The Vat of Fail
I have a book on my nightstand, "On Becoming Fearless" by Arianna Huffington.
I use it as a coaster. I hate water rings on wood. The cloudy circles remind me of wedding rings. I want to take a Sharpie and fill them in with skulls and bloodied hearts.
Sometimes, though, I open "On Becoming Fearless" to a random page. This is always a terrible mistake. My eyeballs always steamroll straight into a paragraph about how Arianna and her ex navigated their divorce fabulously, or about the fabulous bouquet of fabulous yellow roses her ex sent her on what would have been their 20th anniversary -- along with a fabulously handwritten, fabulously touching note thanking her for coparenting fabulously for two decades. Arianna, above all, is certain that Everything Happened as it Should Have.
I always wind up throwing up a little into my sinuses and sliding the book back under my sweating can of decidedly unfabulous seltzer. Then I hide under my quilt and try to count my blessings. Loving family and friends. New gig here at ParentDish. A very small carbon footprint (the upside of not being able to pay that oil bill). An unexpected all-expenses-paid New Year's getaway with an exotic surfer dude who has brains, a good job and visible abs.
That last bit alone should win me at least a day pass out of the Vat of General Life Fail.
But I can't escape the feeling of Parent Fail, post-divorce. And that pain supercedes everything. It's been three years since he moved out, and I worry about the kids still. There's a sadness in them both now that I can't seem to touch, no matter what I do. They've changed. We've all changed.
Unlike Ms. Huffington, I am not at all certain everything has, in fact, happened as it should have. I know I am supposed to think this. This is the code, the motto to be shared among divorcees, I have learned. But I doubt very much I will ever be convinced of it -- that divorce was the only option, that he and I and the girls will all be better people for it.
I know we're all lonelier for it. Daughter #2 still asks, "Why can't Daddy sleep here anymore?" The answers I offer don't stick. She can't feel the sense in my calm, practiced words. Often, I can't either.
Tonight, I turn down Daughter #1's simple request: She doesn't want much. Just a snuggle at bedtime, some chatting, our usual routine -- a half hour. I don't have it to give. My email program has flatlined, I've lost critical info, and I have to get back the missing data, ASAP, so I can meet a deadline. We need income.
"Just a hug, tonight," I said. "My email is busted and I have to fix it ..."
Her face falls, but she holds her tongue. What does she care about email, about writing assignments other than her own fourth-grade ones? Why should she have to care? I think.
In the past, there would have been another parent here for bedtime snuggles. My older daughter remembers only that it was good when Daddy was here. She still observes her parents closely, scrutinizing our friendly exchanges for clues. Time and time again, I think we did them absolutely no favors by hiding our disagreements, our frictions as a couple. For the girls, the divorce descended upon our family out of nowhere. They never saw it coming. In truth, we didn't see it coming either, until it was far too late.
"I'll make it up to you tomorrow night, I promise," I say to Daughter #1.
She studies my face. "You just seem ... really busy these days," she says.
"I am busy," I concede. "But I'm trying hard to find a balance, I promise."
She nods and picks up a book. Something always has to give. Tonight, it's her, and we both know it.
I have long despised the sentiment of "Women can have it all!" I resent the insinuation, that there is simply some code to be cracked, if only one works hard enough, if only one wants it badly enough. Motherhood, friendship, a fab career and love life -- it's all there, waiting to be plucked like sexy, low-hanging tree fruit.
There's no way a single mother can have it all -- whatever she used to think "it" might look like. Worse, there's no way the kids of divorced parents can have it all, not even close. They wobble, they wince, they wish -- with one foot in each world. They have no say in the matter of their circumstances, yet they give up the most, over and over.
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.