By Alisa Holleron
My ex-husband and his wife picked up the kids recently to take them on a two-week road trip. My sons were beaming with excitement as they loaded suitcases and backpacks into the car. "Did I pack my CD player?" my younger son yelled out to me. "Yes, you did honey," I said, trying hard to hide the sadness that was coming over me in waves. The balloon of tears behind my eyes was growing and stretching thinner by the minute. I prayed it wouldn't explode until they could no longer see me waving good-bye in the rear view mirror.
If I hated road trips, this might be easier. But I love road trips. Memories of road trips with my children before the divorce flashed in front of me. I remembered one son peeing in a Coke bottle, and the rounds we'd sing as we went, "Don't put your dust in my dust pan, my dust pan, my dust pan. Fish and chips and vinegar, and pepper pepper pepper pop!" I remembered the euphoria I felt hitting the road with my ex on our first road trip, way before the kids were even a twinkle in my eye. There's nothing like new love and the open road to make the world feel like a wonderful place.
"We're set!" my ex shouted. Still lingering in memories, I headed toward the passenger door as if I was going on the trip. But wait a minute, there was a woman in my seat. The same eerie feeling I used to get when I watched The Twilight Zone rose up through my toes and landed queasily in the pit of stomach. It was as though I had gone to sleep and woken up in a different life. How did this woman replace me, become wife to my husband, mother to my children?
Breathing deeply, the feeling of strangeness was quickly replaced by another wave of sadness that settled in my heart and pressed firmly against my chest wall. Even though it was painful, I was grateful for the sadness. After all, until just recently, I was filled with anger toward this woman. Sadness is difficult, but anger is far worse. Sadness hurts, but it also heals, leaving in its wake a tender and open heart. Anger, on the other hand, feeds on itself, burning and destroying as it goes. Once it has you in its grip, anger doesn't want to let you go.
Believe me, I know. I held onto the anger at the woman in my seat for longer than I'd like to admit. I supposed if my ex had left me for her, my feelings would have seemed justified. But he didn't. Still, I clung to anger like a drowning man hangs onto a log bobbing in the ocean. I see now that it was easier to be angry than to face my own insecurities and the grief of a failed marriage. And who better to be angry with than this young and pretty addition to the family?
Bopping onto the scene several years ago, she was enthusiastic, eager, bubbly and fresh. I was threatened. Deep down, I was terrified that my children would trade in their old and boring mom, and go frolicking off into the sunset with the Supermom 2000 model - new and improved. She brought out my deepest, darkest insecurities. I became hardened and resentful.
I hated her for being nice to my kids. I hated her when I picked up my younger son, and he didn't want to leave her because they were laughing and eating popcorn together that she popped in a pot on the stove. I hated her because I saw my older son talking to her in an animated and smiley way only minutes after he had given me the cold shoulder. I hated her because she cheered enthusiastically at soccer games, and insisted on going to school conferences.
Through the distorted lens of jealousy and insecurity, I saw her as a manipulative person who was trying to steal my kids away. It was especially hard at first, during their honeymoon period. She was working hard to make things work. They were going on outings, having family game nights, and generally having lots of fun. They bought a new home and were busy settling in. They were all excited and happy. When I would pick up the boys, I couldn't help but feel like I had dropped in on the stepfamily version of the Cleavers.
But honeymoons can only last so long, and it was when theirs ended that some drops of compassion started to seep into my bitter heart. My younger son, approaching adolescence, started being disrespectful to the woman in my seat. I remembered how my older son acted at that age. According to the stories I heard from my kids, she was handling the situation with my younger son the same way I handled it with my older son, very poorly. My heart ached for her for a moment. Having been through adolescence with one son, I had learned better ways to deal with it. Not having children of her own, she was as helpless as I had been the first time. I wouldn't wish that on anyone.
My frozen heart started to thaw slightly, but for the most part I kept my heels dug in. One day I was complaining to a friend about her. My friend shook her head and said, "Have a little pity for her. I wouldn't want you to be the mother of my stepchildren. You're a hard act to follow." Hearing those words made the world feel as though it had been out of focus and was suddenly becoming clear.
What was it like to be her? What was it like to walk into an existing family and make a place for yourself? What would it be like to establish yourself with children who already have a mother that they love? Finally, delayed though it was, it started dawning on me that she wasn't in an easy position. If I felt threatened, how could she possibly feel? What could it possibly be like to mother two kids who would never be hers?
Standing at the curb the day they left, I looked into the face of the woman in my seat. She looked different to me now, not the devious Cruella DeVille I once imagined her to be. She was a woman, like me, struggling to make a happy life for herself. She was a woman, like me, with strengths, weaknesses, successes and defeats. I reflected on our journey and knew that I'd come a long way. There was so much I had learned.
I learned that we are not in a competition. We can both have a relationship with the boys, and the quality of one will not detract from the quality of the other. I don't have to vie for their love as if there is a finite amount that will be split between us. In fact, ironically, I've learned that the more I accept and embrace her, the more my children will love me. Love creates love. I've also learned that nobody ever takes the place of Mom in a child's heart. When I remember that, I have compassion for the woman in my seat. As much as they love her, she will never be Mom.
When they pulled away, I cried many tears. I cried tears of grief for a mom, a dad and two kids who were once a family and were no more. I cried because when you divorce, your children have a life and family that doesn't include you. I cried because life often turns out so differently than you imagine it will. My deep sobs reminded me of the way my sons cried when they bumped their heads or skinned their knees. Just as their deep sobs eventually subsided into a relaxed contentment, so my crying finally dissolved into a profound feeling of peace.
It would be so easy to bitter. How well I know that. But this is our life now. Every decision, every turn in life, every change, has its sadness. There is nothing to be mad about. Imagining them driving down the highway, I hoped that their trip would be safe and happy. I hoped that the woman in the front passenger seat, HER seat, would bring my children some joy, and that they would return it. I hoped that my ex would be peaceful and relaxed. I hoped they would sing lots of songs, laugh and kid, and remember to always have an empty Coke bottle for those times when gas stations are few and far between.
Alisa Holleron, MSW, is the mother of two boys, ages 14 and 19. A social worker for many years, she facilitates workshops in Chicago and Northern California that help parents understand their emotional reactions to their children. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org