Is It Too Much to Ask to Stay Married Until the Kids are Grown?
Let me tell you what my answer to this question was. I believed it was too much to ask. I was married to a good man and a great father, but I felt angry, overworked, stressed out all the time. It definitely felt like too much to ask.
I would do whatever it took to make it easier on our son. I even used my experience with unhappily married parents to convince myself divorce was the better of his options.
This miserable existence vs. life as a single mom with shared custody? Bad choices, but I knew which one I wanted.
It's not what I got. My husband had been ill for a long time with a serious, chronic disease. Sick enough to require multiple hospitalizations and a few surgeries. Sick enough to be getting IV feedings twelve hours a day at home. But well enough to teach his classes at the university during the other twelve. Or so I, my husband, and his doctor thought. We were wrong. I came home from work and found him dead. He died the day after after I suggested shared custody. Our son was visiting friends 1,200 miles away.
I really thought I wanted out. I was filled with resentments, overwhelmed with responsibilities, and tired all the time. Now I was out, and I owned our new house and all our other assets. Social Security provided a lot more child support than most non-custodial fathers do. I don't know what I thought divorce would be like, but this had to be better, no? And it was awful. Our son was still safely in the care of good family friends, enjoying the beach, but already it was overwhelming. Stressful beyond belief. And scary.
And then morning came, my first as a widow. I woke up and recalled the list of unmet needs that had led me to believe it was too much to ask to stay married until the kid was grown. And now I knew there is no right answer to this question. And it hurt.
Getting unmarried does not get your needs met. Your needs are your own, whether you are married or not, and you deal with them or not. Getting unmarried does not make things more fair. It just takes away the source of help that deludes you into thinking you deserve less of a burden than an unmarried parent. Getting unmarried does not make you feel any less unloved or unappreciated. It only accentuates these feelings.
And that is when I cried even harder than I had when I discovered the lifeless body of the man I still hoped would once again love me the way he did when we were college students newly in love. I cried because my stories of unfair treatment, needs a husband should have paid attention to, and burdens I did not deserve washed away like a sandcastle at the ocean's edge. What they left behind was a solid core of evidence that the love was still there but his responsibilities and challenges, like mine, had grown a lot since then.
No one should stay married. Stay implies more of the same. Unless it's great, who would want more of that? Our kids don't want us to stay that way. And they don't want us to divorce. They want us to love, respect, honor, and cherish their other parent, and not just until they are grown but until their children's children are grown. For most of us, except those with violent or out-of-control mates, this is what we want, too. We want to feel in love again. We want to look at our husband or wife and feel as impressed and honored as we did when they first chose us. And we want the daily overwhelm of our lives to be replaced with happy moments in the arms of such a person.
Without anyone else to blame for not shouldering the rest of the load, I learned to let go of a lot of the load. I stopped cooking and served TV dinners for a year. I put in a lot more effort at work and used the extra income to pay people to do chores I don't enjoy doing or cannot do well. I said no to extra work that would not produce extra income. I took piano lessons because several people told me it's calming to play. (Perhaps, but it's not so calming to hear the piano the way I could play it.) I got rid of my long daily commute.
My widow status made me brave. I said no to a lot of things, including bureaucratic annoyances and those tasks my friend Rachel calls vanity items, the ones you do just to look good. When I tried to put our son in Cub Scouts, they told me they had too few leaders for all the boys applying, but if I would lead his den, I could make any rules I liked about how much of the work the other parents had to do. They even suggested I require a parent be present at every meeting because of the numbers of two-career couples who show up late to pick up their boys. So I did, and we did a lot together as families.
And I did it all willingly, on top of my very busy work and house schedule, because it was my choice. In the past, I would have felt put out if my husband did not choose to do it. I would have listed all the other things on my schedule, paying attention to the wrong things instead of the right one: I felt it was important. I was surely not the best person for the job, but it mattered to me, so I did it. And I skipped some other tasks that were less important to me. And I told anyone with a story about why they could not lead two meetings a year and bring refreshments to two more meetings, and stick around while their kids got to be Cub Scouts to find another den for their son.
And what I learned was how to be married without being miserable. Do what's important. Make time for what de-stresses you. Stop doing what's making you miserable. If you don't like a chore, do something you like better and use the money or favors it earns you to give the chore to someone else. Because your relationship with your spouse is for love, and every chore or expectation or "it's only fair" you throw at it pours sand over that love and hides it until your big wave comes in.
Don't stay for the kids. Pour some water over this big, unhappy sand castle you've built and start over. See if maybe it's possible to love, respect, honor, and cherish your wife or husband or life partner again. If the kids make it worth taking a shot at this, you are very lucky to be a parent.