“Not Like My Parents”/E.T.M.

Posted on October 17, 2010

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Editor’s Note: The following first-person account is both honest and poignant. It appears as written. The author, for obvious reasons, wishes to remain anonymous. We thank the author for sharing these insightful comments. MR

The hardest decision I ever had to make was to finally go through with my divorce. My marriage had been dead for three years before I was able, with the help of therapists, family, friends, my lawyer, and “permission” from two major Rabbis, to accept that as fact. Once I accepted it and that I needed to go through with the divorce, if only to stop the unbearable pain I was suffering, it still took me a year and a half to actually leave the house. First, I had to get over the guilt I felt about “separating” my son from his father. I incorrectly assumed that I would be awarded the majority custody of our son.

In preparation for telling our son, our only child, long awaited and adopted after seven years of marriage, I read books and articles and prepared so as to make the news the least traumatic as possible. We agreed we would tell him together and make it as easy as possible for him, who was the focus of our lives. I had planned pretty much how I would tell him and so we got our 8-year-old into the room, sat him on his father’s lap and I began. Slowly, gently, careful of every word, I began.

Only a couple of minutes into leading up to the news, and almost at the point of telling him that we both agreed we couldn’t be married anymore, my ex couldn’t wait. He blurted out, “Ema doesn’t want to be married to Abba anymore!” All I could do was stare at him. How could he say that to him? We had agreed to make it as blameless and as easy as possible for our son, and now he was making it look like it was I, who didn’t want this marriage? I, who had put this off for three years, working toward, hoping, and praying that things would get better? I was stunned! I SO badly wanted to say, “And shall we tell him WHY Ema doesn’t want to be married to Abba anymore? Go ahead. Tell your son why!” However, I looked down at my sweet, innocent little boy’s bewildered face, and the words stuck in my throat. As my ex knew full well, I couldn’t do it to him. He loved and looked up to his father to the point of idolatry, and I couldn’t tell him the truth or hurt him in any way. The divorce would hurt him enough. His life was being turned upside down; I couldn’t devastate him any more than he would be. Besides, it wasn’t the truth. Ema wanted very much to be married to Abba. I wanted us to love each other, get along well, fix our myriad problems and have the three of us to live happily ever after. Nevertheless, it wasn’t going to happen. Life had gotten too agonizingly painful to continue the charade. I couldn’t call my ex a liar in front of our son, and so that was the impression he was left with. (Later, when my son asked about things, I explained that I hadn’t wanted it.)

Despite the protests of family and friends, who insisted, for multiple reasons, that I “deserved” to keep the house and that my ex should move out, I left. I needed to start fresh in a place that wasn’t haunted by painful memories. Besides, it wasn’t financially or practically feasible for me to stay. Later, seeing how much happier and more relaxed I was in my condo, they acknowledged that it had been the right decision for me. I purposely found an apartment in the same neighborhood, so that neither one of us would be far away from our son, and so, as he got older, it would be easier for him to travel between both our homes on his own.

Custody was the one thing in the divorce we did not fight about. Interestingly, throughout our marriage, we had always felt the same way about the big issues, without discussion, and this time was no different. We agreed that for us, our son came first and that he needed both his parents. We also agreed that no matter what complaints we had about each other, we each felt the other was a good parent. Together, we decided on joint physical custody. As I mentioned earlier, he was, and is, the focus of our lives and both of us wanted to continue to be very active in his upbringing. I, as his mother, of course wanted to nurture and raise him, and our son and his father, additionally, were, and remain, extremely close. My ex has the kind of flexible job that allowed them to play catch every morning before school and for him to be at every event, in school and out, in our son’s life and he was, of course, eager to have that continue. Therefore, we agreed that our son would be with his father part of the week and with me part of the week. On the days he was with one of us, he would spend at least an hour with the other parent, and at bedtime, he would call the other parent to say goodnight. It worked very well and continued until he became a teen and decided for himself to give up the hour at the other parent’s house. We live a half mile away from each other and with contact with both of us every day, our son didn’t have to miss the parent he wasn’t physically with, and we didn’t have to miss him, either. It helped us all to adjust much better to the new situation and feel like parents and child were – almost – as much a part of each other’s lives as we had been. All along, and throughout the years, people would comment to me about how well adjusted our son was, despite the divorce, and I think that arrangement went a long way toward accomplishing that.

Our custody schedule, especially to an outsider, was insane. Talk about pulling a child back and forth! My ex taught Hebrew school three days a week, and came home Tuesdays and Thursdays after our son’s bedtime. We built the schedule around those days. Obviously, at nine, he couldn’t stay by himself until his father came home, and as long as he had a parent who wanted to be with him, a babysitter was out of the question, so those nights he stayed with me. He was with me Mondays, as well, because that was my ex’s busiest day and night at work. Our son was therefore with his father on Wednesdays, for his turn. Shabbos, we both wanted him and since we did live so close to each other, we were able to continue the practice of our son seeing both of us every day by splitting Shabbos. As a son needs to go to Shul with his father, and remembering what my cousin, also divorced when her children were very young told me — that Friday nights were more difficult without their father, for some reason, than Shabbos day, we agreed that our son would eat Friday night with his father, sleep there, and go to Shul the next morning with him. He would then come to me for lunch and spend the day with me, until it was time for him to go back to Shul with his father. We alternated Sundays – the one day we could each have fun with him. He had books, toys and clothes in each home and never had to carry more than his school backpack back and forth, unless he wanted to take something from one home to another. If something special came up and we needed to have our son on “the other parent’s day,” we would switch days to make up for it. We didn’t want him (or us) to lose out on a treat or event because it was not his day with that parent. We were very flexible about that, when it concerned him or something he wanted to do.

Every book and article I had read, every person I had spoken to about it warned that the crazy schedule would not only damage our child, but that we, his parents, were selfish about wanting to be with our son to the point of being abusive to him. Yet those same books and articles spoke about how flexible and adaptive children are. We got our answer when the first school year ended. My ex no longer had to teach Hebrew School those two nights a week, and so we offered our son the opportunity to change to a much easier schedule – three nights in a row with one parent, four with the other and the next week the opposite because of the alternating Sundays. We thought he would find this a relief. Instead, much to our surprise, his answer was a nonchalant, “No, it’s ok. I’m used to it this way. Let’s just keep things the way they are.” We couldn’t believe it and kept giving him chance after chance to change his mind. He never did, and the schedule remains to this day, despite later requests to change it, by me, for various reasons.

Soon after we moved into the condo, my son found the courage to ask why we had divorced. I kept saying the same things people always say, that we couldn’t live together anymore, that things weren’t working out, but that didn’t satisfy him. Finally, on advice from my friend, I gave him an answer that didn’t satisfy him, but that stopped the questions. I told him that I just couldn’t discuss it with him; that there were just some things that children should not know about their parents’ marriage. “Does this friend know? Does that relative know?” He asked. When I told him they did, he asked why they could know and he couldn’t. I explained that they were adults, better able to handle what they knew, and understood things children just didn’t. They were able to help me and give me advice, and were also not as close to the situation, so it didn’t hurt them as it would hurt him. He just wouldn’t understand some of the things that made us get divorced, and if I did go into everything with him, he would be sad that he knew and wish he didn’t. I told him that my parents’ marriage had also not been very good, and that I know that Bubba had spoken to her relatives and friends about it, but that I have no idea what about. I told him that I was glad that I didn’t know what they were talking about, that I didn’t know everything that had been wrong in my parents’ marriage, because I would have been very upset hearing things that were not nice about either of my parents. By not telling my son, I was doing him a favor. His curiosity wasn’t satisfied, but he never asked again.

As for the rest of my ex’s and my relationship divorced, yes, there were, and sometimes still are a lot of bitter, angry feelings. There was also the strong temptation, in the beginning, to tell everyone I knew everything, especially when someone complimented my ex to me. “You think so, huh?” I would have loved to have said, “You know, he does this and that, and he is this and that way, etc.!” But I couldn’t. I still cared about him too much to ruin things for him, and I was even more afraid that my son would someday find out details later that I never wanted him to know. There was also jealousy on my part at how much more time my son, as he has gotten older, spends with his father than me, though I know it is natural and to be expected. It is also an unavoidable result of our son’s Yeshiva schedule and his own reluctance, for various reasons, to change his schedule with us to balance it out. It is painful and I have tried to change it, but neither my son nor his father want to change the schedule and so it is something I have to accept. Even though I still complain sometimes, I have been outnumbered and it is out of my hands.

There were many fights, early on, that my son heard that he shouldn’t have, and certainly didn’t want to, but I tried very hard, when I could, to keep these to a minimum. My ex would often push my buttons in front of our son and then calmly blame me when I got upset and frustrated and screamed back, pointing out that “I” was starting arguments in front of our son and it was wrong. Unfortunately, our son therefore heard the fighting. What he didn’t hear was the number of times we would call each other during the day, calmly discussing something about him or something innocuous that had to be resolved. I tried very hard to shove away those bitter, angry feelings I had when dealing with my ex because I knew that those feelings would not just stay in our private relationship, but spill over into how we would deal with each other in our relationship with our son, and I had to keep that from happening. First and foremost in importance was how my son would be affected. It made for a more peaceful, “good” divorce and got easier, as everything does, as time passed. We still disagree over how to raise our son, sometimes, and argue about it – what set of parents, together or not, don’t? However we are able to hold it to a minimum and even when we do end up arguing in front of him, our now 17-year-old can handle it fine, without running to hide in his room, as he had when he was eight and nine.

How did I find the strength to bite back the bitterness, hurt and anger, when dealing with our son? There were many times I couldn’t, and those feelings did seep into my tone or words when speaking to my son, despite myself. I tried hard not to say anything negative about his father, but sometimes, in a mild form, something would slip out. As mild or as subtle as I thought I had kept it, I saw in his face that my son felt it and understood. I felt awful when that happened. The last thing I wanted was for him to be the recipient of my bitterness and hurt about what had happened between his father and me, but even if it was just a look on my face, he was sensitive to it and knew, though didn’t say a word when it happened.

The key to our situation is three-fold: first, I simply don’t have a vengeful, vindictive, angry personality, and neither of us are able to hold grudges, though still hurting and angry inside. Though I ranted and raved to myself and close friends or relatives about my ex, and though he is the only one who has ever made me angry enough to curse at him like a sailor – multiple times – it never lasts very long outwardly and I was therefore able to let go more than others may be. I have cousins who, to this day, have to force themselves to speak to my ex when they see him – at my request. They are angry for me and I find myself sometimes defending him, to a point. I requested that they do speak to my ex for our son’s sake. I needed my son to be close to them, as well, but he could feel the bad feeling they had for his father and was therefore uncomfortable with them.

The second reason I was able to “drop” as much as I did was that after our marriage fell apart, but we were still together, my ex, who doesn’t believe in therapy, would angrily accuse me of “overanalyzing” everything. I did analyze a great deal of the time, both in therapy and on my own, and sometimes still do about that time. I needed badly to understand what was going on, what we were BOTH thinking and feeling, what was motivating each thing that happened in order to help us find a way to fix things and to enable me to deal with everything. It may have driven him crazy, but my “over analysis” helps us have the divorce we do. I understand much of the reasons behind his thinking and behavior during our marriage – very possibly more than he does himself. Understanding him has helped me let go of much of the awful feelings and remember that there are a lot of things about him that are good and that I still admire very much.

My third, and greatest motivation for having a “good” divorce and letting go, at least outwardly, of the passionately negative emotions I was suffering, was the same as I have been saying throughout this article – our son. He was and is the most important and the innocent one in this painful, unfortunate situation, and we both felt and feel that he, above all, should not be made to suffer or be forced to be a pawn between his parents. We put him first and everything was done with him in mind.

As hard as we worked, and mostly succeeded, to be civil, keep the peace with each other, and work together for his sake, I was never sure of my son’s impression of his parents’ divorce. I didn’t know whether he still thought we were only angry and nasty to each other or not, couldn’t tell whether he realized that he had it better and easier than a lot of kids in the same situation, either custodially or any other way. I worried a great deal about this until our son was about 11 or 12 and talking to his friends about another child’s new and difficult behavior. I pointed out to them that this child’s brother and sister-in-law, both of whom he adored, were going through a very messy, angry divorce and that he was naturally devastated by it. I explained that sometimes, when children are going through a very tough time, they react by behaving differently or badly and begged them to please, just be tolerant and understanding and try to help him out by remaining his friend despite his behavior. My reward for all the tongue-biting and hard work to protect my son came when he told them, “Yeah, they have a really bad divorce! Not like my parents!”

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