Things Change

I Couldn't Stand To Be Around My Ex — Until I Realized How Happy It Made Our Kids

And so we created a new tradition.

Written by Julia Williamson
Originally Published: 
Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Getty Images, Shutterstock

My husband and I didn’t have one of those rosy divorces — no “conscious uncoupling” for us.

I’ve always been suspicious of happily divorced couples. The ones who welcome their former spouse’s new love with open arms. The ones who don’t have an unkind word to say about their co-parents. I know one woman who refers to her once-husband as “my Ex-traordinary.”

Sour grapes? Probably. But I can’t help thinking that if I felt so rosy and happy about my partner I wouldn’t have left him in the first place.

Ours wasn’t the worst separation ever; there were no major betrayals, sudden personality shifts, or abuse. Just the collected disappointments and resentments that can come with nine years of cohabitation and a couple of kids.

Over the years he and I went through alllllllll the stages of divorce. We’d be getting along well enough, then one of us would flip our lid about something. Anything from the kind of TV the kids were watching, to weekend plans being upended at the last minute, to who said what about whom.

We’d cut our contact way back. I’d get tight-lipped and angry. He’d act dismissive. Slowly we’d start to rebuild our relationship. Sometimes the peace lasted for a year. Other times it was short-lived.

In the early days of our separation we experimented with family get-togethers, usually for birthday parties. It seems obvious now, but at the time it surprised me that it was so hard to organize an event with this guy who drove me nuts on the regular. After a few agonizing attempts we settled into the classic one-at-my-house, one-at-his-house routine.

Christmas Day was a nightmare, with the kids waking up at one house and going to bed at the other. They were tired and overwrought. After a few years of that we decided to split the school vacation in half, with one of us claiming Christmas each year and the other getting the kids for Thanksgiving.

I know our daughters hated having to split time between us, but I didn’t think the alternating holidays bothered them that much. Over time their dad and I got better at spending time together, and even started to enjoy one another’s company again. But sharing the holidays? It never even occurred to me.

Then came COVID.

The girls lived with me during the first year of the pandemic. Their father was busy trying to put his house on the market, and went into repeated quarantine so he could spend time with his elderly mother. For months they hardly saw him.

As the panic began to die down, it became obvious that we’d all be in one social bubble together.

It was odd. This man I’d held at arm’s length for so long became one of the few people I’d allow in the house. By this time the kids were nearly grown, and all those early struggles seemed not only far away but sort of trivial.

Thanksgiving rolled around, and it seemed silly not to spend it together.

There’s something about sharing a meal that eases tensions. We weren’t there to talk about money, or push agendas. We were together to enjoy an evening with our kids. We didn’t have to negotiate, we didn’t have to compromise. I was the hostess, he was a gracious guest.

The most surprising thing of all? How happy our daughters were. My youngest, already in her late teens, and never accused of being sentimental, cried when she heard that we’d all be spending the holiday together.

As a divorced parent, you know you’re messing up your kids’ lives. There’s really no way around it.

I tried to maintain an amicable relationship with my ex. I resisted the urge to badmouth him. I felt like I did a pretty good job, but they knew we had a lot of issues.

My daughter’s tears brought it all home to me: How much they’d missed the ease of a holiday together. How much our up and down relationship had cost them. I try not to dwell on the pain my kids have experienced because of their parents’ divorce.

While I can’t change the past, I can give them the gift of togetherness and unity on a few important days. I’m guessing there are going to be a lot more of them. Graduations, weddings, the births of grandchildren? I’m hoping for all of those. And heaven knows they’ll be a lot more enjoyable if their dad and I are on friendly terms.

And honestly? I do like the guy. There are plenty of things that brought us together to begin with. On Thanksgiving I can let go of past resentments and disappointments and enjoy spending time with my family. All four of us.

So now it’s become our new Thanksgiving tradition.

Once upon a time I wondered why I’d ever married my ex. Now I look at him and realize that he’s the only person who loves our kids as much as I do. Which makes us family forever.

Julia Williamson is based in Portland, OR. She’s a freelance writer, a decluttering maven, and spends a fair amount of time cursing the rain.

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