The Day We Told the Children We Were Separating

mother talking with her sonDespite everything, we are in agreement: the children should be told on Saturday morning.  We will sleep in the house, in separate rooms, that night.  On Sunday we’ll begin spending alternate nights in the apartment we have rented half a mile away; my husband will go first.  He will also speak first, he tells me, the night before, and I bow my head in gratitude.


On Saturday morning I wake in the chilly guest bedroom.  I roll over, amused to see both my sons’ sleeping heads next to me.  They’re like homing pigeons, always seeking me out in the night.  There is no noise from the marital bedroom upstairs.  Feeling sick, I lie motionless until the younger son wakes and wakes his brother.  They troop downstairs gaily, and I hear my husband get up.

My husband makes coffee, showers, goes to sit at the dining room table.  I am supposed to sit down with him, at which point we’ll summon the kids; instead, I bolt. I am a coward. I flee to the bathroom, stand perfectly still under the shower until the water cools. Numbly I dry myself, dress, descend the steps, sit down and call our kids, who are playing soccer with a nerf ball, loudly, in the living room.  My husband hovers in my peripheral vision, but I cannot look at him. “Am I in trouble?” the older son asks, half-seriously.  They wander in together, coming to stand next to my chair.

No, no, you’re not in trouble, my husband says.  We just need to talk to you about something. Wary, my older son balances awkwardly on my lap.

“Your mother and I have been having some disagreements about our relationship,” my husband says softly, kindly, speaking directly to the kids.  It’s the sentence we agreed on, the exact words we came up with, over the course of several miserable nights, in a conversation that had no beginning or end.

“No,” my son says, sobbing, interrupting.  “No, please.  No.”

Cliches boil over in my head.  It’s his last moment of innocence.  It’s the moment he’ll always remember, the axe that falls on his childhood, it’s the beginning of the end.  It’s the end of the beginning. It’s the end of the world. He cries and cries, his arms around my neck, his face buried.  His brother, too young to know exactly what is happening, is there, worried, patting him.  Suddenly I think how stupid we have been: he knew, he’s known somehow for weeks, months, that this was coming.  He knew something terrible was happening and now it has happened.  I feel as if someone has scraped the marrow from inside my bones.

“And so we’ve decided to live separately for a while.”

My husband is faltering. Don’t cry, please don’t cry, I mouth over my son’s head.  My husband gives me a look of pure hatred, but he does not cry.

It is now my turn to talk, per our agreement.  “And so,” I say, pressing my cheek hard against the top of my son’s head, “we decided it was best to live separately for a while.”

My son is not listening. “What problems?” he sobs.  “Please!  Work them out!  Don’t get a divorce!”

We agreed on this too.  “It’s not a divorce,” my husband says.  “It’s just separation.  For now.  It’s only separation for now,” he says.

The children are in my lap, wrapped round me like sloths.  The older one sobs raggedly, and the younger one, scared to see his brother so upset, joins in.  He looks from me, to his father, to his brother.  “Don’t be scared,” he tells his brother.  “It will be all right.”  Amazingly, his brother does not shove him away or call him a stupid baby.  Instead, he shakes his head, weeping.  “You don’t know anything,” he says.  “You don’t even understand what’s happening.”

“Go and give Daddy a hug,” I tell my younger son.  He obeys. My older son holds me tighter, buries his head in my shoulder, and cries.

It is very hard, it turns out, not to say the things you’ve been dreading saying, all the answers to all the questions you imagined your children might ask.  They are semi-rhetorical questions, and you don’t have ready answers, even for yourself;  still, when your firstborn wails “But don’t you still love each other?” a million justifications will leap to your lips, which you will clamp shut.  Best to let the questions ride.  Best, in fact, simply to keep repeating what you’ve said: drone on, the way you droned when this same child was an overtired toddler refusing to don his pajamas.  “Yes, yes,” you would say, back then, gently maneuvering a limp arm through a sleeve.  “Yes, yes, no pajamas, you’re not tired, it’s too early for bed.”

This is how you get through the dreadful day ahead.  You pretend you are in the company of people who can no more comprehend divorce than a toddler comprehends bedtime.  You make pancakes, and together you eat them with your fingers.  You sit next to them on the sofa and listen, without saying anything of consequence, although a running loop of pointless justifications spools endlessly in your head.  You let the children choose what they want for supper, and you let them help you fix it.  You let them sleep with you. You sing as many songs as they want. You read to them, chapter after chapter after chapter.

And when you pass your husband on the stairs after the children are finally asleep, and he hisses something terrible at you, and tells you you broke his heart again today, you flinch, but you do not speak.  Awake in the dark in the guest bed, flanked by sleeping children, you turn your laptop on guiltily to find an email from a friend.  “You’re a wonderful mother,” your friend has written, and you stare at the words in disbelief, your cheeks burning with shame.  You read this email again and again, as if it is an incantation or a spell, as if saying the magic words under your breath–wonderful mother–could possibly make them come true.

Article Posted 6 years Ago

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