by Judith Liebaert
To borrow from Tolstoy, all intact families are alike; each broken family is broken in it's own way.
Despite best efforts to all get along for the sake of children, my ex-husband and I have not met the challenge of blending our families together with resounding success. The jagged edges of our broken pieces cut deep. Family occasions bring out the best and worst of our fragile dynamic — the civility and even friendly engagement we bring to the temporary truce, and the palpable discomfort of our effort to be in close proximity. There is a sense of being caught in a demilitarized zone between past and present, where false smiles and forced congeniality add to the surreal picture. Most often, at these times when we should be at our happiest, we are individually miserable, wishing only for escape.
My firstborn grandchild graduated from high school this year. The following day her family gathered to honor her achievement. It was a large group; not only have her grandfather and I been divorced for 16 years, her parents also divorced when she and her brother were still toddlers. We have all since remarried adding steps and halves to a mix that refuses to emulsify. We live in separate enclaves guarding our borders.
Marriages never end well, no matter how amicable or passionless the split might be. Some end much worse than others. For both my daughter and myself the ending was bad, leaving residual trauma, heightened vigilance, emotional triggers, and often overwhelming anxiety when in the presence of our ex spouses. These are the kinds of abusive and toxic relationships therapists advise eliminating completely — but there are children to consider and we are mothers; love for our children trumps our own better interests every time.
"It's just three hours for an open house. I can get through this," my daughter said. It should have been the happiest moment of her life at this point. It breaks my heart knowing she is not alone in her reluctance to suffer these family rendezvous. Parents, children, grandchildren, we all feel the same way; these gatherings are an ordeal to get through rather than an opportunity to celebrate.
There is an added dimension of apprehension for me, the feeling of being separated from the fold, of being odd mom out. My siblings do not live nearby, my parents are gone, my extended family is scattered. At all of these events I have only my current husband by my side. I feel exposed and vulnerable. But if I dig deeper through the layers of my discomfort I find something else, something I'm ashamed to admit — resentment. Envy has wrapped itself around the cells of my sorrow and has become so entangled I'm not sure where one ends and the other begins. What I do know is that no matter how I look at it, I see money and the lifestyle it affords (or the lack thereof in my case) has defined my relationship with my children since the day I left their father.
There was much to be done in preparation for the graduation open house. I offered numerous times to help out in any way I could. I made it clear I would be available for both days of planned work. I was told everything was under control; my daughter was going to order deli platters and a sheet cake. Friends would decorate the hall. I knew she was being kind when she said all I had to do was show up for the party and relax, but it saddened me to not participate even in some small way.
Then the plans changed. My ex-husband's wife insisted on cooking for the event. The two of them and two of my daughters spent the evening shopping followed with dinner out — my ex-husband's treat, of course. The next morning, the day before the party, they all enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at my ex-sister-in-law's restaurant along with my ex-mother-in-law, again on my husband's dime. They spent the rest of the day boiling buckets of pasta, simmering sauce, chopping vegetables, baking and decorating cakes — all in the kitchen I designed with just such family cooking in mind. The kitchen I lost when I left him, taking little more than my personal possessions.
My ex-husband and I were young when we married. He had nine siblings, all but two still living at home. I considered my new, large family a bonus and was thrilled to be part of their clan, especially when my parents were welcomed in with open arms. We quickly added to the count when I became pregnant within the year. We welcomed three daughters over 11 years and I felt fortunate to be a full-time mother in the bosom of one very big, happy family.
Once my daughters were in school I began working part-time outside of our home but I never had a career, a 401k plan, or any retirement savings. My investment was in my marriage. When it began to fail around the 15-year mark, I didn't believe I could parlay my meager work experience into a living wage. More so, I knew without a doubt that divorcing my husband would mean losing what had become my family in every sense of the word; by their virtue, I became the big sister watching most of them grow up, get married, and start families of their own. I was the cool sister-in-law and the favorite auntie; my daughters had dozens of cousins.
I stayed with my ex-husband longer than I should have engaging in a sad dance choreographed to a score of fear and desperation. Those final years of hurtful behaviors, on both our parts, only deepened the scars we all bear.
When I finally made the decision to leave after 22 years, our oldest was already married with one child and the second on the way. Our middle daughter was just out of high school and the youngest was 10 years old. As I'd feared, I struggled to find my financial footing, barely making ends meet. Worse, I was an exile from the family I loved as my own. Minus the a family support system, along with the time and money that my ex-husband enjoyed, I was unable to give the time and attention to my youngest daughter that I'd lavished on her sisters — a regret that has grown in recent years in proportion with her increasing resentment. I couldn't help out with caring for my granddaughter and grandson as much as I would have liked, and lost those early bonding years with them. I felt a failure on all fronts.
Eventually, I re-married and with my husband's added income and benefits my financial situation improved. Unfortunately, a short five years later he was diagnosed with chronic heart failure. Unable to continuing working he took an early retirement, drastically cutting our household income. It's okay. He's alive and we are thriving. We live comfortably, just on less than we'd hoped or ever imagined.
Yet it means that for the entire time my ex-husband and I have been divorced, he has been better able to afford the cost of creating experiences with his children and grandchildren — four of them now, plus an additional two step-granddaughters. And for all that time, from the first day I left, I have borne a tremendous regret that I could not give our daughters as much as he does.
He has the financial edge to better help out with things like our second daughter's wedding and youngest daughter's education. But he also foots the bill for group travel to exciting locales, outdoor recreation, and entertainment venues. He's the good-time dad and they're all having fun. In return, they spend more time with him than with me and he has all the memories they've made without me.
When I remarried, I invited them to a simple ceremony in my family room. When he married again, he flew them all out to Las Vegas and paid for their lodging. I was witness to the three days of festivities thanks to my daughters' social media accounts.
Of course our children don't see it that way, that their father is buying their affection with what he can give them. In fact, in all honesty, even I don't see it as a purposeful attempt on his part to win at the divorce game by winning them over. He's simply being generous with what he has. Certainly I'm happy for my daughters and wouldn't expect them to refuse what he offers — that would make no sense at all. And my dilemma pales compared to single mothers raising children without the help of their deadbeat dads. But logic does not rule over matters of the heart and I can't help feeling that I'm missing out on the best parts of my daughters' and grandchildren's lives, like all the activity gearing up to this graduation celebration, the first of many to come.
Welcome to brokering love in a broken family.
While they all spent two days together preparing a feast, I sliced fruit by myself — a contribution I had to insist on making, so that my granddaughter would know I helped out too, that I cared. Instead of happy memories I'm filled with regret that I've never experienced the joy of having my daughters cooking and baking with me in that kitchen I designed and helped to build with my own hands — let alone the tiny kitchen I have now, where two bodies at a time just keep bumping into each other.
It's petty of me to draw comparisons or complain about any injustice I feel. Making children choose sides, even adult children, is verboten. It's better for all involved that I keep silent, push the galling blend of sorrow and envy back down my throat, hold my tears at bay and smile for the photos, hoping my daughters never know the extent of my emotional battle, and wishing at the same time that they did.
Judith Liebaert is a freelance writer, journalist, dabbling artist, and wildcraft witch; it's okay, she just uses herbs and flowers and weeds (Oh my!) to stir up things in her kitchen — and her life. She is the author of the recently released crime novel, Sins Of The Fathers, (June 2016 - Tellectual Press) inspired by the unsolved homicide of a 14-year-old boy that rocked her small, Midwestern hometown in the summer of 1966. She now lives in rural Wisconsin with her husband and cat with no name.