There are times in the life of a divorced parent that are truly surreal. These are the moments when the fact that I am divorced and basically winging it as a single parent hits me squarely between the eyes. They usually happen when I discover words coming from my mouth that I never, ever thought I would have to utter.
This evening was one of those times.
Last weekend, my ex-husband took my girls on a weekend trip with him and his girlfriend. They all shared a hotel room, and he reported that it had gone very well. But when I saw the girls briefly upon their return, my younger daughter was clingy and sad, and her nanny reported to me later in the week that she’d been whiny and weepy all week. So this evening I took the girls out to dinner at their favorite Mexican restaurant, intent on discovering what was going on with them.
The virgin margaritas hadn’t even arrived before I learned that the girls are feeling anxious over their dad’s relationship with his girlfriend. They told me that they don’t want him to get married to her because then they’d have to choose between her and me. They told me that she is always at his house now, and they don’t get his time anymore. They told me that they don’t like her sleeping in his bed. My younger daughter cried and explained that she doesn’t want things to change anymore.
And so, in that surreal moment, I found myself defending my ex’s right to share his life and his bed with another woman. I sympathized with my children’s concerns, but I stressed that no one would ever ask them to choose between anyone. I explained that it was natural and right for their dad to find a good woman to spend his life with and that he will be happier that way. I asked them if they like his girlfriend (they do), and if she is kind to them (she is). I acknowledged that change is hard — for all of us — and that it’s uncomfortable sometimes to see the people we love care about new people, but life is like that always.
Then, as is typically the case, they were unburdened and relieved and happy again, while my head was spinning and I struggled to process the latest shift in our situation.
Those moments feel to me like walking through molasses… a sense of numbness that settles in after the initial adrenaline punch allows me to launch into SuperMom mode in order to carry us through the latest mini-crisis. After delivering my careful words of reassurance with confidence and compassion, I usually find myself quietly stunned and wondering, “Are we really here? How did this happen to us? To me? Why am I having these conversations when I swore — swore — that I would never, ever, ever be divorced??”
I ache for my children that they are being required to confront these complicated feelings at such a young age, but I also must acknowledge to myself that spending your childhood wondering why mommy is always sad and daddy is always grumpy wouldn’t have been any easier. I also remind myself that I was raised by a single mother and dealt with many of the same feelings as she dated and fell into and out of love. Looking back, those are not painful memories for me, despite the fact that they were most definitely confusing and strange concepts and feelings to encounter as a child.
Parenting seems to be full of those conversations for which we find ourselves ill-prepared, and divorce adds a whole new category to the menu. There have been times since our separation that I have envied my ex-husband his relationship — how nice to come straight out of an 11-year marriage and find someone whom you can love! — but now I realize that, like most things, this is unfolding just as it should. Although it is sometimes difficult or uncomfortable for me to be his defender and apologist, I am fully aware that I am better prepared than he to explain these matters to my children, having been there myself as a child. And my nature has always been less prone to jealousy than my ex-husband’s, so I can sincerely set a tone of support and compassion when discussing his current relationship, which helps alleviate some of the most uncomfortable feelings around loyalty and “fairness” with which my daughters are wrestling.
It’s not always easy, this strange role I find myself in, but it is the only thing that feels right. And I find myself hoping — for my daughter’s sake as well as my own — that my ex is able to fill it when I find someone to share my life with, too.