Mommy Used to Have Another Husband

by Kristin Vanderhey Shaw
Originally Published: 
A kid holding his fathers hand.

During WWII, my great aunt married a young soldier while she was still a teenager, and he went off to war. It wasn’t long before they parted ways, and my aunt married the man who would be her partner for the next 50+ years. In those days, divorce happened as a whisper, with as little fanfare and public knowledge as possible. By the time she told her second husband and children that she was divorced early in her adult life, it was a few scant years before she died. Her children were flabbergasted: their mother was not who they thought she was. Why didn’t she tell them? What made her hide this secret from them for so many years?

It’s one of those secrets that keep so much fear. It’s holding an unexploded bomb in your heart, not knowing exactly how and when it will detonate. And the prevalence of shame after a divorce still seems to be common today, even underneath all the bravado we may exhibit and transparency we purport.

Case in point, after Christmas I had coffee with a new friend. She is a successful executive and mother of two, and strikingly beautiful and elegant. We were getting to know each other in the way new friends do, with glimpses and pieces of our stories, not wanting to tell too much of ourselves too quickly. I am a sharer and tend to put it out there anyway; this time, she beat me to the punch. In the course of the conversation, she said “Iwasdivorcedandthisismysecondmarrige” in one breath and then paused for a moment, her eyes awaiting judgment.

“I was divorced, too,” I said, gently. She smiled and exhaled a visible sigh of relief. She was understood.

At this coffee date, my four-year-old son was right next to me. He was putting together a puzzle and may not been paying attention. Or his subconscious mind may have filed away the strange word “divorce” to deal with later on. I don’t try to hide the word from him, and he hasn’t asked me yet what it means. Luckily. The reality is that at some point, I’ll have to explain divorce to my son. And more importantly, tell him that I was divorced before I met his father.

Even ten years later, being divorced still sometimes feels like the stark slap of failure to me. And I see this same shame on the faces of many women – and men – I know who have been through a divorce. They offer a peek at their imaginary scarlet letter when they reveal their past, and they wait: defiantly, chin up, or anxiously, chin down, for your reaction.

My mother-in-law, whom I respect and adore, has encouraged me to tell my son sooner than later. She tells me that it’s a shock for a child to grow up thinking one thing about marriage and then discovering that their beliefs were based on half-truths. She knows from experience; she didn’t hear the news until she was an adult. Her parents pulled her aside as soon as she graduated high school to tell her, jointly: her father had been married and divorced before he met her mother.

She told me that it took her a long time to realize that it didn’t change who her dad was; instead, it was just something that happened to him.

If you browse the internet for information on telling your child that you were divorced, you’ll find pages and pages about handling a divorce from the child’s parent. Conspicuously absent is any advice on how to tell your child that you had a different life before he was born, or that love isn’t always forever. So I asked a doctor, Deborah Gilboa, MD, a friend of mine, for advice.

“Letting our kids know that we were once married to someone else is often far more stressful for the parent than the child,” she told me. “It is best in most situations, to make this a part of your family story before he is old enough to feel that anything was kept or hidden from him. Secrets are usually more damaging than truth to a child’s sense of security and well-being.”

Yes, that’s exactly what I want to do. On the other hand, it feels awkward and unnatural to say, “Mommy used to have another husband,” as a part of our family history. I trashed all of the evidence, including the wedding photo negatives, after my ex-husband left me. And once I start talking about divorce, do I have to bring up the domestic violence, and the other woman for whom he left me? Figuring out how much he can handle is going to be a delicate operation. There is full disclosure and then there is information meted out based on my son’s EQ. I’m not really sure how to explain the “’til death – or divorce – do us part” part.

Dr. Gilboa told me that I may want to wait until this is a natural part of a conversation – someone is talking about divorce, or he is asking you about life before he was born, or something about my marriage to his dad.

“Like all big topics we tackle with kids, it’s best to give short, factual statements and then see if he follows up with a question. You can say ‘I was married to someone else a long time ago, before I met your Dad.’ See what happens. He may have a question now, or in six months. He may forget and you’ll mention it again sometime to discover he thinks this is brand new information,” she told me.

As he gets older, I might tell him that divorce chewed me up and spit me out. I might tell him that I lost 12 pounds in two weeks and started working out like a madwoman, running away from the pain. I might tell him that I felt so much shame and the agony of failure. I can offer him honesty. I will definitely tell him that divorce happens, and I pray that it doesn’t happen to him, but if it does, he is not less of a man because of it. And I will be standing right next to him to support him, without judgment, the way my parents did for me.

I wish I didn’t have to tell him, frankly. But it did happen and it’s part of the journey and the path that brought me to this point, right now. What I want him to know the most is that although divorce is part of my journey, it doesn’t define me. He should know that bad things happen to good people, sometimes. He should know that I’m thankful for the lessons I have learned. And he should know that love is out there, waiting, no matter what.

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