|[Photo credit: Humans of New York]|
“I was worried the divorce was going to destroy my relationship with my children, but it actually ended up improving it. Before the divorce, I was a working father. Work always took priority. I knew that if I had to skip a soccer game for a work meeting, my wife would be able to take the kids to the game. After the divorce, I only got to see my kids every Tuesday night, every other Monday, and every other weekend. It completely changed my mindset-- I went from being a working father to being a parent. If there was a work obligation during my time with the kids, I had to change it. I couldn’t spend weekend mornings at the gym anymore, because that would cut into my time. I began cooking dinner on my nights so we could all eat together. The time restraints that the divorce put on me caused me to completely realign my priorities.”
And oh, this man's story struck a nerve.
You see, when I discovered my husband's last girlfriend (and to qualify that, I can't say for sure she will forever be his 'last' girlfriend - she's just the last one this wife had to put up with), I had a decision to make.
When I'd discovered the affair before that one several years before, I told him then that if he ever turned his back on having an honest conversation with me and chose instead to take a vacation between someone else's legs, he and I would be through. There would be no negotiation. And here we were again.
I sat there at my computer that day, shaking and sick, going over and over in my head all the little red flags that finally clicked into place with one innocuous email he sent me that just so happened to mention his girlfriend's name for the very first time (she was a coworker) and I realized that I had to hold it together. It was my daughter's seventh birthday, and she was in the other room, waiting for me to make her breakfast before school. My son was four and a half, and he was waiting for the same before he climbed on the bus to his special ed classes. I didn't have time to fall apart.
And I couldn't just write their father - and nearly two decades of marriage - off that easily. Not while I was looking right at them.
I did have a choice.
When I'd discovered his previous affair, all those years before, we "worked through it" together. We never saw a counselor, or a therapist, because he didn't want to. Instead, I worked hard to "rebuild" our marriage.
He clammed up, refused to talk about any of it, and got incredibly defensive and angry any time I wanted to talk about any of it so I stopped trying to get answers. I just kept flying blind, reassuring myself that I could do all the talking for the both of us. He was never one for talking much. Finally, I gave up, reassured by the birth of our daughter (I was pregnant during that long-ago affair) and then the birth of our son.
I knew I was expendable, you see, but I never thought he'd think that they were. I never, ever thought he would voluntarily turn himself into a part-time parent. He loved his kids. For them, he would turn away from any temptation that might put his family in jeopardy. I was sure of it.
I eventually learned - the hard way - that when a man leaves (and to be fair, maybe there are women this applies to as well), he doesn't look at it as "leaving his kids." He feels like he left his wife. His marriage.
He doesn't usually think he left his family.
He still sees his kids (often as much as their mom does), he still loves his kids. To him, he didn't lose his family at all.
Most divorced mothers I know don't see it that way. And all the post-divorce kids I know definitely don't see it that way. A family has been lost. Damage has been done.
And with that damage, two full-time parents now become two part-time parents, and for some of us, that's not by choice.
That fateful night, after my children were in bed and I was laying in our bed, wondering why he wasn't coming upstairs but not really wondering, I sorted through the pros and cons in my head. I knew the confrontation was coming - he didn't miss the fact that I was very, very not myself during our daughter's celebratory birthday dinner out. I had to figure out what I was going to say.
Were we salvageable?
Yes, he was a serial philanderer. After the previous affair came to light, I did some digging. That's when I found three more confirmed paramours and dug up a solid list of probables in addition to those.across the years. Many of you are reading this and thinking I was an idiot for giving him another chance after that all came to light, but I was ten weeks away from delivering our firstborn child and I felt like she deserved a chance at an intact family.
Add to that the fact that he was genuinely remorseful and wanted to reconcile, wanted to be a better man, a better husband, a good father....and I made the call to stay.
The second time, though...so much had changed.
We had the kids, and while I had no doubt he loved them very, very much, it was also true and fair to say that he resented the hell out of them quite frequently.
He hated the way we had to modify our lives around them. He hated not being able to just pick up and go somewhere at a moment's notice, or tour quiet museums for hours on end, or eat at restaurants with tablecloths. He hated that they fought him over eating all their dinner, or climbed in our bed sometimes in the morning and crowded him. He hated that they wouldn't leave him alone when his TV shows were on. He hated that we had to accommodate nap times and bed times and diaper changes and food preferences when we were out and about. He hated that all our friends had kids and all we all talked about when we got together was our kids. He hated that I couldn't just drop the laundry on a Saturday afternoon and go upstairs and have sex without a kid beating on the bedroom door looking for me.
I speak from experience on that last one.
In short, the kids just inconvenienced him a lot more than me. It's not that I didn't get grumpy over any or all of those things on occasion, but I realized that they're only young for awhile and this won't always be our life. I realized that there's not a whole lot we can do about all of that, except adapt. I realized that we signed up for this. Both of our pregnancies were as planned as planned can be, so we knew there would be sacrifices.
I just seemed to roll with them, and he could only wallow in all he'd lost. All he didn't get to do anymore, or do as easily.
And that, quite honestly, helped me make the final decision.
Because the truth of the matter was, he would be a better parent if he didn't have to be one all the time, and I knew that. If he had several days off a week, and a few weekends off a month to go do all that stuff he can't do easily or maybe at all when the kids are around, he'd be happier. Much happier.
And really, it was a gamble trying to salvage our relationship with each other. His track record wasn't stellar, after all. As hard as this was going to be on my kids, I knew that in time, we'd all be better for this.
I was right.
In some ways, he's the stereotypical "Disney Dad," in that he's the one with the big income, so he does the big stuff. Disney was him. Week-long stays at a condo on the beach are him. Amusement parks and back-to-school shopping at Hollister and Hot Topic are him. iPods and iPhones and laptops are him. Dinner out on his mid-week night and at least once on his weekend is him.
Me? I'm the let's pack a picnic lunch and go for a hike parent. I'm the living room campout and movie night parent. I'm the tent camping at the local campground for $31 a night and we're eating macaroni and hot dogs made on the camp stove parent. I'm the lets make our own pizza, it'll taste better anyway parent. And that's all okay. We have a lot of fun.
I had to set some hard boundaries early on. I used to keep a journal to document it all, but in the first four months of his custodial weekends - which by our agreement go from 6pm Friday night through to 6am Monday morning, he attempted to bring the kids back early (Sunday afternoon) on every occasion. He changed his mid-week custodial night on a fairly frequent basis, to better accommodate his date nights with his girlfriend, or her custodial schedule with her child. I finally started pushing back, insisting he honor his commitments to me, and more importantly, to them, and he did.
Now he's learned. He's taken them to pediatrician visits and birthday parties. He's sat with them and done homework and worked on school projects. He's sat in the stands and watched cheerleaders and chorus concerts. He's played board games and video games with them. He's cooked with them and built forts with them and laughed with them and watched TV with them and probably spent more quality time cumulatively with them than he did in all the years before he left combined. He's learned to make the time with them count more, because there isn't so much of it.
And maybe, just maybe, he's realized that there's a finite amount of it, too.
Ellie is the author of David And Me Under The Sea: Essays From A Decade With Autism.