My safe bubble of childhood burst when I was seven years old. My dad left my mom, my sister and me for another woman. I didn’t know that he left us for “her” when I was seven – it was odd; however, when this new person showed up with him to pick us up for a visit just a couple of months after he left. Fast forward ten years, and seventeen-year-old me asks my mom if my dad left because of this person (a person with whom he still lived with, unmarried). It was a truth I had known for a while. She only confirmed what I had known in my heart since I was small.
At the time of his departure, my dad was between 35-40. Let’s go ahead and call this age of 35-45 “mid-life” – for some, this might happen later or earlier. During this time of life, children in the family are generally young. Careers are building. Marriage is evolving (or has evolved) from being partner-centric to family and children focused. It is a stage in which partners are dancing through life steps as complicated as the original mambo with “no breaking steps or basic steps at all.” My husband and I are in this age and stage now. So are most of our friends.
Partners and Missteps
When my parents were this age, there was a rash of divorces because couples were secretly (and not so secretly) “dancing” with other partners. Then, ten years ago, when my step-brothers were this age, there was another epidemic of divorce because of affairs. Now, here we are in this stage, and we are seeing friends and family in this 35-45 set divorcing. And guess what, a good many of these separations are because people are switching partners in the middle of their mambo. Talk about a misstep. Somewhere along the way, the memo that the marriage dance is hard got lost or forgotten. And the children feel this the most.
My thoughts and prayers go out to parents experiencing this loss of a partner. And my heart aches for the children who are going through what I did growing up wondering what would make my dad choose someone over my mom, my sister and me. Didn’t he realize that we were part of the dance? Do the dads that kick-ball-change and misstep into someone else’s arms see that we are left standing alone?
I was lucky to have a grandfather and grandmother living close that helped my mom. Looking at my grandparents’ marriage, I got a dance lesson about what it meant to love without leaving – they’re still together 60+ years later. My grandfather taught me how to dance in his living room, my small feet on top of his as he two-stepped us. At his 90th birthday party just a couple of weeks ago, my grandmother got teared up saying how much he means to her and how he has always taken care of her.
Another piece of luck was my mom’s second marriage – she married a man who all but adopted me and my sister. Enter our next dance lesson about dads who don’t leave. He and Mom have always counseled my sister and me on the importance of working through the hard steps and appreciating the easy ones. They mambo beautifully together and like my grandparents, are a wonderful lesson of what can happen when you practice, practice, practice and pick each other up in life’s stumbles.
Listening to the Music
In all of the practicing, the music is always playing. I was a listener as well as an observer growing up, and what I heard and didn’t hear and saw spoke volumes. My mother never spoke badly to me or my sister about our dad. She was loving and affectionate and encouraging in everything that we did. She was tough on us when we needed it. She taught us to communicate our frustrations and emotions constructively even when, I’m sure, she wasn’t feeling very constructive. Every time she handed us over to my dad, you could read what she was feeling on her face even if she was smiling.
My dad never talked about what happened and has never said a harsh word about my mother. But when he left, I asked him why during one of our visits. He told me to talk to my mom about it. Any attempt I have ever made to address this part of our lives with him has ended with a blank stare. He’s not a communicator and, I’m sure, doesn’t want my judgement. We have a good relationship now, but it took years of therapy and having children of my own before I could move past the hurt.
Things that happened early in life shape who we are and what we become. Our parents were and are teaching us the mambo every day. We are teaching it to our children. Just because it’s “show time,” and we’re in the throws of the steps doesn’t mean there won’t be a slip (or an all-out fall). We have to show our kids that we can pick ourselves back up and continue. But it is hard to explain why in some families, the show will not go on.
If you have experienced the loss of a parent or partner because of adultery, I want you to know that you are not alone, and I see you. You are hurting, but have been given the opportunity for a new show – one in which you choose the dance steps. Like my mother, stepfather, and grandparents, you can show your children what a mambo can look like with love, understanding, patience, and practice, practice, practice.