“Yeah, you get married, you have a kid, and then you need to break up!“
I heard my nine-year-old son say this to his friend in the backseat of the car one day last year. It came with no sarcasm; no somberness; no regret. The excitement was palpable. It was something to look forward to as an adult.
His mom and I split when he was about four, after a yearlong legal battle that left very little un-scorched. I shielded him from most of it. Sometime in the middle of the worst, I consciously decided to not let anything stop me from enjoying life. We’ve always had a good time, my son and I.
Now, he’s got two parents with livable incomes, two sets of toys, two rooms, two addresses, a variety of friends and experiences to enjoy in both locations, and time split evenly between the two.
And he’s got a role model in Dad.
“Do what Dad did!” That’s what he’s thinking. Dad seems to have done well. Dad’s happy and secure and enjoys life. Dad’s some Caucasian, male version of that strong, independent, black woman who don’t need no man.
Well yes, that’s . . . true . . . hehehehe . . . but . . . but . . .
I shook my head. I tried to bring myself back to reality — what I knew of it. Or thought I knew.
Suddenly flailing, I tried to correct him. “No, Henry: You don’t have to break up. It’s better if you don’t.” He looked up in confusion. So did his little friend. His friend knows nothing of the thrills of divorced life. His parents are still together, though his mom brought his older half-siblings along into the second marriage that produced him. The new normal looks nothing like “normal” by the standards of the last century.
In the month or so since I heard my son’s enthusiastic plans for his own dissolved marriage and single fatherhood, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking it over. Am I doing something very wrong; or am I doing something very right? Why remind him of something he’ll never have, even though — perhaps — he should be missing it? Why bother to acknowledge anything is missing at all, as long as times are good? His friends in school come from both intact marriages and from what we used to call “broken homes,” — back when “broken” was universally seen as a serious drawback. When it comes to the pleasures of being a kid, my son does better than most: More vacations, more toys, more fun and stimulating experiences, more time with both parents. In fact, he has much more time with his dad than do most kids from intact, nuclear families.
So what’s wrong with it — this childhood in a modern, liberated, broken family?
There’s something missing: Something that I — in my ever-hardening refusal to submit to yet another painfully flawed relationship I lack the skills and emotional background to manage — just can’t bring myself to confront. No, it’s not good to break up, Henry. Marriages are supposed to be happy — more-or-less. It’s supposed to be permanent. It’s supposed to be better for everyone in the family, if you do it right. You’re supposed to stay together. But if you ever find out you were never really that together in the first place, sometimes breaking up is best for the best of both of you. And your kids.
I don’t say that to him. But what I do say probably sounds just sounds like it. “That’s just how it is — sometimes. Sometimes it’s better if you break up.”
And in your life and all you know of life, it most definitely has been better than the alternative you never really knew.
Perhaps this is all needless fretting. Maybe my son is on the leading edge of a new generation. Maybe this new generation doesn’t see a permanent, quasi-sanctified, unconditional bond as ideal at all. If so, it would be the culmination of a long-running trend. If we’re almost at that point anyway, maybe we can see some real opportunities for progress in this development. Or in this destruction.
Maybe sometime in his 30s — just after attaining the age soon to be considered “adulthood” — with something like a stable income from a variety of piecework gigs in the new sharing economy, my son will meet the ideal co-parent. He’ll combine genes with her, and they’ll bring into the world a child who will be raised in equal portion by each of them — separately — right from the start. There will be no trace of broken promises, misunderstandings, emotional bitterness, destroyed dreams. Maybe his peers will see things that way as well: a bunch of single or half-time dads walking their toddlers through the mall while chatting about onesies and feeding schedules and inoculations. Maybe that’s the only way we’ll ever achieve true gender equality. Let’s just take away the pretension of eternal togetherness and get on with the real work of society: effectively raising children. Both parents separately but equally responsible, and separately but equally able to enjoy what should have always been a joyous experience, with no broken hearts and shame to cloud up the sunny skies.
Maybe it’s just not as bad as it sounds after all.
Because I sure hope it isn’t.