Several years ago, I made a deal with myself to interact with my ex-husband in a polite way, as I would with my son’s teacher or doctor. I decided to keep conversations calm, concise and professional — after all, my only relationship with him is the business of our son. I was done with yelling or playing nice or anything other than this definition of civil interaction.
I asked him to do the same, and he seemed surprised at the request. I’ve held my end of the bargain. That’s not to say I don’t have angry words, tears, tumult and snappy comebacks. But I save those for those closest in my circle of support, for my therapist, my journal and during the toughest times, the thoughts that play over and over in my head at 2 a.m. Even when I’m reeling, I am much healthier and more centered with this intention to speak to my son’s father as if he is one more professional in the crew of caregivers for my son. For me, it works. I am not perfect in every one of our interactions, not by any means, but this is one thing I feel I am doing right.
Other people, I know, have friendships and may even laugh during conversations with their co-parents. Other single parents don’t ever speak to each other again. And there are many more arrangements, chosen and that somehow fall into place or become habit, on that spectrum.
Unfortunately, the courtesy of civility, at least in my case, has not been returned. It has made for some very tense and frustrating moments — but my worry is not for me. My concern is for the kid who has heard the harsh words flung about, who senses that something is amiss. I don’t want him to witness that.
So when it happened again last week, I fretted over my boy and how he was internalizing all this anger. And then something shifted — the Not Boyfriend stepped in.
“This is not just yelling at you,” he said. “This is yelling at our family. It is time to push back the boundaries.”
The Not Boyfriend became the buffer between my son’s father and me. The Not Boyfriend took over for the few moments my son is walked down to the front door and he and his stuff are handed off to his dad. Then he returned to be the person greeting my boy when he returned, but this time met them outside the front gate instead of inside, up the steps and at the door.
And then the Not Boyfriend began texting me things I might repeat to myself when I am feeling stressed about this all, he sent me responses to diffuse the tension, he placed a hand on my shoulder calmly while I talked out what was appropriate to explain to my son.
Our family. The Not Boyfriend became a part of the story long ago, but I think he became a part of the family by stepping in when it got tough.
I am blessed and grateful that my parents have been so involved in our lives and well-being over the last five years (long before that, too, of course, but particularly since I moved us on from my marriage). My dad has been with me to every court date, every meeting with the attorney, and even done his own buffering with his body and words and home when things have not been in a good place. My mother has had conversations with my boy and talked to me when I needed to release all of the responses I promised myself I could not say aloud to my ex.
And now the Not Boyfriend is there, too, protecting my son and me, bringing his own kind of calm and pushing back the boundaries to widen the berth of kindness and safety and centeredness around our home.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt protected by a partner before, and some of that is because I don’t think I’ve allowed it. I’ve been the one in control, in charge and drawing lines. I’ve been the one to absorb the punch of words or accusations or whatever else my come. I have been the one bracing for the impact.
I wasn’t sure how to say yes to a man, even this man, shielding us both, and particularly me. But the Not Boyfriend wasn’t really asking my permission anyway. He acted — promptly, professionally and in kindness. It had all the tenets of my promise of courteous conversation. The difference, though, is that the Not Boyfriend was doing this all out of great love. He was doing it to pull us all together.
I’ve always protected myself. I am fiercely independent and opinionated and steely-willed. And it feels so good — so comforting and caring — to step aside while the Not Boyfriend moves forward.
I don’t need to be married or for a man to take care of me. But I also won’t be ashamed or impish or upset that there is a man in our lives who loves us so much he steps in before I can say no.
It’s OK to want to be protected, particularly if you are a single mother who has already absorbed far more impact than any one woman should or if you have spent a lifetime being the buffer or the voice of reason or punching bag. Whatever the situation with your ex, your communication, your late-night worries, it is OK to nod and feel reassured and loved by a person who protects you peacefully.
Peacefully is the key. I will not pretend that there aren’t single mothers and many other women out there whose bruises are real and visible, who are at mercy to physical force, who just want for their kids and for themselves to keep breathing. For those women, I wish the might of the legal system, a circle of supportive friends and family and caregivers, a wall of protection that is thicker than concrete and steel, and healing that begins far below the surface of the skin.
For the rest of us on that wobbly middle ground between communicative co-parenting and something far worse, I wish us all the opportunity to feel and accept peaceful protection in a way that makes our lives simpler, freer, less worrisome, diffused. I wish our kids the chance to relax from the worry that one parent will yell or that something unpredictable will occur during an everyday moment. I wish for us all to have moments to let down, to drop the fierce independence into trusted hands.
I wish us all the deep breath of relief to let someone take over, if only for the few minutes it takes to walk from the door to the front gate.
Read on, mamas and daddies: