I stayed in a bad marriage at least a decade past the moment I should have left. I can see that clearly now, in retrospect. Back then I was confused. I kept telling myself—and believing—that I had to stay for the sake of the children. I kept working at something that was structurally doomed to fail, thinking if I just tried a little harder, I could fix what was irreparably broken.
But the foundation of a marriage, like the foundation of a home—there’s a reason that metaphor is overused—must be capable of holding up its walls and bedrooms and plumbing and doorframes. If it’s not, no amount of tinkering with the part aboveground will ever keep the thing from crumbling. No matter how hard you try to shield your children from the pain of a broken family.
My kids may not have known everything that was going on behind their parents’ walls, but I was kidding myself thinking they were oblivious to the cracks therein. My two older children are mature enough to grapple with the subtleties and nuances of what happened. They get it. But the little one was born nine years ago into an already condemned building. Without a hardhat.
Would I have chosen such a structurally unsound home for him, given everything I now know? No, I would not. Children’s needs are actually quite simple: love, peace, comfort, safety, sustenance. A little ice cream thrown in for good measure. And hopefully two parents who are kind enough to one another to keep love alive until death do they part.
But while no kid would ever wish for his parents’ divorce, there are lessons my 9-year-old has gleaned from the past two of his nine years that—I hope I’m not kidding myself—will serve him well.
1. Pancakes are not a right; they are a privilege.
With two parents and a working dishwasher, I used to make pancakes every morning. Our new apartment has neither dishwasher nor extra set of hands. You know what takes no time at all for breakfast? Eggs over easy and Birds in a Basket. My kids love both. So be it.
2. ‘Happily Ever After’ is a fairytale myth.
Even the most solid relationships go through periods of hardship, strain, struggle, and boredom. Happy is a rare and fleeting state. You know it when you feel it. And it doesn’t require a life partner. Some of my happiest moments have been during these past two years of singledom. My son has both seen and noted this with pride and fascination.
3. Dads don’t always stick around, but fathers can be found anywhere, if you’re open to finding them.
Because my ex-husband lives 3,000 miles away, for a while I created the Dads Club. Every Sunday, one of my male friends would take my son on an excursion. They got as much out of it as he did. And I got a rare two hours to myself.
4. Mommies are not just mommies or all-knowing caretakers; they are women with flaws and needs and lives of their own.
When Mom starts dating, the child can’t help but see her in a new light. Mom is not only a mother: She is a sexual being. What? Poor thing. She has no idea what she’s doing. Look, she’s totally wearing the wrong outfit. And who is that guy? Sheesh! Totally wrong for her. But you root for her anyway. Because she’s your mom.
5. Work is essential; money does not grow on trees.
Single mothers are more like warriors than women. They are bringing home the bacon, frying it up in a pan, cleaning the bacon grease off the counter, paying the bacon vendors late at night, worrying about not having enough bacon, trying to manufacture bacon out of thin air, and wiping the tears when the bacon falls on the floor and gets eaten by the dog. And no you can’t have the new flying pig game for your Xbox. The old flying pig game is fine. You will thank me for this one day.
6. It’s better to be alone than in a bad relationship.
Wow. Mom’s happier, healthier and more serene alone than with Dad. The home should be a peaceful place, not a war zone. Who knew?
7. I am not the center of the universe.
This doesn’t mean my kid doesn’t get my undivided attention when I can give it. It just means that he is more like a large moon with a massive gravitational pull on Planet Mom than the sun around which everyone revolves. Ultimately? This is good for him. And for his future college professors.