(with names changed)
My twins were three years old when we all met. Robert and Flora had three children who were three, six and eight. The littler ones ran naked through the sprinklers at a mutual friend’s house on a hot 4th of July. The mom and I traded cute iPhone photos of them frolicking via email and I think I chatted briefly with the dad.
We ran into each other socially a few more times that summer and by early fall their marriage had ended. With the orchestration of our mutual friend, Robert and I started seeing each other almost immediately.
The girls were fast friends and their boy, six, was as sweet to mine as could be. They all played with Legos, had Nerf gun battles, played video games, watched television, raced around outside for hours in their enormous yard, and had great fun together time after time. It was a noisy happy house full of kids.
At the age of four the girls would cover their eyebrows with bright pink eye shadow and feel fancy. They’d play dress up and make piles of all the stuffed animals found in the house. The boys would talk endlessly, as boys are wont to do, huddled over their Lego Star Wars battles. Their eldest was never keen on all the extra noise and chaos a pair of twins added to the fray but she tolerated them with kindness nonetheless. They were regulars in each other’s lives.
Robert was silly and funny and both played with and listened to my kids in a way that I did not. My kids secretly wished they could call him daddy and he told me he looked forward to adopting them as his own when we married. My kids don’t have a dad so he meant a tremendous amount to them; particularly to my son who more acutely wished for one.
My children and I slept at their house on the weekends when his wife was in her apartment. He slept at our house when his wife was in their home. It’s called nesting: where the kids stay in one place and the parents cycle in and out. They had a lot of overlap.
My kids also slept over at their house on their own when I had to go away and on occasions when I needed a break so very badly. Though a great big handful for Robert, it usually went well, and he was always happy to do it. Sometimes his not-yet-ex wife helped out when the five kids were together since she was so often in and out of the house that was also hers. My kids loved him and they loved her too.
In my twenties I was proud and relieved that my family’s birthday and holiday celebrations included my dad, my stepfather and my second stepfather; no one was ever excluded. Rich, my mom’s third husband, welcomed her exes with grace and generosity.
Robert and Flora spent all their holidays together because it was best for their children and sometimes I was there with mine but I was never comfortable. When the old stories of their courtship and marriage started to come out, I’d take a double dose of my sleeping pills, down some vodka, and head upstairs to the safety and warmth of my children.
There’s a sense of propriety one feels for one’s property, even when discarded, and there was a certain amount of territory marking that went on. I didn’t like it but there wasn’t much I could do other than leave the relationship and that wasn’t something I wanted to do.
We stayed together for three and a half years – half my kids’ lives by the time we broke up.
The relationship ended for many reasons but in no small part because their separation didn’t involve much, um, separation. It was decidedly not right for me. It’s okay that it wasn’t; I don’t feel like a jerk for my discomfort and jealousy and I don’t think he’s an idiot for putting his children first. I eventually put mine first too. The situation made me tense and angry and my children bore the brunt of my frustration. It needed to end so I could be my better self for them.
It has been over a year since my kids have seen him or his children. This was not supposed to happen but it did. He swore up and down that he would always be there for my kids but he met someone and he hasn’t been able to keep his promise.
My son sent text messages to Robert from my phone about missing him and wanting to get together once every couple of weeks or so after our break up. His answers were always surprisingly evasive and non-committal. He offered to meet my son for an ice cream but that wasn’t what Ralphie wanted: he had hoped for a full day in their house with Robert and his kids. He wanted what he had lost.
In early January my son wrote “I’m about to give up on you.” among other things in one of his texts, which often took 40 minutes or more for him to compose and type. A letter arrived in the mail a few days later, addressed to Ralphie, but it said nothing. My kid threw it out in disappointment. I was impressed that he saw that, though two pages long, the letter was just vapor.
I tried to explain to my eight year old son that I had been jealous of Robert’s ex-wife and it made it hard for me to be comfortable in the relationship. I explained that his new girlfriend probably felt similarly about us and there was nothing we could do about it. It was all too bad but we had to let it be. My boy didn’t cry because he doesn’t often, but I could feel his hurt. He stopped asking for my phone after that letter.
A month ago we were in NY celebrating my twin nephews’ birthday. Gooey ice cream cake got smeared up and down the arm of my son’s coat. I asked him to give it to me so I could put it in the wash but he refused. I asked again and he explained that it had been Eli’s and it was all he had left from him. There was no way he’d let me wash it.
I have never seen nor heard any kind of sentimentality or attachment to objects from my son. Never. Not once. I had always thought only about how much they missed this man and I forgot all about the very important friendships that they had lost too, very abruptly. It left a huge hole in their lives.
I despaired but then thought of a workaround. I emailed Flora, who I had been so jealous of and irritated by, and told her about the coat. I asked if Ralphie and Eli could possibly get together one of these days when she had their kids. She replied that they all missed us and that we had been such a huge part of their family. She graciously said she would love it if my children and I would spend a day with her and hers. We hatched a plan to get together a few weeks later.
Yesterday I drove my kids to the town we used to spend so much time in. We hung out in Flora’s new apartment and the kids just picked up where they had left off. Violet held onto Jess for dear life the minute she saw her. Ralphie and Eli talked a bit but their age difference, the lack of Lego in the house, and Ralphie being a bit under the weather, meant for some periods of quiet. Their friendship will build back up again with time.
It was lovely hearing the laughter coming from the kids when they were playing outside in the rain for a bit. The girls were hardier and came in dripping wet long after the boys. It was nice to see Ralphie curled up with a book near Eli who was lying on the sofa, having eaten too much chocolate. Flora and Allie, the eldest, loved our dog Lily, who had come with us, and she got a lot of attention.
It was all completely comfortable. Hanging out now that we are no longer sharing a man was decidedly a lot easier and more fun than it had ever been before. I talked about my writing a bit. I whined about telling so many people that an essay of mine was going to be published in the parenting section of a prominent online news source but it just never happened – it was even going to be featured. The editor hasn’t returned my emails and it’s so frustrating. Welcome to the club, my seasoned writer friends tell me. She talked about the book she’s writing on nesting. “You’re in it, you know.” she said to me. I joked about being the failed relationship that is bound to happen when there’s so much overlap. She laughed. I told her she’d end up in my writing too. Here she is.
We’ll get together again soon.