Telling the Kids

After breaking the news to my ex-husband, I presumed that I had jumped over the highest hurdle. Saying the words for the first time to someone other than my therapist felt like a huge leap forward and, seemingly, anything that followed would be easier. When the initial shock wore off for him and he settled into the reality of it all, I surmised we would work together to uncouple, first and foremost sharing the information with our kids. I had all the confidence that my ex and I were on the same page in our commitment to supporting our children in every way possible. We agreed that, no matter what, their well-being was paramount.

We both were scarred with the war wounds from our respective parents’ divorces. Both of us had to sit in courtrooms, asked to make choices. At the tender age of 9 or 10, I sat on a bench outside of a courtroom with a lawyer reminding me to tell the judge how my father had abandoned our family. While my puerile brain understood that the words were true, it could not comprehend the impact of my statement. My stomach was tied up in knots as the anxiety of my role came into focus. What if I misspoke and it adversely impacted my mother? Would I be responsible for some horrific outcome? Not until I had children of my own did I process how barbaric it was to put me or any child in that position. Taking sides and pitting kids against parents was never going to be part of my script. Even if my ex-husband was not compliant on this front (which I never really questioned), I was resolute in my decision to never make them choose or feel like they were caught in the middle. Fortunately, that has never been an issue for us.

After the fateful day of telling my ex, I spent months keeping the news a secret. We agreed that we could not tell anyone until we broke the news to our children. In no way could we risk them finding out from anyone but us. Unfortunately, though, having that conversation was not a simple family meeting at the dining room table. My older son was happily away at college and busy with his own life. My younger son, a high school sophomore, and still living under the same roof with us, clearly had suspicions that things were amiss. First of all, my ex had moved out of the bedroom. And, try as he might, he couldn’t fool my super-sleuth baby child whose eagle eyes and curious mind missed nothing. He would never give away that he suspected anything despite my continued quest for signs. No matter how much I poked and prodded, he remained stoic and silent. To try to mask the fact that we were no longer sharing a bed, my ex would stay up late watching TV in the living room – an unusual occurrence since he was normally the first to bed at night – and pretend to fall asleep on the couch. This went on night after night, in denial that Sherlock Holmes was tuned in to the shift in behavior. My ex and I regularly discussed how we would tell the kids, what we would tell the kids but, in truth, we hadn’t figured out our pathway. He was still in denial and I was overwhelmed with the prospect of beginning the legal process of ending our union.

The initial elation of telling my husband that I wanted a divorce was followed by a massive slump. I had no plan. I knew I needed to make the split official and, week after week, I sat across from my therapist as he held me accountable for my choices. “Have you called a lawyer?” “What is the plan for the kids?” “Is he moving out?” I usually stared blankly back at him, realizing that while most things in my life were planned within an inch of their lives, I had nothing sorted out. My ex kept trying to encourage me to consider the separation as a time for re-evaluation rather than a period of time to dismantle our structure. We were so far apart in our thoughts and ideas that it seemed incomprehensible that we could ever find common ground.

Meanwhile, for me, I was living a lie. As someone who is abundantly forthright in my commitment to live authentically, I felt shame and remorse anytime I spoke with a close friend and didn’t tell them that we had separated. I avoided social situations and did my best to steer clear of most people so I didn’t have to lie by omission. Only one friend knew the truth because I needed support throughout the process and that required me to have someone other than my therapist to keep me on point. I needed to expedite the process because I had to come clean. So, every few days I would mention to my ex that we needed to put together a plan to tell the kids. He would agree, walk away, and never talk about it again until I, once again, revisited the subject with him. He and I were doing our best to get along in front of our other son and we had dinner together regularly, making small talk together to keep things light and breezy. But, on the inside, the guilt was oozing to my pores, slowly leaking out of me. I wanted to scream for everyone to hear, “We’re getting divorced, people! The charade is now over!”

I knew a lot of people would be surprised. We did a great job – rather, I did a great job – of covering. I was masterful at pretending all was fine. Sure, we had our disagreements and he got on my nerves at times but, to most on the outside, we were fine. Earlier in the year, as a last ditch attempt to convince myself that I should keep my family intact, I took my husband away for a 25th anniversary trip to New Orleans. We had a great time. We really did. It was restorative and we connected like we hadn’t in years. But, before the plane touched back down at Newark Airport, the facade had lifted and we were back to being us. After reflecting on the experience, I understood that, while in NOLA, I had been projecting my hopes and aspirations onto him. I convinced myself I was with the man that filled my buckets and made my heart swim with emotion. I made that happen for us. I summoned all my energy to focus on being this amazing couple and fully tuned out the pain and struggle that was part of our everyday lives. Months later, as I was about to tell my husband it was over, I realized that if I could make that happen for him, perhaps I could make it happen for me – without him and all the pain that came along with him. That wonderful getaway, as is so often the case with couples on the brink of divorce, seemed magical but was, ultimately, the monumental awakening in my decision-making process.

Weeks and weeks went by and we were not making any headway in the plan for telling the kids. We discussed bringing my older son home for a weekend but his schedule was packed and it was unrealistic. We knew we had to tell both the kids together because we wanted them to hear it simultaneously and we wanted them to have the comfort of each other should this be an emotional upheaval for either of them. We finally decided that we would visit my son at school for a Sunday brunch. After broaching the subject with my son, he readily agreed. Little did he know what was about to hit him.

I told my ex that he had to be the one to open up the discussion. Being quite dominant in our household, my concern was that the kids would assume this was my decision (they would not have been wrong, of course) and it might affect the way they received the information. He agreed and we made the trek to college. The entire 90-minute drive I tried to nap in the car so as to not have to make small talk. This was not the first time we visited my son after we separated and the previous times I was wound so tight that I could barely stand to look at my child, knowing we were withholding this information. This time, the dread was so all-encompassing and I kept imagining my sweet little boys being shattered. Despite the fact that they were now big, strong, young adults, my mama bear protectiveness stood in stark contrast to the big bad wolf that was about to blow their house down. We convened at one of my son’s favorite restaurants outside Philadelphia and ate pizza. We chatted about all the usual topics and heard about the new girl he had just started dating. We were doing the dance and acting out our parts. I felt like I was sitting in a scene from any movie where the parents are about to pull the rug out from under their children. I covertly texted my ex during the meal asking when he was going to tell them because I feared that we would both lose our nerve. And then he said the words. I watched his lips move and heard the words come out and I felt like my heart was being ripped out of my chest. As the words spilled from his mouth, tears welled up in the back of my eyes. I was ravaged by guilt because I knew I was the one responsible for setting in motion a plan that would forever destroy my children’s lives. I was certain the light in their eyes would fade and they would never again have the innocence and security possessed by children whose parents loved each other and stayed together through thick and thin. My instinct was to envelop them in my arms and assure them that they would be ok while also wanting to slide down under the table to sob. All I had feared in the months leading up to my separation was that I was going to hurt my children. I worried and cried about their welfare and how they would endure such a blow. Our family was so compact and their dad and I were all they really had. Incinerating our union was going to leave scars so deep below the surface that I would never be able to heal for them.

My older son’s face lit up with what I knew to be his nervous smile. My blood pressure started rising. I asked them if they were surprised and the older one, oblivious to everything that did not revolve around him and college, said yes. The younger one, as I predicted, said he was not. To him, it was obvious. And, as if on cue, they played their respective roles. The older one consoled us and reassured us that they would be fine and that he trusted we had made a well thought out decision and the younger one cracked jokes. Both were true to form. And my heart broke into pieces. I feared they were apprehensive about expressing their true feelings and felt a responsibility to be calm about it all. My ex and I did all the things that the script calls for, reassuring them that we loved them and that we would always be a family. But, my chest was tightening and I realized I was barely breathing. I slowly took in air and did what I believed to be the best course of action – I became honest and vulnerable. I offered them the space to do the same and willingly received whatever it was they were going to offer me.

Much to my surprise, my children offered only love and compassion to us both. In a bizarre role reversal, they comforted us, assuring us that they were fine and, while they needed time to process, that they weren’t scared or defeated by the news. No tears were shed and no anger was expelled. It was a calm, loving, and tender experience. While we individually knew nothing would ever be the same, we each clung tightly to that moment, absorbing the last vestige of our family unit. We metaphorically held hands and walked out of the restaurant together. We didn’t know it at the time but it would truly be the last time we existed together as an intact family. Once we dropped our son off at his dorm and did our hugs goodbye, we also said farewell to our marriage. The jig was up and it was now time to unravel.

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