On a bright spring day 15 years ago I walked up a tree-lined block to a vacant garden apartment in the bottom of a Brooklyn brownstone. I held the hands of my two children, aged 4 and 6. We pushed open the door and a shaft of sunlight cut across the polished wood floor. “Okay guys,” I said. “Welcome home.”
The day you wed is surely one of life’s most joyous and hopeful moments. Precious few of us consider the odds – that the chances are one in two that this does not turn out as planned. Throw in the kids and your defenses are fortified. You can do this. You can work through anything.
For those of us who have been there, the four most terrifying words in the English language are, “We need to talk.” That rarely ends well.
Every Other Sunday
All these years later there are still details vividly etched in my brain from that very first night. The boys’ matching bunk beds – painstakingly assembled from Ikea boxes with thousands of parts. I got them each their own bunk bed because I imagined (prayed for!) a childhood that would still be filled with friendships and sleepovers, even if their parents weren’t going to be sharing a bedroom any longer. I remember the first dinner. It was a pizza, half pepperoni, half cheese, takeout. We ate it on the bare floor because Mister Organization had not been able to furnish the place since we had moved so quickly. I can still hear the dulcet tones of the New York Yankees on the a.m. radio – an old Sony with an antenna we had to wiggle around to get reception. The sound of Jeter and Bernie and Paulie O’Neill playing baseball in the Bronx, echoing through our empty apartment. That in particular resonates for me to this day, especially with a son who, 15 years later, is interning at Fox Sports Radio. Those AM waves carried a long darned way.
My soon-to-be ex-wife and I were in agreement on nearly everything – except staying married. We set up a week on/week off schedule that involved dropping off the kids every Sunday night for nearly five years! There was no lonelier walk home than the one I had after leaving my two little boys with their sagging backpacks at their Mom’s apartment, nine blocks away. By then I was on J-Date and Sunday nights were guaranteed free zones for my romantic pursuits. I merely had to get home, sit on my stoop and sob, and then gather myself and head off in search of a new partner. No problem.
This being New York, by the middle grades both kids were taking the subway or bus to distant middle schools and my now ex-wife and I finally switched out that awful Sunday night exchange. The boys went straight from school to their other home – every other Sunday – until they finally decamped to college.
Should We Feel Guilty?
My eldest, in his college application essay, wrote that the day he enrolls in the school of his choice will be the first time in his life he gets to sleep in the same room for two straight weeks. As a parent of divorce, if that doesn’t give you pause. But then I look at my boys, both handsome thriving young men in college now, and I think, “Huhhh, not so bad.” My ex and I are both remarried and our kids have enough sibs and cousins to make the Brady Bunch seem quaint. We split the bills, we take turns on the Parents Weekends, we send condolences when former friends and relatives pass away. Mostly, when you split up with young kids, you still remain married, just under different households and a vastly different set of rules.
My youngest son, at his sixth birthday, announced that we didn’t all have to get together to celebrate anymore. He was the precocious one. His shared parties ended and not long after, so too did our ever setting foot in Two Boots Pizzeria. I still can’t walk by Second Street without a pang of guilt. But did we do them wrong? Should we have “stayed together for the kids?” What kind of lesson would that have sent? My children have memories of my ex-wife and I not getting along that I don’t even remember. Maybe the writing was on the wall. Or maybe the kids just knew us better than we knew ourselves.
Much has changed since that day I walked those two little boys up Garfield Place. What must dating look like to them? Will our un-completed marriage influence how they view their own partnerships? Our kids don’t expect their cell phones to last past two or three software updates. What will they expect of marriage?
What we lost in divorce I believe we made up for in family. Extended relatives, steppies (as we call them), more grandparents to send checks and gift cards at birthday time. My boys still turn to their mom for very specific things and me for others. Love comes with the package, regardless. But their true north is each other. When their mom and dad split, they became their own nuclear family. That doesn’t mean they get along every single second. But they get it. They have their mom. They have me. They have each other. And somehow, we still remain a family. No divorce was able to untie those enduring threads.
Ken Carlton is the author of FOOD FOR MARRIAGE, a novel, and three other books on relationships. He appeared on OPRAH, sadly, prior to his novel coming out.