“Divorce can be a positive transition,” writes Mark Greene, “a redemption of those who struggle through the end of a marriage but not the end of a family.”
I’m the divorced parent.
Some parents stay married. I didn’t. I get up in the morning and make my son breakfast. I pack his lunch. I walk him to school and I pick him up. I schedule play dates. I watch cartoons with him. We talk about being “unmarried” and having two houses.
In the beginning, shortly after the collapse of my marriage, I made a point of speaking glowingly of my former spouse. I would lead with lines like, “Joanne and I are working hard to co-parent Sam”. “It’s all going well”. But it takes time for a story like that to gain credence. For a while, people are wary of you; especially other parents. You are the living cautionary tale. You are the train crash. They watch warily as you have that second glass of wine. They’re waiting for something really bitter and nasty to slip out.
My wife and I were married for ten years. My son was born six years ago. I’m self employed. I work at home. We had good health insurance. We had organic kale. We had the stuff we needed to form the bubble and get a child on his feet. Our home in upstate New York was a lovely 1930′s wood frame house. The rooms echoed as I ran up and down the stairs, washing diapers, preparing food, shifting furniture and orienting the place around our newborn son. My wife took on breast feeding, placed herself firmly in opposition to processed food and pesticides, and barred the door to all things video. She was an amazing mother. She still is.
Within four years after my son was born, my wife and I were utterly miserable. Regardless of sixteen months of couple’s therapy, yoga, date nights, and quitting coffee, we were deeply unhappy. Our little blue eyed son used to stand between us as we argued and yell, “Choose joy!” He picked that one up from his mother.
I could reel off the categories of reasons why we chose to divorce. They’re pretty standard as cautionary tales go. But the details wouldn’t be all that helpful here. Ultimately, marriages are happy or they are unhappy. Some people have the Herculean stamina to live in an unhappy marriage. We did not. And I think all three of us are much happier now.
But divorce is not for the feint of heart. It’s common knowledge that you should be very careful about whom you choose to marry. That said, you should be even more careful who you choose to divorce. Divorce the wrong person and you’re in deep trouble. And worse, your children are in deep trouble. I got lucky. I divorced EXACTLY the right woman.
At which point this all starts to sound way too flippant. I know. It sounds flippant to me.
But I have to speak of divorce in light-hearted terms. Being light-hearted and positive creates the frame in which we are able to go forward. It is the way to put distance between myself and the end of my marriage. To make other parents feel safe around me. And I do it not just for myself, but for my former wife and my son.
The alternative is to give power to the emotional sinkhole of exhaustion, pain and deep deep isolation that a struggling marriage can create. I feel that pain sitting here right now. It was bad voodoo. A hollow, bleak place that if allowed to, would engulf every relationship I will ever have going forward, including the relationship I have with my son. On the rare occasions when I look at my son, and I imagine some other world in which I am still with his mother AND we are happy, the knowledge that we didn’t get it done haunts me. Mostly for him. Because like everyone else on the planet, I carry a stigmatizing internal message about divorce. That my son could never be as happy or as well-adjusted as the child of a divorce as he would have been with his parents married.
One night, after my pending divorce became public knowledge, a friend of mine, with a son Sam’s age, sat at my dining room table drinking a beer. He told me that a child is better off in a house where his parents are married, no matter what. At that point, I was bussing down to the city each weekend to pick up my son and bring him home to the house he was born into. Walking him trough the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Telling him stories as he sat on my knee, his head resting on my chest, waiting for the bus at the gate. The wounds were fresh and my fears were running rampant. But even in that moment, I knew my friend was wrong. I’ve seen enough of life to know that an unhappy marriage is poison to a child.
One of the biggest challenges for divorcing parents is the fear and judgment it engenders in others. (And sometimes the hidden envy.) Divorce is a road so tangled and frightening that those who choose that path are sometimes shunned. They are characterized as weak or lazy or, worse of all, selfish. That they care more about themselves then they do about their children. “If you love your kids, you would make your marriage work.”
I say differently. I say, “If you love your kids, live a happy life.” Sometimes divorce can create a happy life. It can. It really really can.
But no matter how well things seem to be going today, looking back, I realize I did the equivalent of stumbling headlong through a minefield. I’m amazed that I didn’t screw it up worse than I did. I’m amazed that my wife was as generous as she was. That I often rose to the occasion at times when I could have gotten brutish and mean. To this day, I honestly don’t know how my former wife and I found our way through to a place where we are now friends, to a place where we have some genuine kindness towards each other. But I do know why.
Joanne was and is fiercely protective of our son. I am too. Between the two of us, we wrote a divorce settlement that included rules on how we spoke about each other in front of our son. We knew we wanted to share time with him equally. We set a very clear tone about how we we’re going to model family for our son going forward. We had to work through our fear and pain while getting on with co-parenting our son and setting up a new family structure for him in a new city. It was hard for both of us. We had hurt each other in many many ways.
But we got through it. And we are still getting through it. The humor and the good will is growing. I think in part because we recognize that families are hard to come by. And one shouldn’t just toss them aside just because one chooses not to stay married. Babies and bathwater and all that.
How one frames the story of divorce plays out every day. Make no mistake, I am framing the story right now. Not so much sanitizing it, as framing it in a way that allows honesty, but does not fall prey to the negative stigmas that can infuse divorce with a narrative of failure. Divorce can be a positive transition. Deeply emotional and often very painful, but ultimately a redemption of those who struggle through the end of a marriage but not the end of a family.
There have been many moments that will stay with me forever. As I was closing down the house upstate and preparing to move to New York to be near my son and his mother, my wife was visiting. And we did something that pretty much sums up our divorce. That sums up what and how we approached the painful process and the decisions we had to make.
She had just bought a set of bunk beds for Sam. She needed two single size mattresses. Our family bed was a king size natural latex mattress. This kind of mattress is literally a big giant rubber sponge. This was the bed that the three of us had shared as a family. It was where Sam slept between us as a baby. Where he would murmur in the night and I would lay my hand on him in the darkness and each of us would draw such deep comfort from that contact. This bed.
We took a long shining kitchen knife and working together, in partnership, we cut that mattress right down the center. And as it parted in half, the symbolism was not lost on us. We both smiled ruefully, packed the mattresses in the car, and off it went, repurposed, for our dear son to sleep on in the city.
He sleeps on it to this day.