Falling Apart In Front Of My Kids Was The Best Gift I Ever Gave Them

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mother crying in front of son

The boys sat on the floor of our Parisian apartment, pushing die-cast cars around elegantly carved table legs and ignoring the tense conversation happening a few feet away. My three young sons knew about their father’s affair and that I had run away to Paris after sending them to my parents’ home in Michigan.

I had justified my decision by telling myself that they were safer there than with me or my husband. After all, they had spent the summer climbing trees, swimming, fishing, and doing all the things I considered to be a typical Midwest kid summer.

But now they were in Paris, and I needed to parent. The sweltering city heat oozed through the apartment, making me crankier. My husband, James, had said something seemingly benign, but it triggered an avalanche of emotions in me, and rage pulsed through my veins.

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He tilted his head in the direction of our boys. “They’ll hear.”

Before the boys had arrived, I would scream freely at James and when I wasn’t yelling, I was sobbing or staring blankly at the wall. I hadn’t wanted the boys to come because I worried seeing me in my current depressed, angry state would scar them. James, however, had insisted they join us in Paris so we could move forward as a family.

I watched my boys as they pushed their cars around a make-shift obstacle course and pretended not to hear our conversation. Over the previous eighteen months, they had weathered so much: James’s near-fatal accident and resulting PTSD, his erratic behavior during his affair, and ultimately, my abandonment.

When my boys were little, small enough to still need a stroller but too big for their baby carriers, I taught them to walk through our San Francisco neighborhood and cross the six lanes of Geary Boulevard traffic that separated our side of the Inner Richmond from where our church, the library, and all the good restaurants along Clement street sat.

There was no stoplight or curb cut out at the corner of our street’s busy intersection when we began lessons.

I would grasp Ryan’s and Leo’s hands and give them a quick squeeze, a hand hug as we called it, before stepping tentatively into the narrow space between the car parked closest to us and the curb.

If a delivery truck had parked at the corner or even more commonly, double parked, I’d have zero visibility and have to ease myself forward to assess while keeping the boys tucked behind me. If a car hit me, I prayed the boys would be spared.

Once all the SUVs, trucks, and sports cars had sped past us and the light a few blocks up changed to red, we had enough time to sprint to the median if not make it completely across. It was dangerous, but my job as their mother was to teach them to navigate the world safely and eventually, independently.

I’d squeeze and release, and they’d squeeze back harder. Even after a light had been installed, I held onto the boys, not because I was afraid to let them go — after all preparing them to fly on their own was my job — but because I wanted them to know that no matter what, I’d always be there to keep them safe.

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In our Parisian apartment, nothing felt safe. My marriage illusion had been shattered, my mental health was failing, and we were thousands of miles away from any family or friends who could help.

Tate, my five-year-old, brought me a car. “Do you want to play?”

I stared at the orange metal toy. What I wanted was to collapse. I wanted to hide and be left alone. I wanted out of my upside-down life.

I took the car and sat on the floor. I half-heartedly pushed it in a circle while the boys raced theirs back and forth across the parquet. James sat on a high-back, velvet chair, his eyes not leaving me and his silent words vibrating through my fragile mind.

They’ll hear. They’ll see.

We had told the boys about the affair the day I discovered my husband’s secret life. My oldest son had suspected before I did. He had asked me a few weeks earlier if James loved us anymore.

“He loves you very much,” I had answered as we hiked along a dirt path toward the Pacific Ocean. I was homeschooling Ryan that year, and we often took lunch-time walks through the Presidio.

“Does he still love you?” Ryan asked.

I led him through the trees to the beach. “I don’t know.”

Ryan settled into the sand. “Are you sad?”

“Sometimes.” I let the cool sand run through my fingers. “Sometimes, I’m very sad because I miss the way Dad was before the accident.”

Ryan nodded. “You always tell him it’s okay to cry when he says he should have died.”

James often crumbled into a ball on our bed and repeated those words, and I would send the boys outside or next door to my in-laws’ house. I never wanted them to see their father falling apart. I wanted to keep them safe from all the horribleness that had resulted from James’s accident.

I studied my ten-year-old son. “I do say that.”

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Ryan nodded and kept his gaze on the waves pounding the coastline. “It’s okay for you to cry too, Mom.”

I blinked back my tears. Only weak mothers melted down in front of their kids. Strong mothers protected their kids from life’s miseries. I was going to be strong.

I pushed my little car, making vroom noises, and pretended I was having fun. Tate’s car slammed into mine, and he erupted in laughter. Leo sent his car careening into the accident, and he too squealed in delight.

I stopped playing.

James had been hit by a truck and left on the cold pavement as freezing rain pounded him. Accidents weren’t funny.

The black fog that hounded me settled across my skin and sunk into my brain. I gazed out the floor-to-ceiling window at the apartment building across the rue. A breeze pushed heavy, hot air into my lungs, and I struggled to hold back my tears.

James knelt next to me. “Are you okay?”

“Mom’s sad, and she won’t cry.” Ryan picked up the mess of cars and dropped them into a bag. “I think she needs to. She’ll feel better.”

They see. They hear. They know.

I had sent my boys away so that they wouldn’t have to witness my falling apart. I hadn’t wanted them to see James and me fight while we tried to make sense of what was left of our marriage. I thought I was being strong and keeping them safe.

But I hadn’t done either of those things.

Falling apart is a different kind of strong, and it didn’t mean I was weak. It meant I had the opportunity to put myself back together stronger. I needed to allow myself, along with my family, to find the bottom so we could begin rebuilding.

When I looked back at James and the kids, I saw concern and worry, but I also saw hope and belief that we could overcome the mess we were in. I saw three little boys who needed their mother to be honest and authentically herself — even if that meant crying.

They saw, they heard, and they already knew I wasn’t okay.

I realized then that it wasn’t my faux strength they’d learn from — I’d been faking happiness for months, and it was how we’d gotten to this point.

Instead, they’d learn resilience from how I put myself back together, and that was the strongest, most motherly gift I could give them.

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Mia Hayes' memoir Always Yours, Bee, about her husband’s accident and her subsequent spiral into mental illness, was selected by BookBub as one of “15 Powerful Memoirs to Read in 2021.” She is also the author of the women’s fiction series, The Waterford Novels.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.