Two years to the day after we signed our divorce papers, my ex-husband and my boyfriend met face to face.
I’ve just wasted five minutes sitting here counting on my fingers. When did we separate, when did we sign the papers, when did we actually divorce? Looking back some of it seems improbably sudden; some of it seems bizarrely prolonged, even belated. We separated in February when my younger son was five. He’s now nine. The divorce was final in October, which means we signed in June, which must mean we separated…a year and a bit earlier? Oh, hell. There’s a lost summer in there, a summer during which I drank too much and we tried and failed to share both a house and an apartment, a summer I don’t like to think about if I don’t have to.
My ex-husband introduced the kids to his girlfriend right at the end of that summer. This caused me a bit of angst, though I was secretly delighted he was seeing someone. But it was a long time before I told the kids I, too, had a boyfriend. I didn’t actually set out to hide anything, but our relationship, right from the beginning, had a lot of moving parts. There were his children to consider, too, and since we were both newly separated it was, quite honestly, awfully nice to be able to retreat from our respective nests of divorce-related chaos and just stare, hollow-eyed, into space while rocking in separate corners of the room (I jest! Sometimes we’d hold hands) when we saw each other. Which, because we live two hours apart, was only once in a while. We could have spent more time together if we included the kids–we synced our custody schedules right from the beginning–but we didn’t want to. It seemed a lot to ask of the kids, and a lot to ask of our estranged spouses, and it seemed, quite honestly, a lot to ask of us.
Neither of us was looking to create a “new family”. We’re still not. One of the only good things about the physical distance that separates us is the way the question of merging our households is, for the foreseeable future, absolutely moot. I’ve never seen myself as a stepmother figure to his kids, nor have I seen him as a stepfather figure to mine. To me, his daughters are like the kids of any of my close friends. I like them a great deal, and I’m grateful they like me, but I’m not aiming to be anything other than their dad’s girlfriend, whom they see every once in a while.
In time, of course, word got out. One day, about a year and a half after the separation, I noticed that my kids were acting little bit squirrelly whenever “Dad’s girlfriend” came up. The older one began shushing the younger one, looking at me nervously, whenever the younger one innocently mentioned her in my presence. This, I decided, would not do. You don’t want your kids pitying you if you can help it–it is not what the child development experts call healthy–and you certainly don’t want them pitying you under false pretenses. I copped to the boyfriend the next chance I got. Both children looked massively relieved. They asked a few generic questions, then asked if they could meet him, and I said yes.
That night I struggled over an email to my ex-husband. Since I’d been annoyed that he’d introduced the kids to his girlfriend without saying anything to me (or to them) in advance, I thought it was only fair to give him a heads up. But the proper tone eluded me. My first draft, which sounded as if I was asking permission, sniveled. My second draft was too cold. I imagined my ex-husband alternately sneering or looking hopelessly sad, and his imaginary protests rang in my head.
It’s not the same thing at all, because I never wanted another girlfriend in the first place. I never wanted any of this. Your boyfriend is a choice; my girlfriend is a consolation prize. And hearing his name on the lips of our children will simply be one more insult you’ve forced me to suffer.
My imaginary response would do little to placate him, I knew.
For crying out loud, are you serious? Your girlfriend is stunning and young and accomplished. She speaks several languages, she has traveled all over the world, and she’s kind to the kids, who adore her. Consolation prize? You traded up, my friend. Can you admit what’s evident to everyone by now–that you’ve moved on and are happy without me?
Ultimately, both the email I sent and the response it received were anticlimactic, as these things often are. My ex-husband said I could introduce the kids to Idi Amin for all he cared. The kids met and liked my boyfriend in due course. Still, whenever he visited, I worried. I dreaded running into my ex-husband accidentally in our tiny fishbowl town.
Fortunately my ex-husband is a creature of extreme habit, and I know his habits well. It proved reasonably easy to stay out of his predictable, well-traveled way. The wild card turned out to be weekend sports. My kids play soccer and baseball, and even when they’re with me for the weekend, my ex often turns up on the sidelines. As time went forward and my kids met my boyfriend’s kids and the four of them–his girls, my boys–became friends, I’d sometimes bring the rest of the kids along along to root for whoever was playing. My ex-husband seemed happy to meet the girls. I had emailed in advance to make sure, of course, and I never, ever brought my boyfriend unless I knew for certain my ex-husband wasn’t going to be there. I felt like a twit making faux-casual phone calls after my faux-casual emails went unanswered (“So! What are you up to this weekend? Are you, um, going to be around at two on Saturday? Yes? Oh. So, um, are you going to the, you know, the, um, game?”) but the alternative seemed infinitely worse.
Finally my ex-husband called my bluff. “I don’t care if you bring what’s-his-stupid-face to soccer or whatever, you know,” he texted one day. Well, how nice, I said to myself, as the phone slipped from my suddenly sweaty palms. We can all just get along. This friendly state of mind lasted all of ten seconds. After that, my insides seized violently at the mere thought of introducing them, and I made a mental note to keep going with the Full Jocasta so that neither of my sons will be well-adjusted enough to have a girlfriend, ever, thus obviating the need for civil interaction at anyone’s wedding.
And then my younger son had his first piano recital on a weekend my boyfriend was in town.