Category: divorce

We are playing with puppets, acting out shows. Characters that H has named Old Grandma, New Grandma, Mama, Jack, Gretel, and Mathilda (a cow) make up The Family. The Family is the cast of the current show.

“It’s Grandma,” H says, directing Mama to the center of the stage.

“Is she a grandma now?” I ask. The instruction I had been given earlier was that the show starts with only Mama and everyone else in Mama’s uterus, so I guess that perhaps there has been a script change or a series of unannounced births.

“No, it’s Mama. She’s a witch!”

“A WITCH!”

“A witch! She eats little people,” H tells me.

“She does!” My eyes go wide.

“Except she doesn’t eat hands. She spits them out.”

“And eats the rest,” I supply.

“Yes!”

The show goes on.

***

H is in a season of wanting to hear and act out stories that get worse and worse. Terrible tragedies befall every protagonist, and seldom is any delivered from ruin or harm. The scenes are bleak, the unfortunate events unrelenting, the universe unforgiving.

I see him exploring the dark side of human nature and all those things we relegate to our shadows: fear, anger, confusion, resentment, despair, depression. It is as if he is asking, “What happens when everyone is angry?” And “How do I understand a world where there is so much pain?” And “What if people simply do unkind things much of the time? How would that be?” And “Is it okay to give voice to these things? Will I still be loved?”

It can be hard to wrap one’s mind around the shadow in a culture like ours that has turned away from it, where such a narrow range of expressed emotion is considered acceptable, where we repress things and then turn against each other with violent explosiveness.

He has been working on understanding it for months.

***

“You are not even— You are not— You are not even ANYWHERE!” H is furious, his small body wound tight with the indignity of the limit I had just set. He can hardly spit the words at me.

“Sweets, you sound upset.”

“You are NOT my friend. You are NOT good. You are NOT— You are NOT EVEN ALIVE.”

“You wish I were dead,” I reflect back to him. I am calm. Steady. I want him to know that he is seen and heard and that I can handle it.

“Yes! I wish you were dead and I had a stepmother!”

***

Folktales and fairy tales have been in heavy rotation during our reading time as of late. In a version of Hansel and Gretel we’ve read, the children’s mother has died, leaving them with a father so weak in spirit and character that he is unable to provide for the family and a stepmother who wants to be rid of the children because she has prioritized her need to eat over theirs. The children are repeatedly left in the forest by their father and stepmother before they find their way to a witch who imprisons them to fatten them up for later roasting and feasting. It is not a cheery story. H loves it.

We were several readings into Hansel and Gretel before he asked me to define stepmother. I explained in general terms, not calling on the specifics of our current family structure to help illustrate the concept, although that was fore in my mind as I carefully chose the words I used to describe the relationship between child and stepparent. He asked if he might someday have a stepmother. I said it was possible and left it at that.

***

Now he is angry.

It is not the first time that he has called me not good, disowned me, or wished me dead. These are age-appropriate expressions of real, deeply felt emotions that I do not take personally. I am not usually triggered by them, but this time I felt a pang of sadness, not for the expression of his anger and frustration, but for how close he came to my tender, wounded spots. How will I feel if one day H does have a stepmother? Will I be able to wish her well? Will I be able to embrace, truly and fully, her relationship with my son? What old feelings related to the dissolution of my marriage will be dredged up? Will I catch myself in moments overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy, shame, regret? Will I be able to embrace my shadow?

Whatever may come with regard to my co-parent’s marital status, what comes up for me will be my own personal work. H’s work now is to have all of his feelings, every single one, including those some would have him push into the shadows. His expression of those feelings is not about me. My work now, as his parent, is to make space for them all, to breathe into them, and to accept him just as he is. My work is to embrace his shadow so that he can embrace it, too.

It is hard to wrap one’s mind around the shadow in a culture like ours. I have been working on it for years, and here is another opportunity to practice.

He is angry, and I do not turn him away. I do not shame him. I do not shut him down. I sit with him.

We sit in the shadow together and breathe until we are embraced by light.

“Nothing is wrong – whatever is happening is just “real life.”
—Tara Brach from Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha

***

“Want to run away from papi,” H tells me. He is in my arms, his legs kicking against my thighs like he’s gunning to win the Preakness.

“Papi, we’re running away from you!” I call as we swing a large arc past H’s father. This is a game we sometimes play during the transition from me to him. I keep my tone playful and light.

“No, no, no,” H protests, his whole body shaking in the negative and stiffening with tension, his distress growing with each no. “Run all the way to the gate!”

I freeze, uncertain about the turn I can feel the game taking. H continues to express his displeasure, now at our lack of motion.

“Love, you sound unhappy,” I say.

“Yeah,” he tells me.

“Would you like to talk about it?” I ask him, but it is too soon for conversation. The feelings need to bounce around his body and settle before we can find words to put to them. I stay still, waiting.

“We talked before about how I didn’t want to see papi,” H finally says, thrusting his body toward his father, who stands motionless some distance from us, watching silently. My heart hurts for how I imagine this might feel for him.

“Yes, we talked earlier about how you didn’t want to see papi,” I confirm.

“Why?” H asks.

“We talked about the fact that you didn’t want to see papi, but I’m not sure we uncovered the reasons,” I tell him.

H’s distress continues to escalate. I pull his small body into mine and ground myself by breathing deeply.

“Is it because it’s hard to be separated from mama?” I ask.

“Yeah, it’s hard to be separated.”

I can feel some of the tension release from his body.

“Yes, I feel that way, too. I don’t like to be separated from you either, my sweet. I know that papi loves you and enjoys spending time with you. I’m glad you get to spend this time with papi, and I don’t like to be separated from you. I am glad, and it’s hard.”

H has quieted. He is focused on me.

“You will be in my thoughts. And in my heart,” I tell him.

“Why?”

“Why? Because you are part of my heart,” I say.

“Is papi part of my heart?” H asks.

“Yes, he is,” I say.

H considers this for a moment. “Mama put me in the car,” he says.

For weeks I have been worrying about how difficult these transitions have been for H, wondering how to smooth the rough edges, wanting somehow to solve this problem for him. But in a moment of clarity I know that this is not my problem to solve, that fixing it for him – even if I could – would be a disservice. This is a rough patch we are passing through. It is not easy, and I do not like it but these are our current seas and we will be okay. We ARE okay. There is nothing wrong. This is just life, and there is nothing to do but to be present with H and whatever feelings arise in each moment. Then sit with my own broken heart.

Later, H calls me on FaceTime.

He and his papi tell me about seeing many small boats and one really big boat at the locks that morning.

“There was a speaker. And it said, ‘The locks are moving now.’” H’s voice is getting trembly. “And beep, beep, beep.” And then tears as big, deep sadness rises to the surface. It travels through the ether and hits me in the chest. I feel it, too.

I take a steadying breath to prepare myself to be fully present with him again.

“I will never leave you, love. I will never, ever leave you. I am here with you. I am here. We will get through this together. It is okay to cry,” I tell him.

We sit in silence, and after a while, I offer to read a book.

“Hippos go berserk,” I say, showing him the front cover, and then I begin to read. “One hippo, all alone, calls two hippos on the phone.”

We pass the part of the book where all the hippos must go away. “Nine hippos and a beast join eight hippos riding east, while seven hippos moving west leave six hippos quite distressed.”

By the time I get to distressed, he is crying again, tears heavy with all the pain in the world spilling down his cheeks.

“Sweets. Would you like me to read a different book instead?” I ask.

He nods through his tears, and we read a book about construction vehicles and farm equipment lifting, pushing, digging, dumping, chopping, pulling, and cutting and make a plan for him to call me again after dinner.

When he calls back, the entirety of our conversation is, “Mama, I am all done talking,” and he hangs up before I can say much at all. It is hard to know for sure whether the sadness has passed or whether he is soldiering on despite it, but he feels comfortable enough to stay with his father. I know in my heart that this is a good thing for both of them.

It’s hard not to worry when our children are in emotional distress, hard not to want to take the pain away for them. But what he needed most was my presence. He needed me to be with him, to be completely present with his feelings without attempting to cajole, talk, or distract him out of them. He needed me to bear witness to his hard time and be okay with him just as he was. Nothing was wrong, after all. It was just real life.

Still, sometimes real life breaks my heart.

“Wrap H up,” he requests as we walk home from the grocery store. The lengthening winter nights have crested with the Winter Solstice, but it is still middle-of-the-night dark at 5:30pm. I pull H into my ams and wrap the edges of my down coat around his body. Street lights send yellow pools of light down on us, illuminating our path at intervals large enough that they do not drown out the dark.

“H is cozy,” he tells me. He pushes his arm down into my sweater.

“Hi, H,” I say.

“Hi, milk. And hi, mama,” H replies.

“I have to tell you something,” I whisper to him.

“I love you,” he whispers back.

“Yes, I love you,” I say. I can feel a hum of joy filling my body, and I close my eyes to make an etching in my heart of this moment.

I want to keep it as a balm for the quiet sadness has settled in my soul these past days. It is a sadness for which I have plenty of explanations, but instead of analyzing it or thinking the feeling away, I have invited it to sit quietly with me, carrying it as gently as I carry H. I am hoping that this sadness will reveal its lesson in time or simply ebb into the vastness of the universe when we are both ready to part. Until then, we travel together, the sadness, H, and me. Perhaps the extra companion is what makes this ordinary moment glow especially warm. The weight of a growing toddler in my arms, the warmth of his small body pressed against mine, the playfulness with which he approaches the world, the dearness of his voice, the whispered I love yous, these tiny sparks shine especially bright in comparison to the darkness of the path I have been walking.

I notice the joy jostling with the sadness to make room for itself. I notice both feelings settling in my body. I notice that that both can exist simultaneously, that there is room enough. Perhaps this is one of the lessons the sadness is here to bring. That the heavy feelings will not consume me, that it is possible to feel all things at once, that remaining alive and open to the present moment, even though it can bring enormous pain, means experiencing more joy than I ever knew possible.

The nights are shortening and the heavy darkness of winter will soon give way to a light that will stretch itself into the the nooks and crannies of a beautiful city. Maybe it will be that way, too, with my soul.

Today I sat on the platform swing while H pushed me. I do this kind of thing often when H is playing with Kathryn or Cameron. I crawl through tunnels and go down slides and run up ramps. I let pinto beans stream through my fingers and press my hands into globs of shaving cream. I do these things to model for H and as an invitation to play, especially if he seems hesitant about jumping right in. So today I am on a platform swing, and instead of joining me, H has decided to push. Cameron explains that this kind of swing might be harder for him to embrace than the swings he loves at the park, because it does not help him locate himself in space in quite the same way. She is happy to see him engaged with it in any way, so I sit while H pushes.

I am lulled by the gentle rocking and lose myself looking out the mat room windows. Seattle spills south in front of me, and I know if it were clear I would see Mt. Rainier hovering in the distance. Instead of one of my spiritual anchors, I find myself admiring the deep, velvet red of a brick building several blocks away. It looks so dusty soft I imagine that chalky red earth would stain my fingers if I were to touch it. A midnight blue band, just as rich and velvety, circles the top of the building. It is strikingly beautiful, and it happens to be the apartment building H’s father and I lived in when we first moved to Seattle.

H pushes me, and time folds on itself, thirteen years ago merging seamlessly with today. We have just moved into that apartment building, a block from the only level one trauma hospital in Washington State, a hospital committed to caring for the most vulnerable and adrift in Seattle and that serves as the regional trauma referral center for three nearby states. It is not a quiet neighborhood, often chaotic and noisy with ambulance sirens, helicopter landings, and street corner arguments outside our barred garden level windows. I have been in the car for the past thirty minutes circling the area in search of a parking spot at the end of the work day. This is a common occurrence. H’s father does not like it here, he often seems cross, but there are things I find so charming about the apartment that the noise and lack of sunlight and other negatives are not deal breakers for me. I love it for its early 1900s grace: The large square black and white tiles in the kitchen and bathroom, the wood floors throughout, the old porcelain basin bathtub with sides tall enough for a proper bath, the bathroom large enough that it requires extra furniture, the cupboard with openings to the hallway (now sealed) and the apartment that I have been told once served as a place for groceries to be delivered to residents. Here we are, 3,000 miles from where we first met, our relationship still in its infancy, charting a new course together in a new city.

Step to one side of the seam that has patched 13 years ago to today, and I am with H’s father. Step to the other, and I am not. I am moving to Seattle with him, finding this first place to live. I am moving out of the last apartment we will ever share. I am taking a temporary job at a bankruptcy law firm and looking for something I hope will help me uncover my soul’s work. I am drawing and painting and making objects with my hands and teaching children to see and to believe they can accurately record their observations with line and form and color. I believe that H’s father can be my person for today and every today that follows. I know he is not. We are blissfully giddy with new love. We are not. I wonder if we can be happy together. We are not. We are happy together. We are not. It feels strange to experience time twisting on itself like an Ourobros, to be sitting in both the past and the present simultaneously, to feel viscerally the fluidity and non-linearity of time.

Something makes the past recede, and I am solidly back in the mat room with H again. He is putting friends – frog and turtle beanbags and a small square purple beanbag he is calling chicken sausage – on the platform swing with me. He is so dear, his sweet demeanor and imagination a delight to witness as he plays around me.

I reflect on 13 years ago as H continues to push me on the platform swing. What if I had made different choices all those years ago? What if I had not moved across the country with H’s father? What if I had, but not rekindled our relationship after leaving him early on? What if we had reunited, but not gone on to marry? What if I had married, instead, someone who would not end up wanting a divorce? Would I have a child if I had married someone else? Maybe yes, but I would not have H. And this is where this line of thought, no matter how often I run through the mental gymnastics, ends. I would not have H.

No other outcome is palatable, so it seems that everything that has happened up to this point needs to have been. This is where I sit. I am waiting for something to clear, for some debris to dislodge so that I can flow past this point, no longer wanting so much to think my way out of the pain of the divorce. It is a process. I have time. And in the meantime, there is H and the platform swing. The present moment, no matter the pain it has taken to arrive here, feels good.

H’s father is here to pick him up. He hands me a copy of the papers he filed petitioning the State of Washington for the dissolution of our marriage. I knew he was coming for H. I knew he had filed the papers. I was not expecting to receive them now. I barely make it inside and to the sanctuary that I have created for me and H in our bedroom before the tears make it hard to see.

There is a letter from his lawyer. She wants to help, but I am advised that she is representing him, not me. I wonder if her offer is genuine or a pro forma nicety, one of those things some people say when they see someone else in a horrible way, not actually expecting to be taken up on it. It doesn’t matter. I don’t want her help. I have my own lawyer.

On the next page I stare at our names. Him vs. me. So this is it. This is how a marriage ends. My mind flashes to us at the courthouse signing for our marriage license, us standing up in front of family and friends saying our version of “I do,” us sitting in an interview for T’s green card, flipping through our wedding album with a stranger, assuring the US government through this snuffling, sneezing man, also married a foreigner, that our marriage is genuine. And now here we are, apart, opposed. Him vs. me. Me vs. him. Undoing all of those things we had done to come together.

Our marriage date is listed on another page. July 24, 2005. And the date he chose to mark our separation. February 1, 2014. It could have been any number of dates, I think. The day he did not tell me how he felt, that there was a disconnection growing in his heart. The night she stayed in our apartment. The day he called from Leavenworth, his joyful voice a bullet through my gut. The day he chose to go on the hike even though he knew how I felt about it. The day he started the secret texting and instant messaging. The day of our last failed attempt at sex. They day I fell on his list of priorities, and the days after that I slipped lower still. The day he refused to go to couples therapy. The day I started to turn away from him. The day he completed his turn away from me. The day the words started to tumble out of his month. The day he sort of said it, said in the clearest way he knew how. The day I finally understood that there was nothing else I could do or say. It doesn’t really matter though. They are all painful dates, the day he moved out of our apartment as good as any for a petition.

Another page. There are so many of them. This thing we are doing is simple in concept, but it requires so many words. Reason for the petition: The marriage is irretrievably broken. Seeing it spelled out so explicitly stops me short, even though I know it. There is no hope for us as a couple. It is over. In truth, it has been over for a long time, and these are just legal hurdles we are throwing ourselves over now. Facing each one spikes the pain of the separation, becoming another opportunity to let the grief wash over me without attaching my self-worth to my broken marriage, to let go of the self-blame. The tide carries me back out most times before I understand how to stay away from the waves that pull me under to these dark places, the feelings of unworthiness, the self-loathing. My marriage is broken, I am not, but still I am battered and crushed, disappointed and angry and sad. I can feel the beginnings of bumpy, jagged scars in some places, and I run my mind over them now to connect with the healing.

I scan through the rest of the papers. H’s name is there. He is the minor involved. It is established that the State has legal jurisdiction over him, over me. Then there are a series of deadlines, the last being a year from now. It seems so far away, and I wonder if I will be caught up, ready for all of this by then. I wonder if I can bear it for so long. I put the papers back in the perfectly uncreased, pristinely new manilla envelope in which they arrived. I will try to understand them some other time, I think. Maybe. Maybe it will be a long, long time before I understand them at all.

Later, at bedtime, H requests that we talk about our day. It is part of our new bedtime routine. We change his diaper and brush teeth, and then we read books, always Good Night Gorilla and then a rotating cast of others. He has milk, and then he says, “Talking about morning.” Sometimes he lies next to me, droopy eyed, nodding yeah, yeah as I talk about the activities of the day, sometimes he listens as he is having milk, and sometimes, as tonight, I kneel on the bed and rock him in my arms as I talk. His body, heavy with sleep, fits into mine as if he had never left, his head nestled into my shoulder like it is my missing piece.

“We woke up this morning,” I start. “H had milk in bed. Then we read books. We got out of bed to look for Grandma. She was still asleep. We folded towels. Then mama changed your diaper, and we got dressed. We met Raleigh and J and had a treat. H had some zucchini carrot muffin. We went to story time. H held two egg shakers. We sang songs about outer space. Then we walked back to Raleigh and J’s house. H had some of mama’s chamomile citrus iced tea. We looked at flowers and bushes and trees, and H examined an irrigation pipe along the way. Then we said goodbye to Raleigh and J and got in the car and went home. Mama changed your diaper. We took a nap together. You slept on mama. When we woke up, Ben was here. He brought the mantle back, and he was fixing the cabinets. We went swimming, and H looked in the filter and jumped in the pool. H laughed and laughed. We splashed together and took catkins out of the water. Then we came inside and got dressed. We read books and did some playing. Then you saw your papi. It was a good day,” I say to H, my eyes closed, breathing him close. “It was a good day.”

It was a good day. A geyser of sadness and loneliness rushes through my body and tears sting my eyes as I say it, and yet I meant it. I surprise myself by meaning it. These things that I do not like are happening. They are painful, and I am in pain. They are happening, but it does not erase the things I have in life that bring me joy. I still have joy, too.

H and I were together today. We experienced companionship, friendship, and love. It was a good day.

***

A note on the piece: This is a story about one sliver of my life at one moment in time. Everything here happened, but other things that happened concurrently are not included. For me, it is a story about how painful separation and divorce can feel, how good togetherness and connection can feel, and about how those two seemingly opposite experiences can be nestled side by side in life. It is not a piece about how bad or wrong my co-parent is, nor is it a piece assigning blame for our divorce. It is not really a piece about him at all; it is about me: My experience, my feelings, my perspective, my shadow parts. I recognize that some of it may read as if I feel he is entirely to blame, but I don’t feel that way at all. We share responsibility for arriving at the place we have. I respect his privacy; he read this piece before it was published so that I would know how he felt about it. I would not have published it if he felt it invaded his privacy. He deserves as much.

A flash of metal catches my eye as I fish my toothbrush from my toiletry bag.

It is my wedding band.

I had squirreled it there months ago, in a side pocket, when I first took it off. The toiletry bag had been shoved to the back of the vanity under the bathroom sink, behind unused soaps, lotions, shampoos, and toothpaste, and that is where I had put it back. The ring will be safe there, I had thought, and I will be safe from it. I can forget about it for a while and decide later what to do with it.

I have forgotten about it mostly, except for those times when my thumb, out of habit, moves over to my ring finger to turn the absent ring, or my pinky slides over and rubs up and down to do the same. The ring is the last thing I expect to see as I get ready for bed, glinting from a jumble of toiletries that I have been carrying around with me for a week and a half, back and forth between our apartment and the place H and are staying at night. It surprises me to see it, but not that I feel sad when I do.

I leave the ring in the toiletry bag. I carry it around, back and forth, and while I invariably forget something I need at one place or the other, I always have the ring. It is a perfect ring, one that felt like me every time I looked down at my hand for the almost nine years I wore it, and now it makes a perfect metaphor for all the things I have been carrying around, back and forth and everywhere, since I took it off. There is my ego protective anger, dagger sharp, that screams, “How could you have done this to me? You are wrong and terrible for not even trying. I do not deserve this.” There is the pain that lies just beneath the anger, a quiet ocean of tears and sadness. It is a blameless, million-shades-of-grey kind of place, this pain, where we each did the best we knew how. It is the more liberating place to be, and it is almost unbearable and exceedingly difficult to stay there long.

I carry the hopes and vision I had for an intact, loving, warm family for H to come home to; of family-oriented weekends spent at the zoo, at apple orchards, at the Arboretum; of honoring our families’ traditions and creating new ones of our own; of secret wishes that a second baby would be a brother for H; of me and H’s father growing old and happy together through all of life’s seasons, through the children coming and growing and going, through job transitions and wild, impossible-seeming dreams hatched and realized, through the good and the muck and back to the good again. I carry around these things with me still. It is not as easy to shed them as it was to hide that perfect wedding band in my toiletry bag. These things are sticky.

I carry worry now that I did not before. I worry about H and how he is experiencing this separation. He does not have the words to tell me, so I do not know for sure. When he has a hard day, when it seems as if he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, when nothing seems right, is it because he is feeling acutely the pain of the rift in our family or is it something else, perhaps merely typical toddler growing pains? Your papi has a bed in a new house now, I told H when his father first moved out, but how does he understand this? He must notice that he does not sit on his father’s lap before bed every night anymore and that we do not wave at the kitchen window every morning as his father leaves for work. Both of us have agreed to do our best to shield H from our feelings about one another, but there is no denying the gaping hole that has been torn into our small household. We creep around it, cautiously approaching the edge from time to time, but mostly we stay away for H’s sake. What does H think of it? How does he feel? I do not know, and I worry.

I carry things from the apartment to the new place we will stay until I have a better handle on myself, on my finances, on life. Some things I pack for storage until some undetermined time in the future when I will want or need them again. Mostly it is a mechanical process of sorting, discarding, and packing, but then I find the pain I carry. It is hiding in a photograph of me that H’s father had on his desk at home for as long as I can remember. He took the picture soon after we moved to Seattle together, before we were married. We are in the Jetta, me in the passenger seat in the black leather jacket I never felt quite right about wearing, my head tilted and resting on the grey cloth seat of the car. I look serious. I find it face down in the closet, on top of an unopened Christmas gift. What is inside the package? Who gave it to him? What is he hiding from me? I ponder these things, and it hits me again. It is over. He took my picture off his desk. This part of my life is coming to an end. The hopes and dreams I had for my marriage and my family need to be released. Things need to shift and change. I am shifting and changing. It is painful, and I do not want it. It is forcing me to carry so many things I would rather have never picked up. It is forcing me to put down some things I would rather have held onto.

I do not know what to do with the ring. It lives in my toiletry bag still, to the right of the bathroom sink in the place H and I have landed for now. I do not know what to do with it, so I do nothing. It is in an in-between sort of place, just as I am, caught between what was and what will be. I am carrying too much of the past and too much pain and anger to see the future clearly, and although a part of me wishes I could accelerate this process and bypass all the parts of right now that I do not like, there is a larger part of me that knows and accepts that this is not possible and that it would not serve me or H in the long term. When I have carried the past long enough, when I am able to tenderly turn it over to the universe, sending those things I wished for away with love and gentleness instead of with bitter resentment, I have a sense that something beautiful will open up for me and for H. And perhaps then I will know what to do with the ring.