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October 5, 2012

I do not generally  lament the road not taken. My puling and whining about the divorce has never meant I wanted to go back to being married again. It is possible, as a friend once told me in very different circumstances, to be genuinely sad about things you do not actually regret. However, this whole three-year-plus house-not-selling fiasco has had me obsessed with the idea that I made a crucial mistake when we separated.

I should never have stayed in this house.

I should have let my ex-husband stay. He wanted to. I did not, even at the time. And because he hates change, because he hates moving, because he is loath to stir any kind of pot, he would have ended up staying here indefinitely. I would not have asked for any portion of the equity right now. I wouldn’t have insisted he sell. I would have deferred whatever money came from the sale for a long time, just to be free of the burden of ownership. I would have happily said, “It’s all yours, just pay me X percent when you finally sell.” Or when the youngest kid went to college. Or when he remarried. Or SOMEthing. And oh, god, if only I’d done that, I would be free.

“You made the best decision you could at the time, with the information you had at the time,” my boyfriend has told me over and over as I gnash my teeth in frustration, and he is correct. At the time, the information I had included the somewhat startlingly sexist realization that I did not want my children ever to say, “When I was five (or twelve), my mother moved out.” I didn’t mind them saying, “…my parents separated.” That was all right. But I found that I could not move out without them, and I did not want to move out with them, either. I wanted them to still have their rooms, their yard, their dog, our sweet yellow lab who was still alive back then, every day when they got home. If I’d taken an apartment somewhere, which was all I could afford, she would not have been allowed. So the children would have been leaving her behind, too, most of the time. And what would she have done all day, the old, nearly blind, human-loving dog, alone in the house while my ex-husband was at work and I was in an apartment across town?

I thought the kids would do better if they still came home every day after school to their house and to me, and went to their father’s certain evenings and weekends. (This was all he could manage with his work schedule.) For a while, he and I traded sleeping in the house. Then, right after we signed our divorce agreement, he rented a house, and I put ours on the market. Five months had gone by. I didn’t think the house would sell right away, but I hoped it would sell soon. It didn’t.

Time went by. The dog grew older, blinder, and more frail, and then died. The children adjusted, or seemed to. I listed the house again, and again it did not sell. I did the best I could with the information I had, over and over. You can’t control everything, I told myself. Still, clearly I’d done something wrong. I offered to switch with my ex-husband. He wanted no part of it. I begged him to buy me out. He refused. So I kept trying to sell, and nothing happened. I rented out a room to defray costs. I put plastic over the windows, lowered the thermostat. I’d made a mistake, clearly. The house was too much for me, no matter how I tried to rationalize the logical process that had led me here. And rationalizing a mistake still feels shitty.

Last week I was talking to a divorced friend, whom I’ve known since we met at La Leche League in California when our now-sixteen-year-olds were babies. (I spent Christmas with her–child-free Christmas for both of us–in San Francisco last year.)  I was moaning and groaning, as I am wont to do these days, and she listened patiently, waiting for me to draw breath. When I did, she politely reminded me that I had made the best decision I could at the time, with the information I had at the time.

I said, yes, I know, I know, I know. But a well-intentioned mistake is still a mistake. I made a huge, terrible mistake.

“No, that’s not what I mean,” she said. “This house thing, while it certainly sucks, is really  just a problem with money, and a logistical pain in the neck for you. Problems with money and logistics are not unfixable problems. They go away, you can make them go away. They pass.

“What you thought back then, when you thought everyone would be much better off if you stayed in the house? That wasn’t a mistake. That turned out to be true. Think about it–the kids are basically okay with the divorce. Better than okay. They came through it all okay. They are happy now. Even their dad is happy now.

“Picture the alternative, what could have happened, what you’d feared would happen back then, if you’d moved out,” she said. “Picture the kids in an apartment with you that winter you separated, maybe longing for home, missing the dog, missing their house, maybe feeling like that house they grew up in is now this weird place where dad is miserable and mom is gone and the dog is all alone. Staying in the house wasn’t a mistake. You did it because you thought it would make the divorce bearable for the kids, and even for their dad. He would have been haunted and unhappy and all quiet and withdrawn–you know how he is–in that big house.

“You wanted to make things better in the long run. Which you did,” she said calmly, as I gripped the phone and relief washed over me. “It wasn’t a mistake. It was absolutely the right thing to do.”

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. October 6, 2012 12:20 am

    I totally agree. I think you made your decision out of love for your kids, and that wasn’t wrong. We always say we’re willing to make sacrifices for our children, and this just turned out to be one of them. Still keeping my fingers crossed that you find a buyer soon.

  2. October 6, 2012 3:17 am

    I think you have done the right thing. My kids are older – in their twenties – and have all left home. Evenso, the divorce has hurt them deeply. However, it has been much less traumatic for them to be able to come home to ‘life as was’ (albeit minus their father). I am glad I made the decision to stay.

  3. irretrievablybroken permalink*
    October 6, 2012 7:50 am

    Thank you both. The thing that made me feel better was realizing that selling the house is just a THING. But if the kids were sad I couldn’t just lower the asking price and make them feel better….

  4. October 6, 2012 10:31 am

    I love this – and I agree totally with your friend. It was the right thing to do, and it turned out the best way it could turn out.

  5. jaruuds permalink
    October 6, 2012 6:20 pm

    Poised on the cusp of the same decision, I am about to be the one that keeps the house. Even though keeping the house up ALREADY feels like a tremendous burden with him still here to help, and I swear arguements about its upkeep seem sometimes to be the reason we are divorcing.
    (Not really, really it’s because he feels I am lazy because I’m not like his mother, flitting about all day cleaning. Or because he alternates between being super involved great dad and super mean what is wrong with you dad. Or all of the above and I’m sure you don’t need to hear all the analysis that spins through my head at night…)
    I have been wondering if I should argue not to say with the house, based in part on what I’ve read thoughout the years here, long before I would admit I’d use the information personally.
    In my case there is no way husband could afford to stay, so if I move out he also would and we’d have to take a loss. So… I stay, even though I hate it. And I will try to make it work and not be better. I can only hope it will all sort out in the end and I won’t be living here with I’m sixty.

  6. October 6, 2012 9:33 pm

    Turns out though, if you have no concrete proof of steady income (I am self-employed and a free-lancer, as you have implied you also were/are), you can’t rent anything. I am trying to move out and leave the house to my traditionally-employed ex, but no one will rent to me. So I am having to keep living with him, forever? Until I take him to court for a lengthy battle because he will not move out? I think you made a good choice.

  7. Therese permalink
    October 7, 2012 11:50 am

    I am going through the exact thing right now with our house/divorce — and I know keeping the damn thing is going to bite me in the ass down the road — I wouldn’t be surprised if I ended up foreclosing on it in the end — but I also know that it is best for both my boys — and the other 3 grown children — that I stay here with them, at least for awhile. Everything you said about an apartment and the dog and their rooms — it is absolutely true, and while I could move out and never look back, I know it would be one more “change” in my boys’ lives that I am unwilling to put them through, and it sounds like you thought the same way about your children. You did the right thing, even though it may not feel like it all the time.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      October 8, 2012 12:58 pm

      Jaruuds and Therese–It’s true, I think. Stuff like selling the house and money can be fixed. You just wait to sell the house, you just manage with less money till you can make more. But shepherding your kids through a divorce the best you can takes everything you can muster. good luck good luck good luck, and bon courage. Matchpenalty, I’m relying on my credit score–it’s good, thank god–to carry me through.

  8. cruella permalink
    October 7, 2012 6:01 pm

    That’s a good friend. And she’s absolutely right.

  9. October 8, 2012 5:25 pm

    I second Cruella – v pleased that you have such a sensible and clear-sighted friend to talk you down from the ledge. Selling the house is the bain of your life right now, but it won’t always be so – and it is just “stuff” – money and logistics and the shit that life throws at you. So much better to look back on your life when you’re 60 and know that you gave your kids a solid foundation. Forget the logic of having done the right thing with all the info available to you at the time – you did the absolute right thing, full stop.
    And if it makes you feel any better, we have now been renting for over 3 years, and it’s a pain in the tits. I feel like I’m camping; I can’t do a thing – hang a painting, paint an alcove, bang my head (or those of my children) against a wall…
    And to REALLY make you feel better – I am having a baby in TEN DAYS. (we have started talking about “next week” – followed every single time by “Holy shit”) Now don’t you feel better??
    Anyway. Snuggle into your home – and enjoy all the hard work you put into it over the summer – for the winter. Everything always changes. xx

  10. October 9, 2012 10:46 pm

    when i was 5 and my parents split, my mother left my dad in our gigantic old sprawling mansion and took me to a condo. the dog stayed with my dad. my father tore down all the pictures i’d brought home from school, put away the family photos, and left half the rooms dark and unheated; the dog started peeing everywhere. a year later my dad remarried, and my stepmother remodeled and renamed all the rooms of the house–the living room became the yellow room, the basement became “the captain’s quarter’s”. one night when i was bragging to a new friend about the wonders of this huge old house (it was magnificent), my stepmother appeared in the doorway of my room and announced to me and my friend that this wasn’t my house anymore, it was hers, and it had ceased to be mine when my mother and i left. i think i was about 9 when this happened.

    obviously your ex is not my father, and there’s no reason to foresee an evil stepmother in your boys’ future. but god i loved that house, and i miss it still, and i’ve written a lot a lot a lot of words about it over the years. how i wish i could’ve stayed. i’m glad your boys were able to.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      October 10, 2012 11:31 am

      That’s just a terrible story, I’m so sorry, I don’t even know what to SAY. Jesus. Does it help to hear that your stepmother was totally wrong, that it is and will ever be your house? The mind boggles–how could she say that to you? I am massively indignant on your behalf. Again, so so sorry.

      • October 21, 2012 1:23 pm

        thank you for your indignation 🙂 i’m sorry if i brought you down, though i do appreciate the validation; we had a lot of rough years, my stepmother and i, but they’re long behind me now. my primary purpose in commenting was just to note that, though you might have a hard time seeing how at this point in your life, those kinds of decisions–to stay or to leave–matter to our children in ways we can’t anticipate. it wasn’t easy for you to make the choice you made, and you have paid for it over the last couple of years in particular, but your boys are the better for it. even if they don’t realize it (because they never had to deal with the alternative), they are.

  11. October 10, 2012 5:08 pm

    Your friend, (like me!!!!) in San Francisco gave you some sound reasoning. Its no surprise you have good friends like that – we get the friends we deserve.

    Viva la British!!!

  12. October 11, 2012 1:14 pm

    I think you did the right thing. It sounds like absolutely everyone (and the dog!) were better off. The only snag? Money. But it will work itself out. It already is.

    Also, here’s what I think about mistakes. A mistake is something that happens when you’re not thinking–tripping on the sidewalk, getting coffee on your skirt, dialing the wrong number. If you think something through, and you say it or do it, and at some point you decide a different decision might have been better, that’s not a mistake. That’s wisdom.

    But in your case, it sounds like the decision you made was the right one throughout. You should be proud of yourself.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      October 11, 2012 5:00 pm

      This is a lovely comment. Thank you. That’s brilliant alchemy–mistake into wisdom. It’s a mantra worth repeating.

  13. October 12, 2012 10:46 am

    I am grateful to you for making the right decision – for your poor old dog’s sake if nothing else 😉 !
    Nearly every damn day I have to deal w/the consequences of someone treating their pet as a disposable item… It’s a real bummer.

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