You can’t choose who your kids love – their hearts and hormones do that. And you can’t choose who they stop loving, either, or when. All you can do is watch as the romantic vicissitudes of their lives reverberate through the family whose – omigod! – matriarch you seem to have become.
All the years they were growing up, I wondered and worried whether my divorce would make them too wary to chance marriage themselves. I was divorced when they were barely out of diapers, and although I took a few chances on love again, I didn’t remarry. So when they found the partners they planned to spend their lives with, I first exhaled and then exulted. And when things changed, I cried not just for them and their children, but for my own losses, too – another daughter, another son, other peoples’ grown kids who by then had also become my own.
My son, barely 21, wasn’t ready for marriage when he fathered a child with a woman determined to keep and raise the baby herself. Eventually they worked it out, but meanwhile I knew I’d have to make my own relationship with her in order to have one with my first grandchild. We were never born soul mates, she and I, and had little in common besides this perfect, rosy-cheeked baby, but as a single mother myself, I had a lot of respect for a woman gutsy enough to choose that path herself rather than making a different decision. And as a famous pediatrician and psychiatrist once said, There is no such thing as just a baby – who else but its mother is going to call you when he takes his first step? I call her my putatif , which is French for “as if,” as in, She’s not really my daughter-in-law but it’s as if she were. And even though she’s not a member of my son’s family, she’ll always be one of mine.
When he eventually married, five years later, my own daughter pinned on my corsage and whispered that no one but her would have even one little inkling that I wasn’t crazy about his bride; I praised her with very faint ‘damns’ and did what the mother of the groom is supposed to do – wore beige to the wedding, kept my mouth shut, and was the very model of a modern, encouraging, supportive mother-in-law thereafter. (Yes, really I was.)
Six years and one little boy later, when they filed for divorce, I was sadder than I expected. Sad that history seemed to be repeating itself – not only my son’s, but his father’s and mine, too. Sad that my first-born had failed at love again, that another grandson might grow up without a full-time father, that another woman would struggle to raise a child by herself. So it came as a shock to me (not to mention my son) when my ex-daughter-in-law and I got to be friends – after they were divorced. I don’t mean just polite to each other at Sam’s baseball games and school plays. I mean really good friends, who go to the gym together, never miss a Hugh Grant movie or an episode of Sex and the City, and check up on and in with each other on a regular basis. I’m still not sure how it happened except that she grew up after their divorce (okay, maybe I did, too), and we somehow were able to reach out and cut each other enough slack to create a real, mutual and loving relationship that’s important to us both. I respect the effort she and my son have made to be better as co-parents than they were as partners; at ten, Sam’s a cheerful, emotionally secure kid who moves easily between his two homes, which are only a mile apart, and never doubts that both his mom and dad will always put his best interests above their own.
My own daughter’s wedding went off without a hitch. I adored her husband, and was devastated when they divorced, especiall for their two young children.I know that no one really knows what goes on in a marriage except the people in it, and that they didn’t take this step lightly, without trying everything else first – therapy, counseling, second honeymoons, giving each other space, and all that. I shouldn’t be mad at either of them, and I’m not, really, although for a while I was, first at him and then at her. There are no winners here, no sides to be taken; as my daughter said, we’re not angry or frightened anymore, just really, really sad. Which is what I am, too, but they’re having enough trouble trying to manage their own feelings and those of their children, so I’m dealing with mine in my own way, with some Prozac and a little help from my friends.
I really miss my son-in-law, a man who not only delivered my first granddaughter on the bathroom floor when his wife said the baby was coming Right Then, but stayed behind to wash the floor before he followed them to the hospital. I’ve called and written him, though not as freely as I once did. He used to say we loved each other like mother and son, but without all the baggage, and we’ve said it to each other since they separated, but the change in his and her relationship has definitely meant a change in his and mine.
I miss his family, too, who welcomed me into theirs when our kids got together. I haven’t figured out yet what to do about them – is there an etiquette that covers one’s former mishpocha? I don’t think we’ll be sharing Thanksgiving this year; should I e-mail or call them? If I did, what would I say? What could I say, except isn’t it too bad, isn’t it sad?
I miss the personal, private hope this marriage represented – that they’d escape the legacy of their own parents’ divorces and not repeat it themselves. I miss them as a couple, as I realize again that even though my kids’ former partners may some day be replaced in their lives, they won’t be in mine. And of course, I worry about my youngest two grandkids, who haven’t quite mastered what’s happening, even though their parents keep reassuring them that Mommy and Daddy still love them and their lives won’t change.
Except they will, of course. And so, again, will mine.