Lately there has been an incredible amount of talk in my vicinity about the importance of families “staying together” for the kids…How that is the responsibility of every parent. How a death is easier on kids than divorce – which is very logical since death isn’t someone’s choice to leave you (unless it’s suicide), it is forced on them. Actually death is easier to deal with than any personal rejection because it is in fact, so NOT a personal rejection. Know what I mean? But as usual, I digress. The talking has been swirling and eddying around me for quite some time — from family members, friends, characters in movies (have you seen “Funny People”? it’s not funny), people on the street…Somehow this subject keeps coming up. It is a difficult one for me for many reasons, not the least of which is my own guilt over depriving my son of a life with his father, him and I together. Add to that my own abandonment issues and the reasoning behind the loss of the person I have always believed to be the love of my life, and it becomes a touchy and defensive subject for me.
I used to believe that staying together was the most important thing parents can do for their children. No matter what. But something else became even more apparent to me as time wore on: children know when mom and dad aren’t happy. Even if you think they don’t, they do. And if you continue to live in that way — even when there is no overt fighting or drinking or anything like that — what are you teaching your child? Ultimately I believed that I was teaching my son to be submissive and to take whatever someone dishes out. I also felt that I was teaching him that living a lie is a good/acceptable way to go through life. He knew I wasn’t happy, yet I stayed. I knew I wasn’t making his father or me happy, yet I stayed. I knew my son was confused and worried about our unhappiness and what role, he perhaps was playing in it. He worried that most of our disagreements were about him – really they were about his father’s inability to accept Alex as he was and my over-doing for Alex.
Example: Once when Alex was about ten, his dad was giving him a hard time about not doing his homework as soon as he got home and about his disorganization. I came into the living room in time to hear him say,
“Alex, I know you have ADHD or whatever, but you are going to be organized and on time with or without your medicine! This is unacceptable!”
Alex was just staring at him, lower jaw jutting out stubbornly.
I asked my husband to come outside with me onto the porch. We really did attempt to appear united and not put our differences on Alex. He followed me outside.
“Um, you can’t say things like that to Alex, honey.”
“Like what?” he asked.
“Like I know you have ADHD but you’re going to control it with or without your medicine! Do you get it that when you say something like that what it means to Al is that you think his disorder is an excuse he uses?”
“Well? Isn’t it? Not always, but…”
“Maybe sometimes he does use it, but that’s beside the point. The problem here is that…look, would you tell someone with diabetes that they had to control their blood sugar without their insulin?”
“Of course not!” he replied scornfully.
“Well, that’s what you are saying to Alex when you do that. Can you see that?”
He thought about it a little then said he guessed he could and he’d try not to do that anymore.
I felt better then and he turned to go back into the house.
“Wait a minute,” I said. He stopped and turned back to me.
“I’m disorganized. I’m late. I procrastinate like crazy. Why don’t you yell at me about any of those things?” I really was curious.
He shrugged and replied, “You’re a grown-up, I can’t do anything about you. But Alex, I can save Alex.” Then he walked into the house leaving me with my mouth wide-open…
Finally, after therapy (for everyone) and years of trying to fix it, I just couldn’t anymore. He swore he wanted me to stay, no matter what, and that he would do anything to keep me. I told him that the only way I could see for us to fix it would be to start over, in a sense, and build a friendship — something we had never really had and something whose importance I had vastly underestimated. He looked at me and after a brief discussion of what I meant by being friends, his answer to me was
“I married you to be your husband, Robin, not your friend.”
So, I decided that was that. And he deserved better than he was getting from me and I frankly deserved better – I’ve still never got it but he has and is much happier now with his beautiful, less complicated wife.
The point of all of this is to explain my worry about families staying together and did I do the right thing – well, I KNOW I did the right thing for him and for me, but did I sacrifice Alex in the process??? I mean, the kid not only has a dad, a mom and a stepmom but also like nine grandparents (my family has been married a lot)…
Tonight, and it was after midnight, so it counts as Christmas, I was snuggling next to him for a few minutes before I left my mom’s to come home.
I kissed him and said, “Merry Christmas, mon petit lapin – I love you, bunny.”
He said he loved me, too.
Then I asked the dreaded question: “Are you angry with me for not staying with your dad so that we were all together?”
He snorted and replied, “No.”
“Allie, it’s important that you tell me the truth – I know you, you will say what you think I want to hear. Is that true that you aren’t angry or do you secretly hate me for it? I really need to know so I can figure out how to fix my relationship with you.”
He turned to me and looked at me with his left eyebrow raised. “Why are you asking me this? Because of Michael and all that?”
“No. I mean, maybe a little, but really because everyone says kids secretly hate the parent who broke things up and that if you don’t hate me now you will later because now you are from a broken home. And really, it’s okay to tell me the truth. Actually, it’s Christmas and you’re not supposed to lie or Santa won’t come.” I tried to smile, scared of his answer.
He turned all the way over on the couch and looked me in the eyes. “Let me think a minute, Mom.”
“Mom, I may come from a broken home, I guess that’s what they’d say, but…Mom, we’re not broken. We are fine. You did the right thing. Lying doesn’t work and I think you are both happier now than you were together – I mean, you’re sad right now because of other stuff, but…so, no, I don’t hate you and I don’t think we’re broken. Merry Christmas, Mommy, and now go home so I can go to sleep.”
I kissed him on his forehead, told him I loved him and left for home thinking that maybe tonight I’d finally be able to sleep myself.
Merry Christmas. I am so lucky to have him for my son.