Sometimes, kids come second.
My husband and I have split up, and although it was my decision to leave and it remains the right one, it sucks. We were married almost 10 years and have two daughters, so it was a hideous outcome to arrive at after trying so hard not to. Divorce was the less sucky of the two sucky options I saw before me, but that fact doesn’t mitigate the suckitude one iota.
That divorce is hard is not news. It’s like when people say marriage is hard. It’s obvious, a tremendous understatement, and yet when it comes out of someone’s mouth, everyone clucks and nods in empathy and truly seems to know exactly what the speaker means, even though they were told nothing. It’s so outrageously, undeniably true and universal that it requires no explanation, no elaboration, for people to instantly relate and silently run their minds over their current apparently intractable struggle. When you’re going through a life-changing personal matter that you’d rather not discuss, lazy, somewhat cliched distillations like that can come in mighty handy. “Divorce is hard” is my go-to summary when well-meaning people ask me how things are going and I sense that they don’t want more than a fleeting peek into my emotional life.
I’ve been grateful for this phrase to hide behind, because I don’t really want get into it with neighbors in front of the supermarket as my Phish Food melts onto the sidewalk. I live in a neighborhood I love (right across the street from where my ex still lives) but it’s also gossip pit, Yenta Central. Most of the time, people respect the “divorce is hard” placard I carry and don’t probe. But quite a few times I’ve gotten a response to my attempts to change the subject with “P. and I have split up, and it’s really hard,” that has pissed me off.
“But you have kids!”
Omigod! I do! You’re right! That would explain the Sharpie hieroglyphics on the side of my new mattress and why I have yogurt that comes out of a tube in my freezer! Ooh, also the stretch marks and the mild incontinence when I cough really hard. Mystery solved. I feel much better now.
I realize, of course, that people who blurt out, “But you have kids!” are not informing me of that fact so much as expressing shock and sadness at the idea that children have to suffer for their parents’ inability to make their marriage work. And suffer they do. No one can deny the fact that divorce, is, well, hard for kids, too. I’m glad to say that mine seem to be doing well, no doubt because my ex and I handled it as well as two people could and have most always been good at parenting together. Still, unless the spouses are so at war that separation is an obvious improvement (we rarely argued in front of the kids) it’s safe to say that most kids would prefer that their parents not break up. Most couples would prefer not to break up, for that matter. Divorce, in case you weren’t paying attention, sucks.
Hearing “But you have kids!” made the breakup harder still for me. Every time I heard it, it felt like the “bad mommy” button I seem to have had installed in the delivery room was not just being pressed, but being poked at like the door close elevator button in a busy office building. In those four words — regardless of what was meant — I heard, you selfish woman, you should have tried harder, been more self-sacrificing, given up or sucked up or put up with more or less of whatever it would have taken to keep the family intact, because your kids come first. You’re a mom. Your pain is to be endured for the sake of sparing them pain. Don’t you know that?
The sting of those words has faded over the last year since we split up, and especially in the last few months when I’ve been able to set up a new home for my daughters, one that they love and find just as comfortable and as much theirs as our old one where they live with their dad half the time. (Hint to newly divorced moms: Say yes to the Wii, even if you swore you’d never go there and would rather they read more. Totally worth it.) I’ve learned that I’m in many ways a better parent than when I was anxious and unhappy and I was distracted by the tension in my marriage. Having gotten my divorce legs, I’m present and peaceful and able to give to them. Aside from plain wanting to leave a situation that wasn’t bringing me joy, I wanted to show my girls what a happy woman who took care of herself and her emotional needs looked like. It will serve them well. Not that I could have done anything else. Still, I’m lucky and grateful that it’s working out as well as it is.
The other day, I ran into a neighbor in front of the supermarket. She’s a mom I’m fond of whose daughter used to take swimming lessons with mine. I hadn’t talked to her since the news broke in our neighborhood. I would have given her the Behind the Music version of my breakup had she asked. But she didn’t. She told me that people have tried to gossip with her about our divorce, and she said she tells them that she doesn’t know what happened. “I say, I will tell you this: If a woman who has kids gets divorced, you know that she tried everything else before coming to that decision and that she saw no other option. She would never put her kids through that if she didn’t have to.”
I loved her for defaulting to the idea that of course the decision to leave was not one arrived at lightly and in blithe disregard for the welfare of the children. I loved her still more for understanding that getting out of an unhappy situation sometimes means putting her children second, for a short while, while she rebuilds so that her children and she can be happy. It needn’t be an either/or.
I don’t know if I was being judged by those who blurted “But you have kids!” or if I was just judging myself. I suspect a little of both. Either way, we could do with a whole lot more assuming the best of moms, in this and all the hard decisions we make.