Friday, July 29, 2011

Ex-husband, voodoo dolls and working it all out

My ex-husband was Facebook-chatting with our son, 22, today as I sat at my desk and listened to my ex’s end of the conversation. We were working to help Scott, who is studying overseas for a few weeks, mend a little blip in his finances. Ron and I were both perusing our son’s account online when I saw something that could lead us to a solution. Ron called the bank, then called me back while he was still chatting online with Scott. The problem had been solved!

Before we hung up, Ron read me the line he had typed to Scott before the end of their conversation: “Thank your mother, not me. She is the one who fixed this.”

Nice of him to give me credit, yes. It’s even nicer considering that 10 years ago, he would rather have committed hara-kiri – guaranteed – than say anything nice about me. Think I’m exaggerating? A couple of years ago, I learned that he once had a Lisa voodoo doll.

My ex and I went through – put our kids through – a horrible divorce. What’s past is past, but suffice it to say it takes two to mutilate a relationship, and I take full responsibility for my role. As I’ve said many times, and I know this is not a popular opinion: Divorce among couples with children should be much more difficult to obtain in cases that don’t involve some type of abuse -- substance, emotional, physical.

With all due respect to husband No. 2, with whom I am very happy, the divorce is the foremost regret of my life, primarily because of the way it devastated our kids.

At the time, I bought into the adage, “If you’re happy, your kids will be happy.” I’m here to tell you that’s a giant crock. I’m also here to tell you that if you get divorced, chances are pretty good you won’t be happy, at least not for a long time, because your kids will be miserable.

But I digress.

It’s been 13 years since Ron and I separated. In the beginning, the tension was so thick and the feelings were so raw that we argued everywhere – at school events, at our kids’ ballgames. I could feel hate emanating from my pores, and I could pretty much see it emanating from his. Instead of dealing with my feelings and working toward communicating in a civilized, healthy way for the sake of my son and daughter, I hated. I hated loudly, and I hated often.

My hatred was not directed solely at Ron, but also at his new wife – the woman I saw as taking my place, at least part of the time, in the lives of my children. I am ashamed now when I think of the things I said about her, usually with my kids in full earshot. I was panicked and grasping at anything to make me feel better – in this case, disparaging someone I believed was encroaching on my relationship with my children.

Don’t get me wrong – friends would call and tell me about comments they had overheard at school events or ballgames, and it’s safe to say I wasn’t the only one doing the trash-talking. But, truth be told, I kept it going. Looking back, I remember that my kids’ stepmother once extended an olive branch on behalf of both her and my ex. I accepted it, but I pretty quickly snapped that branch in half and ran it through the wood-chipper.

I wish I could say I woke to a revelation one day – that my Catholic upbringing had finally caught up with me and I was willing to repent, or that I simply re-engaged intellectually and realized my words prohibited a functional relationship with my children’s father. Truly, I think three things gradually began to alter my behavior: my children’s requests that the fighting stop; a desire to clear the cobwebs and start over; and time.

So eventually, I started being nicer. Rest assured no hugging was involved, but gradually, I initiated some civility. “Hello” gave way to “warm, isn’t it?", which grew into conversations about the children’s activities. As months turned into years and I grew into a life in which I felt like myself again, the feelings that were vestiges from my old life became less important, and I was surprised one day to find myself standing next to my ex and his wife at a ballgame, chatting as I would chat with any other parents on the sidelines.

And gradually as well, I began to see my ex as I should have tried to long ago – a partner in raising children who are at the center of both our lives. I noticed the relief on the faces of my kids as we began to be able to discuss their other household without the presence of the sarcasm that had been an inherent part of my conversations for so long.

It took some time, but we mended -- as an ex-couple as well as a family. Not an ex-family, but a current one; we’ll always be the parents, although we live in different houses, and our kids will always be our kids. No one else has our history, and no one else will ever love our children as totally and unconditionally and all-consumingly as we do.

Funny things tend to happen when you let go of the bad stuff. As clichéd as it sounds, hatred breeds hatred, and it isn’t worth the implications to your mental and physical health.

Thirteen years after the divorce, what I see when I look at my ex-husband is this: a great guy who would lay down his life for his kids; a caring, decent person on whom I can always count to be a co-parent and ally. I adore his family, and he has always been close to mine. My husband likes him, and he likes my husband. My ex’s wife and I also get along. My kids care very much about her kids, and vice versa.

Every divorced couple, obviously, can’t find a way to function. I have a nephew to whom I’m very close, and his parents, 10 or so years after their divorce, still are openly acrimonious. Not only can they not be in the same room, but they can’t communicate, period.

What has that done to my nephew? He’s 18 now, and he’s pulling away. He’s done with the hate and the sarcasm and the drama, and he’s ready to forge a life of his own. I was no quick study, but I pray his parents won’t wait much longer to put everything aside and salvage what’s left.

Parenthood doesn’t end when kids turn 18; in fact, it perhaps becomes even more challenging. (As my sister has always said: “Little children, little problems. Big children, big problems.”)

We’ve been fortunate to have been spared any giant, terrible issues, but if any arise, I know this: It took us a while to get to this place, but my kids will always, always be able to count on their dad and me to be there, together in spirit, to help them find their way in the world.