Almost two years ago, my world was turned upside down. My ex-husband had confessed that he no longer loved me, and I learned the hurtful truth about our marriage. Sincerely believing that I was looking out for the best interests of our two girls, I immediately filed for primary physical custody. My ex-husband did not fight it, as he himself was lost and trying to find his way, and we agreed that this arrangement was in the best interest of our children. He relegated himself to weekly evening visits with them that first summer, and I devoted myself to being the best mother the girls could possibly have.
Less than two months later, my dad was diagnosed with stage three esophageal cancer. Suddenly, my divorce seemed minor and insignificant. The most important man in my life, the most stable man I knew, was fighting for his life, and the impact of his diagnosis was far-reaching. A year-and-a-half earlier, my dad had retired to watch my girls full-time. He had always put us first, and now he had to put himself first. I had to put the girls in daycare, and I had to think long and hard about how to move forward raising them.
Here comes the part where you're going to judge me, and that's okay. The judgement is deserved. But I ask that you please keep in mind that this was a time of transformation for me. My world had been turned upside down, and I was navigating it the best I knew how. I had my guard up, and I was dealing with being angry and hurt while also being sad and scared. I reached out to my ex-husband and asked him to come to my house every morning and get the girls ready for school. Otherwise, I'd be waking them up an hour earlier than necessary. They would be the first kids arriving at daycare, a place they'd never been before, and their days away from home would span nine hours. That seemed like an awful lot of unnecessary change for two little girls, ages two and five, who had been through so much in one short summer.
My ex-husband at first balked at the idea. I was still living in our marital home, and I was asking him to get up earlier than usual to be with his children in the place where I'd made it clear he was no longer welcome. I'm not proud of the way I worded it, but I'm going to admit it to you because it's part of the story. I told him that he could see his children every weekday morning or go back to seeing them just once a week. I pointed out to him that many non-custodial parents would do anything for that kind of time with their children. I wish I could say that I asked him to do this because I believed that the girls needed time with their father, but I honestly did it because it was the easiest solution to the problem at hand.
After much consideration, my ex-husband agreed to the proposal. When the new school year started, he came to our home every morning to get the girls ready for work. Looking back now, I am so thankful for that commitment he made to the girls. When we separated, we promised that we would always put the girls first. That arrangement laid the foundation for what I would now call a successful and healthy co-parenting relationship.
During a heated argument about something-or-other, the topic of his mornings with the girls came up a few months after we'd begun that arrangement. He begged me to to not change things, to not take his mornings away from him; he had grown to love and look forward to that time with the girls. They created routines together and had some great memories. What had started as an arrangement of convenience was proving to be the greatest thing for our children at that time.
As time went on, the girls began spending one day every weekend with their dad. Because of his living arrangements, we agreed that they would not do overnights with him. He had them for seven to eight hours once a weekend and came to our home to have dinner with them twice a week. Sometimes, he stayed at the house with them while I ran errands; other nights, he would take them out for dinner. The girls loved their Tuesday and Thursday nights with their dad, and I began to look forward to having some time to get things done for myself (even if that just meant going to the grocery store without kids). I had spent their entire lives putting them first, and I was learning that it was healthy to sometimes put myself first.
Then something heartbreaking happened. The girls started to cry for their dad at bedtime. I'm not talking little I-miss-my-daddy tears. I'm talking full-on hysterics, sobbing uncontrollably, shattering my heart into a million little pieces. They longed for their dad. And while I wanted to blame him and say that this is the reality that he had chosen, that wasn't fair. He's their father. They adore him. And while he may not have been the best husband, he was proving himself to be a good, dare I say great, dad.
A year-and-a-half after our separation, I had plans to go out of town for a weekend. It was to a family wedding with my boyfriend, and it wasn't appropriate to take the girls. I asked my ex-husband to stay at my house with the girls while I was gone, and he initially agreed. Then he changed the conditions, saying he would only keep the girls for the weekend if they could stay at his place. I said no, and we had a bit of a fight about it. But then I really thought about it. My girls were crying for their dad almost every night. He loves them. They want time with him. And I was standing in the way of that. He is not an unfit father, he has never put them in harm's way, and he is in-tune to their needs. I had no good reason to say no.
We decided to do a trial run the night before Thanksgiving. If an overnight at his place went well, he was going to keep them that entire weekend. And if that went well, he would keep them two weeks later while I went to the wedding. That first weekend without them in the house was so strange. My amazing boyfriend, recognizing how emotional it would be for me, took me away for the weekend, distracting me and keeping me busy. I had an incredible time and found myself truly enjoying the weekend and thankful for the time to focus on my relationship with my boyfriend. And the girls? They came home glowing.
After that weekend, my ex-husband and I agreed to an every-other-weekend schedule. He started picking them up every other Friday and keeping them until Sunday evening. The girls would literally count down the days until they could go to their dad's house, and I occasionally found myself doing the same. My boyfriend and I started taking trips and doing weekend activities together, planning things around our "kid-free" weekends.
A few weeks ago, my ex-husband asked for 50/50 custody. Things are falling into place for him, and he is moving into his own home soon. I can still remember the moment he asked for it. I felt as if my heart had leapt into my throat, and I got clammy and felt as though I might have a panic attack. How could I let him take my girls from me? How could I not be a full-time mom? How could I let them go when I had spent so much time making them my world?
I wanted to say no. I wanted to fight. I wanted to hire a lawyer and prove all the reasons he shouldn't have our girls half of the time. But then I took a step back. As hard as I tried to find one, I had no good reason to say no. I had no reason to keep the girls from their father. I had no reason to not let them spend just as much time with him as they do with me. He is their father, and he loves them. But more importantly, they love him. As hurt as I've been by his actions, he has not hurt them. He has done nothing but love them and be there when they've needed him. And who am I to get in the way of that?
Two months ago, my life completely changed again. The beds in the beautiful pink and purple bedroom of our new home are empty just as often as they are occupied. I wake up some mornings with the frantic rush of packing lunches and kissing the girls goodbye, but I wake up just as many mornings to the silence of a house with no kids in it. Half of my weekends are filled with giggles and nail polish and playdates while the other half of my weekends are filled with wineries and romantic getaways (and, while I'm being honest, housework and home improvement projects). And while I worried I wouldn't feel whole without the girls here, I've learned to take time for myself and to focus on my relationship with my incredibly supportive boyfriend.
I'm not sharing this for self-gratification. I'm not sharing because I think I did things the right way from the start. I'm sharing this because I wish I'd had more stories to read as I was going through my divorce and making the decisions that would forever impact my children. And I'm not naive. I know the transition won't be easy. I know there will be tears, cries for Mommy, cries for Daddy, forgotten homework folders, and bedtime FaceTime and I miss yous. But I also know, deep down, that this is what's best for my girls, for our girls. At the end of the day, their happiness and well-being are what matter most as we all keep moving forward.