The other night, after a particularly jovial dinner with our two teenage children, my husband retreated from the kitchen — and walked down the street to call his mistress.
Ours is an unusual arrangement, one I have chosen so that my children can spend time with their father — who left me nearly four years ago for his pregnant 30-year-old girlfriend — in their own home. During the week he lives in another state with the woman and their daughter. On the weekends he drives nearly five hours each way to spend time with our children.
In the months after the breakup I was consumed with pain, confusion and rage, and I refused to let my husband in our home. I’d make him stand in the doorway waiting for our children so he could take them out to lunch. After overindulging them at the local toy store, he’d drop them back at our house and go to a hotel for the night. The next morning he’d pick them up for brunch, after which they’d go rock climbing or swimming, or simply walk around town. Weekends with dad were like being on vacation, except no child would choose such a vacation.
One day I brought the children to the city where he lives and we arranged to meet at a museum. The four of us stood uncomfortably in the foyer for a few minutes before I started to walk away. My son begged me to stay, and when I said no, he asked why. Looking into my son’s eyes, the only truthful answer would have been because it was too painful for me, and that didn’t seem to me a good enough reason, so I stayed.
That is when I began learning how to put my anger and hurt aside and focus on what was best for my children. Things didn’t change overnight. That museum trip was only the first step, but in time I allowed my husband back into the house when he picked up the children, and sometimes I would join them for lunch or a movie. They were dealing with their own disappointment, grief and anger, and in the early days they often refused to go with their father unless I joined. Our life had been blown to bits in an instant, and my children needed me to show them how to move forward.
There were meals at which I sat with a forced smile and nodded politely, while seething or feeling nauseous, but said nothing. There were days it took all of my strength to hold back tears watching my children interacting with their father, and remembering the happier days we had as a family. But I had one overriding goal: to support my son and daughter in their relationships with their father.
That’s not to say I was or am perfect. Like most parents, divorced or not, I’ve said and done things I regret. I’ve had to navigate a road I never dreamed I’d be walking, and I have taken many missteps.
In the months following those first tense family lunches, the four of us settled into a routine where daddy would stay over on the weekends in the guest room and make pancakes the next day. During that first summer he and my son pitched a tent in the back yard and spent nearly every weekend night huddled in sleeping bags, watching a movie on a laptop and gorging on junk food. Very slowly, my husband and I became friendly again. We had 20 years of history together, and we still enjoyed each other’s company.
Our situation would be comical if not for the underlying heartache, and there have been ironic moments over the years; such as when I was getting ready for a date and my husband found the perfect shoes for my outfit. Or when the man I am seeing arrived at my house on a recent Friday night at precisely the same time as my husband, leading to an awkward handshake and my teenagers wondering if punches would be thrown. (They were not.) When later I asked my husband what he thought of my beau, he replied that he was well dressed.
From the beginning, some people in my life thought this was an extremely odd arrangement. Many friends have said I am too nice, and perhaps I am, but after such a long period of sorrow, I would have done anything to see the joy on my son’s face as he lugged pillows out to the tent. I felt confident in my decision, until one day my daughter said that it wasn’t normal to live that way, and she wanted us to behave like other divorced families. This gave me pause, and led to a number of discussions with friends about the kind of message I was sending to my children.
Perhaps, in trying to give my children a semblance of a normal family life I was creating a false and confusing world for them. Perhaps in trying to teach them the power of forgiveness, I was instead sending them the message that what their father did was all right, thus setting them up for relationship issues as adults. I took all of this into consideration, and about two years ago announced that daddy would no longer be staying over, or even hanging out. We were going to live like other divorced families (albeit we are still only legally separated).
Thus began a phase where my children would ask if daddy could come over for certain periods of time. It soon became apparent that my children enjoyed having their father around to simply be. They didn’t want to go to a sterile hotel room; they wanted him in the place they felt safe, playing games, watching TV, or throwing a ball outside.
Before long the tent was up again in the back yard, and the fire pit was lit to make s’mores. One night I sat outside on my deck and watched through the windows as my daughter and her father cooked together, set the table with candles and sat down to dinner. Observing them through the glass I knew that that simple meal would do more to heal my daughter than any words I could offer.
Knowing that I am doing the right thing for my children doesn’t make it easy. Every time my husband leaves to “make a call” I feel another cut to my heart. A few weekends ago we were cleaning out the garage and found my daughter’s unused scooter still in its box. I unthinkingly asked if we knew anyone with a toddler we could give it to, and in the next second the thought of his new daughter flashed across my mind, and I burst into tears. There are days when I want him out of my house and out of my life for good. It’s difficult to move forward emotionally when the cause of my pain is in my kitchen every weekend.
We once had a conventional family, and now we don’t. I had no control over what my husband did. But he left me. To his credit he never left our children. During the darkest days, when neither my children nor I wanted to speak to him, he still drove five hours, often only to be left standing on the front stoop or turned away. Though there is no excuse for what he did, his fortitude and love for our children does not go unnoticed by me, particularly as I hear horror stories from women in similar situations, whose husbands simply walked away.
We all carry scars from our childhoods, and my son and daughter have been dealt a bad hand. I can’t change that, but choosing to live this way will change one thing. When they are grown and look back, they will remember late nights watching clips on YouTube and running through the neighborhood, doing homework at the kitchen table and hanging a Bob Dylan poster, cleaning the hamster cage and bringing home a new goldfish — all with their father.
Being a parent often means putting your children’s needs ahead of your own, and that’s the choice I’ve made. It may not be the right choice for others, and it may not be a perfect solution, but I know in my heart that my children need their father in their lives, and their lives are in their home.
Jaimie Seaton is a freelance writer and journalist. She tweets @JaimieSeaton.
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