Open letter: Thoughts from a single dad

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“You never really wanted a family, did you?” she asked.

It was a cutting comment, but I’ve had my thoughtless moments too, so I let it pass. Tara and I had been divorced for a while at this point, so I recognized that the question was probably more reflective than malicious. Also, I didn’t have the energy to argue the point that evening.

What could I have possibly said?

There was something in the way she put it to me that was instantly silencing. It felt like there were only two possible answers she expected to hear, and both were horrible. Either I’d say, “No, I never wanted a family,” or “Yes, I wanted a family but with someone else,” – a do-over so to say. Neither of these options were true, because of course the truth is more complicated.

This isn’t a new story, but few stories are. And maybe there’s something to be gained in the retelling of it.

We had a sunlit life for some time. As a couple, we were fast friends and companions. We’d have those long debates about the usual big questions, and while we never really agreed on them, I always assumed that connection we had was enough and that partners don’t have to agree on everything. Honestly, I felt projecting one’s ideal of a soulmate on someone, demanding that they “check all the boxes” was to create an impossible burden, one I wanted to avoid. More than anything, though, I did want to make her happy.

We decided to have a child.

People tell you that having a child will change your life. But words are shallow and you can’t really know the depth of what they mean unless you’ve tried it. The stress it puts on a relationship is substantial. Gone were our long uninterrupted conversations, shared adventures, the promise of collaborating creatively together. I discovered that, apart from an appreciation for conversation and alcohol, we didn’t have that much in common after all. Our support network (her friends) would come for our backyard BBQs and speak to the obsessions of a certain clique: organic diets, the raw credential of dishes, pagan spiritualism. I listened to it all with minor interest and sought out what gluten-free grains of truth I could. But I needed to talk to my people too.

Somehow they found me. This city has a way of mix-matching and throwing people together that the suburban nest I was raised in never did. The cast of my story expanded.

Two of them stand out in particular since they almost immediately felt like family. I met my brother Trent, a refugee of 2008′s financial collapse, an economic wizard retraining in computer science. I met Aimee, the mercurial, wounded, dark-eyed sister I’d never had. I loved them both, and it seemed like my claustrophobic world was expanding a little. I was happy.

Yet I could never seem to integrate these newfound friends into the circle Tara and I had created around us. Instead, I found time for them on my off-duty hours. Somehow I wasn’t exhausted after tucking Tara and my infant son into bed, so I’d go out. The evening adventure waited just outside the door. Trent and I might have a beer somewhere. Aimee and I could walk for hours. We shared some good times. It was all very innocent, and it was good to know people that shared interests.

Clearly I should have known what was coming. I’ll freely admit that’s on me since I’m not great at navigating interpersonal stuff or reading minds, but my wife felt threatened. There’s no phase in a relationship where you lay out your personal deal breakers, but honestly, maybe there should be. For me, it would be lack of trust. I was told I couldn’t hang out with people that I felt happy with, Aimee in particular, and that turned out be a redline for me. I stood my ground to protect that friendship. Was I wrong? The arguments, entreaties and recriminations eventually tore me down, as I’m sure they did for Tara.

Divorce proceedings were relatively painless. I think we were both relieved. Being lonely together is awful and getting out of each other’s space was probably the best decision for our son as well. I’ve heard of so many couples moving their beds apart or sleeping in entirely separate rooms. I doubt anybody could call that a good outcome, yet it seemed like that was the direction we had been heading in.

We’ve moved more than a room apart but it’s only a few subway stops. We can still hang out whenever our co-parenting schedule coincides, and we’re pretty cool with that. I think we’re better as friends, and it’s likely more fun for our son now when we get together.

It’s fun to see how happy he gets when we do all get together. I feel lucky that things didn’t get sour like I’ve seen and heard from so many others of my age. That being said, our marriage was still a portion of my life and now in my mid-40s, I’m having to reinvent myself and figure out what this chapter is all about. I guess that’s exciting.

Neither of us have rushed into new relationships and I don’t know what the future holds. Will she be happier with someone else? I’d hope so. Will I ever find anyone I can relate to again? What will the little guy think of it all if we do? Kids are pretty resilient, and the divorce didn’t seem to phase him in the least, but of course I have concerns.

These days I see the little one often and nerd out proper over spaceships and superheroes. I try to be a good dad. I enjoy cooking for him, teaching him how to play music, listening to his words of the day. I’m really glad he is here. Sometimes I struggle, but I’ve made him a priority, and that’s something I continue to work on each time I see him. I try not to beat myself up and just practice being “dad” the way I want it to be. I think that’s all you can really do. There’s no official rulebook per se, and frankly I don’t know how interested I’d be if there was.

So, how would I answer her question now? Do I want a family? As I write this, I’m sitting alone in my room as the sun rises on another long work week. I’m not sure what it is, maybe I’m just too restless to really think about it all. I do want an authentic connection. Don’t we all? And, I still have a family, it just looks different. Every divorce or breakup is probably unique, but clearly to continue navigating this change, it’s going to be a balancing act between different needs, right? Mine didn’t work out.

I don’t see Trent or Aimee much anymore either. He’s pretty busy and she fled the implosion in my life without explanation – not that I blame her. I’m grateful for the time we had and their role as catalysts. In my experience, the best family, the family you choose, needs room to breathe and grow. Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect a single person to meet all our needs, but for me, to survive, I’m going to have to continue finding balance between security and trust. And if that’s the truth I’ve found after writing this letter, then I’m OK with that.