Marry, Divorce, Reconcile

One woman's path to joy in a reclaimed marriage

The Weekend That Almost Wasn’t

A dispatch from the far side of a broken nuclear family

My kids have a tribe of mothers and fathers now.
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Five years ago I was divorced. Five years ago I would have spent this past weekend either alone with my new partner, or with him and my two sons, as per the custody schedule. My boys, then six and three, regularly traveled between mommy and daddy’s house. They knew we both had new partners in our lives. My younger son had even asked me, “Mommy, which daddy is my real daddy?”

Five years ago, we were living in the brave new world of post-divorcelandia. And it was a kind of hell. There were difficult emotions, very harsh circumstances, including my new partner’s emerging grief over the great distance between him and his daughter, and the bitter pills of seeing how the divorce was impacting my boys, and his girl. And the loss of steady, reliable connection between us and our children. There was also the pain of my husband’s new partner. Why did it hurt so much to see them together? Why was I so angry? Why couldn’t they parent our sons the way I thought they should? Why wouldn’t’ my new partner’s ex-wife be more supportive of letting his daughter travel to see him? Why was this all this so hard? I loved my new partner and we’d thought we could handle post-divorcelandia. And I’d thought my marriage had gone sour. My ex and I had both believed that divorce was the best solution.

Through a series of terrifyingly honest moments (I think I needed an affair not a divorce, I’d said to my ex in between my wracking sobs), informed learning, and the courageous willingness of all four of us to commit to no-holds-barred acceptance of what was happening, we changed course. Our new partners lovingly moved out giving us the space we needed despite their (and our) painful losses. And my ex and I began a quiet and careful reconciliation. We remarried a year later.

We didn’t speak to those partners for years; following standard operating procedure to shut down all communication between affair partners. Even though what happened was never an affair. My husband and I wanted to restore our marriage and make it thrive. We believed we had to nix the partners to be certain of that. We dove into the deepest, most honest, most soul-exposed place with each other we’d ever known together. It took a lot of work to shed our old patterns and baggage and habits with each other. And it still takes work, but, in part because of the loving, respectful, radically honest experience we’d had with our new partners, we learned to transfer those communication skills into our own relationship, helping to make it far more joyful and fulfilled than it had been before.

And now, our marriage is so profoundly gratifying that these days it’s hard for me to remember what it was like five years ago. Or, for that matter, what our “sour” marriage was like before that.

But on weekends like the one we just had, I am reminded of what we almost lost.

Friday night: Dinner with friends, friends who’d taught our sons in preschool, friends who’d seen us through the divorce and were there to say to us during our “secret” reconciliation, “You know, it’s obvious you guys still love each other, what’s going on?” Friends who are our family now. A second set of parents to our boys.

Saturday: A quiet morning, the four of us hanging out. One boy in the shop with daddy, building a coffin for the Halloween graveyard due to arrive in our front yard any day. The other, building a fire ring in the backyard then attempting to cook an egg from our hens on a brick in his fire. Me, having the time to sit on the couch, drink tea, read a book, and then go admire the fire ring and (oh-so-proudly) the coffin. Then, my husband takes our boys and their two friends, who by now are practically brothers, to a Lego workshop, followed by a trip to the pet store, and our youngest comes home with two gerbils (this, a week after our older son, an avid birder like his dad, brought home a parakeet). The four boys—all between 8 and 12 years old—spend the next three hours chattering and making rodent homes from toilet paper rolls. My husband and I can’t decide who is cuter, the boys or the wee little furry ones. Well, okay, the boys are definitely cuter.

The friends spend the night, and everything is quiet by eight, so my husband joins me on the couch and we hold hands and watch a Grey’s Anatomy. It makes us laugh and we love the challenging and honest relationship issues they deal with. It reminds us of how satisfying it is to know we’ve grown so much in our own ways.

Sunday: I make caramel apples from scratch and discover this is a lot harder than I’d thought. But it is the kind of challenge that metes out delight. Watching my boys and their friends chow down on those apples, the fall day swirling its colors all around us, is precious beyond words. Then my husband’s ex-partner drops by to return our son’s flashlight—he’d had it at her house on a birthday party sleepover. “Come in,” I say, “Have tea!” The boys, thrilled to see her, drag her upstairs to show off the gerbils. Then the three of us—me, my husband, and his ex-partner—sit together sipping tea, catching up. We are easy together now, very fond of each other, good friends. We are practically family. And I marvel at the years of work it took to get us here—could it have been easier? Could I have come to this affection without all the anger, pain, and jealousy? How nice it feels to enjoy her presence, instead of how I felt before.

We finish the tea, and she heads out. We take the boys to see their first cyclo-cross race. I sit in my chair, tired but happy, watching them and their buddies and their dads and another mom (another of my treasured flock of nearly-sister-mama-birds), all hiking up to a knoll, entranced by the racers speeding over the dirt mounds and down the track.

Five years later, I see the bike race, and I see so much more. My kids have a tribe of mothers and fathers now; my husband’s ex-partner is one of many. In our remarriage, we’ve learned the joy of deep, reliable friendships with others—we’ve learned we can’t do a happy marriage alone. We need our friends. And our kids do, too. I make jokes with my boys about how many mommies and daddies they have, reflecting for them the value of those relationships—giving them the words to know it’s not only okay but wonderful to have such a powerful social support system.

Our boys know—without knowing that they know—that together my husband and I foster security and healthy relationships for them, and now, five years out, a once unthinkable weekend like this is both possible, and a joy. We’ve taught our boys, and ourselves, to make time for good friends; for building Legos and rodent homes and fires and coffins and meals and families and lives...together.

Now the race is over and it’s time to go to Grandma’s house. There the boys pour out their pet glee for her and then, while sharing chocolate cake, we all hear about what amazing things she was doing this weekend, too. She worked with local actors to make a mini-movie for the book she wrote! We are awed by the costumes and the actors and her stories.

Next my husband and I leave our boys with her for a sleepover and go home for date night: Dinner and a movie alone on our couch. Sweet aloneness made possible—and so very rich—by what all the others have brought. How can we ever thank them all for what they mean to us?

Now, five years later, the “weekend that almost wasn’t” reminds me how far we’ve grown beyond the nuclear family model that helped sour our marriage in the first place.

And I’m so glad.

Rachel Clark is a science writer, biologist, and mother.

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