“Daddy, why do wolves howl at the moon?”
“What kind of bugs can bite us?”
“Who lives on Mars?
River asks a LOT of questions. My family teases me about it, wondering how I never tire of the endless flow of “why?” that comes from my daughter’s mouth. But I have only myself to blame.
From a very young age, I told her “Being curious is a very good thing.” I never dismiss her questions, and if I don’t know an answer I’ve shown her how to look for information in a book or on the computer. When she’d been told “No more whys” by one of her daycare teachers, I shook my head and insisted “You can always ask why.” Admittedly, some of the more persistent lines of questioning can feel like this Louis C.K. sketch (NSFW), but I endeavor always to provide complete explanations when her little mind is searching for understanding (and if you’ve ever had a toddler, you know this is almost all the time).
But some questions are harder than others to approach. This weekend, she asked me “Daddy, will you get married again?”
Hmm. “You know, sweetie,” I said cautiously, “I don’t really know. I’m not planning on it right now.”
“Why? You should just get a wife,” she advised.
“Finding a wife is a tricky thing, though,” I explained. “Besides, I’m more focused on other goals in my life right now.”
“Well, when I’m a grown-up you can marry me,” she decided. I laughed. Toddler logic is cute even when it’s completely inappropriate.
“That’s a very generous offer, but parents and their children can’t marry,” I said.
“Well, can you and mommy be married again?” she said.
Yikes. Can we go back to the questions about the water cycle and if it’s ok to kill animals, please?
I wondered what had prodded her to be ruminating on this awkward topic. She’s known for some time that her mother and I were married and aren’t any more. (When River asked why in this instance, my ex and I decided we’d give her a simple explanation she could understand: “We wanted our own houses.”) But why the sudden renewed interest? I had a feeling the events of the previous evening had something to do with it.
We had gone to the local drive-in movie theater to see Frozen. On the way, I texted River’s mom to let her know where we were for the evening. Turns out she was out for a jog anyway, just a few minutes from the drive-in.
We stopped off to get some dinner and snacks and then drove into the nearly empty field and set up blankets and pillows in the front seats. The sky was overcast and rain was predicted, so we had the place almost to ourselves. Just before the previews began, the sky opened up and it began to pour. My cell phone buzzed in my pocket.
A message from my ex: “I just saw lightning, and I’m over on Route 169. Can you come pick me up?”
What kind of question what that? When someone needs help, even your ex-wife, you get up and give it.
“Well, River,” I told the little girl in the passenger seat with cheesy popcorn all over her face, “We’ve got to go pick up mommy.”
“So the lightning doesn’t give her a really big boo-boo!”
After we got my ex out of the rain, we all drove back to the drive-in and watched the movie together, River scrambling back and forth to cuddle with both us until she finally dozed off for the night.
I could tell River was very excited to have “mommy time” and “daddy time” simultaneously. I was also pleased to be reminded again of how fortunate I am – and River too – to have a positive relationship with my ex-wife. (I’m afraid I know quite a few people who would rather be hit by lightning than ask for help from their ex.) But that time in the car gave her a glimpse of her life had her parents not divorced, and I think that’s why River was inquiring about marriage.
My therapist once told me that “divorce is crazy-making business.” He is absolutely right. There can’t be a more trying process than severing ties from someone you once pledged to love for life. Divorce is the excruciating process of learning that marriage is an all or nothing deal: you can’t put away the bad things and retain the good, you can’t remain close to your ex based on the friendship and memories you’ve worked so hard to build. No, the person who occupied the central place in your life must become like a business acquaintance at best, a bitter enemy at worst. The complete inversion of one’s values and disposition toward their former life-partner, I think, is the “crazy-making” part of a divorce.
It’s an experience that only the word devastating can accurately describe. My divorce was hands down the darkest era of my life, a time when every morning brought a difficult decision about whether life was worth enduring for another day. But my ex and I had experienced divorced before as children, and we made a vow – even smack in the middle of our worst private hells – that River would never be a casualty of our uncoupling. We never wanted her to feel that she couldn’t openly and proudly love one of us while in the presence of the other. We wanted her to see her parents interact with one another positively and compassionately.
So we drafted a parenting plan that put River’s happiness above any other consideration: no speaking ill of the other parent in front of her, never deny access, celebrate birthdays and some holidays together, create opportunities for joint activities, communicate frequently on important matters of child-rearing. In the years since we made that agreement, we’ve both been at all of her birthdays, called, texted, and e-mailed about colds, discipline, diets and everything else. We’ve put our child’s success first.
No, my ex and I will never re-marry, but we have built something extraordinary together on the ashes of our marriage. We’ve chosen to co-parent, not be parallel parents. It’s not always been easy and certainly I have made some stupid mistakes. But my ex summed it up very well in a text she sent me on River’s third birthday: “We did it! We’ve raised a happy and intelligent child through her most formative years. We should be proud of ourselves.”
“Mommy and I aren’t getting married again, Rivs,” I finally answered. “Your mommy and I don’t love each other the way married people should. But your mom is awesome, and you know that I love her the same way I love all of our family, right?”
“Yes, I do know that.”
Without a doubt, the most important thing I have ever taught her.