When I was 5, my dad left. He rode off on a motorcycle leaving my mom with me, and my newborn sister alone with a house, a mortgage and everything else. And no one talked about it. I don’t know how they came up with that plan; I just know he was gone.
I stood at the window and cried, “Daddy, don’t go, Daddy! Daddy!”
He came back at one point, and then left again. It was a confusing mess of fighting, instability and the unexplained. For a kid, the unknown is scary. Imagination is one of a child’s most innate gifts.
For over a decade, before the legal divorce, they fought over everything. Between the ages of 5 and 17, I moved a staggering 10 times and changed schools six times. A cumbersome custody arrangement meant I was commuting across the city, leaving one home in the morning, going to school, and returning to the other home in the afternoon. And, I did this on my own, on public transit.
Even more troublesome, my parents’ anger and inability to come to an agreement was a monster. It was another family member, the elephant in the room. A really pissed off elephant that stomped on, crapped on and rammed everything in sight.
There was therapy, family, individual, this, that, and the other. There was anger. I took it all on. I took on my mother’s anger. I bore the brunt of my father’s anger. My younger sister watched me suffer, so she took the docile route. Neither was healthy. We have both worked to recover. And, yes, it sucked. And, I know I am not alone.
This was 40 years ago. Divorce was less common, more taboo and not understood in terms of how to “do it well.” Marriage is complicated, un-marrying even more so, there are finances, homes, cars, debt, children, and, a lot of hurt feelings and anger. Today, relationship and divorce coaches abound. Then, it was shameful. I was the only kid whose parents didn’t have family dinner. I was the only kid whose parents couldn’t be in the same room without a fight.
My parents were more than wrong for each other. They made each other miserable. However, the way they parted created dysfunction and long-lasting damage. We suffered. My sister and I both worked hard to repair self-esteem, fears, anger, and hurt to become functional, emotionally healthy adults.
I used to say I’d never marry. I didn’t want to get divorced. And then, I fell in love. We wanted the same things. We were ready. And we got married. I was 33; I had financial independence and emotional health. And we were married for 17 years, and we were happy for many of them. But we are not now.
I used to say I didn’t want kids. I didn’t want to screw them up. I didn’t want them to suffer from low self-esteem, or depression. I didn’t want them to live in two houses never knowing which one was safe, stable, or home.
I am now a single mom with two sons, ages nine and thirteen, and I am heartbroken. There is no other way but through. I will make this journey with them. They will hurt; children of divorce do. They are already in distress, and it’s on me to watch, to listen, and to act. I will make this work because their emotional well-being and future success, their happiness, is my top priority. As an aside–and it’s no small aside, I will be happier. My emotional well-being and future success are also my priority.
When my ex and I told them, we had a plan. We committed to share the news from a positive place. They knew something was coming, and the unknown was far worse than the reality.
We told them we loved them and cared about each other, how we wanted to live in happy homes. We explained that not being married would make us happier. But, that being their Mom and Dad would always make us happy. My youngest cried and I held him.
They know it’s not about them. We shared the details about where their dad was going and they had questions:
“Does Daddy’s apartment have a pool?”
“Yes, with fountains.”
“Is it bigger than our pool?”
“It is, and it’s really close to Mom, and school and your friends.”
They breathed, relieved. My oldest blew my mind.
“I have to say, I knew it. I mean I could tell and I’m really glad you guys are handling it this way, I mean you’re really doing a good job.”
Who’s the adult?
“Thanks, bud, you’re handling it pretty well too. It’s OK to be sad, and it will be hard sometimes.”
“It’s just, I’ve heard of parents just abandoning their kids. I have a friend who hasn’t seen his dad in seven years.”
“We will never do that. We are both here.”
We talked about their friends with two households, they haven’t changed schools; their lives are stable. It would be an adjustment, we’d get through it together, and eventually we’d be happier.
I am heartbroken for them, but I commit to taking care of them every step of the way. Here are my reminders of how I can do that.
I will never badmouth my ex. That’s for girlfriends, journals, and therapists. I will take care of myself emotionally and physically. I need to be there for them. While they are still in school, I will never live more than a short driving distance from my ex. They will not switch schools or leave their friends.
I will work to co-parent. They will have a mother and a father who can talk to each other without fighting. I will not bring a new man into their lives unless and until he is solidly and completely in mine. I will be there for them, to listen, to comfort, and to help.
This is new for me too. I’m on a roller coaster, the huge swells have passed, for now, but I know there are more to come. Seventeen years, two children, three moves — it’s a history, a life together. But I will find my new normal, and I will make sure my children have one as well. I’m human, but I’ll do my best.