I woke up this morning from a long, cinematic dream that my foggy recollections sensed played out like the plot of a Seth Rogan movie. One where the male lead is the faulted but generally loveable husband-figure, and he and the wife grapple to slog through the muddy terrain of their stale relationship. They imperfectly but honestly confront trust issues and pain they’ve unintentionally caused each other, hurts they’ve let fester, unaddressed. They come out at the end recommitted to each other and to the family they’ve created.
At least, that’s the trajectory they know they’re expected to follow, because this is a Seth Rogan movie, or maybe it’s that one with Steve Carell and Tina Fey. There may be painful moments and even real danger, but with tenacity and laughter, they find their way through, together. Taking deep breaths, joining hands, and looking toward what comes next with renewed determination and a strengthened union.
Lou and I watched that Steve Carell movie. Date Night. I think I related to it, or at least I wanted to. But disturbingly, at least at the time, a film we saw together that I related to on a much deeper level was Sleepwalk With Me. I took Lou to see it for his birthday a few years ago at an indie film house in Mobile, and he hated it.
Spoiler alert: the characters in that one don’t make it through. Not together. In the end, they wake up. They let go of each other. They stop forcing their story to follow the expected narrative arc.
But my dream was the first kind of movie, the one where things work out, even when they seemed irretrievably broken halfway through. I woke up feeling rather accused by my subconscious.
“You should have tried harder.”
“You should have sacrificed more.”
“Don’t you regret it now?”
I got up. I started my morning, got ready for work. Poppy and Ace were with Lou, so I didn’t have uniforms to pick out or citizenship papers to make sure were initialed. I prepared in the quiet, and lyrics to a song I haven’t listened to in many years slipped out of my memory bank and began to play over my internal radio.
How can I believe when all around me all I see is hopelessness and lies? Can I reach beyond this dimly lit and dreaming twilight to a deeper reality?
I have regrets, and most I can forget. But one stays with me like an arm no matter where I am. I feel like Abraham. I put my blade inside its sheath, and find it’s not a bluff… I blew my one and only chance, and once was not enough.
Once that sweetness passes, you can never get it back. The train has fallen off the track… Everybody wants a little sweetness. Nothing wrong.
Regret is a funny thing. I’ve said before that I don’t regret Lou. Not loving him, nor marrying him, nor leaving him. But lately I’ve felt an emotion that feels like regret, and it’s slippery and difficult to analyze.
I regret that it all turned out this way. It wasn’t meant to. Twelve years ago, we stood side by side before Father Reed and made vows, witnessed and supported by a best man and a maid of honor. It’s a mockery of that ceremony to sit before a judge, across a table from each other, flanked by attorneys.
It feels wrong. Not because I don’t want to be out of the marriage, but because I don’t want to dissolve the marriage. I want to be divorced, but I don’t really want to get divorced. Going through the actions to get us there is uncomfortable, unpleasant, unnatural. It goes against what I thought I valued about myself: fidelity, tenacity, strength, determination, faith, right morality.
And then? Then there are Poppy and Ace.
Ace has been fairly compliant about everything, at least from the outside, for the most part. He’s still very young; only four now, and three when the separation happened. But last weekend, he expressed to me some thoughts he must have been ruminating on.
“There’s Poppy and Ace, so I want Mommy and Daddy.”
I didn’t understand at first. “You have Mommy and Daddy,” I told him. “You have Mommy tonight, and Monday, you’ll see Daddy again. But you always have your Mommy and Daddy.”
He wasn’t satisfied. He explained further. “But there’s Poppy and Ace here, so I want Mommy here and Daddy here.”
Ooh. “You want Mommy and Daddy together?” I asked.
“Yeah. I want you to marry Daddy. Marry him! Marry him!”
Ace is right. He and Poppy are together, and his mom and dad are supposed to be together. Should be, but aren’t. And won’t be.
And that feels like regret.
There’s an article that’s been making the rounds on Facebook, especially among parents: How American Parenting is Killing the American Marriage. The premise is that parents have turned parenthood into a religion, their children the gods they worship. Children always come first, even over our marriages, but parents should place higher priority on the marriage in order to provide stability and security to the children. The marriage came first, and the marriage comes first, and we fool ourselves if we believe we can put its cultivation on hold once our children are born and resume it seamlessly when they leave home.
This theme was echoed a little in my Sunday school class last week. We were discussing family structures and how the relationship dynamics in a family affect each of its members. For example, in a “Father Knows Best” style family dynamic, the father may be connected only to the mother, and the mother connected to the children, and each family member plays a strict, predictable role. This can create stability, but it can also repress everyone because no one may deviate from his or her assigned role. And mom loses her identity when the kids leave because her role vanishes.
Another unhealthy family dynamic may disconnect each member from the others, engendering independence but fostering conflict and anger. And another may have all the members enmeshed together with no boundaries, making it unclear who is in charge and where each member’s identity starts and ends.
A “healthy” family dynamic, per our discussion leader, has the father and mother connected to each other, united, and in charge of the family, with appropriate space separating them from the children. There is autonomy and intimacy. Everyone is connected, and everyone knows who is in charge.
I understand all of this reasoning. It makes sense; it seems right. Of course children need to know who is in charge, and that it’s not them. Of course if you hope to maintain a family structure headed up by two married parents, you have to do what it takes to cultivate the marital relationship. You can’t sacrifice the priority you placed on your spouse before you ever had children. It’s necessary that you nurture the marriage, and doing so keeps the family stable and the children secure.
But what does this all mean for me and for my children? Did Lou and I fail to nurture our marriage? When I ask that, the answer seems like a great, big “duh.” But I don’t think we didn’t try. Did we–or did I–make parenting the children into a religion at the expense of the marriage? Did I love Poppy and Ace more than I loved Lou–and was that wrong, and was there anything I could have done differently that would have produced a different outcome?
I don’t know… or maybe I’m afraid I do.
It’s so easy to love your children. Even when, as the article about killing the American marriage urges us to admit, you don’t always like them. Yeah, maybe infant Poppy and infant Ace in turn woke me up to nurse fifty times a night. Maybe the sun rose on my neck and shoulders stiff from clutching a baby awkwardly in the position most comfortable for the baby. I didn’t care for that. But she was infant Poppy; he was infant Ace. They were my babies. I could look at each of them sleeping, even as I felt tired and stiff and maybe touched out, and in looking at them I loved them. I just loved them.
Lou gave me Poppy and Ace. Lou was there first. But did I ever look at Lou and just love him? Did I ever look at Lou in the midst of annoyance and just love him?
I am uncomfortably reminded of a moment in our marriage that I think was a turning point. It was 2006, and we were in Connecticut, and I’d been seeing a therapist to work through issues leftover from 2005: Hurricane Katrina wrecking New Orleans, my mom dying, and Lou’s and my move to the Northeast. And something in my discussions with my therapist made her urge me to reconsider having children with Lou. Because that’s what time it was. We’d been married for four years, I’d finished graduate school, and we were both working. I was 26 years old. It was reproduction time. And she thought I should wait. When I confided in her my feelings about my marriage, she encouraged me to put on the brakes, reassess, and make sure he was the one I wanted.
There was a moment. Lou and I sat on the front porch, and I told him I wasn’t sure I wanted to have children with him. And he asked me, what was I saying? Did I want a divorce? Because that was the logical conclusion. The trajectory I chose for my life was marriage and children. Children were always the given. If I wasn’t sure I wanted to have children with Lou, then I must not be sure I wanted Lou at all.
And I couldn’t say that. That seemed so outlandish. Nonsensical. We’d made vows before Father Reed, flanked by our best friends. We’d moved to other states together.
I’d finished graduate school. I was working. I was 26. It was reproduction time.
In that moment, I made a decision. I wanted to believe I decided Lou was the one, that I wanted to have children with Lou. But even as I made the decision, I knew it was possible I was deciding simply to have children. That Lou was the one was a granted. He was my husband. And it was time.
We conceived Poppy. And I stopped seeing that therapist.
And I can’t regret the decision I made on that porch. I can’t regret Poppy or Ace.
But maybe I can regret whatever measures of fear and selfishness I allowed to help motivate that choice. Maybe I can regret failing to acknowledge in a more serious way those issues that struck my therapist. Maybe I can regret that the choice to marry Lou and to have children with him may not have been driven purely by love for him, devotion to him, committment to him, and desire for union with him. Even if it’s unrealistic to expect that any human being can be motivated by totally pure intentions, maybe I can still regret that maybe mine weren’t.
I hope I can be forgiven. For my role in mucking things up from the beginning, and for my role in failing to clear the path when it became cluttered with things to trip over.
I really do believe that Lou and I did the best we could. In our limited ability to know ourselves, to know each other, and to do the things necessary to create and maintain a marriage, we did the best we could. I’ve said “maybe” a lot in this entry, but I am convinced that we did our best. Or at least that we thought we did.
I kind of don’t know what this all means, and especially what it all means for the future. At this point, the future is what matters. How can I make sure my intentions are pure in decisions I make for the future? Am I even capable of making pure decisions–and is anyone? How can I provide a healthy family dynamic for my children when I’m no longer married to their father? What sort of family dynamic should I attempt to create if I ever marry again? How can you appropriately prioritize your responsibilities to your children and a marriage to someone who isn’t their father?
Ask Seth Rogan all of that. Tell him I’ll be waiting for his answer tonight in my dreams.