I am sitting on my bed with my hands tucked safely under my thighs, listening to my parents spit words at each other they can’t take back. When they do this I sometimes scream, too, or cry, or both. The only time they’re not fighting is when they aren’t in one another’s presence.
I like it better this way, when they aren’t around each other, when I don’t have to tip toe or wonder what’s going to come next.
When I get older I swear to myself I’m never going to be with anybody I don’t want to be with just because I have kids. I swear to my mom I won’t stay as long as she did and I ask her often why she did. She always said I could never understand why until I had my own kids.
She was right.
My relationship started out rocky with an accidental pregnancy at 20, one of us with a hot temper, the other with ever-changing moods, and both of us with the kind of stubbornness that doesn’t listen to reason.
It may sound typical – temper and mood swings – but I assure you it wasn’t. The temper involved saying things to the extreme with no memory of even saying afterwards. The mood swings involved never knowing which version you would get but always hoping for the best version because when it was good it was bearable and when it was bad it was chilling.
Most people at our young age wouldn’t have made it past this part, past the first few years where we were figuring out our new identities as parents, trying to keep the peace, trying to be a couple when only one of us wanted to be a couple and the other was unwilling to try.
Most people would not be willing to allow themselves to be treated the way we treated each other, but we thought we had no option but to stay together for the kid. When we fought I was cold and he was mean. It didn’t matter. We stayed together for the kid.
My husband’s parents married young and in love and still were. My parents were hateful and divorced when I was six. I think we were both fighting to beat that inevitable failure that wasn’t really a failure at all. It would take a long time for us to understand that.
We had succumbed to the idea that we had to make it work, and as the frequency of the tempers got better and the moods less extreme and the coldness less cold, we decided to have another baby.
Was it to give our son a sibling, or was it to have something to take up all of our focus now that our oldest was getting older, so that we wouldn’t have to focus on each other? Or was it because we thought it would fix something? I can’t really tell you the reason but I can tell you that I don’t regret it for a minute – not only because I obviously love both my kids but because if we hadn’t had the second I don’t know that we would have had the courage to face the terrifying truth that this wasn’t going to work, to face the reality of the decision that had to be made, or to face each other.
Having a second child put an even bigger strain on our relationship and we waited, and waited, and waited some more for it to pass. We rarely talked when the kids were in bed. We never touched, never did anything together, never had sex, didn’t say I love you, and there was no warmness and no love.
There was friendship and an understanding that we both were willing to live this way for our kids. There was still the same crazy sense of humor we shared that would peek through the sadness after a couple of drinks, and we had the same political views, the same religious views, and similar goals and dreams. But it wasn’t enough. Even though both of our fundamental flaws showed their ugly heads less and less, when they did come out they came out like a ball of fire that couldn’t be put out.
I remember the moment I realized if I stayed any longer I’d stay forever and I’d forever lose myself and forever be an unhappy mom and he’d be an unhappy dad. It was the summer before my oldest was going to enter Kindergarten and nearing the age I had been when my parents got divorced. I have memories, but not as many as my older sisters have. There are things they remember that they won’t tell me and I knew when my oldest son hit five or six there was no going back. It was a now-or-never kind of thing because if I didn’t go now I would stay until they were 18 or moved out. So I had to decide.
We read relationship books, we talked, we screamed, we cried, we gave each other the silent treatment, and lastly, we tried counseling. After a few sessions and listening to us, she looked at us and said, “You guys are one of the most mature couples I have ever had in my chair and I think you are making the right decision. You have the maturity to co-parent.” I was relieved to have someone else validate what I felt in my heart and scared shitless at the same time because this was real.
Decisions had to be made, and we finally were ready to make them after seven years of pretending everything would somehow just go away.
We still spent months debating over what to do, and at a certain point we just gave in, gave up, and decided we wanted to be happy for our kids even if it meant being apart.
We decided we could love them better, love ourselves better, and be better parents apart than we could together. We decided we wanted them to see a healthy relationship filled with love and affection instead of tension and strain.
We decided even though we would miss them terribly when they weren’t with us, the time spent with them would be of more quality.
We decided we would live five minutes from each other so our oldest didn’t have to make any other major changes, and we wrote out a script and practiced what we would say when we broke the news to him.
We went through the house and decided who would keep what, all while having the same emotionless face and tone we kept our entire relationship.
When I was alone behind closed doors or in my car to work I cried. I cried for what I had tried to do and couldn’t, I cried because no matter how happy we were apart, and how happy we would be one day with someone new, nobody would ever share the love we shared for our two boys together. Nobody could love them like we could. And the day I went to sign my lease for my new apartment, I almost didn’t sign it. My hand was shaky when I grabbed the pen but once I put it to paper my decision was sturdy and determined.
The first day I got the keys and walked into my empty apartment alone, I sat on the floor but I didn’t cry. I smiled, took a deep breath, and took a picture of my new key in my hand. (A picture which would never be posted on Facebook for fear of hurting his feelings. I knew we did the right thing but back then I am not sure he was so sure of that.)
I didn’t stay for the kids, because staying for them wouldn’t have been best for them. My husband and I were both mature enough to handle the shock and confusion of the separation, the curious questions coming from our son’s innocent big blue eyes, and balance it takes to co-parent in the healthiest way possible.
When conflict came – and oh believe me it did – we lost our cool at times but never in front of them, and we still said hello at drop off on Sundays, never slamming a door even when we wanted to.
There are times when I feel like the luckiest woman alive to have this man as my children’s father and there are also times when I wonder how I stayed that long. I know there are times he wonders how he lived with someone like me. But that shit doesn’t matter anymore because now our relationship is important for different reasons. It’s important for them.
I admit, the consequence of keeping a close co-parenting relationship is the danger of blurred lines, getting too friendly again, wondering if we could maybe – just maybe – try again and do it right this time. We have entertained that idea and figured out that it was not a road we wanted to go down. We remembered why we made the choices that we did.
I still get pissed and he still acts irrational sometimes but we also have accomplished something most separated parents can’t even begin to scrape the surface of: an alliance. A union with a harmony that made not staying together for the kids the best choice for us. And our kids are happier for it.