The four of us sat in the counselor’s office, tension sizzling like electricity over a wire. It was the counselor’s idea to have their dad join us for this session. I had agreed because I had hoped it would help the girls cope with the divorce, which had been final for almost a year.
But I was terrified. The counselor was inexperienced, a referral from my company’s Employee Assistance Program. I didn’t have the resources at the time to find someone better. We needed help and this is what I could get. I hadn’t wanted my ex to come, I filled with panic at the idea, but I would try anything to help my girls.
My youngest daughter sat on my lap, as she will still sometimes do even today although she is now taller than I am. My oldest daughter stood alone by the window, not wanting to take sides.
Fifteen minutes into the hour long session she asked, “What do the girls do at home that needs to be addressed?” Her goal was to get us talking about what was going on at each house. I knew that was her plan, and perhaps I should have been prepared.
Their dad proceeded with a litany of complaints, every misdeed, every slight carefully documented and categorized in his meticulous mind. Forgiveness is not one of his strengths and he has a memory for detail. He was ready and held back nothing.
When he was finished they turned to me. I didn’t know what to say. The girls of course had their issues at my house but I couldn’t come up with one of them. We are fundamentally opposite on this point. When something bothers me with the girls I deal with it, then I forget about it. It’s done. My mind was completely blank.
He was convinced I was trying to make him look bad, as if my failure to come up with a similar list was solely to show that they only misbehaved at his house. That wasn’t the case. No child, no person is perfect all of the time. But I choose to focus on what they do well instead of where they come up short.
A heated argument ensued. This is something that never happened while we were married. The last several years of my marriage I never disagreed with him. I had disconnected and to me there was almost nothing worth fighting with him. It was only once I decided I was done with the marriage that I would contradict him at all.
My oldest daughter walked slowly across the room and placed her hand over my mouth. “If you stop talking you won’t fight anymore,” she told me.
It was in that moment that I realized what I’d been teaching them by staying quiet all those years. It was then I discovered that I had sent them the message that my opinion didn’t matter, that it was more important to keep the peace than to be heard.
I will never know what might have happened if I hadn’t somehow found the courage to tell him I was done. There are an infinite number of possible outcomes to any situation. Had we stayed together, in theory it’s possible we could have somehow learned to work with our differences. But it’s unlikely it would have turned out that way. Instead I was becoming more emotionally damaged each year and I felt helpless to change anything.
I have come a long way, but I am far from perfect. I still have some old wounds that have scabbed over but reopen from time to time. There are some scars that I will probably always live with. I am not saying this to be dramatic – there are people who have survived much worse. But our past shapes us. Even when we work to undo some of the damage that’s been done there are shadows that still linger years later, sometimes forever.
But with each decision I make I now pay attention to the message it sends to my girls. Is this a choice I would want for them? If they were in my situation (whatever it is) what would I want them to do? I want them to see me as a role model. I want to be proud of the example I am setting for them.
This was my motivation for changing, what continues to push me to become better even when it would be easier to not try so hard. It is challenging, but it is worth it.