What’s an Affair?

What’s an Affair?

“What’s an affair?” my nine-year-old daughter asked me from the living room while I was making her lunch for gymnastics camp.

I was glad she couldn’t see me stop in front of the silver wear draw, mouth open, eyebrows raised thinking, ‘Why don’t you ask your goddamn father.’

Instead, composed, and without actually walking in the other room I said, “Generally, when two people are in a relationship they have a rule not to date anyone else. When one of them breaks that rule it’s called an affair.”

I waited for the bomb in the form of follow-up questions such as, “Did you or Daddy ever have an affair?  Did it end your marriage and family life as I knew it?”

Those words didn’t come. The antics of our four-month old kitten Lizzie climbing on the furniture and the preferred hairstyle of the day grabbed her attention.

I might have said, “What make you ask?” but the truth is I did not want to extend the line of questioning. There is a no lying policy in our house but what does one do when the truth is delicate and potentially damaging?

My daughter’s father is in recovery now. He is a responsible, loving and reliable. Truthfully, he is less distracted and more responsive than he has ever been in the over twenty years that I have known him. I’m not even sure how much of that “other father” my daughter remembers. Now that we are divorced, does it matter only how he fathers and not what type of a husband he was?

How and when will we tell her why our marriage ended? I can’t imagine a time when we will have that conversation and I can’t imagine it never coming up. Will it be my place to talk to her or his? She will not always be a nine-year old only worried about one-handed cartwheels, a missing tooth and who is too bossy at school. She will negotiate the art of trust and betrayal in friendship and in love. It will be us, her no longer together parents, in large part, to guide her in questions of fairness, morality and loyalty.

At forty-five, I am less smug and clear about what happens in a marriage. I have worked as a paralegal for the two and half a years when I went from separated to divorced.  Many marriages fail and none due to an over-abundance of happiness. One or both people are miserable and usually have been for a while.Sometimes marriages end in shocking behaviors are revealed such as in cases of abuse, addiction and infidelity. Other times, one partner is worn down by the mental or physical illness of a partner. Sometimes, the overwhelming needs of children with or without severe issues deplete the relationship resources. How many of these people marriages might survive with more breathing room, respite, fun, therapy, family support or faith? Who can say? I used to think people who divorced didn’t try hard enough. I no longer judge.

I do still wonder how the children will fair during and after the divorce and how they have been doing while their marriage of their parents deteriorated. What lessons do children learn about commitment and long-term love when they see their parents’ part and don’t know why? I “knew” I was in a marriage that would last my whole life. I believed my marriage would end when my ex eulogized me or me him. I had never even been a person who had contemplated divorce. And yet, a year short of two decades together and we were dividing furniture and Christmas ornaments. I have never been more cataclysmically wrong about anything.

Will my daughter be confused as well? Will she someday see me a woman and not just her mother and knowing me be confused that I divorced? Don’t I want her to know me as the type of person who would not break up a family for vague or minor “adult reasons” that have nothing to do with her since she someday will also be an adult? Won’t she know or feel that something serious must have ended her family life? Shouldn’t something horrific have had to happen to end a family? Or, will so much have time passed and her relationships with each of us are so solid that she will not ask or want to know why our marriage failed?

These are the questions that plague me. And they are joined by new questions as well now that her father and I are dating other people. How and when do we introduce her to our love interests and their families? I recently went to Six Flags New Jersey with my boyfriend and his children. It felt too soon to bring my daughter as the relationship was eight-months old at the time. But, it felt wrong to leave her behind with her father as she missed out on an adventure she would have loved.

Falling in love at midlife is a rush. In some ways I feel all the adolescent feelings except I have to pay the mortgage, drive to the pick-up line after school to get my daughter and change the kitty litter box between dates. I don’t know how much time I “get” to fit in for my own pleasure while parenting. Do I have to consider the man in my life not just for the pleasure I enjoy in his orbit as well as sizing him up to determine what kind of step-parent he might be? Is it crazy to project so far into the future or ridiculous not to worry about how our children might someday relate?

In some ways, my divorce woke me up and made me realize that life isn’t a play that I direct but an experience I am living. Even if I have learned my lines I have no idea what anyone else is going to do with their part, if they practice and rehearse or live a more improvisational life. And of course, even the best performers can forget their lines or want to play new roles.

There has been freedom in realizing that worry as I had there were problems I had failed to predict. I take much more pleasure in simple joys like the smell of lavender salt and have tremendous gratitude for the richness of relationships I have with cousins, siblings, neighbors and other single parents. I relish being a mother, sibling, niece and friend. I know my biggest responsibility is to my child and that though I would love to make an impact on the larger world the day to day decisions I make inside of my home are likely to be the ones that are most influential. What I do in our house might secure my daughter’s heart, invigorate her passions and keep her mind and body healthy.

What is an affair? What is love? Why do marriages end? There are questions I can only keep company, and can’t, with conviction answer. Might that always be true? Since divorce, I have lost my certainty but I have regained my humility.

August 2012