There’s an upside to divorce. It’s what I used to call the “stretch” ― the four days every two weeks when our kids went to their dad’s house.
Not that it was easy at first. The first few months after we separated, I cried every time I dropped our kids off at Erik’s place, just a mile from my own. Eventually, though, I began to look forward to the respite from parenting. I relished the break, and was a better mom when Ryan and Haley came home.
Erik became a better dad, too. He started cooking with the kids, trying new recipes and following favorite chefs on YouTube. He hung a zipline in his backyard, joined a group for dads and daughters, and spent more time shooting hoops with our son.
Divorce gave me parenting freedom I had never had. I could take the kids to Erik’s if I was going out with a girlfriend or planning a late night. Having a backup gave me the freedom to date again, once I was sure that I wanted to.
As time passed, Erik and I were able to become friends. More than four years post-divorce, we co-parented well, talking or texting about Ryan and Haley almost every day and making major decisions as a team.
When I considered adopting a dog two years ago, I talked to Erik about it first. “I’m not ready for 100% of a dog yet,” I said. “Can we share her?” Erik laughed, and agreed, and our rescue puppy traveled back and forth between our homes. During the pandemic, I bought a pool table, and Erik was the first person we invited over to break it in. We weren’t married anymore, but we were still family.
Last April, Erik had had a pulmonary embolism that landed him in the ICU for 10 days. Six months later, he had a heart attack while I was away for the weekend with Walt, my boyfriend. Erik spent another week in the ICU before he came home. Ryan, our then-15-year-old, stayed at his place to help his dad.
I worried about Erik’s health even though he seemed to be recovering OK. But nothing prepared me for Haley’s call one afternoon when I was talking with Walt. “Ryan thinks Daddy’s dead!” she blurted when I answered.
Walt and I were at Erik’s in less than three minutes. Our kids were standing in the dining room, and I could hear Ryan talking with the 911 operator. Erik was slumped on the couch in the living room, his arm folded unnaturally under his body. Walt helped me lift him onto the ground, where I checked for a pulse and found none. I was calm in the moment, counting chest compressions to the beat of “Staying Alive” the way I’d learned in CPR class, and giving rescue breaths against his cool lips, while somewhere far off, I heard Walt take the kids out of the room.
The EMTs arrived minutes later and worked on Erik while I stood in the kitchen and gave his medical history. I kept the kids upstairs while they loaded him into the ambulance, and then called my best friend to come over so I could drop the kids at my house before I left for the hospital.
Walt sat with me in a small room in the ER, quietly holding my hand. When the ER doctor gave me the litany of everything they’d tried, I waited for the “I’m sorry” I knew was coming. I listened, and nodded, and eventually asked to say goodbye to my kids’ dad. When I did, I made him two promises that I will keep forever.
Then I left him and returned to my house where our kids were waiting. My kids now. Ryan saw my face when I walked in and he knew. But I still had to tell Haley, who hadn’t yet turned 11.
“Hey, sweetie.” I knelt down and put my arms around her. “They gave your dad all kinds of special medicine, and used special machines to try to help him, ” I said. I took a breath. “It didn’t work. He died. I’m so sorry.”
I scooped her up as she began sobbing and carried her to the couch. “I’m sorry,” I said over and over as I held Haley on my lap. “I’m so, so sorry.”
I wept into her hair as she cried, holding her tightly with my left arm while I reached over to hold Ryan’s hand with my right. It was all I could say. At some point in the following days, my refrain changed. I found myself saying, “It’ll be OK. It’ll be OK.”
I promise them that, but I can’t guarantee it. All I can do is show up for them, and try not to be freaked out by the fact that I now have not only have 100% of a dog, but 100% responsibility for my kids’ lives as well.
Co-parenting meant that I got a break every two weeks. It also meant that Erik and I were raising our kids together, even though we were divorced. That I wasn’t making every decision, big and small, on my own. That I had someone to commiserate with over the challenges of parenting, someone to celebrate with when one of our kids did something amazing, someone who shared the same memories. Someone who loved them as much as I do. I had become used to being a single parent when the kids were with me, but I never intended, or wanted, to be a sole parent.
Today, I parent much the way I did before. I make dinner and help with homework and drive Haley to her friends’ houses and talk NBA trades with Ryan and teach them about laundry and budgeting and eating healthy and handling big, scary emotions and looking out for other people as well as themselves. And I hug my kids more. I tell them that I love them, often, and I listen, and I remind them that I am here, and they can talk to me anytime that they need me.
“My partner in parenting, my backup, my safety net, is gone. It’s up to me to get these kids into adulthood, and hopefully do a decent job of it.”
My job now isn’t just to parent. It’s to stay alive. But I feel mortal ― and also tired. And, on the worst nights, overwhelmed. Because I’m it. My partner in parenting, my backup, my safety net, is gone. It’s up to me to get these kids into adulthood, and hopefully do a decent job of it.
I realize that I’m not alone. Whether single parents by choice or circumstance, there are millions of moms and dads doing the work of two parents, on their own, every day, day after day. After all, nearly one-fourth of children in America live in single-parent households. This fact, however, doesn’t ease the daily demands of parenting, or lessen the pressure I now feel to live, if not as long as possible, at least long enough.
I took reasonable care of myself before Erik died. I quit smoking decades ago. I work out. I eat (mostly) healthy. But my health wasn’t a priority. I sped on the highway. I put off doctors’ appointments. I cleaned my own gutters, standing tip-toe on a rickety ladder. I looked forward to an adult beverage most nights. I hadn’t updated my will for 14 years.
Now I plan for a future I hope doesn’t happen, and try to prevent the inevitable for as long as I can. I got the mammogram I’d put off for three years. (All good.) The colonoscopy I’d put off for five. (All good.) I got my bloodwork done. (All good.) I had gutter guards installed, cut way back on alcohol, and quit a job that was stressing me out for one that gave me more flexibility. I wrote a new will and picked guardians for my kids and organized all of my financial documents and one day I took the longest, deepest breath I could, and sat my kids down and told them who they will live with if something happens to me. I walked them through what their lives will look like if I’m gone, which sounds morbid to my friends whose kids still have two parents, but I did it anyway, and I assured them that they’ll go to the same schools and keep their friends, and their phones, and their pets.
“I will do everything I can to stay alive for you,” I said. “But if something happens, I promise it will be OK. You will be OK.”
They don’t need to know that I try to convince myself of the same thing nearly every day.
Kelly K. James lives outside Chicago with one son, one daughter, one dog, and one very spoiled fat cat. She’s working on a memoir about navigating the corporate world as a former freelancer. For more, visit www.kellykjames.net.