Happy Birthday to You
But first, a disclaimer: I screw up all the time. I say the wrong thing. I get so focused on accomplishing my To Do list that I too often take things right in front of me for granted. Despite my best sincere intentions, I don’t always follow through when I completely planned on it. It’s not ever on purpose, but that doesn’t make it OK. That said…
Today was my son’s 13th birthday party. Ten junior high aged boys, a mountain of pizza boxes, and unlimited bumper cars/laser tag/video games/ropes courses/lots of overstimulation.
And my ex-husband.
I sometimes wish he would engage differently with our kids, and I get frustrated from time to time with inconsequential things he does or doesn’t do. I wish he would help out more in the day-to-day stuff that is raising teenagers, but I am sincerely grateful that he and I get along.
Today was a glimmering example, and I almost didn’t even notice. Actually, I didn’t notice–someone else did.
A mom friend stuck around when she brought her son for the party so we could catch up. She introduced herself to my ex-husband, not knowing who he was. She asked him which kid was his. He said, “The birthday one.” The three of us plus my daughter sat at a table and talked about random things before it was time to round up the natives for cupcakes. He offered to brave the laser tag black lights and haul them all back.
As soon as he was out of earshot, she said, “I know you’ve always said you guys get along, but I have never seen two divorced people with as much yuck in their past as you two have who can actually sit in the same room. You two don’t just tolerate each other–you get along. For real! You weren’t kidding!”
She’s a friend who knows the whole story–all of it. Good. Bad. Ugly. His and mine, because really everyone has a part. I got a little teary when she put her observation out there because I realized I’d taken it for granted when I texted him a few weeks ago with party details that he would show up and be a pleasant human being. He doesn’t do that for me, I don’t do that for him, and that’s completely fine. We made the decision to get along because it’s one of the best things we can do for our kids. It is not always easy and has definitely become easier with time and practice. Until my friend pointed it out today, it didn’t cross my mind that my son’s birthday party could have been a very different and considerably more painful experience for all of us.
And I am so incredibly, humbly grateful sitting here now that this is my situation, given all of the alternatives that could be my reality.
The disclaimer at the top serves as my own reality check. My purpose in writing this isn’t to say look at my stellar example, I have this how to be divorced thing all figured out, yay me. Because I screw up all the time. I don’t know how to handle some situations, and sometimes I don’t engage when things get difficult or muddy because I don’t want to “do it wrong.” But sometimes that’s just the way it goes, and I have to know I did what seemed right at the time. I share this story because I need the reminder that relationships that work don’t just happen. Honestly, that guy is not someone I want to invest my time in at all, but I do want to show my kids how to forgive when it seems impossible, that living free from bitterness and resentment heals us, and how to persevere in choosing what I want to be about when sometimes I want to scream “YOU ARE THE WORLD’S MOST PROFESSIONAL ASSHOLE!!!!”
The truth of the matter is that if I expect my kids to show respect, I have to model respectfulness. If I want them to flourish as individuals, I have to grow continuously in the flourishing department. If I want them to feel loved, to know that their parents are not perfect but would do anything to ensure their incontrovertible knowledge that they are adored, then I have to show them that forgiveness and grace are more powerful forces than anger and selfishness. And that takes work.
I write this realizing that all involved have to be willing to put personal feelings aside to make this a reality, and that’s not always the case. I’m understanding more clearly these days how complex family dynamics are in the raising of kids. There are ex-spouses, step-siblings, spouses’ new Barbie wives/Daddy Warbucks husbands. There are in-laws, out-laws, and all sorts of relationships and connections as we weave into and out of each other’s lives. When everyone involved doesn’t put on their big-person pants, the resulting selfishness and immaturity manifest like a wedgie you can’t really do anything to fix until you excuse yourself from the situation. (Thanks for indulging me the pants analogy there….) Sometimes you tango all by yourself. It sucks at the time, but I promise everyone is watching, envious that they don’t quite have what it takes to get out there on their own and join in the good stuff.
So dance through difficult situations like everyone is watching.
My son had a blast celebrating his birthday today. He is already loading up his iTunes with more Green Day. His friends left full of chocolate cupcakes and exhausted from their light bulb wars. And my kids piled in the car knowing that they will be OK, that they have parents dedicated to being on their side, no matter what. My 13-year-old doesn’t realize it today, but one day he will realize it’s the best thing he could’ve received for his birthday.
Moving on isn’t easy, but remember that we have a whole lot of opportunity to go about it gently.