What Divorce Does to a 'Family Man'

No matter how I feel about losing my husband, I am actively grateful my daughter didn't lose a dad.
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Mature man holding wedding ring, close up
Mature man holding wedding ring, close up

I sit the bowl of broccoli-and-sausage pasta on the table. It's a dish liked equally well by my husband of two decades, our 10-year-old daughter, and me. Our miniature schnauzer has settled in, resting half atop my feet. Dinner is ready. It is one more evening in the stream of thousands that look at first glance the way I imagined parenthood would look.

Except that tonight there are only two plates at the table.

At another table a few miles away, my husband is on his way to being my ex-husband, also adjusting to a different dinner configuration, a meal cooked by friends in a house not his own. I sit with my daughter, passing the parmesan and the grater, and I am guessing that the new arrangement still feels as foreign to him as it does to me. When I imagined my life, this wasn't the picture.

From the time I was a boy, I knew I'd marry a man someday. The laws of the land didn't dissuade my third grade self, and when I met the man I'd marry in the 1990s, it didn't dissuade me then either; I married him nine years before it was legal. Paperwork aside, it was just like your average wedding: friends and family gathered close, divorced parents circling warily but on best behavior, and two young people offering earnest vows to spend their lives together.

As surely as I knew I would marry, I knew I would be a dad. One of my earliest clear memories is of my epic, months-long battle for a baby doll when I was 5. You can't say I don't commit to an idea, as was later proved by the 12 years it took to get from my first conversation about the subject of parenthood with my future husband to actually becoming dads. Our baby girl rewrote the script of my heart, introducing me to new depths of love and terror and wonder.

In the decade since, there have been many things I valued -- writing, teaching, good friends -- but nothing compared to family. And I was never shy about saying how much I loved our life. Perhaps it's a holdover from my religious youth, but I became a near-missionary for domestic pursuits, which dominated my conversations and my Facebook wall; I even wrote an entire book about the joy I took in our home. I defined myself as a Family Man; like being gay or Cuban-American, it was part of my core identity, but more so for having been the primary part of myself that I chose.

So when my marriage unraveled on the eve of our 21st wedding anniversary, it was dislocating in profound ways. It wasn't just the grief and loss and anger that upended me, but the way the foundation I had made seemed newly cracked; every day felt like trying to walk perfectly upright with all the ground sloping badly to one side.

My sense of self was thrown: Am I still a family man if I'm not able to keep my family together? Would this suddenly make me a single dad? And if it did, wouldn't he be one, too? It didn't sound quite right: it's not like one of us had been widowed. No one disappeared. In fact, split notwithstanding, he was still running to the grocery store when she was out of mini-wheats, still getting her to dance class, and still wrestling her out the door to school several mornings a week.

That was the saving grace, the factor that kept us talking past pain, the one area in which we were still a team. Our daughter noticed. A few months in, when asked how she was feeling about the split, she admitted to being sad and mad, but also said she was already getting used to it. "You're not like divorced parents in movies," she told me over Chinese food during one of our living room floor picnics. "You don't fight all the time. You don't hate each other."

She's right -- and that's by design. Between his parents, mine, and our two siblings, my ex and I have seen five divorces before our own, so we know it doesn't always go this way between parents who split. We didn't want her to witness the bitter, you're-dead-to-me style divorce, which can poison the air for years, or the absentee divorce, in which one parent or the other checks out for a while or forever.

Rarer is what my parents had: after seven years of marriage and with two sons, they split, not especially harmoniously. But then, once free of something that didn't work, they became good long-distance friends. Each year, they spoke by phone on New Year's, Valentine's Day, Mother's Day and Father's Day, both of their birthdays, Thanksgiving, and Christmas -- it seemed as if they liked each other better every passing year.

Despite my parents' growing fondness for each other post-divorce, I inherently considered my dad "family" in the adjective sense, in which the word is a general descriptor for a relative I loved. But when I used "family" as a noun, the concrete facts of my daily life formed my definition: my mother, brother, and I, along with the grandparents in whose house I was raised. I had absorbed the social wisdom that the real shape of a family was defined by architecture.

Now, I have to unlearn that. I want my daughter to still feel the love of both parents fully and to know that won't change, even though we are not yet done with arguments (she'll never hear) over the who and where of physical housing. The only way to preserve that sense of constancy and safety in our dual love is to make sure we're both as present as possible, which in turn means we must remain connected to each other in meaningful ways that do not include address labels. I never for a minute thought my mental roster of "family" would someday include an ex, but it does; it must.

No matter how I feel about losing my husband, I am actively grateful my daughter didn't lose a dad. Tonight, after I do the dishes and get our girl off to bed, I will text him about school pick-up and soccer games, and I'll schedule our next dinner together, an important ritual in the new constellation of our lives. I will fold the laundry, pack her school lunch, and crawl under the covers for a little sleep before starting another day in which my old self leads a new life, still a family man.