The moment I start to resurface from sleep, I instinctively strain to hear my sons. Are they awake and about to flop onto my bed? Quinn, my seven-year-old, will be half-asleep and toting his stuffed pirate. Casey, 9, who’s been reading in bed, will want to chat about the day’s plans. But if there’s stillness, another question floats through my still-foggy brain: Are they here at all? Because a few times a week, they’re not. They’re in their bunk beds at their dad’s condo. On those mornings, I hug my duvet and doze for a glorious 10 minutes more. I must admit, I’m usually not devastated.
There was a time I was. For a while, waking up without my snuggly, sleep-mussed boys was as terrible as I imagined it’d be. In the boggy mess of emotions when my marriage ended five years ago—fear, grief, relief—nothing was as painful as the realization my days of daily cuddling at dawn were over. I would be a partial parent. A half-mom. I’d forever be a broken-hearted lump—and they would be sad, divorce-damaged kids.
That’s not, however, what happened. It’s taken me a library of self-help books and a fantastic therapist to get here, but I now know that not living under the same roof as my kids full-time isn’t the pit of fiery agony I thought it’d be. In fact, it has its perks.
I don’t advocate anyone join our club—we, the four in 10 couples who divorce before their 30th anniversary—but I can attest that what Tarah Sly, a program director at Ottawa’s Separation and Divorce Resource Centre, says is true: “If parents are unhappy in a marriage, it trickles down. If they can leave the marriage, figure out their own happiness and amicably co-parent, they can have well-adjusted kids and a happy family.” It can be OK, better than before, pretty good actually.
Since the boys move between our homes in roughly three-day intervals, I’ve had buckets of time to work on decoding what it is that makes me happy. I can, and often do, live that parental fantasy: having an entire luxurious day to myself. I go for a run, have brunch with a friend, read on the couch, fold laundry in peace and catch a movie—all in one day. Yes, it’s as lovely as it sounds. The flip side, of course, is that solo also means…solo. After years of living with siblings, roommates, boyfriends and then a husband, I’ve never been alone. Now I can’t ignore myself. I’m right here. What do I like? What’s a hobby? I’m slowly starting to work this stuff out.
Which, both my ex-husband David and I agree, is a good thing. Every family is made up of independent agents within a shared life, but for us, time is doled out differently: One grown-up is usually off alone. It’s important for the kids to see that learning and exploring are cool parts of adulthood, too.
The fact that they’d have experiences in their dad’s world I wouldn’t be a part of used to be utterly wrenching. I’d listen, smiling, as they eagerly told me about seeing Niagara Falls for the first time. I’d nod and hold my breath to keep from crying. Now I like to think that, apart, we’re just covering more ground. We’re explorers who fan out in the field and, when we reunite, report our findings. Casey is learning new ball-tossing techniques and can’t wait to teach me. Quinn has seen this great show called Looney Tunes. Do I know it? Me, I’ve heard a song I think we should all dance to. These reunions don’t get old. And because I’ve had time to recharge, I have the energy to be completely present with them.
As scandalous as it sounds, divorce has a lot going for it. My only caveat—and it’s a big one—is you have to be committed to raising healthy kids and supporting each other, so anger and blame have to be processed and booted out fairly speedily. By doing so, we discovered one of our favourite divorced-family benefits: We’re modular, with several fabulous configurations. David and I can each head up a trio, we can form a couple of pairs—we often split the boys up, each taking one for “solo time”—and at hockey games and special events, we are a foursome.
Stopped at a red light the other night, Quinn summed this all up from the back seat. “See the family beside us? That’s us sometimes,” he said of the parent and two kids in the next car over. “And that family over there,” he said, pointing to the mom, dad and kids on the bike path, “that’s us sometimes, too.” If they had their way, would my boys like to have one home, one bed each and one kitchen table? Unquestionably. But what we do have is something good, too.
A version of this article appeared in our October 2016 issue with the headline “Post-Marital Bliss,” p. 38.