Divorce & Separation

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Blissfully Blended Bullshit

Blissfully Blended Bullshit

The Uncomfortable Truth of Blending Families
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Blissfully Blended Bullsh*t

Blissfully Blended Bullsh*t

The Uncomfortable Truth of Blending Families
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Do You Ever Cry, Dad?

Do You Ever Cry, Dad?

A Father's Guide to Surviving Family Breakup
also available: Paperback
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In the first year after my split, I encountered two individuals whom I now think of as my guardian angels. Both were police officers. I met them eight months apart.
The first meeting occurred about three months after my ex and I told our three kids we were breaking up, which was, needless to say, the worst moment of my life. At that point I was, to put it mildly, a complete mess. I’d been attempting to manage the few parts of my life I felt I could control: the quality of my work, the state of my body, the way I treated others. But those were the things on the outside. The part inside, my heart, well, I had only so much control over that, and the pain it was trying to contain was overwhelming.
I had just spent the evening with Dustin, Cory, and Alisha, then dropped them back “home” with their mom and drove away. It hurts to even write “drove away.” Those words make me want to cry, as do any words that describe the action of physically leaving my kids. Typically, after parting ways, I would drive a few blocks, pull over, and cry. Those tears expressed a lot of complicated emotions, but mostly just unmitigated pain. Often I would think about when my kids were born: the pure love and instinctive connection I’d felt. What I was experiencing after the breakup felt in many ways opposite — the emptiness of saying goodbye to them, the feeling of detachment instead of connection. The first time I had to leave them after the split, I felt like the pain might kill me.
At some point after stopping the car, I would pull myself together and drive back “home” (my parents’ apartment). Then I would try to do something productive: exercise, write, correspond with people important to me, read, spend time talking to my mom and dad. On this particular evening, after the cry had exhausted itself and I started driving home, almost immediately I saw flashing lights in my rear-view mirror. I pulled over impassively. The cop, an older guy who looked like he’d been on the force for a long time — thinning hairline, gray at the temples, bit of a paunch — walked toward me and I lowered the window, getting ready to hand over my licence and registration. He was in cop mode, serious and authoritative, flipping open his pad and clicking his pen.
When he looked up and saw my face, he paused for a long moment. I was holding out my documents, but he didn’t take them. He seemed frozen, as though he wasn’t looking at a person, but a ghost. After what felt like a long time, he spoke. “Sir,” he said, in a quiet voice, “I don’t know what’s happening in your life right now, but I need you to do something. I need you to promise me you’re going to drive home, and then I need you to promise me you aren’t going to get behind the wheel again when you feel like this. This is a school zone, sir, and you were going fast enough to do something really dangerous. Do you understand what I’m saying to you?” He was speaking very slowly and carefully. “Sir?”
“Um, yes,” I said. “Sorry. Yes. Thank you.”
“Do you want to wait a while, or do you feel you’re okay to drive home?”
“I’m okay,” I said.
“All right,” he said. “Straight home, then.”
I saw my hand go out and grasp his. I heard myself say something about his being a good cop, or maybe a good man. While he walked back to his cruiser, I tilted down the mirror to look at myself. What I saw reminded me of a day soon after Dustin was born, when I’d gone into work feeling exhausted, but thinking I could fool people for one day. Ten minutes in, someone had walked by, done a double take, and said to me, “Wow, you look so tired.” We can fool people sometimes, but not when the fatigue, or the pain, is blindingly obvious to them (even if it may not be to us). Now, looking at myself in the rear-view, I was stunned at how I looked. Maybe the best way to say it is I was there, but barely looked like I was. I am forever grateful to that cop not only for his humanity, but also for alerting me to the fact that I was in a far worse state than I’d recognized.
Eight months later, after having again said good night to my kids, again detesting the moment of walking away, again feeling despair at not seeing them in their pyjamas in the morning, I was driving down the same street as before. Again I saw flashing lights and heard a siren. This time I felt the same righteous indignation most of us feel in such a moment (right before you start to admit you might have actually done something wrong). This time as the cop approached my door, I didn’t reach for my licence and registration, because I remembered what had happened before and assumed it would happen again. I even worked to achieve the same kind of look of desolation I’d had the previous time, just to make sure I would get out of this ticket too.
The officer, younger and more trim than the one who had pulled me over months before, looked at me and asked for my documents. Nothing in his demeanour changed; he started cop and stayed cop. I told him I was going through a split and having a rough day. He said, “I understand. Licence and registration, please.” I hadn’t been going very fast this time — just fast enough to merit a ticket. But if there was ever a positive ticket to get, this was it. Because what this cop saw was a man who was present, aware, and, all other things being equal, normal. What the other cop had seen was a man hardly there, obliviously driving a two-ton weapon through a school zone.
Some eleven months after my breakup, I was still in tremendous pain. I was still burdened by a sorrow I’d never known, still just trying to, as Tom Hanks’s widower character Sam Baldwin puts it in the movie Sleepless in Seattle, “get out of bed every morning, breathe in and out all day long.” But that ticket, although aggravating in the way any ticket is, was also the first sign that things might get better.
In the months before, during, and after my split, I’d spoken to dozens of friends and others who had gone through divorce, either as the parents doing the splitting or as the children of those parents. They’d all had useful and compassionate things to say. But the advice of one person stood out, and it was those words I thought about as I drove away, ticket in hand. He’d said, “Look, I.J., there’s no way to make it go faster or make it hurt less. But eventually, it changes. It’s bad, it’s bad, it’s bad, and then one day, it’s good.” What I was feeling by then, nearly a year in, couldn’t have been remotely described as “good,” but the fact that the second cop recognized me as a person conscious enough to deserve the ticket signalled that I was starting to come back into myself, even if only a tiny bit. I still found it a monumental effort to remain functional and positive from one day to the next, but at least I was starting to reawaken.
Those two men were my guardian angels because they represented two essential parts of my journey: the pain that cannot be bypassed or rushed, and the first small moments that indicate things might be okay, if not today, then maybe tomorrow. The first angel let me know that I was in a really dark place and not entirely aware of my actions. The second let me know that I was starting to become whole again.
Before, between, and since these two encounters, my kids have gone through a bracing series of ups and downs, each in their own way and according to their personality. During their collective and individual passages, certain moments have made me want to cry, scream, or both. There was the time, just weeks after the split, when I tried to do something normal: take them tobogganing. Rather than being a fun event, this ended up instead with everyone’s tension spilling over, me yelling insanely at the winter sky, and the kids looking on horrified as though I was going crazy, which I pretty much was. There was the moment when I walked into Dustin’s room one evening to find all of the poems and stories I had written for him over ten years torn apart and littering his floor. There was the bedtime cuddle with Alisha when I thought she had fallen asleep on my chest but then heard her sniffling. She asked, “Are you and Mommy ever getting back together?” and I had to say, “No, honey, we’re not.”
But the worst moment happened one evening when Cory, wise beyond his years, said to me, “Do you ever cry, Dad?” The question left me dumbstruck, because just about all I’d done for months was cry, at least when alone. I’d come to be surprised on any morning when my eyes looked mostly normal instead of red and puffy. But when Cory asked this question, I realized he hadn’t seen me cry, not even once, perhaps, in all the time since his mom and I had split. No, there was one time, I realized. I’d been with the kids in the car, listening to music. In my car we listen to music all the time, because, well, I love music, and so do the kids. We have a wide range of artists on rotation constantly, representing all eras and genres, from Bruce Springsteen to ABBA, Count Basie to KISS.
On this day, Billy Joel was on: “Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel),” which he wrote for his daughter, Alexa. It’s a gorgeous heart-ripper of a song. You might find, as I did during my breakup, that your cry impulse is right near the surface all the time. Sometimes you can keep it at bay, while at other times you’re helpless to do so. The song came on, I glimpsed Alisha in the back seat doing nothing but looking innocent and perfect, and I broke. Cory was in the back as well, Dustin up front with me. I tried to look out the window as my tears started to surge, but there was no way to stop them. (Damn you, Billy. Not really, though. Love you, Billy.) I felt bad for my kids because I didn’t want them to have to deal with the weirdness of their big old dad weeping like a baby.
Trying to hide my emotions from them was the wrong decision — then, now, and at any time. When Cory asked me whether I ever cried, I understood that I must have at some point decided that, since my ex was crying a lot, it was up to me to be the strong one. I’d clenched my jaw and hidden my sadness and decided I would be their rock in the storm. But Cory obviously wasn’t seeing me as strong; he was seeing me as unfeeling. Not only had I destroyed the world he’d known, but, far worse, I had been acting, in his eyes, indifferent toward having done so.


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Co-Parenting from the Inside Out

I heaved my suitcase into the back of my rusted Corolla and sank into the driver’s seat. I was parked in the driveway of the suburban Winnipeg house where I had become the mother of two sons, then aged five and eight. On that November night the curbs were edged with dusty snow, the brown lawns sullen and hard. On that night I was leaving my home and my marriage of fifteen years.
I backed onto the street and drove around the curve, crying so hard I couldn’t see. As soon as I was out of sight of the house, I pulled over, sobbing, my head in my arms on the cold steering wheel. My sons, David and Steven, had known for a week that my husband, John, and I were separating, but this was the first tangible step to reshaping our family. I knew their dad would care well for them that night. Still, it had taken every ounce of my resolve to kneel, look into their sad, bewildered faces, and hug them goodbye, saying, “I will see you tomorrow.” Leaving the house was such a significant step, it felt unreal and desperate. After a few bleak minutes, I took a shaky breath, restarted the car, and drove slowly out of the neighbourhood toward my temporary refuge.
The ship that had been my married life had foundered and I was throwing myself into black, cold water. I didn’t know how this next phase would work, just that our family life as it was couldn’t continue.
In the previous year, I had realized that our marriage was frayed to the breaking point. Years of escalating arguments had led John and me to try counselling, but after three months, John stopped going. When I asked, “What is it that’s not working for you?” he answered, “I just don’t think it’s going anywhere.” It felt like I was standing on one side of a twoway mirror with John on the other side. He could see what I was experiencing, but my view of him was opaque, shielded. I felt more and more helpless, trying to peer through the glass. Very lonely.
Finally, one sunny Saturday morning, sitting across from each other in our matching blue wing chairs, we had our first honest talk in years. I comprehended what I hadn’t wanted to see: John’s commitment to our marriage was gone.
As this horrifying realization sank in, I felt like I had been punched in the belly. I spent that day sitting, walking, staring into space, trying to rearrange my world. We carried on for the next few weeks in an atmosphere charged with things unsaid as I gathered my nerve and looked at options. One thing was clear to me: while John would be content to carry on as before, as if nothing had changed, I could not. I peered briefly down that future path and saw myself there — a bitter, weary woman with no joy in living.
I started examining other choices. I knew the boys loved us both and would need time with each of us. For them to be brought up well, they would need parents who were healthy human beings. For me, in addition to lots of time with David and Steven, I would need time to myself each week, real downtime, or I would be a terrible mother — constantly shrewish and irritable. So, co-parenting seemed the least disastrous option. I confess I wasn’t all that concerned about John’s needs, but a part of me registered faintly that it would be good for him to keep connected with the boys.
I knew that John was good with David and Steven, that he loved them. Even through my haze of hurt and anger, I could see he had gifts to offer them, different than mine. I drove them to music lessons, curled up with them nightly to sing lullabies, and made sure they ate vegetables. He took them to his family farm and expected them to do physical labour, carried them on his shoulders, and got them giggling as he wrestled with them. Whatever else happened, John was the boys’ father, and they needed to grow up knowing and taking pride in both of their parents. I never doubted the importance of this in the long term.
Once I actively began to consider leaving, I carried tension throughout my body, wondering if I could make good choices. My throat felt tight, my breathing shallow. I kept rolling my shoulders to try and loosen them. My work colleagues never gave advice, which I appreciated, but they saw me each morning haggard from lousy sleep. Puffy bags under my eyes made me look closer to sixty than forty. In our small office, sympathetic looks told me people knew I was grappling with whether to leave my marriage. For my fortieth birthday, co-workers threw a coffee party, covering my office ceiling with exuberant red and white helium balloons trailing ribbons. I almost cried at the absurdly cheerful sight. A colleague said, “You’ll know what to do when the time comes.” Her confidence helped me keep listening to myself to find my next steps. I needed every ounce of confidence-building that came my way.
John and I tiptoed around each other for weeks, keeping a buffer of politeness between us.
“Will you be able to take Steven to his practice tomorrow night?”
We seemed stuck, unable to go back or forward. I felt increasingly fragile, as if my inner core was dissolving in the endless effort to keep a normal facade.
Finally, one evening, as I was folding laundry in our bedroom, John came in. I suddenly couldn’t do this any longer. I blurted, “If we separated, would you consider co-parenting?” I was scared to ask the question, as if naming the possibility of separating might make it more real. John didn’t look at me.
After a few long seconds, his answer came: “Okay.”
It was a huge relief to me. There was a viable, if terrifying, way forward. No one I knew was co-parenting. Considering it felt odd, as if I were peering into strange new territory. I talked over the possibility with friends, but no one had done anything like it. I looked in bookstores, but at that time there was little on the shelves.
Co-parenting never felt like a good choice. I had wanted so much to keep the family together that anything else was a sad and scary unknown, something that didn’t fit the dream of family. However, the dream was gone. Shared parenting offered the fewest bad outcomes.
When I asked myself if co-parenting would work, I started by assessing our resources. First, I felt fairly confident that I could earn a living if we split. It wouldn’t be fancy, but we could survive. I also believed that John could stay solvent, so we each could provide some financial base. This was critical. Another factor was family support. My parents and siblings lived three thousand kilometres away in British Columbia. I wasn’t willing to uproot myself and the boys, or ask them to choose between their dad and me, in order to move closer to my family. Therefore, their dad’s relatives, right in Winnipeg, were an important resource. I felt genuine affection for his family and believed they would provide social support for both the boys and their dad.
Next, I needed to look at where I would live with the boys, and where their dad might live with them. I couldn’t imagine staying in our house, with its echoes of heartache. I thought we should sell the house we jointly owned, both move to a nearby, less expensive neighbourhood, and find homes within walking distance of each other. John, on the other hand, first expected that I would stay in our house. When I said absolutely not, John announced he would stay there. He didn’t want to introduce any more change into the boys’ lives than they were already facing.
This turned out to be an excellent decision because it gave the boys social stability. I am grateful now that John insisted on staying in the house and that I didn’t oppose him further. I can see how pain dominated my thinking, limiting my readiness to consider all options carefully.
What would it be like to see the boys only part of the week and have them move back and forth? I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like for any of us. I supposed we would all survive, but beyond that it was uncharted territory.

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