It's early October in Southampton New York and the usually packed dining room is sparse, the summer brunch crowd waned. It's been a good weekend, 8 friends joking, catching up on kids, husbands and divorces and drinking lots of wine. We're winding down our trip with some eggs and last laughs when my phone rings. It's my 6-year-old daughter Emily. As she rattles on about her weekend with my ex husband my throat tightens and tears run down my face. My breakfast is left untouched.
I'd shed many tears during my marriage, more during its dissolution and even more on the nights when my kids were with their dad, leaving our house, and me, empty. I ceased to be amazed that there were always more at the ready, welling up and overflowing without warning. This time was different, of all the tears shed behind closed doors; this was my first public display. My friends were staring, surprised by such blatant emotion. I owed my group an explanation.
My voice quivered "The kids spent the night at her place for the first time. Emily slept in her bed and snuggled with her. She made beignets and Emily said they were delicious. I can't bear it."
"Who is she?" someone whispered.
I felt a hand squeeze my arm as a friend announced, "She is Melissa, the new girlfriend."
For years I had put on a good, if sad face. Until that phone call, the pain I had revolved around my relationship with my ex husband, the break up of our family and the loss of our plans and dreams. This was the first time I had to face another woman spending quality time with my children. I began to wonder if Ben and Emily might one day love her more than me.
I sat silently, embarrassed as tears rolled down my face for all to see.
A year prior to my breakfast breakdown my ex and I separated. My lawyer asked if we wanted anything in our legal divorce agreement about what to do when we started dating other people. It was fall and leaves fell as my ex and I laughed at the absurdity of her question. I'm not sure which one of us said it but we both agreed, "That's crazy, we can come to our own friendly agreement." We would not introduce anyone new to our kids until we had been dating them for 3-6 months and we would inform the other parent before any introductions were made.
That winter the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania decreed my marriage null and void. In the spring I joined my ex and our kids at his family's home for Passover. My ex drove me to the train station after Seder and as we sat inside waiting he told me, "I'm not going to date anyone for a long time, at least a year. I need to be on my own." I was relieved. After years of turmoil I needed a break from the ups and downs and was grateful he was sparing all of us a rush into navigating the new world of dating with children.
Summer arrived and with the heat came Melissa, a year ahead of schedule. Declining my invitation to join us for a swim on July 4th, my ex rushed our kids out of the swim club and an old familiar tension filled the holiday air. That evening I sat watching fireworks uneasy about what was to come.
I didn't have to wait long. The next day my kids told me that Daddy had a new "friend," Melissa. They met her in the park weeks before and spent July 4th swimming with her, after they left me. I held my breath before exhaling and offered a strained smile.
Like our marriage, our friendly agreement was null and void. Three, four, five or six months of dating had not gone by and my ex did not inform prior to introductions. Melissa had met, swam with, spoken to and touched my kids and I'd had no warning. This was an enormous sucker punch.
My ex and his new friend began spending most of their time together, kids in tow, and I received a directive. "Before school starts I am telling Ben and Emily that Melissa is my girlfriend," he told me.
"This is too fast, why rush? If you wind up together long term, great. If not, there's no need to drag the kids into this" I pleaded.
He replied, "I am doing this, you need to back me up. She is just another person to love the kids and another person for the kids to love."
Our kids, Melissa's and mine, attend the same school but we had never before crossed paths. Once word of the new relationship spread, I got unsolicited drips and drabs about her from other moms. I heard that in other circumstances she and I could be friends; we both practiced yoga and shared other interests. Well intended I'm sure, but hearing that the woman I feared would steal my kid's hearts, practiced yoga, did not bring out the yogi in me.
She was instantly everywhere, all the time. In school, around my neighborhood, in my kid's stories and in their home. We were told they were a forever and permanent coupling as they moved swiftly from introduction and a Fourth of July swim to sleepovers and a new home for their new Brady Bunch. The situation was managed poorly and mother-to-mother I held Melissa to a higher and admittedly unfair standard. I felt she should have and could have done better.
But even if she didn't hang onto Emily a few minutes too long when saying goodbye, if she didn't linger at my son's recital, if she'd handled everything perfectly, I still would have hated every bit of the fall and winter of that year. Wrapped up in my own pain and fear that I was being replaced, I blamed their process and handling which in reality were somewhat irrelevant. I didn't like it. There was no way I would have liked it.
I want to be with my kids all the time. It's hard enough to hand them over, but to know they were running into the house and finding her, and not me, waiting with open arms was crushing. As their new domestic life settled three-tween boys had a hard time adjusting to their new parental figures, but my 6-year-old girl did not. Emily was enamored from the start. Melissa had a whole new bag of tricks and new is entertaining. She put cookies in lunches; cooked elaborate meals, they read stories, danced and baked and they had nicknames for each other.
Someplace in between new and forever, elaborate meals dwindled, new tricks became old and as Melissa's mythical shine wore I found my worry and resentment wearing down too. I saw as she gave time and attention to my kids; her concern and love for them was undisputed. As my daughter's love for me grew along side her love for Melissa I accepted that there was enough love to go around.
We had an unspoken cease-fire and started chatting at drop of and pick-ups, the kids noticing and enjoying the goodwill. I took Emily to paint a Christmas gift for Melissa and patiently waited as my daughter plucked flowers for her on Mother's Day. When Emily asked, "Mom, do you like Melissa?" I answered easily, "Yes, I do."
Three years after my ex's directive, he and his forever girlfriend ended their relationship. The day he told me, instead of shouting out loud "I told you so," I cried. I'm not above a superficial and petty victory lap. But Jason had been right; Melissa was another person to love and give love. This was a major loss for my kids and gloating had no place within their sorrow.
Whereas my son pretended he didn't care, my girl put on no airs or pretense. She had welcomed Melissa whole-heartedly, had been asked to and did love her, and she was very unhappy about the breakup.
My ex has entered a new relationship and my kids, Emily especially, is not over the old. She asks, "Can we go see Melissa? Can she come for dinner, can she come to the beach, can she sleep over, do you think she can she come visit me at camp?"
Since my ex and his ex haven't wanted to share the same space, we see Melissa, the kids and me. While our time together is always too short for Emily's liking, we have dinners, play dates and sleepovers. Emily calls Melissa and makes her gifts; she talks about her all the time. Melissa texts Emily and sends her letters. Their love for each other remains strong.
My tears at the breakfast table in Southampton were the start of a relationship that a few years later is still yet to be defined and without a predictable future. For today Melissa is family, I am stuck with her. I know how that sounds but I don't mean it unkindly. You don't get to choose your family and we weren't given a choice, she was thrust upon us. But she offered my children much needed attention and comfort. She annoyed and overstepped in her love, like family. And then, she was gone and loving her was no longer required. In the space that was so sparse three years before, my children now choose her.
She is their family and she is mine. She is another person to love and we do.