids were absolutely thrilled whenever their father came home. It didn’t bother me how outrageously happy they were to see someone who had not the faintest idea what they’d done or said or thought all day long because I, too, was happy to see him. We’d been waiting all day, and when he got home, we were finally complete.

And when they were bad, as all kids sometimes are, when they were bratty and demanding, even though I bore the brunt of it (simply because I was always the proximate parent), I knew there would eventually be another adult to help me take the heat. Together, we could smile, make the crazy-crazy sign behind the kid’s head, reassure each other. Now I’m constantly bothered by the niggling question: Did I, somehow, cause this? Is my kid a part-time jerk because he’s a typical spoiled teenager, or because his father and I got divorced?

What once seemed so crucial–whose idea, whose fault was this split, anyway?–becomes irrelevant when you’re standing in the kitchen alone, spatula in hand, hamburgers burning in the pan, trying not to scream at your beloved children as they push buttons you didn’t even know you had. You don’t get to do only the things you’re best at when you’re the only one around. You’ve got to do the things you’re lousy at, too, and often you find yourself fucking up. And it’s hard, post divorce, to know whether you’re fighting with your kids because that’s just the way things go, or specifically because you’re rather bad at certain aspects of childrearing. Whether certain things are beyond your ken, and you’re doomed to make the same dumb-assed mistakes again and again, or whether you’re just exactly who you would have been on any one of those interminable evenings you gritted your teeth through, while the kids squabbled and supper got cold, till Daddy finally walked through the damned door.

28 Comments leave one →
  1. January 17, 2011 11:48 pm

    Your writing, as always, leaves me stunned. Your honesty and bravery, inspired. Thank you for all of it.

  2. January 18, 2011 1:20 am

    Oh, thank you. I needed someone to remind me of the fact in your opening statements.

  3. January 18, 2011 5:18 am post. everything I ever thought. 7 years past now but still some of these misgivings haunt me when I least expect it.

  4. January 18, 2011 7:06 am

    Such, such gorgeous writing here. I expect your boys are just growing up and expanding their button-pushing repertoire like all normal kiddos – please, please don’t blame yourself, your divorce. Although the fact that you do blame yourself, and think and analyze the situation until it drives you crazier I think is a sign that you’re a decent, conscious parent, all we can ever hope to be. My folks divorced when I was pretty little and I never saw my dad since age 3 and I do recall using that as ammunition during those ouchy years when everything seems to be fair game against one’s parents. It passes. Someday they’ll get it.

  5. totalcoward permalink
    January 18, 2011 7:18 am

    Reeling at the brillance of this post.
    I could have written the sad comment on the other post that you replied to, could have written it word for word. Sometimes I think I must be incredibly weak to still be here hanging on to the remnants of a relationship that probably wasn’t all that much even in its heyday. Somehow I find myself seeking out blogs like yours, probably in an attempt to find the courage to face up to my own future.
    Your writing is simply magnificent. It’s like you’re describing my own life, it’s uncanny how your insights into your own experiences are so apt at describing mine. Don’t mean that to sound weird, it’s just you really strike a chord deep down. Thank you for putting this out there and allowing others to read it.

  6. farawayreader permalink
    January 18, 2011 8:05 am

    Your honesty is amazing. Parenting is the hardest gig there is , I often think “why didn’t anyone tell me??” I guess I wouldn’t have believed them anyway. I can relate to so many things you talk about and I am a married mom. Your blog is one of my favourites. Thank you for putting it all down.

  7. January 18, 2011 9:44 am

    Beautiful, lucid writing. Thank you for writing it.

  8. Mandee permalink
    January 18, 2011 11:07 am

    New reader lured in by your amazing writing.

    My father recently left my mother after 42 years of marriage. Last week, he sent my sister and me a letter apologizing for being unfaithful to our mother (multiple times). My sister keeps telling him that she’s really glad he’s happy, but the rest of us are miserable. And that’s sort of where I am – I’m not a 14 year old boy. I’m a 36 year old woman who loves her dad more than life. I should want him to take the steps necessary to be a whole, happy, completed individual. But how in the world am I supposed to reconcile wanting him to be happy with watching the shrapnel fall around me from the bomb he selfishly set off? Reading your post helps me stand in his shoes for just a minute, so thanks.

    • January 18, 2011 2:35 pm

      Oh Mandee, I wish I’d written that. My parents separated and divorced over an agonizing 20 years or so and I know they’re better off, I told my mother so when I was a teen, but it’s hard to go fully to the happy for you part even so.

      On the other hand, Irretrievably, I don’t believe that your kids would have been oblivious and wouldn’t have cared if you’d stayed in the marriage basically for everyone else’s comfort. I don’t believe you’d have been a “better” parent, whatever that is. You’d have been different. And they would have noticed your unhappiness one way or another. I’m almost certain of it.

      Good luck, from a child of divorce who wasn’t (and shamefully even at 42 sometimes isn’t) so nice to her parents about the whole divorce (more about remarriage) thing. From what little I know about your kids they’ll be way better at this than I am.

    • Celeste permalink
      January 18, 2011 9:38 pm

      Mandee, all I can say is, your father must have been so unhappy. To leave after 42 years is to say, I don’t know how long I have left, but I just want to feel better if only for a little while. I take it your mother is devastated though, and I’m so sorry. I guess it all just goes to show you, there’s never a good time to undo a bad match.

    • MEP permalink
      January 26, 2011 3:29 pm

      Totally anecdotal, but of all the children of divorce I know, the ones whose parents divorced after they were grown are WAY more effed up about it, than the ones who were children when the divorce happened. In my observation, they are much more likely to pick sides, to place blame on one parent or the other (or a third party, if that third party is still around), and to harbor resentments that damage relationships for life. They are usually way more bratty about it than kids, and a lot of times I think that’s because they’re emotionally crippled by the dysfunctional family they’ve grown up in.

  9. January 18, 2011 11:14 am

    A wonderful, honest post.

  10. January 18, 2011 11:50 am

    I recently wrote about the same thing: there is no control group. Since my children are younger (4 and 7), it’s impossible to separate out whether I fucked them up more by STAYING with their father and forcing them to spend the first part of their lives with parents who sounded like George and Estelle Costanza or did I fuck them up by STOPPING all that?

    No way to tell.

  11. Anne permalink
    January 18, 2011 12:07 pm

    Do you read Anne Lamott? I have found her writings on parenthood such a goddamn, blessed relief on those days when I wonder what the hell I am doing in this parenting gig.

    And, I have a term for the “not-quite-single-parenting” thing you’re doing: 1.5 parenting. I am not divorced, but the summer my first kid was a toddler, my husband was working both full-time and part time (equalling about 70 hours a week) and usually wouldn’t get home until after the kid was in bed. Sure, he’d bring home groceries and do some dishes, but for the most part, I was on my own. It sucked, and I sympathize.

    Lastly–it helps me to remember that we’re ALL screwed up, somehow, someway, regardless of what our parents did. SAHM? Working mom? Either way, your kids will probably hold it against you at some point in their life, or if not, will still probably fashion their lives in some ways to be in juxtaposition with yours. As long as we’re doing the “good enough” parenting Scarr always talks about, I think we’ll all be all right…

  12. January 18, 2011 12:28 pm

    You will never know how important your words are to me. I gasp as I realize I am not as screwed up as I thought, that these miserable feelings are shared and dealt with by others. I don’t know where your words will take me in my situation, but thank you.

  13. January 18, 2011 1:53 pm

    All I can say is that as an adult whose parents divorced when I was eleven years old, I look back and see that my happiness as well as my brothers’ was tied so closely to my mom’s that once she and my dad divorced we were ALL much happier (well, except my dad, who, 29 years later, is still pissed about it, but whatever.) Honestly, a happy mom really does make for happier kids. Period.

    And I do think your kids will realize this. Maybe not tomorrow or even next year, but someday, they’ll see that you did the best you could and they’ll thank you for it.

  14. Anna permalink
    January 18, 2011 3:01 pm

    Are you giving the boys a chance to tell you that they’re angry? It’s hard to know from this post. They have good reason to be angry, just as you had a good reason to get divorced. Have you talked about it? Might be a good way to figure out what’s just teenage stuff and what’s legitimate divorce fallout.

    One line that comes to mind on these sorts of occasions: “If I had two lives, I’d give you one of them, but I don’t.”

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      January 18, 2011 3:24 pm

      We talk about things more than we used to–in the beginning, I was always scared to bring the separation up (not very motherly of me). These days the kids mostly bitch that they hate going back and forth and forgetting items in transit, which sometimes leads to talk of Bigger Issues. They do not know, however, that I instigated the separation–on that topic, their father has been extremely diplomatic, to his immense credit. (The guilt is mine alone, since only I know that.) In fact, my ex-husband got a serious girlfriend so soon after we separated (immediately, actually) that my older son has asked me more than once whether she was the reason we split up, and I have told him absolutely not (god, it feels good to be able to say that, and know it’s true–it’s such a fucking relief not to have to hedge and stonewall when a potential landmine question is asked.)

      At other times, when the 14 year old has asked why we got divorced? “You know I don’t talk about your dad’s and my relationship, because it’s private,” I’ve said. “Unless you want me to, in which case I’ll also tell you a lot of details about our sex life.” “Ew! God, Mom, No! That’s GROSS,” he’ll shriek, and I’ll say, “Well, then, you see what I mean. Some things are not really appropriate for kids to hear about their parents. And anyway, you know that nothing as complicated as a divorce can be summed up in a single reason.”

      I’m certainly not endorsing this for use with OTHER children. I know mine pretty well, and I knew this would dissolve the tension and somehow reassure him. And it did.

      But yes, getting back to your original question. We do have those painful bedside talks about the divorce and the difficulties about going back and forth. I am trying to remember to have them at intervals when there ISN’T a crisis, because I think being more on the ball might in fact ward the crisis off.

      The kids also pull a fair amount of Poor Me Broken Home bullshit, to which I laugh and say, “Listen, no one’s childhood home was more broken than MINE.” Which is true. They grumble a bit, then get over it.

      • Anna permalink
        January 19, 2011 6:08 pm

        That’s great to hear. I think that as long as you let them know, “Look, this really needed to happen and it was the right thing for me and your dad. But I know it sucks for you in many ways and it’s not your job to be okay with it. You can grieve and be angry.”

        My in-laws did a lot of really stupid things around their divorce. So stupid that we are still dealing with the fallout 35 years later, namely grandparent hell because so-and-so won’t go to the zoo if so-and-so is going to be there (thank you for not doing this to your kids). Anyway, the one thing my mother-in-law did really well over the years was to let her kids have their feelings about whatever situation came up. She didn’t get defensive, she didn’t ask them to approve or be good sports about it. She may have been biting her tongue until it bled all those times, but her relationship with them is healthy and close today because of her efforts.

  15. Jen permalink
    January 18, 2011 5:06 pm

    Great post. Here’s a thought that I don’t think anyone has mentioned yet: on some matters w/r/t parenting, both parents might suck. In other words, having two parents does not guarantee that there won’t be some blind spots, weaknesses, stuff that falls through the cracks, moments when both parents fall short in some way.

    Is there someone to hold you accountable when you are a member of a two-parent household; to give you that looks that says, “Maybe you need to chill a little bit; you are being a little harsh here”? And yes, definitely. And with two parents, there are certainly fewer gaps – one of you can help with the math homework, the other with freshman English; one of you can teach them how to throw a spiral, while the other one teaches them something else. But on some things, neither of you will excel.

    Further, no matter how complementary when it comes to covering the parenting bases, if two parents aren’t happy – if they are tearing each other apart – then I’d wager that their kids incur more damage over the long-term than they do when you momentarily lose your shit as a single parent as the burgers burn.

  16. jane permalink
    January 18, 2011 9:14 pm

    firstly- your writing is outstandingly human and present. big cheers. holy holy holy mother of god guilt. you are so spot on. and hard on yourself as it seems single moms are, myself included. i’m 4 years on the other side with two boys. one almost 12 & the other 9 and on occasion they give me nonsense about “how good it was when we were all together”. and i sit with it mired in what have i done to my kids, and sometimes, if grace is blessing my mind, say, i know that it is hard sometimes. and leave it at that. as for the rage, i could write a book about how my little darlings have pushed me to the loudest voice, the throat ache voice that i do not recall ever having pre-children. you have NOT irrevocably f’d them up. i had to tell my darlin’s that it is ok to make a decision, and then change course when the path no longer fits, even though it is hard, and not everyone will like it. i agree with the old adage “aint nobody happy if mama aint happy” and as such, left the marriage. keep writing, keep making dinner out of cartons, keep loving yourself no matter what. tell them you love them, even though they have troll masks over their best selves for the day. we are all doing the best we can. jane

  17. January 19, 2011 12:23 am

    what a great post! thank you for being so honest. my children are younger and their questions are different, but i also feel like i’ve taken something away from them. i hope that what one of the previous commentors said is true for me as well – the kids’ happiness was tied to their mom’s, partly in fact because their dad was bitter even decades later. seems like my ex is on the path of trying to destroy me – i stood outside his house and said very politely i just wanted to say hi and give a hug to my daughter who was in his house because she was sick and he said – she doesn’t want to see you. of course that is not true, and i asked my older son to ask her to come to the door to say hi to me and she did. i gave her a hug, the ex started yelling at me that i was not welcome in his house (i was standing outside the door!) and etc and etc and then slammed the door shut on my face before i got to say bye to the kids. my family, friends and i know he’ll just be as miserable as can be and so he’s on a downward spiral. i will not allow myself to be dragged down on that spiral. i am trying to do all the normal things i did before – invite friends, laugh a lot, kiss, hug a lot (very easy to do!) and i hope that’s what my children are learning from.
    i am not claiming to be a perfect parent. i make mistakes.
    i have to admit though i don’t paint their dad out to be a great guy to the kids, but i also never badmouth him. when the kids ask me something i just tell them how it is factually. not elaborate details, but a simple, truthful, short explanation.
    i KNOW i could not have stayed in the marriage. my family knew it when one day i answered a call from my brother saying i think i’m going to kill myself, instead of a nice happy hello, that one would normally expect!

  18. January 19, 2011 7:30 am

    Thank God I’m not the only one who feels like this! Seriously, the relief I feel when I read something like this makes it all seem okay after battling with my 4.5 year old. They learn your buttons early and it breeds doubt and guilt in our abilities. My parents divorced when I was 7, and I’m not so bad. So I know he’ll probably be fine, but man it’s hard to see that when you’re in the daily trenches. You had some great insights about our happiness v. theirs. If only we had crystal balls to show us their future so we don’t mess them up now.

  19. Graceland permalink
    January 19, 2011 10:08 am

    You hit it out of the park this time, IB. I wish some editor were giving you thousands of dollars for it, and for all the other posts here.

    We’re all selfish. People with selves don’t have any other choice.

  20. January 19, 2011 7:00 pm

    I don’t know if it’s your honesty or your writing, or both, but your posts leave me speechless almost all of the time. This is all so incredibly refreshing and affirming because after reading so many blogs (and damn, I have a problem, I read a lot of blogs) where literally everyone’s husbands are their “best friends” and my IRL friends walk around in Stepford-esque fashion, I’m just so happy to read your three-dimensional writing.

    As the child of divorce, a witness to my mom’s 2nd divorce, and as a fellow parent, I would say, don’t underestimate the power of this:

    “I got up with them when they were babies and I still take care of them when they’re sick, but I don’t expect any medals for it.”

    You’re probably going to be the target for a lot of your kids’ angst and anger – because that’s what kids do, even when they become adults (everything that is fucked up is somehow rooted in childhood) – but even in the midst of their emotional chaos, kids will always have a visceral connection to their mother’s love.

  21. Megan permalink
    January 21, 2011 6:01 pm

    If it’s any consolation – I think it’s got less to do with divorce and more to do with having a 14 year old boy in the house.
    They are completely vile at that age in so many ways – I think it’s all the raging hormones that have nowhere to go – and mine was vile but a prince everywhere else. Hang in there – my vile 14 year old is now almost 18 – they do improve with age!

  22. Shannon permalink
    February 15, 2011 12:20 pm

    I would echo everyone’s comments above and add these thoughts;
    I was just thinking and trying to share these very thoughts with someone this weekend. Someone who I am trying post-divorce to build a life with but who, to their own credit doesn’t know where to step in because they are not the ‘parent’. It was a dance my ex and I did, albeit a frustrating one most times, there was no explaining – help here or do this – it just happened. I do have the guilt (born and raised Catholic – so I am stuck) that when the 4 year ols twins act out it is because of my decision to leave. When I talk to my therapist she seems to agree with me, which makes it even worse. When I talk to the child therapist she tells me, it is a normal 4 year old response – I haven’t ruined my kids – whew…most days I choose to believe the child therapist but, to your point, on those hamburger burning, button pushing, my ex and I can’t even talk to one another about co, half or any kind of parenting, kind of days, I have single handedly ruined 4 little lives and I must wear a scarlet letter and atone for my sins. That’s when I call my Aunt who has studied and currently works with Buddhist monks and she talks me off my ledge. Everything we encounter proves to help us encounter it the next time. Compassion and love for myself is where I should focus and it will spill on to my children. Patience and breath serve to help me get through as well as the thought that when it gets really bad stopping to think, if screaming or my raging temper help to serve the kids or make life worse? I will never be able to afford to take them to Disney or get them all they want, my ex will be the one to do that…what I will be able to do, is give them love, compassion, patience and breath to use when they encounter times where they want to scream and yell. I will give them my time and love and laughter in the moment, all of which come from me and I am much better off without my ex as a mother and person and one day that will make sense to them as it is starting to me.
    Thank you for your words – I was in tears reading it mainly because I felt so alone in the same thoughts. This is a blog I have needed…

  23. sarah permalink
    March 13, 2013 6:25 pm

    Not only I want to separate sooo badly, but I am also sooo desperate to know how it will be on the other side. I agree with everything you ever wrote, except for two things (and it is not that I do not agree – agree is not the right word – it’s just that they do not resonate with me). I do not remember now what the first one was. I’ll leave it for another post, I guess.
    The second is this one: I too have a temper and always had. But never I saw red. I am sure it is my children who have this unique power, however I seem to think that most of my anger I throw at them is related to the frustration I feel for their father’s let-downs. And I am curious to see whether once we are separated I am going to manage this better, the same, or worstly (is there such a word? My english fails me after my second glass of wine tonight).

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