What is a ‘good’ break-up? I had never wanted to consider this a legacy, but it became necessary when I ended my relationship with their other mom just before my twins entered Kindergarten. When I decided to end my relationship, it was both about the person and about my clarity that I was not a lesbian. Such a monumental shift in my identity disoriented me. I had been seeking a sense of acceptance as a woman and it made sense that being with a tribe that valued my identification as female above all else attracted me. C and I met playing soccer and I was ripe to settle down in my early 30s. Over the ensuing years, our significant differences in race and class-consciousness eroded my initial attraction.
We didn’t tell the twins for almost a year that we had ended our pretense that had achingly lengthened to seven years of being anything other than parenting partners. This allowed us time to think through a ‘break-up’ process that would be as undisruptive as possible for them.
A few weeks after our discussion, we attended their Centro Vida pre-school graduation in their colorful playground filled with chairs and video cameras and parents from the graduating Estrellas. Ana came over and hugged me, her petite sturdy body melding into mine. She offered to take a picture of C and me, not knowing we had broken up. We plastered on smiles and posed awkwardly.
“”No, closer,” she said. I sighed in this mess of a farce. I left to find a friend in the back of the crowd with his video set up on a tripod.
“I am hiding from my life,” I chuckled. “Y tu?”
“”I am hiding from my ex, ” he replied.
“”Ah, yes, these family celebrations can be so much fun, que no?”
The kids performed their ballet folklórico, oblivious to their moms’ turmoil. I took a picture of both of them afterward, their faces close together, their insides matching their outsides. They made it look so easy.
We untwined the two-mom routine that had held our lives close for five years. I moved into the back room where my office was. There was actually very little to do, as I already used the closet for my clothes. I consolidated my desk and moved it from my precious window so I had room to open up the futon sofa. I deluded myself with a scenario of converting the basement into a separate space for me, fantasizing about a family room where the units would converge. Anything other than leaving. If Gina got hurt or if Teo had one of his now rare asthma attacks, I wanted to wipe their tears and put a band-aid on their rodilla as I sang “Sana, sana, colita de rana. Si no sanas hoy sanaras mañana.” I didn’t want to hear about it from their other mom. I shortly came to my senses.
We sat our almost six-year-old queridos down after kindergarten drew to a close to tell them the split was going to widen even more. By now the heaviness was a wool sweater on a hot summer day.
“”Mama C and I are not going to live together anymore.”
They stayed silent, moving around the perimeter of the living room, sneaking a peek at one or the other of us.
“”Does that mean we might have a dad?”
Teo stopped us cold with this question. Before either of us formulated an answer, Gina ran to the phone, dialing a number as she walked purposely from us and into my back office. I followed a few paces behind, wanting to give her privacy and needing to be part of her reactions.
“”Yeah, and Linda is going to move out in a few months,” she paused, listening to the other person. Who was she talking to? I was pleased she was talking and annoyed it was not to me.
She turned abruptly, handed me the phone and walked back toward the living room.
“Oh, hi. It’s Karen.” she paused. “She asked for Ana but she isn’t here so she told me the news.”
“How did she sound to you?”
“Matter of fact. Almost cool.”
“Yeah, I thought so too. Sometimes I wish they’d throw a tantrum, but that has never been their way.”
The love of our children drove our decision-making despite multiple adult mishaps over the many years since that day. The next summer was a series of mama one and mama two transitions, each of us house-sitting when possible to ease into the final separation. The kids remained quiet on the topic and I did not know what to ask or how to guide down this stretch of the river. We told them every logistical detail we could so they were clear about where they would be and who would make their breakfast and pick them up from their BAHIA summer program.
When an apartment two blocks away opened up, I took it, glad to be so close so the changeovers could be easy and they kept the same bus stop. I picked a Saturday in late August after the kids turned six to move. My brother came to help me move my few possessions in his small pick up. I had so little after forty-three years of living. We drove one and a half blocks and parked. I had crossed a border, leaving my home, my children, my garden, my kids’ baby pictures, and the illusion of family bliss. Nothing truly eased the disappointment on my children’s faces, their unrequited wish for me to make it better. They would not understand for a long time that I was making it better. They would only remember the night they began to get only one beso before drifting off a dormir con los angeles.
Our transition had been going relatively well, except that the kids had nixed my plan to sleep on the top single bunk and have them sharing the bottom double bunk on their nights with me.
“No. Take turns sleeping with us.” While they disagreed about videos, on this they were adamant. I relinquished my wish and resigned myself to periodically fighting for blankets. This was just one of many “opportunities” to give them power in a situation where they had no say in such a huge disruption of their lives.
We created a complicated schedule so that they were never away from either of us for more than two days. It required us to coordinate even more than before and allowed us to step on each other’s toes constantly. I didn’t want my kids to re-live my childhood, where references to cultura were often insults of one or the other of my parents’ patrias. I did my best to avoid scenes like those I experienced in my parents’ kitchen but it meant both of us biting our tongues for the sake of the children, who loved us both.
The hardest part of maintaining an amicable transition was our differing interests in how we wanted to be with each other. In reading The Good Divorce by Constance Ahrons, C wanted to be Perfect Pals and the best I could do for a long time was Cooperative Colleagues with a dash of Fiery Foes. By leaving the relationship I committed to re-building my heart from the subtle innuendos of superiority that had clogged my self-worth.
We used a mediator for many years to assure we could speak freely and establish new roles and rituals to support our binuclear family structure. I can’t say it went well all the time, but it was important for the children to see that we disagreed – pretending to be happy and get along would have been dissonant to our break-up.
Fifteen years have come and gone since we sat the kids down to tell them their lives were going to change. In retrospect, I might have simplified the schedule more, but at the time I couldn’t bear to not see my kids regularly. I couldn’t have calmed my anger any sooner than I finally did, because in the midst of this transition my mother was dying and grief was a heavy fog that occludes grace and forgiveness.
When I made yet another move across the Richmond Bridge to Marin County, it opened the door for my twins to do what we had offered them for several years – the chance to live primarily in one home and avoid the back and forth. They chose to stay in their childhood home in Berkeley. This was supremely logical, but there were days I put my hand on a wall as my breath was sucked out of me with longing for them.
I shifted the rigid boundaries I had constructed and began going to C’s house to see them, crossing a line I had held for nine years.
“What are you doing here?” asked my son and daughter for the first several visits, uncomfortable with the change.
“I am being with you since you do not want to come to Marin,” I said. It was like ripping off a scab again and again for the first three to four months. The diligence paid off as we all let the scabs heal in the house I had left to save my spirit. They came to stay with me periodically and a deeper bond of co-parenting has emerged as a result of never losing sight of including our children’s perspectives. For children, there is never a ‘good’ break-up. That being said, it is a reality many families experience and we must strive to do the best we can.
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