Our House: Staying apart for the kids

Divorcing when your child is very young isn’t exactly an enjoyable experience, but living apart is the only reality Susan Howson’s kid remembers.

My son was a few months shy of his second birthday when my marriage ended.

This piece will contain zero details of said marriage, because who cares (and if you do care, you’re weirding me out right now). At the time, it seemed like an enormous–too enormous to even fathom–effort to make such a huge change to his little, painstakingly scheduled life.

Turns out, he did not care. At least not that much.

At the time, my son’s heart belonged to Daddy, and honestly, it could be because Mommy had been fairly distant as of late and avoiding being home whenever possible, or it could be for the simple reason that Daddy was physically able to throw him up in the air, while Mommy was already struggling to lift the giant child.

It truly doesn’t matter, which is such a wonderful place to be in, looking back. Everything was broken, and the only way to fix it was to break it completely apart and form two whole lives for him. Many dark moments convinced me I was messing up his life completely, but some glimmer of reasoning told me that if he grew up in this household, he’d be on a much faster train towards Messville.

His dad and I successfully struck a deal that I’d get to remain in the house–that way, at least Second Place Mommy would be in the familiar territory, and First Place Daddy would make adjusting to a new place (only eight blocks away) that much easier.

It worked…or I think it did. My son’s disposition is naturally sunny (thank goodness), and he adapts well. Because his dad and I are both restless and outgoing individuals, he’d already been dragged to a million places, met a million strangers, and just was chock-full of adventurous genes. Getting used to a new home was not a big deal, particularly if Daddy was there to give him lots of hugs.

Of course, it was harder for the grown-ups in the situation to adapt. I spent a couple of months not eating and barely sleeping. I lost interest in most of my hobbies. Being in my empty house–particularly when my son wasn’t asleep upstairs–felt so keenly alone, I could have sworn my voice had an echo. No amount of radios, TVs, or talks on the phone made me feel less like I had been encased in carbonite. There was always something, though, hovering on the perimeter–the same glimmer of reasoning kept reminding me that at some point if I just stuck with it and didn’t cave (I was never entirely sure what “caving” would entail, but that was my feeling) things were going to be so much better for all of us than they had ever been before.

A couple of months in, my son stopped crying for Daddy when I picked him up from school. We’d gotten into a good routine, and it felt so different and unusual to enjoy my time in the house. I felt more present than ever, more focused on him, and more excited to show him the world I wanted to show him, with no one else influencing what we did that day. Just him and me. It became so crystal clear that our relationship was only able to grow like this when the dark cloud of the other, ailing relationship was removed from the situation.

I can’t speak for his father, but from my observations, they’ve hit a similar, unencumbered stride.

Now that my son is 3 1/2, he sometimes gets pouty and says, “I want my Daddy,” when I won’t let him drive my car or it’s raining or it’s Thursday and he wants it to be Friday or something. But the other day, Daddy reported that the kid pouted and said he wanted Mommy when he was told to stop picking his nose.

He knows the other parent wouldn’t let him do the Forbidden Action, but that’s not the point. His little manipulative goal is just to press our buttons. Isn’t that just what 3 1/2-year-olds do, whether or not Daddy and Mommy live in the same house?

I read him a book recently entitled Family Changes by Azmaira H. Maker, Ph.D. It’s a book about how everything’s going to be OK when your parents divorce, and is probably for slightly older kids. Maker attempts to add to the book’s sparkle-factor with actual mentions of sparkling objects a lot, which I don’t think is necessary. The cute bunny protagonist is plenty. And, it went over the same ground so many times–the little girl rabbit’s stomach hurt whenever she thought about her parents splitting up, and for awhile she thought it was her fault. Then she realizes she wasn’t super happy with how they were acting with each other lately, and envisions a life where there are no more arguments.

My son didn’t seem to be paying much attention (“Look at her ears! She’s happy! She’s jumping! I can jump really high.), but he kept telling me to keep reading when I tried to stop. At one point, he turned around and hugged me randomly. I still wasn’t sure he was picking up what the author was putting down, so I asked him if he liked that book, and he made an affirmative noise while looking for another, more lively story to read.

I said, unconvinced that it had even registered, “Well, what was it about?”

Without looking up, he said, “The bunny’s parents live in separate houses.”

I think I was right about one thing though. The book did bore him, because for him, a two-house family is just no big deal. He has no memories of us all living together, which is a relief, as I’m not sure those memories would be pleasant. As far as he knows, Mommy and Daddy are completely normal people who live in separate houses and love him a lot. How about those weirdos whose parents live together, huh? Must be pretty crowded!

The other day, he was chattering on in the backseat about one of his friend’s houses and then remarked, “I have TWO houses.”

I felt a pang of guilt, realizing that they must say that at school when they talk about “What color is your house?” or “What’s your favorite room in the house?” or whatever. “Does your teacher say to your class that you have two houses?” I asked him.

He confirmed. More pangs of guilt. He must feel like such an outsider, I thought. I have ruined his life!

“Is that good or bad, for a little boy to have two houses?” I asked.

My son looked at me with his eyebrows raised in confusion, like he couldn’t quite get what I was asking him. “It’s GOOD,” he told me, exasperatedly, like I’d just asked him whether it was better to have two Lightning McQueen cars or one.

“But…Mommy?” he asked.

“What’s up?” I said. Here it comes, some hard questions.

“I’m not a boy. I’m a rainbow fire truck front-end loader.”

Clearly, there are more interesting things rattling around in his brain right now than the reality that he’s always known. One day, he’ll realize that he’s not exactly like his friends, but honestly, they’re not exactly like each other anyway.

I shiver when I think about how many unhappy couples have “stayed together for the kids” when the best thing they could have done was grow as individuals—allowing their kids to see you flourish and (hopefully) nurture a healthy relationship. All families are different, but if your family is a happy family, it can’t possibly matter how different you are. You can’t change the past, but you can start changing the future as soon as you realize it’s on the wrong track. And to me, that’s the best thing any of us can do for our children.

Photo by: ~Brenda-Starr~

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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