“I’m just so sad,” she says.
“Then cry,” I say. “Let it all out.”
“But what if I had treated him differently?” she asks.
She wants to climb into a time machine and change the past, to undo supposed wrongs, as if they all belonged to her. It is a sentiment that I am keenly in tune with — I, too, harbor regrets, from the pain I put my daughters through 12 years prior. I can’t help but wonder whether my divorce from their mother has altered the way my daughters approach relationships. If I could go back in time, what might I change?
“Sorry, Cher,” I tell her. “You can’t turn back time.”
“Hashtag dad joke,” she says.
She rolls her eyes and smiles wanly. I consider this a win, my words acting as a tissue to temporarily stem the flow of tears. But even if she could turn back time, I wouldn’t want her to, because the truth is, I never thought that this man was the right one for her. It’s not that I didn’t think he was good enough for her. I am not one of those fathers, the type who sits on the front porch and cleans his gun when the boyfriend comes to pick up his daughter for their first date. Marisa and her most recent ex-boyfriend had polar-opposite values and I foresaw complications, though this is something I never would have said to her. I have learned as a parent that speaking ill of the person your child loves is rarely constructive. It can backfire.
“You didn’t like him, did you?” she asks.
“What I think about him doesn’t matter,” I reply. “I just want you to be happy.”
She wants me to speak ill of him now, to help her heal. I worry that if I do, they will reconcile and those words will linger. How do we as parents help our children choose their mates wisely, and what do we say when they don’t? My mother was extremely vocal about her opposition to my first marriage, and it drove me apart from her for years.
I have watched Marisa cycle through several relationships after the divorce and thought about how each one was a reaction to that explosion in our lives. The first boyfriend was a cruel boy who left a cluster of finger-shaped bruises around one of her wrists. The second was a frat boy who spent too much time drinking and vomiting. And finally the most recent one was kind enough but shared none of her values. How could she not see that a man who believed a woman did not have the right to make decisions about her own body was at odds with the female physician she is striving to become? But I know it is the things we already know that are sometimes the most difficult to accept.
“I want what I can’t have,” she says. “I idolized him.”
I understand this feeling. I wanted so desperately for my marriage to Marisa’s mother to fix what was broken inside of me and to repair the damage I saw my father — a man who always had another woman on the side — cause my mother. How could I not see how flawed my thinking was? Often we value the Instagram vision of our relationships, layered with so many golden-hued filters that it is impossible to see the truth, offering this up for the world’s gratification instead of considering our own.
To model a healthy relationship for my daughters, I first had to destroy the image of the one that meant the most to them, and there are times when this fills me with an unutterable sadness. If I could go back in time, what would I change? I have thought about this a great deal, and every time I come up with the same answer: nothing. Not because there weren’t wrongs that I committed or pain that I bestowed upon others, but because to move forward, I had to let go of the idea that the past could have been any different. This is what Marisa is struggling with now.
“This was a learning experience,” I tell her. “Be thankful for what it has taught you.”
When I am talking to Marisa, I realize that I am also speaking to my younger self, as if this tiny windowpane in my hand permits me to peer through time. Be patient, be kind to yourself, be authentic. The writer Katherine Anne Porter said, “The past is never where you think you left it.” I once believed that as I grew older, as time moved forward, I might leave the past — the painful parts, at least — behind. But I carry it with me, and though I cannot change the past, I have decided to honor it. It also gave me two beautiful daughters, and for that I am eternally grateful.
The image of my husband appears in the tiny picture within a picture on my smartphone. He nuzzles up beside me and nibbles at my ear. He takes the phone from my hand, smiles, offers his words of comfort to Marisa, and then hands the phone back to me.
“I want the type of relationship that you and Paul have,” Marisa says.
I realize what comforts Marisa is less about the words I am saying and more about the act of listening, of allowing her to be heard and showing her what a healthy relationship looks like. As parents, we can’t help our children choose their mates wisely without doing so ourselves.
“Talking to you both makes me feel better,” Marisa says.
So this is what we’ll do. We’ll talk through the night until the sun rises and dries up her tears, and for this, I’ll make all of the time in the world.