I Have To Tell My Kids That Mommy And Daddy Used To Be Married To Someone Else

by Susan Maccarelli
Originally Published: 
A bride in a white dress and a groom in a beige blazer holding hands and about to get married

When I think about being a teenager and hearing my parents tell me they were both married to other people before they got married to each other, I catch my breath and feel my heart race.

Luckily, I was never on the discovering end of that information. My parents have been married for over 40 years and still hold hands. The reason I have played this scenario out so many times in my head is because I will be delivering this exact news to my own two children at some point in order to avoid it becoming an unnecessary family secret.

I got married at 29, and that marriage ended three years later. My current husband was married to his first wife for an even shorter time. Neither of us had kids in these marriages and both splits were pretty amicable, though they still managed to seem like the end of the world at the time. People kept saying to me: “Just be glad you didn’t have kids” (which was irritating as hell—if you are thinking of saying this to someone in the throes of divorce, give them a year before they can appreciate it).

Just when all of our friends were getting married and having babies in high gear, we were sitting in mediations and sweating recent real estate purchases that seemed a lot less romantic without a partner helping to pay the mortgage.

I figured my acronym for the dating sites would be SWD (single with dog). Marty was my adopted dog with severe separation anxiety. We were two peas in a pod, because now I had separation anxiety too, only there was no ThunderShirt that would fix it.

I thought about how awkward it would be to have to tell my date at 32 that I was already divorced. Would he assume my house was full of cats with the television tuned permanently to home shopping? What if I could find a serious boyfriend someday––what would his parents think of him dating a divorcee? I thought about what family would think, what coworkers would think, and even what the lady at the DMV would think when I had to change the name on my license. I thought I had covered all of the people who could possibly be disappointed or embarrassed by me, considering that in my mind, it was 2007—practically Victorian times—and no one else in the world (or in my circles) seemed to be divorced.

© Susan Maccarelli

Within four years, not only was I remarried, I had two babies and had slowly dismissed all of those first-world worries that had been very real in my 32-year-old head. Now I have a new worry creeping in, one that never occurred to me at 32––the one where I have to tell my kids I was married before, and so was Daddy.

Having recently turned 40, my kids are now 3 and 5, and I know the conversation needs to be had at some point so they don’t find out through an old wedding photo (yep, I kept the good ones with rarely sighted relatives), a reference from an old coworker to my silly work nickname (first initial + old last name) or the yearly holiday update my ex’s sister still sends me.

My husband considers it a non-issue, but for me, it makes me panic to even think about it. My daughter has asked about what divorce is, and I’ve told her in the best way I can find to explain it to a 5-year-old:

“Sometimes, two people decide not to stay married for different reasons—maybe they don’t get along or someone does something hurtful. That will never happen to Mom and Dad,” I tell her.

She has divorced her imaginary husband, Greenbean, several times, citing only that “he was mean, so I got rid of him!”

Does this mean she can grasp it?

I stew over whether or not to try to work in that even though Daddy and I don’t ever plan to get divorced, it did happen to me once and to Daddy too. I don’t want to scare her. I toy with waiting until she’s older. Maybe it’s a sit-down conversation? Or should I just tell her now, very matter-of-factly, so it never feels like a secret or a surprise?

How do you tell your children that you made a big mistake that was crushing and sad, but ultimately happy, because it ended up leading you to love and to them?

I guess you just tell them. It’s actually a pretty good story.

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