“Fine. I’ll just stay with mom all the time and you won’t see me anymore!” he said about seven years sooner than expected.
I can’t remember why he was upset with me. It’s usually because I denied him something he wanted.
He was 6 when he said that during a father-son fight more than a year ago. An occasionally angry little boy adjusting to a brand-new school and a brand-new life where mom and dad live in different houses. An occasionally angry father adjusting to the same.
I try to remember how I felt at age 5 when my parents split, but everything’s hazy. I remember bits and pieces. The moments. But I can’t remember me then. How I felt. But that’s no surprise. I can’t remember me five years ago.
I haven’t talked to any therapists about it, but my amateur self-evaluation is that my traumatic experience with divorce two and a half years ago is largely due to hypersensitivity related to also going through it as a child. I think some things I’d buried might have clawed their way up to the surface.
I was the only kid I knew whose dad lived hundreds of miles away.
I don’t know what parts of me—good or bad—are byproducts of that upbringing. I wonder whether living near, and coexisting well with his mother, might make his life better than mine.
I cried a lot in the weeks leading up to, and following, my marriage imploding. Everything hurts. And it scares the shit out of you when you figure out you can’t run away from it.
It’s there in your office meetings at work.
It’s there when you’re having drinks with friends.
It’s there when you visit family for the first time without your spouse and you’re totally drenched in failure.
It’s there in the house you shared with her for more than seven years.
It’s there when you look into your child’s eyes. The most beautiful, pure, innocent, precious thing you have ever known. And it’s your job, your mission, your solemn duty to provide him with the safety, resources, education and love required for him to have a chance at a life better than your own.
And you feel like you just helped destroy his family.
You’re afraid of everything and you’re carrying a mountain of shame.
You wonder how you can ever take care of him if you can’t even take care of yourself.
Maybe he deserves a better father than this, you think.
Maybe he does.
I was in his mom’s driveway helping him buckle his seatbelt—something he does now on his own—the last time I remember crying. Every child has a patented little frown that no other kid can make. All parents recognize it because it’s the one that makes your heart bleed. The corners of his mouth turned down. Tears fell.
“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” I said.
“I just want you and mommy to live in the same house again,” he said.
And then you hold your breath and wonder whether your heart will keep beating. I knew he wished for that. He just hadn’t said it until then.
He’d been so strong and brave. Wearing his little mask every day like his parents used to while hiding a marriage on life support from family and friends.
You hold his little face in your hands and apologize harder than you ever have before. You pray your ex isn’t watching you from the window. You mutter silent Why me, God?s before remembering that you brought this on yourself.
When you neglect a garden, the plants stop producing. And the flowers wither and die.
I have a massive capacity for forgiveness. This doesn’t make me a good or virtuous person. I didn’t work hard to grow into a person who forgives easily. It’s a gift I didn’t earn.
It caused a lot of problems in my marriage. Because my wife and I would fight, and it was ALWAYS the same fight. I think maybe every couple has it.
Something I did or didn’t do would upset her, and she’d tell me about it. And instead of acknowledging something I had done hurt my wife’s feelings, I would get defensive and justify it. I didn’t apologize. Since I didn’t do anything intentionally, I didn’t owe it, I reasoned, and I’d go to great lengths to justify that, too.
Why is she always finding something new to complain about?
I think most husbands and boyfriends get annoyed about things their wives or girlfriends do, but because they don’t like to have “talks,” they avoid saying anything. Having a beer, or watching football, or playing video games, or going to work, or literally any other thing in the entire universe including taxes and dental work are less painful than “talks.”
I always viewed it as loving my wife enough to overlook her “shortcomings,” and was always perturbed I didn’t get that same courtesy in return. I didn’t have empathy for my wife’s feelings because I didn’t know she felt things in profoundly different ways than me. I didn’t have perspective because I ignorantly took my marriage for granted and thought winning battles was more important than actionable love.
She didn’t like that after a good night’s sleep I felt good and was ready to move on because she was still pissed about the unresolved thing.
These things piled up with each passing argument, and instead of acknowledging them, I’d stay defensive and complain that she was keeping track of all these supposed crimes and unloading them on me every time she was upset. I would never be so petty as to do that to her, I’d say like a smug prick.
I didn’t know that her way would have saved our marriage, and that my way was why half of all marriages fail, and why many that don’t are broken and miserable.
Maybe my son will get angry all over again when he’s old enough to recognize that. Or maybe because he’s a boy, he’ll empathize with me by default.
His mom is a grudge holder and is still angry with me about how our lives turned out. I sometimes feel it in those (now rare) moments when she gets upset with me about something I did or didn’t do as her co-parenting partner.
I don’t know how to stay angry. It goes away like magic even if I don’t work at it. But I think it’s opposite for other people. I think they don’t know how to not be angry. A burden they didn’t earn or deserve.
Maybe it’s just nine years of feeling unheard and invalidated all piled up into a mountain of shit too heavy and painful to always keep hidden.
Since there’s no such thing as time travel, our son is all that matters now.
Have we infected him somehow?, I wonder.
Is he secretly sad and angry?
Has he forgiven us?
Will he ever?
“Dad,” he says into my ear. “You’re the best dad in the whole world. If I could choose any dad out of every dad there is, I would choose you.”
He tells mom the same thing about her. And we believe him. He really would choose us.
Some combination of love and resilient childhood magic stirs inside him.
My handsome little second grader, rapidly approaching the day when I’ll no longer be able to call him little.
We crafted a small boat for him to race at a Cub Scouts function this past weekend. Win or lose, he showed maturity and graciousness in congratulating opponents. Losses left other kids in tears. My little man shrugged them off, knowing we did all we could.
One year ago, he was desperate for acceptance from the first graders in his new school. His mom and I worried privately about him being a social outcast because we’re not ingrained in the community the way most of the other families are.
Last year, kids didn’t chant our son’s name in support when it was his turn to race. This year, many did.
Last year, we worried about his social life. This year, every Cub Scout in his class came to our table at the event to sit with and talk to him.
We grow together, that boy and I.
Him—socially and academically. Me—emotionally and professionally.
He rifled through a deck of nerd cards during breakfast this morning. “Nerd cards,” being the little role-playing trading cards popular with kids (and some adults), but which I was too “cool” to play with when I was younger. Things like Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Gormiti cards. The particular nerd cards this morning were Gormiti cards given to him by an older boy he looks up to. Gormiti, to me, feels like Wyler’s Flavor Aid to Pokemon’s Kool-Aid®.
You know—even lamer than the regular amount of lame.
I started teasing him: “Hi, I’m Tony Romo and I play Pokemon. And I’m arts-and-craftsy Tony Romo, and I play Gormiti.”
He half-smiled because he likes the DirecTV commercial I was spoofing.
And then I made up another Pokemon-is-better-than-Gormiti joke, and I saw his sweet little face do the patented frown thing, and he started to cry.
I felt like a dick.
I walked around the counter scooped him up, sat him on the counter and hugged him tight, because I’m not the guy I used to be.
“I’m so sorry, bud. Did dad just hurt your feelings?”
He nodded, so I hugged him again.
“Kiddo, you are allowed to like whatever you like, and I am so sorry if I made you feel like I thought your Gormiti cards were stupid. I think it’s awesome that your friend gave you those and I want you to have so much fun with them today, okay?”
I meant it.
He nodded that he understood.
Hands on my shoulders, he sort of pushed me back a few inches so we could look each other in the eye.
“I love you, dad,” he said.
He meant it.
Because he has a massive capacity for forgiveness, too. And God-willing, maybe now he has a role model for how to deal with hurt feelings in ways that can heal rather than divide. That soften hearts rather than harden them.
That, at the risk of oversimplifying humanity, might be the keys to making romantic love last.
The keys to the forever kind-of families.
The keys to healing the broken.
So that we can unlock tomorrow without fear of the unknown. Because we’re ready now.