My former mother-in-law called me this morning while I was working. I looked at the phone and considered letting it go to voicemail for just a moment. When she calls, the conversation tends to be one-sided, usually filled with her speaking….or speaking over me if I try to chime in as well. And I’m forced to be on the phone for much longer than I want because I can’t even tell her I need to go. However, I hadn’t talked to her in awhile, and I do love the woman very much. So I picked up.
She had called to tell me she was thinking of the kids and me, that she had been thinking of us often. And moments later she was apologizing because she was going to start to cry. My MIL is a crier. It’s just a fact. Love her, accept her tears. And so I excused myself from my desk and found a quiet room where we could talk without worry about who was listening in.
She wanted to know about the kids, expressing interest in seeing them soon. I had to break it to her gently that they’d already had spring break.
“Oh, I knew I should have called sooner,” she lamented. But I reassured her that it was a decision the Ex and I had already worked out since the kids were overrun with activities during the week.
Truth is, though, the reason they didn’t go was because their father had been arrested and then released over another assault situation that just seems to fall in the path of the Ex. Both kids hinted they didn’t feel like seeing him after this happened, though they also insisted they were fine about him. But I felt more at ease having them home and promised them I would take the fall for the decision by placing blame on their activities and my decision over anything else.
“I don’t really talk to him that much lately,” MIL told me about the Ex. And she expressed the shame and embarrassment she felt when she saw his mugshot in the newspaper last month. I briefly considered what it must feel like for the parents of felons, you know, the ones who do something so heinous they’re considered the scum of the earth. But what about their parents, the ones who didn’t commit the crime? Granted, the Ex only beat up his roommate, supposedly for bringing drugs into the home. The man was left with a headbutt to the forehead and 14 stitches in the face, and the judge still wiped the slate clean for the Ex. But still, his mugshot stared out at my MIL from the newspaper the next morning for the whole county to see.
“He’s 35 years old. When is he going to grow up?” She seemed at a loss over his decisions lately. He couldn’t pay his bills. He had to start over in his sobriety once again. And he was having another kid with a girl who was proving to be even more unstable than the Ex.
“5 babies, three women,” she sighed. And I had to remind her that this was not her situation to stress over.
“Remember when I was pregnant with DQ?” I told her. “I was 19, and we had no way of supporting ourselves. Neither of us knew what we were doing. But look at DQ now. She’s really a great kid. Who’s to say that this kid won’t be great either?” I asked.
“I’m not disputing that,” MIL said. “I’m certain this kid will be wonderful. But neither of them is capable of taking care of a kid.”
“Maybe this is the kick in the pants the Ex needs to be able to grow up,” I told her. It had worked for me. I’d been a baby having a baby. I shudder to think about how immature or irresponsible I’d be on the selfish path I was heading had I not gotten knocked up so early. DQ had saved my life and made it better, even though I had briefly landed in the desperate world of a single mother.
“It’s possible that the Ex did this on purpose,” I told MIL. “It’s possible that after messing up so many areas of his life, including the distance between him and our kids now, he was looking for another chance at doing something great. This kid might be that chance.”
“But what about DQ and Taz?” she asked. “How are they taking it?”
“DQ is thrilled,” I admitted. “She can’t wait to come down there for the summer and help take care of the baby. And I guarantee, she’ll be totally hands on in this baby’s care.” We both laughed at my maternal little teenager before MIL realized I hadn’t mentioned Taz. “He’s fine right now,” I told her. “But he’ll be jealous when the baby comes because this kid will be with his father all the time, and Taz can’t.”
As the conversation went on, I came to a revelation about the Ex. It has been years since I could claim to be in love with him. And many of the past years I’ve harbored anger and resentment at the man he wasn’t, holding against him every single way he had failed us. But today, I was reassuring his mother that hope was not lost, and giving her ways she could help her son so he wouldn’t fail.
“He can’t do this on his own,” I told her. “He just doesn’t know how. He needs someone who will hold his hand all the way through so that he won’t give up before he succeeds.” I was suddenly aware that I might be the only person, except for his kids, who really knew who he was and had learned to accept him – faults and all. Would I let him stay in my house? Not on my life. I know well enough that his natural tendencies lean towards dishonesty and immorality. But I also know he’s trying, and really does want to be a better person. He just doesn’t know how. I’ve realized that my feelings of hatred and resentment towards him have been turning towards empathy for a man who is just struggling with a lot of odds in his way – odds he put there, but odds nonetheless.
Of course, it helps that I don’t have to see him or talk to him all the time.
“You always make me feel better,” MIL told me. “I love you.”
“I lov-,” I started.
“…so much,” she said, cutting me off. Some things never change.
It’s been months since I’ve seen any kind of child support from the kids’ father, and the checks I was getting were just enough to help fill my gas tank. It’s been even longer since he’s even seen the kids, and likely to be a few more months still since he lives hours away without reliable transportation. It’s possible he won’t make it to a baseball game for the Taz, watch him perform at his hip-hop recital, or see DQ graduate from 8th grade. He’s never taken them to a dr’s appt, paid for braces, or figured out how to get one kid to baseball at the same time as indoor soccer for the other.
But he does what he can. He calls the kids at least once every week or two, holding meaningful conversations with them each time. DQ may just be the only person who can be totally blunt with him, calling him on his crap, and not be blown off. And no one looks up to the Ex like Taz does.
It’s far from perfect, this split home dynamic and all the messy jigsaw puzzle pieces that go with it. But they fit together to create the portrait of what we’ve assembled as our life. And maintaining a sense of distance and understanding over protecting my own personal stake in our fragile world helps to keep the puzzle from blowing up and having to start all over again.
Well, at least for today. I mean, I still get the opportunity to bitch about him whenever he does something stupid, right?