Raised by Strangers
I hadn’t been on Facebook for a long time, but when I last checked in, I saw a large profile picture of my ex- sitting with our daughter. I felt strange to see someone I care so much about beside someone I no longer knew. I had the experience in person a few days later at a back-to-school event, where my ex-wife sat next to our daughter, nibbling a shallow crescent into a massive slice of watermelon. Why, I wondered, is my daughter so comfortable with and fond of that stranger? Oh. That’s her mom.
I suddenly recalled my guilt, admixed with compassion for myself and my ex-, when the nurses put the oxygen mask on her during the end of her labor, and I thought, She could still die—and in another era, would have—and yet then some things might be simpler. I had imagined the child would likely survive a C-section, even a primitive one, while my wife’s soul drifted away. I would have had a child and no longer a faded marriage.
I’m glad my wife survived, and that I have a daughter, yet I’m also glad I had the courage later to give up the marriage. I got what I wanted and everyone lived, whereas in my prior cowardice, I only imagined I could get what I wanted if someone died. What changed? I gave up the need to think of myself as a good person. I didn’t know how a good person asked for divorce. My logical brain only thought of elegant, cold, and inhumanly passive solutions. My desire to appear good is what made me want awful things.
That’s heavy guilt to sit with. It’s also, oddly, a source of great pride to know how much I changed, and a great relief that the universe and modern medicine saved me from my most craven delusions. It wasn’t the first time, either, I had imagined life might be simpler if she died. When she stood in the kitchen and uttered phrases that sounded of suicide, I feared my wife might be dead when I came home from work or walking the dog, or, less often, I imagined that if she died in an accident on one of her many business trips, I would know how to respond. Dilemma solved. I ended the cowardice at that time by finally saying, simply, I felt sad and lonely, and years later, I said the same thing, but it was no longer enough.
When I told my ex- once how desperate and trapped I felt that I could actually imagine life might be easier if she suddenly died, she, stunned, could only murmur, “You wanted me to die.” Yes and no. No compassion for my pain, however, although I understand it may have been difficult to conjure in such a moment, especially as I had been daily confronting that difficulty in myself. When I started to have compassion for all of our pain, I no longer wanted to turn away from it.
We all survived, thank god, so that now I may see a stranger who loves my child and whom my child loves, and I surmise that when my ex- looks at me, she sees much the same thing, although I wonder with how much more, if any, anger and pain.