The road to 40 has been paved with disillusionment. If you had asked me three years ago, I would have said I would be married to the same man forever. But people, places and things have come along to make me question what I might formerly have said was fact. I love my husband dearly, still find him smart, funny and communicative. But as forever looms closer, the seed of doubt has been planted and I cannot deny it.
Among the things we disagree upon is that The Big G is a yeller, going from zero to 60 in far faster than a minute. His yelling is often sparked by something the kids have done that he worries might upset me and wants to head off at the pass. His heart is in the right place, but his yelling at the kids undermines whatever sensitivity he was trying to show towards me. Lately, though, I have barely bothered to get angry, knowing as I do, that after 18 years together, we are who we are, for better or for worse. We can make small changes to ourselves but, really, we all remain roughly the same.
Our natural reactions to things, our understanding of them, are difficult, if not impossible, to change.
The other night, some small thing erupted, I can’t even remember what it was. It could have been anything from the boys wrestling as pre-sexual adolescents are wont to do, or not putting their pajamas on as soon as they were told as adult control-freaks (myself included) are wont to demand. The Big G began the high-volume hijinks, and I took the children’s side, though I know I am not supposed to. I think I tried to hide my annoyance from the kids, but I am loud even when muttering under my breath something along the lines of, “That’s it…”
The muttered statement came from a very real place. I have begun recently, sadly, to wonder if it might not serve both of us to spend some time apart, to see what we might become independently. The thought has crept in slowly but surely, and I have shed many tears over even the possibility of breaking apart what I have always seen as a perfect union.
Clearly, my children are aware that these feelings have arisen. They are like dogs, using all their senses to figure things out. Following the incident, the house calm once again, my little Oscar was sitting reading in my bed as I put things away.
He looked up from his book out of nowhere and put it to me straight: “Do you want to divorce Daddy?”
It was not unlike being asked how babies are made. It caught me off guard.
Sure, I’ve had nagging doubts, but are they so obvious that my son has picked up on them? And divorce? Could I do that? Would I want one? I don’t, but sometimes what you want isn’t what you need. Does anybody really want a divorce? My mother, long separated from my father, tells me she certainly didn’t, even though she is the one who actually left. How do I explain to my son that yes, sometimes I do feel like divorcing his Dad? How do I tell him that the thought has entered my mind a lot as a solution to fixing my post-40 ennui — but then again, so have a lot of thoughts, like getting a dog, having a drink (OK, a third) or moving the family to a new house.
Funny, though, I am certainly more comfortable being straightforward about these other options than I am about divorce. We can talk about getting a dog as a family, look at them and discuss the pros and cons. My kids will often try to convince me to have a third baby for them to play with. As for drinking, we do it without hiding, explaining to the kids that it’s something adults do, hopefully with moderation, though they have certainly seen us do otherwise. And I talk often of moving, openly coveting houses with porches as we walk down the tree-lined streets of Park Slope. Eli, my elder, stability-seeking son, will always say definitively, “We’re NOT moving!”
Why is it then, that the possibility of divorce is such a taboo topic? It pains me not to be able to talk about it. I pride myself on telling my kids whole truths rather than half-truths, engaging with them on whatever topic they feel comfortable to raise. But the nuance on divorce is challenging. It is something, if not handled perfectly, that can absolutely rip families asunder. Kids naturally fear divorce, like death, and our first instinct is to protect them from thinking it could ever happen. But it could. It might.
I didn’t know at all what to say to Oscar in the moment. So I settled on hedging. “No,” I told him. “I don’t want to...” It’s true, but can I promise that it will never happen? No, just like we’d told the kids a tornado would never touch down in Park Slope. Life is not definitive.
He was not satisfied with the answer, and it is something that will likely have to be addressed more concretely in the near future. To let such questions fester, to not offer children the complete true picture about things they are picking up on, is a fast way to shutting them down. Our role as parents is figuring what they know and helping them make sense of it. That’s hard when you often don’t understand it yourself.
The lessons I have learned from watching other couples is that you have to be flexible in your thinking. No one single way is the right way.
I was once asked what the biggest effect was on a child whose parents were very amicably divorced, I thought long and hard and then answered: “He’s going to realize that one life-long marriage is not the only way to do it.” This boy was forced to see the truth firsthand: we have choices.
But the bad news is that these choices are not easy. It is up to me to be honest with my kids, to guide them, fearlessly, through whatever happens.