One spring, I am at an art show, and my fabulous midwife Michelle Fitzgerald stops by my show. I’m delighted to see her. She asks after my kids first, then my husband. I stumble a bit, trying to say that we weren’t together anymore. It hadn’t been but two-and-a-half years since she delivered our youngest son. She quickly picked up on my awkwardness, and ushered a bit of grace into my life. She rephrased it simply: the Father of My Children. With one phrase, she gave me back my power and helped me acknowledge the relationship in its proper context.
Calling him “the ex” is entirely incorrect. It may communicate finality about the romance, but it implies rejection and a negative definition about the past. He is not in the past. I see him regularly; we have to communicate all the time. My phone goes off with his ringtone often. “Wusband” is a funnier term, but connotes the same. And calling him “the X” is like verbally threatening the people currently in my life that I could scratch them off the list at any time. This may be true, but we tend to like to feel secure in our relationships, of whatever variety they are.
I need to let you know that I didn’t have a happy divorce. There is no such thing. Divorce is, as someone else said to me, scorched earth: fire and waste. And if you’ve walked through the aftermath of a fire, it’s eerie how all the stuff is still there. It’s not just ashes: All the burnt remains are identifiable, and the job is to sort through and see what can be salvaged, and take the rest to the dump. I knew I had tried my best to save my marriage. We were not disagreeing about getting a divorce, and we didn’t fight over the kids. And it was still ugly and painful. But that fight symbolized that “we” really did matter, that the contract we tore up was real. Feeling anger was easier than feeling the pain. Who wants to grieve? We’d all like to skip that part. I hope that more couples can acknowledge that in less wasteful ways than we did.
What we were angry about was our own choices and our feelings of powerlessness. We desired the free agency that gets lost in a marriage, and to feel wanted and hopeful again. What I learned in the process of getting divorced, much to my surprise, was that I needed to heal the relationship with the Father of My Children—not save the marriage. When we were married, he never physically left, even when he didn’t want to be there, and he tried his best to put words to his ambivalence in couples’ counseling. He checked out by drinking. For a long time I was hurt and angry, and I forgave him and gave him new chances. He upped the ante. I got really tired of feeling more lonely with him in the room than without him. I looked in the mirror and saw my angry and fearful mother.
For a while I thought he was a coward for not leaving when he didn’t want to be there. It took me a long time to realize that he knew he couldn’t love me the way I wanted to be loved. He had gotten what he needed from me in the relationship: I had taught him his professional work, and we were artistic collaborators. He was sticking around to give me what I had needed from him—those two perfect boys. Deeper yet, he understood my fear of abandonment better than I did. He waited until I could let him go and kicked him out of my house. (It’s a good house. No one wants to leave.)
These days, I’m back to being responsible for my own choices and in charge of my own happiness. I was in charge of my own happiness when married too, I get that, but I had needs for intimacy that he couldn’t meet. He hated disappointing me, and I couldn’t lie. It would have broken our contract for me to get my needs met by cheating. He wasn’t willing to change the contract, and so I felt powerless. And, I get bitchy when I am unsexed. Life’s just too short to be angry all the time. I grew up with women like that. It’s not exactly a recipe for joy.
After he moved out, I thought it would take 10 years for us to find peace. I fantasized about having a good time as a foursome with our future mates at one of our kids’ weddings. He lamented that we weren’t already having family dinners and couldn’t understand my inability to share the camping equipment. I was annoyed that after two years I hadn’t even met his girlfriend, who my kids and friends know.
It started small. We started sharing tools: I borrowed his plasma cutter, he borrowed my mini-mig welder. I started to notice a change in his attitude each time he returned from family vacations, refreshed with new energy for co-parenting. I’m guessing, because I haven’t asked, but I think it’s because of how much he enjoys his family.
Though we still mess up our communications with each other, we recover much more quickly. I apologize way more often than I once did. He laughs more frequently. Actually, we laugh together more now than we ever did. And the breaking news…wait for it…this happened within three short years of separating. I’m still pinching myself with gratefulness.
Now I’m at a place that I can appreciate that the Father of My Children is a Great Dad. I have no regrets about choosing him for that role in my life. He’s a good man; that is why I tried to build a life with him. Now, I am free to appreciate what he has done for me, and does every day for me and the kids, in a way I couldn’t while in an unhappy marriage.
There is a very short list of things the Father of My Children isn’t good at. And I realize that I can easily compensate for those few items.
What is important is the very long list of what the Father of My Children is good at. With clear eyes, I can now see him as: Reliable & Trustworthy. A Good Provider for His Children. Competent & Handy. Adventuresome & Fun. Good at Sports. Stylish and Handsome. Orderly and Mannered. A Lover of Good Food and Drink. Someone Who Indulges Them Generously at Christmas and Birthdays.
And I can see that my wonderful two boys are just like him in those ways. I’m one lucky and grateful Mother.
What does a man need? To be enjoyed and appreciated. But I will rephrase that in feminist terms: What does a person want? To be enjoyed and appreciated. It’s unbelievably good to be at a place that I can enjoy and appreciate the Father of My Children, and that he can enjoy and appreciate me as the Mother of His.
Thank you, Todd, Father of My Children.
Jennifer Chenoweth is an artist, entrepreneur, friend, and parent. At home in Austin, Texas, she loves creativity, process, connection and growth—whether in making art, parenting her two sons, or launching her latest project, GenerousArt.org. You can find her online at Fisterra Studio.