Now That Our Kids Are Grown, My Ex-Husband Is Back

by Jennifer Ball
Jennifer Ball

My ex-husband always did things at his own pace. Getting his MBA, starting and finishing projects around the house, turning new leaves—all were done in his signature style: sporadically. There were bursts of activity, fires lit beneath him by something he’d seen or been told. But for the most part, he was a very low-key person.

I remember once, before everything went to hell, he took a couple of the kids away to his college roommate’s cabin for a weekend (which was wonderful, by the way). It meant I was left home with just one child, the littlest at the time, and I have no doubt that if I hadn’t been breastfeeding he’d have attempted to take that kid as well.

What I’m saying is, he wasn’t all bad, you guys. For a nice long time, he was a decent guy.

When he returned from that weekend getaway, he was bursting with a renewed enthusiasm about marriage and parenting and, it seemed, life in general. I recall being a little freaked out, because normally he had the get-up-and-go of a sedated giraffe. Was his old friend in a cult? Did he give him some essential oils?

This was new—to see him excited about being a husband and father. Looking back, it was kind of ominous, I guess. I mean, who doesn’t have at least a little zeal for life, right?

One night, shortly after the cabin getaway, I was down in our creepy Silence of the Lambs basement, preparing to clean out our cat’s litter box. My husband approached me and took the tools of the trade (scooper and plastic bag) out of my hands, squatted down, and proceeded to sift out the clumps.

While he sifted, he spoke: “Man, I learned so much from Steve this weekend.”

Intrigued, I asked what exactly he’d learned.

“Well, he was talking about how much he helps out at home, like, with the kids and stuff.” He shifted his weight, the plastic bag in his hand filling up rapidly. “It made me realize how much you do. And that I don’t appreciate you enough.”

Now, had you asked me back then, I would have claimed it was the cat pee fumes that were making my eyes water. Truthfully, it felt good to be acknowledged. You know you’re living the luxe life when someone else cleaning up kitty droppings is akin to being honored.

He went on, then, about turning a new leaf. He literally said, “I’m turning a new leaf.” He promised to step up his parenting game and be a more involved father and a more attentive husband.

We enjoyed this new leaf for a nice stretch of time. And then, as leaves are wont to do, it dried out and eventually crumbled into bits.


My kids haven’t had a true relationship with their father for several years. When he first left, even before either of us consulted an attorney, he was adamant about the kids living with me full-time. Back then, I was sure his insistence was due to the overwhelming responsibility that is taking care of four children. As things became clearer and secrets were revealed, I realized it was more likely his fear of overwhelming his new roommate, the woman he’d left our family to be with. Because it’s one thing to take on a man with kids, it’s something completely different to take on the kids themselves. Hindsight, y’all. It will become one of your most constant companions after divorce.

At first, he was the model divorced dad, dutifully picking the kids up for his every-other-weekend shift and the two weeknights as well. We were each allotted two solid weeks of vacation time over the summer, and that first summer, he did indeed take them up north for a week.

We adhered religiously to the holiday schedule. Those were the days when I’d sit down on January 1, take a Sharpie and my new calendar and methodically go through every month, marking weekends with either “K” or “NK,” indicating kids or no kids. Bizarre, how acts such as this so quickly begin to feel normal after divorce.

My ex went to two parent-teacher conferences after the divorce. Two. He did attend concerts and games, oftentimes sitting in the back or standing near an exit. But he was there, and that mattered to the kids.

They notice—the kids. They can tell when someone is making an effort to be involved, to be part of their lives.

And they definitely notice when that effort is not being made. Some kids will express this in words. They’ll ask you outright: “Where is dad? Why didn’t he go to the game? Why didn’t he pick us up tonight?” Other children don’t say anything at all. However, don’t let their silence fool you. They internalize it, but it always comes out—kind of like putting on Spanx. You can smoosh and flatten the flab all the livelong day, but eventually it’s going to ooze out one end or the other.

Sometimes, in the kids, it will become a tantrum. It might be tears. Others find themselves grappling with feelings of abandonment, worthlessness, inadequacies. They might lose themselves in video games or books, become withdrawn or become the life of the party, alternate between crying “Don’t look at me!” and “Why aren’t you watching me?”

I have found that to be the most distasteful of all the fallout from my divorce. Not the hit my self-esteem took, not the damage done to my finances, not the loss of a wonderful bunch of in-laws.

Watching my kids deal with a father who drifted, slowly but surely, out of their lives has been excruciating. I can only imagine how it’s felt for them.

I worry. Even though the kids and I are open with one another and talk about these things, I worry about the casual manner in which their father drops in and out of their lives. I am terrified that my boys will grow to be men who believe women and families are disposable like diapers or razors. I am scared that my daughter will have daddy issues and/or think it’s perfectly OK for a man to so brazenly forsake his wife, their vows and their children without a second thought.

One of my oddball celebrity crushes, Andy Samberg, sings a funny song called “Cool Guys Don’t Look At Explosions.” It cracks me up because I’m basically an eighth-grade boy trapped in a middle-aged lady body, but it also makes the divorced me giggle. It’s an homage to how all the cool dudes in movies do the whole “tough guy blows shit up and then walks away, usually in slow motion” routine, and the video is perfection (including Will Ferrell as Neil Diamond). But it always reminds me of how my ex, and so many others out there, have done exactly that.

They lit a fire and then walked away. They created these families, these people, and then took off right in the freaking middle. Mine left in the thick of things, at the most chaotic, the most harried time in a young family’s timeline. Even when he willingly participated in his parenting time, the brunt of it was mine to deal with. I was a single mom all those Monday mornings, the summers, puberty (times 4!), the shaving lessons, driver’s ed, the outbursts, finding a bong on the porch, the sex talks and the mother effing sibling rivalry, the first job interviews and the last-minute rush to find black pants for every single freaking concert ever, the forgotten permission slips and science projects, the 11th-hour run to OfficeMax for the poster board or that very specific plastic folder (seven pockets! Mom, it has to be seven pockets, not ten!), visiting colleges, ACT prep and the goddamn FAFSA, consoling the heartbroken after a breakup, dealing with mean girls and bullies and non-communicative teachers.

It’s been hard, but I did it. The finish line isn’t exactly close, but it’s in sight.

This would be a perfect time for him to jump back into the parenting ring, right? After the shrieks of childhood have died down to become monotone mumbles of young adulthood, it would be kind of easy, wouldn’t it? Like adopting a dog who’s already been trained.

And that’s kind of what I see happening. Not with all of the kids, oh no. We don’t want to get crazy or anything. But with one of them, there is a relationship forming, regrowing.

I’m OK with it. In fact, it brings tears to my eyes thinking about it. I even said, out loud:

Better late than never.

I will keep saying that, to my kids, to people who want to listen. It’s better to be part of someone’s life no matter what chapter they’re in.

Is it fair? Nope. Not by a long shot. I can’t tell you how many nights I’d fall into bed, completely spent after a day of fixing and counseling and cooking and loving four growing human beings without a partner. It’s like the Little Freaking Red Hen, busting her ass to make a damn loaf of bread from scratch and then one lazy asshole in the barnyard bum-rushing the kitchen to eat it.

But it’s better.

It’s better than nothing.

It’s better than never.