When my son, Tristan, and I were driving to an ice skating rink recently, I decided to ask him if he liked anyone at school. I’m not sure why I asked him exactly, it just seemed like something an 11-year-old and his father might talk about when alone. We’d been doing one-on-one outings once a month, and with each outing, I’d learned something new about my son. Some of it unexpected, some of it stuff I’d already suspected, but we’d never talked about his crush.
He blushed, looked down, and said, “No one!”
I looked at him through the rearview mirror, and could tell there was someone, and his reaction and his blushing red cheeks were all as expected. But what I didn’t expect was, after a few moments of silence, once he stopped blushing, he said, “Did you date anyone before mom?”
Now it was my turn to blush. I mean, I knew someday he’d find out. I knew that somehow, at some age, he’d realize that I had a love life before his mother. But I didn’t ever really plan for what I’d say when it came up, or how I’d respond. I’m on my first marriage. Mel and I have been together for 15 years. We are all Tristan has ever known. And to be honest, after being together for that long, sometimes it feels like I was born married. I mean, I don’t want that to come across as a bad thing, or to say that our marriage is boring. More that Mel’s been my everything for a very long time, and I don’t think much about my life before her because it was a long time ago and I was a very different person then.
Tristan sat and stared at me, waiting for a response. I came at him with a couple false starts. “I did once…” and “There was this one…” and “I’m trying to remember a time…” He waited. I stammered, not sure exactly why it was such a big deal and trying to figure out how much I should say.
Then I finally said, “What do you want to know?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Who was your first girlfriend?”
I told him about Jill, who was my girlfriend in junior high for a lunch period. “I don’t know if that counts, but she was the first girl to have that title.” He laughed at the idea of me dating someone for a lunch hour, and then he asked me about the next one, and the next, and finally I just let it all out.
All in all, I told him about four women I had dated before his mother. None of it was scandalous. I didn’t have a secret marriage or a secret child out there. All I really had was four to report, one of whom I dated for five years. I didn’t tell him about when I lost my virginity, but I did tell him about my first kiss.
Then he asked me if I loved any of them. I hadn’t expected that question. He gave me a soft, lips-to-the-side-of-his-mouth look that seemed to say, “Could you have loved someone before mom?” And honestly, there was some truth to his skepticism. There was something in his face that seemed to reflect what I think was really bothering me about this whole conversation, and it had to do with what I told him next.
“Listen, bud. Yeah, I told a couple of those girls that I loved them. I was even engaged to marry one of them. But, to be honest, I haven’t thought about any of that for a long while, and now that you bring it up, I don’t know if I really understood what love was back then.”
I went on, telling him about how I thought I understood love, and how I know I felt something, but none of it felt the way I feel about his mother.
“What do you mean by ‘felt different’?” he asked.
I paused again, trying to figure out just what to say, not expecting to have this conversation on the way to ice skating, but I suppose that’s the way parenting goes.
“The difference was… time. With those other relationships, we were together for a few years or less, and while that sounds like a long time, after being with your mother for 15 years, I didn’t realize how long it takes to really understand someone. I’ve experienced a lot with your mother. We’ve had children, and we’ve moved around, and we gone to school… We’ve fought over stupid things, and we’ve made up. What I’m trying to say is, love — real love — takes time… and it takes hard work, and it takes investment. But if both people are really invested, it’s pretty amazing to understand someone so deeply. That’s what I feel with your mother that I never felt with anyone else. Does that make sense?”
Tristan looked out the window. We were getting close to the ice skating rink. He shrugged.
“Not really,” he said.
I smiled. “Yeah,” I said. “I would have said the same thing at 11.”
We parked, and I turned around and said, “So, are you going to tell me who you like?’
He smiled, and shook his head side to side.
“But there is someone, right?”
He shrugged, sheepishly. Then he said, “I think we just need more time,” he said.
I laughed and said, “Yeah. Good answer.”