Making a new home after divorce

A mom and her son may be moving out of their house, but they’re taking their home with them.

Illustration: Erin McPhee

There’s a beam in our house, in the kitchen, where we’ve been marking the growth of our son, Hugo, since he was 22 months old. He’s now seven. Thirty-five centimetres measuring his life, as well as the breakdown of my marriage. The last mark was drawn six months after my husband and I separated, in April.

We’re now selling the house—the only home Hugo has ever known. Upon finding out about the sale, he wrapped his small arms around the beam and cried, “This is my whole life!” Later, a contractor will be coming over to paint the walls, paint over our old life. I take down all our family photos—all those pictures of baby handprints, birthday cards and the images of my garden, which will no longer have the imprint of my boy’s fat, running feet. Hugo has—had—a trampoline in that garden and a small pool. My favourite photographs are of him racing in ecstasy through sprinklers.

“Where are the pictures?” Hugo asks.

“In a box. We’ll move the box. It’s OK—lots of people move,” I say.

His best friend’s parents have split up, so he understands that not all families stay together. Still, I believe he had always felt safe where he lived, and now we were about to shock him with a major change in his life. I asked friends on Facebook if anyone had ideas as to how to remove the freaking beam—I was joking, of course. But there were some great suggestions, including taking a high-resolution photo of it. I will, right before we paint the beam. It will be the last thing we’ll paint over.

Besides the beam, there is his bedroom, with a massive, messy “Hugo” signature on the wall. He’s been graffiti-ing the house for years—his name is all over the place. “Hugo” on the mailbox; a bunch of “Hugo”s on the brick wall outside; “Batman! Hugo!” on the basement bathroom door.

We finally managed to stop him from marking his territory once he started to sign expensive pieces of art with his name, but, overall, it is—was—Hugo’s castle. It was our castle. So many times I walked through the house in disbelief that I was a homeowner, that I had my own stairs and a skylight and an attic, which I dreamt of opening once Hugo got bigger and needed more space. My ex and I used to joke about him being a teenager and bringing home smelly hockey equipment; we joked about him not having a place to smoke pot with his friends because the basement is unfinished, and there’s no room for a bunch of stinky boys with bongs down there.

There will be none of that. The house is up for sale this summer. It’s a small townhouse. I will miss everything about it. Our happy times in it. How the whole family used to dance in the kitchen. How we shared the bed, the three of us, and read poetry.

Since the split, Hugo has become more clingy, more nervous. Tension has been high, and our home no longer seems so safe. He stopped sleeping in his room and started sleeping in my bed. He’s confused that my ex and I still share a closet and, occasionally, meals and family outings.

For now, Hugo sleeps in the house while we alternate nights: my ex at his temporary apartment, me at my sister’s place. But once the house is sold, the illusion of togetherness will be gone, which is sad but necessary—it will make the separation less abstract. We’ll shuffle him between places, and he’ll get used to that, too. His past year has been all about changes. And there will be some good ones, too: I’ve promised a dog, a PlayStation, a large bedroom. I’ve found an apartment for us. I’m calling the move an adventure. He seems excited about the new place. I told him I’ll make a garden in the living room.

In the end, we’ll be OK. A house is not a home. A friend who went through a separation says, “A house is just four walls. You are his home.”

I am his home.

 

A version of this article appeared in our Summer 2016 issue with the headline “A house is not a home,” p. 46. 

Read more:
After divorce: Moving back in with Mom
An age-by-age guide for talking to kids about divorce
Can’t buy me love: Divorce-guilt spending

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