The In-Laws

Comments 23
The holidays are coming. As does the all-too-literal winter of my discontent.
The holidays are looming. As is the all-too-literal winter of my discontent.

The losses in divorce are great.

There’s a huge pile of them. And a lot of collateral damage.

With the holidays approaching, the one I’ve thought about most is the loss of my ex-wife’s family.

You see, I live here—in northeast Ohio—in large part because of her.

I willingly came here and was happy to be here.

But taking my wife out of the equation? I don’t really want to live here anymore.

Today, I live here because of my son. Because I would never, under any circumstances, choose to relocate somewhere where I saw him less, or made him feel like his father was abandoning him.

There’s just no way. There is no person. No amount of money. No anything that could pull off that magic trick.

I’m here.

My choice.

Own your shit.

My ex-wife’s family is amazing.

Her mother is precious and kind. Always so steady. Even in the worst of times. A steady presence for her children and grandchildren. A steady presence for her now-estranged son-in-law.

My ex-wife’s only sibling is the best brother-in-law imaginable. Kind. Generous. Hard-working. An incredible uncle. He’s the perfect blend of his steady mother and his kind, generous, hard-working father who he lost two years ago. He and his wife have a beautiful little girl who’s life is rapidly passing me by, and will continue to.

Her immediate family took me in right away despite recognizing I wasn’t like them. I can’t pinpoint exactly all the differences. I’m maybe less country. A little softer. A little more selfish and self-centered.

They all have siblings. While I do have two stepsisters—good ones—and a half-sister 14 years younger than me, my upbringing was predominantly that of an only child. And I have those traits. The good and bad ones.

But they took me in just the same.

I think the one thing they always recognized despite my many flaws is that I always had my ex-wife’s best interests at heart.

From Big Families to Small Ones

My mom is the oldest of eight children.

Family gatherings—even the impromptu ones on random Saturdays and Sundays growing up—were pretty big events. The holidays, weddings and other family reunion-ish events were almost epic in scope.

I have a million and a half cousins. The youngest ones are still in high school.

So, even though I grew up an only child, I was always immersed in a big-family environment.

It was wonderful. I am so fortunate I was able to grow up as I did, where I did, and with the people I did, family and otherwise.

It was a rude awakening when my ex-wife and I moved to Florida—1,200 miles away from everything and everybody we knew and loved—upon graduating college.

Down there, everything was different.

No big family.

No huge social network.

No nothing.

Just my ex-wife’s aunt, uncle and adult cousin who lived more than an hour’s drive away. And the few friends we were lucky to make in a community dominated by retirement-aged people.

One Thanksgiving, it was just a half dozen of us eating turkey and ham in our apartment. A bunch of kids far away from their families and unable to afford the airfare home, or unable to get away because most of us were on-call newspaper reporters.

One Christmas I made lasagna for a few of us. We drank a little beer. We watched a basketball game no one cared about. We played a little basketball ourselves because it was 80 degrees outside.

Everything was strange.

We made the best of it.

But it was strange.

Home beckoned. And Ohio—all the good, bad and in-between—is home.

New Family Traditions

And so they began, almost immediately, as my wife and I relocated from Florida to Ohio in the fall of 2005, just before Halloween.

It took me a little while to get to know her large family. While I’m an Ohio native, this new, faraway region of the state was foreign to me. New faces, new places.

But here we were.

You could see on her face how happy she was. Celebrating Christmas with her parents. With her brother, who had also returned to Ohio after several years living in southern California.

Living a three-hour drive from my family and hometown was like living next door after those years in Florida.

It was wonderful.

Very kind, decent people on both sides of her family.

Her mother’s family. And her father’s family.

I was, and remain, particularly fond of her father’s side of the family.

There are aunts. Aunts who hugged me like their own every time I saw them.

There are uncles. Uncles who helped repair our cars and complete home-improvement projects.

There are cousins. Reflections of their parents, and in a lot of ways, reflections of my own family and my own memories, as I observed everyone come together during life’s best and worst moments.

They are beautiful.

And I love them.

And every time I flip the calendar, I get a little sicker as it represents more time disconnected from them, and the realization that the holidays are five minutes from now, and they can never, and will never, be the same without them.

My new family.

My new family that isn’t.

Living in the Now

I don’t have a choice.

None of us do.

We live in the present. We play the cards we’re dealt.

We can piss and moan and whine, and God knows I do that all the time. But the cards don’t change.

We play with them. Maybe win a hand. Maybe lose a hand. Maybe fold them altogether.

But there’s always a new hand coming. Always an opportunity for that next win.

And that’s what keeps me going now.

It’s been a decade now since a bunch of random young adults gathered in our apartment to celebrate the holidays the best we could even though everything was weird and wrong.

And that’s what I must do now. Be resourceful. Be grateful. Identify the good and celebrate it. Because there is always good to focus on.

But that doesn’t mean I can just forget everything that’s now missing.

When you lose a spouse, sometimes you lose more than a spouse.

Sometimes you lose a family. A big one. A wonderful one.

I haven’t spoken to any of them since the separation. I don’t know whether it was supposed to be my job to reach out. I never really know what to do in these awkward human situations. So I tend to err on the side of withdrawing.

I’m sure some of them think I just moved on and don’t care. I wish there was some simple way to let them know that’s not the case. To let them know how much they matter. To let them know how grateful I am for all they’ve done for me.

They turned a strange land into home. They turned strangers into family.

Like miracle workers.

And someday, I think, they’ll probably have to do that again. There will be some new guy. Some stranger they’ll need to turn into family.

My son’s stepfather, whoever that may be.

Once in a while, I pray for that guy. Whoever and wherever he is. That he be blessed with the strength and wisdom and kindness and ability to love required to care for my son’s mother, as she will deserve once she learns to love and forgive again.

That he be able to love my son as my stepfather loved me.

That he be everything I’m not.

That he be a much better man than I ever have been or will be.

I want that so much for my son.

I want that for my ex-wife.

I want that for that beautiful extended family who has treated me like gold all these years.

And I pray they will treat him the same and that he’ll deserve it.

But deep down?

I hope they always miss me and like me better.

23 thoughts on “The In-Laws”

  1. In a way, it would feel good to have her family like you better. I get that. With my ex-wife, I had that, but that actually makes it harder between you and your ex-wife. With my recent ex, her family, not hostile to me, is on her side and that makes her more solid and better able to be as good an ex as can be.

    If circumstances didn’t tie you there, where would you go?

    1. My father owns a small company in eastern Iowa. He lives in western Illinois. There is money and opportunity there for me that I’ve never been able to pursue.

      I would most likely go there. Lots of friends and family there for me, as well.

      But I can’t rule out a place like New Orleans. Good music. Good food. Good people. Lots of fun. A place to explore creativity and life.

      If things were different, I might try a place just like that.

  2. There is as you said, good all around us. We just have to open our eyes to it.

    If you’re anything like me, which I’m not saying you are – the more time I let pass, the less likely I am to contact people. Therefore, I would say to do it soon before the opportunity passes you by. They may be just as confused about how to go about that as you are. So, you taking that first step would probably mean a lot to them. It would also show them that all of those years they spent adopting you into their family was not taken for granted, and that you truly love and appreciate them, even now after all you’ve gone through.

    1. Maybe some nice Christmas cards. Thoughtful ones with letters.

      Seems like a good idea.

      This sounds like good advice. Not procrastinating, as I do so many things. Thank you.

  3. When there are children involved, I think that family stays ‘family’. I am still friends with my brother’s ex-wife. I always loved her, but aside from that, she’s the mother of my niece. She will always be family. I loved your post. It was raw and honest and straight from the heart! 🙂

  4. This was a tough one for my ex. My family was a much bigger part of our lives than his, for a lot of very complicated reasons. We even vacationed every summer at my family’s cottage, so it was a huge loss for him. My family is still on good terms with him, but he’s no longer part of all the “events.” On the flip side, I have somehow managed to remain close friends with both his sisters! Keeping the kids connected with their cousins has a lot to do with that, but also his sisters and I have things in common that go beyond our shared connection to one person.

    1. It’s a big part of divorce and all the brokenness. I wish it on no one.

      Thank you very much for reading and commenting.

  5. Reading your insightful post makes me wonder whether “ex-families” is a term that ought to gain currency in the modern age. Just before my wife and I were married, her sister got divorced. My sister-in-law had three children. A few years later, she married another man who had eight children. When another niece went to live with them, they became “cheaper by the dozen.” Sure enough, my sister-in-law divorced that man as well. We had taken all of those children into our hearts. They are now scattered all over. The youngest has a disability and reaches out both to my wife and to my sister-in-law (the only mom he ever knew) on Facebook. It breaks my heart.

    Some of these children have grown to adulthood now that several years have gone by. What relationship, if any, should we have with this ex-family? I wrote a post about this back in March, which you can read here:

    When my own sister got divorced, she accused me of being a traitor for maintaining contact with her ex-husband, the father of my nephew and niece. I took the coward’s way out and cut off contact with him, although I am pleased to say I do maintain at least a modicum of a relationship with his children.

    Now that my wife and I are living with her family and loving it, your terse prose makes me think of how I’d handle the loss of the entire family if my wife were ever to give me the boot.

    I’m telling you, Matt, the world has gone crazy. If we weren’t separated by more than 2,000 miles, I’d invite you (and your son) to share Thanksgiving and Christmas with us.

    1. This is super nice and thoughtful. Thank you very much.

      I appreciate your story, and this new element of loss that I think about as I inch closer to a new normalcy at home.

      I think sometimes people don’t take divorce very seriously relative to all the damage it causes.

      I know I didn’t take it seriously enough, considering growing up with divorced parents.

      At some point, society is going to need band together to mitigate all the dysfunction.

      All these conversations help, I think.

      I really appreciate you being a part of it.

  6. Ohh…my story is a little different, but I get it. Reach out…if they don’t return the favor, it’s their loss. Everyone deals with this differently, it’s a tough call all the way around. Reach out, if not for them, for you.

  7. It was my ex-stepson’s 21st birthday today. I haven’t seen him in over four years. It breaks my heart. Every time I have reached out his father intervenes. I have stopped but encourage my son to maintain contact with his stepbrother. I still hold hope close that the boy I raised as my own for 10 years may one day want and feel strong enough to see me.

    Divorce really is far reaching there are still plenty of friends and members of my ex’s family that I miss but I was unable to reach out, it wasn’t possible for me. Luckily the ones who wanted to found ways to reach me. That makes me feel a bit better about the one who means the most. There are so many layers of complication to ‘family’ these days. I agree with the earlier comments – make contact 🙂

    1. This is a sad story. But I appreciate you sharing it very much.

      Thank you for reading and for the encouragement.

  8. This was very touching and bittersweet, Matt. My separation and divorce is just over a year old now and it’s still very strange to be without my family around me. My children do not live w/me and I find it difficult sometimes to resign myself to that. I see them frequently and talk w/them most everyday, but it’s hard not to have them here when I get home or shoo my son off to school. But I’m learning to have a different kind of life now…just as you are. It’s true you can’t go back and the memories of those wonderful times will be with you forever, but you do have to move forward and once again rebuild your life in a way that fits now.

    Good luck Matt.

    1. Thank you very much for reading and understanding and being encouraging.

      I’m sorry for you, and everyone, who has to deal with all the messiness.

  9. After my BFF got divorced, she needed to re-invent the holidays. She mourned the loss of her ex’s family, but eventually decided divorce was a time to create new traditions. For Christmas, she invites her crazy Jewish bestie and family from NJ, and a bunch of others, for the Best. Christmas. Ever.

    I have to stay close to the ex’s family; mine are nowhere near here, so they are my child’s family. I’m not going to make that divisive. I’m stellar at maintaining these relationships. I don’t know how I pull it off, but I do. I’m still friends with just about every man I’ve ever had a long-term serious relationship with, and often with accompanying family. It’s a process, and usually begins after a lot of the pain dissipates. I think it has to do with exiting the relationship with grace and integrity.

    Wish I could help you out for Thanksgiving, but somehow Hanukkah ended up on the same day as Thanksgiving this year. Fucking Jewish calendar. Oy.

    1. I don’t “have” to do anything, but I really do care about all of them.

      I intend to make the effort to reach out this holiday season.

      Thank you for the story. Your jokes about practicing Judaism always make me laugh.

  10. My ex is still in contact with my parents and my sister and her family. He had a shitty family life growing up and I think that one of the things that attracted him to me was my family. They accepted him with open arms and gave him love and guidance that he didn’t get at home. He even lived with my parents for a year in my old bedroom while he finished out his last year of college — his mom moved to a trailer that only had two bedrooms, one for her and one for his younger step-sister. Nice, huh?

    I will admit that part of me wanted to scream out, “If I’m not good enough for you, then my family isn’t good enough for you. You reject me, then you lose my family, too. We are a package deal. You can’t have it both ways!”

    But my rational side won out. I knew he would be lost without my family. He and my dad were practically BFFs. My niece and nephew loved their uncle. So, I facilitated contact between him and my parents. My sister didn’t wait for my blessing, she contacted him on her own. And now, three years later, he occasionally spends a weekend at my parents’ place. And when my sister and her family come down at Christmas, he spends an afternoon with them. I’m not a part of these visits. And I’m okay with that.

    I loved the idea shared above of contacting your ex’s family through Christmas cards and personal letters. At the very least, you will feel better for having expressed your feelings. And it’s possible that you will open new lines of communication that may lead to renewed relationships. Good luck to you!

    1. I can understand those conflicting emotions, I think.

      I have a lot of very loving people in my family, on both my mother and father’s side.

      If my ex-wife needed anything from them, she’d have it.

      I do intend to send Christmas cards and letters to the appropriate people.

      Thank you for reading, commenting, caring, understanding, etc.

      I’m sorry you get it. But I appreciate so much that you do.

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Matt Fray

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