This Is Why I Refused To 'Stay For The Kids'

by Stephanie Portell
Originally Published: 
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I am sitting on my bed with my hands tucked safely under my thighs, listening to my parents spit words at each other they can never take back. When they do this, I sometimes scream too, cry, or both. When they aren’t fighting, they are not in each other’s presence, and that’s the only time they aren’t fighting.

I like it better this way. When they aren’t around each other, when I don’t have to tiptoe or wonder what’s going to come next.

And when I get older, I swear to myself I’m never going to be with anybody I don’t want to be with just because I have kids. I swear to my mom I won’t stay as long as she did, and I ask her often why she did. She always said I could never be able to understand why until I had my own kids.

She was right.

My relationship started out rocky with an accidental pregnancy at 20, one of us with a hot temper and the other with ever-changing moods, and both of us with the kind of stubbornness where we wouldn’t listen to reason.

It may sound typical — a temper and mood swings — but I assure you it wasn’t. The temper involved saying things to the extreme with no memory of even saying them after they were spoken. The mood swings involved never knowing which version you would get but always hoping for the best version, because when it was good it was bearable, but when it was bad it was just chilling.

Most people at our young age wouldn’t have made it past this part, past the first few years when we were figuring out our new identities as parents and trying to keep the peace, trying to be a couple when only one of us wanted to be a couple, and the other was not willing to try.

Most people would not be willing to allow themselves to be treated the way we treated each other, but we thought we had no option than to stay together for the kid. When we fought, I was cold and he was mean. But it didn’t matter: Stay together for the kid.

Most people fought in front of their kids, not having the restraint and eerie ability to suppress it like we did. I thought it was because we loved our son that much, and it was. But it was also both of us not wanting to fuck up the idea of what we thought it should be.

His parents married young and in love and still were; my parents were hateful and divorced when I was 6 and still were nearly 15 years later. I think we were both fighting to beat that inevitable failure that wasn’t really a failure at all, but it would take a long time for us to understand that.

We had succumbed to the idea that we had to make it work, and as the frequency of the temper got better and the moods less extreme and the coldness less cold, we decided to have another baby.

To give our son a sibling, to have something to take up all of our focus now that our oldest was getting older so we wouldn’t have to focus on each other or perhaps because we thought it would fix our problems. I can’t really tell you the reason, but I can tell you that I don’t regret it for a minute, not only because I obviously love both my kids, but because if we didn’t have our second, I don’t know that we would have had the courage to face the terrifying truth that it wasn’t going to work, accept the reality of the decision that had to be made. We wouldn’t have had the courage to face each other.

Having a second child put an even bigger strain on our relationship, and we waited, and waited, and waited for it to pass. We rarely talked when the kids were in bed, never touched, never did anything together, never had sex. We didn’t say I love you — there was no warmth and no love.

But there was friendship and an understanding that we both were willing to live this way for our kids. There was still the same crazy sense of humor we shared when we first met, and it peeked through the sadness after a couple of drinks. We shared the same political and religious views, similar goals and dreams.

But it wasn’t enough. Even though both of our fundamental flaws reared their ugly heads less and less, when they did come out they were fierce like a ball of fire that couldn’t be extinguished.

I remember the moment I knew. The moment I knew if I stayed any longer, I’d stay forever, and I’d forever lose myself and forever be an unhappy mom and he an unhappy dad. And I wanted to be a happy mom.

It was the summer before my oldest was going to enter kindergarten and nearing the age I was when my parents got divorced. I have memories, but not near as many as my older sisters. There are things they remember that they won’t tell me, and I knew when my oldest son hit 5, there was no going back. It was a now-or-never kind of thing because if I didn’t go now I would stay until they left the nest. So I had to decide which of the two options was better — for all of us.

We read relationship books, we talked, we screamed, we cried, we gave each other the silent treatment, and finally, we tried counseling. After a few sessions of getting to know us and our eternal conflict, the counselor looked at us and said, “You are one of the most mature couples I have ever had in my chair, and I think you are making the right decision and have the maturity to co-parent.” I was relieved to have someone else validate what I felt in my heart and simultaneously scared shitless because this was real.

Decisions had to be made, and after seven years of pretending everything would just go away somehow, we were ready.

While we spent months debating what to do, at a certain point we just gave in, gave up, and decided we wanted to be happy for our kids even if it meant being apart.

We knew we could love our kids better, love ourselves better, and be better parents living apart. We wanted nothing more for them to see a healthy relationship filled with love and affection instead of tension and strain.

We knew deep down even though we would miss them terribly when they weren’t with us, the time spent would be more quality versus quantity.

We decided we would live five minutes from each other so our oldest didn’t have to make any other major changes, and we wrote out a script to practice what we would say when we broke the news to him.

We went through the house and decided who would keep what, and made a list all while having the same emotionless faces and tone we kept our entire relationship.

But behind closed doors, when I was alone or in my car on the way to work, I cried. I cried for what I tried to do but couldn’t, I cried because no matter how happy we were apart, and how we would one day find love with other people, nobody would ever share the love we shared for our two boys together. Nobody could love our boys like we could. And the day I went to sign the lease for my new apartment, I almost didn’t sign it. My hand was shaky when I grabbed the pen, but once I put the pen to paper, I was confident in my decision. It was solid and determined.

The first day I got the keys and walked into my empty apartment alone. I sat on the floor, but I didn’t cry. I smiled, took a deep breath, took a picture of my new key in my hand, one that I would never put on Facebook for fear of hurting his feelings, because while I knew we did the right thing, back then I am not sure he felt that way too.

In our case, it wasn’t best to stay for the kids. We were both mature enough to handle the shock and confusion of the separation, the curious questions coming from our son’s innocent big blue eyes, and to achieve the balance it takes to co-parent in the healthiest way possible.

And when conflict came, and oh, believe me it did, we lost our cool at times, but never in front of them, and we still said hello at drop-off on Sundays, never slamming a door even when we wanted to.

There are times when I feel like the luckiest woman alive to have this man as my children’s father, and there are also moments when I wonder how I stayed so long, and there are times when he wonders how he lived with someone like me. But that shit doesn’t matter anymore because now our relationship is important, but for different reasons. It’s important for our kids. And when he and I fight now, we usually stop and ask ourselves what the point is — it really doesn’t matter unless it is something related to our children (which it rarely is.)

I admit, the consequences of keeping a close co-parenting relationship is the danger of blurred lines, getting too friendly again, wondering if we could maybe, just maybe try again and do it right this time. We entertained that idea and figured out that it was not a road we wanted to go down. We reminded ourselves why we made the decisions we did.

I still get pissed off, and he still acts irrational sometimes, but we also have accomplished something most separated parents can’t even begin to scrape the surface of — an alliance. A union with a harmony that made not staying together for the kids the best choice for us. And our kids our happier because of it.

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