Love

Mourning The Partnership I Never Had

Photo: taramara78 / Shutterstock
woman sitting alone looking into distance

On the beach today, I watched a little boy toddle back to his father, holding his mother’s hand. His face was mottled with artificially bright colors, courtesy of an ice pop that likely started dripping the moment it was released from its cartoon-festooned wrapper. The father instinctively reached for a bottle of water, and I heard the mom casually instruct, “Make sure you get his neck too, some of it dripped down there.”

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I held my book on my lap, watching them intently. All I had wanted was this day: the healing heat of the sun, the soothing lapping of waves, a good book, a bag of cherries, the absence of my own children.

It had been a roller coaster of a month, filled with milestones, too many of them to adequately be addressed in such a condensed period of time: the rapid decline and death of my father; my first book’s publication; my son’s graduation from high school; my daughter’s graduation from the elementary school which had become our second home after seventeen years; and finally, the move out of the “forever” apartment my husband and I had bought and renovated just a few years earlier when forever was still part of our shared language.

I watched the father gently pat his son’s sweet, sticky face, and the mother sit down to reorganize items in her bag.

I had been furtively eyeing them all day, not so much out of voyeurism as the fact that without any concern for beach etiquette they had set themselves up right in front of my own simple set-up, erecting a massive billowy tent that obstructed my view of the ocean.

I had had no choice but to watch the exhaustion of their day, the endless parade of beach toys to occupy the kids, the sandy bags of popcorn, the container of carefully cut watermelon that had spilled into the sand. I had thought, if there’s a silver lining to this now being my view, it’s that I am even more grateful to be sitting here alone, with my book and bag of cherries and an open expanse of time to myself.

It seemed unlikely that this exact moment, the fluid, mindless handoff of the son from one parent to the next, would become part of the parent's memory of the day, but now it was singed into mine.

It is these small, every day, task-oriented moments of the day that I miss the most about being married. The big-ticket losses that ensue from divorce are obvious and glaring: the family vacations, holiday dinners, shared home, even the luxury of calling one’s home a home after it transitions to “dad’s apartment” or “bunk bed apartment.”

The daily dance that we engage in as parents, the tag-team effort to get to the finish line, those motions and words we use without even thinking are all lost when a marriage ends. Now it happens on my watch or yours, there is no more us.

The truth is that even when I was married, our dance was never as graceful as the one I just witnessed. I would have returned with a sticky child to be met with my husband prostrate on a chair.

I would have clenched my jaw and then nudged him with my foot, widening my eyes in exasperation that he did not intuitively grasp what I needed at that moment or understand that the parent with the child was the parent who had to be deferred to. I would have had to ask for help, and then I would have resented having to ask.

The other truth is that our kids are old enough now not to have messy faces we are responsible for cleaning. At ten years old, our youngest has just exited this time of dependency, but at eighteen and twenty-one, the older kids haven’t relied on us for their physical needs for many years.

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We survived the “all heads on deck” phase of our parenting many moons ago, enough moons ago that I ache for it now, missing the parts of it I did have — the hot, sandy bodies of my children climbing all over me, curling into mine for an afternoon nap — and mourning the parts of it I desperately wanted but could not seem to nail down.

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That, what I had just observed, had been elusive to me: a partnership in parenting. My husband had been many things to me and to our kids — more fun and playful than I could ever be, generous, affectionate, kind — but he was not one to pay attention to what had to be done as much as what he wanted to do.

If there was an actual need, a face to be washed, a diaper to be changed, a snack to be served, it was mine to do or mine to delegate. I could do it myself or I could ask for help, there would be no quick exchange of glances that would morph into wordlessly getting the job done.

Marriage had not been the partnership I had expected it to be so much as a division of labor, an assigning of and then adhering to the roles we had adopted and then could not, would not, alter.

There was plenty of love between us, but it would turn out that for us love could not conquer all.

Love would not get the kids to sleep or dinner on the table or lunchboxes packed for school. Love would not, even after decades of growing, negate the fury I felt so often at being a one-woman show. Love would not stop him from seeking another woman, one who would look at him with adoration instead of rage and exasperation.

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The couple on the beach: I wish them well.

Later in the afternoon, the little boy caught my eye while playing in the sand near me and waved, and I told the mom he was adorable. She beamed and thanked me. I forgave her for the aggressively placed sunshade with which she had blocked my view.

She had given me a priceless gift, a reminder of all that I had and didn’t have, hadn’t had, and never would, but there was the relief now of knowing I wasn’t waiting for it anymore.

Laura Friedman Williams is the author of Available: A Very Honest Account of Life After Divorce.  She writes a blog on Medium about parenting and relationships and is a frequent podcast guest on the subject of reinvention, particularly in midlife.  

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