When it finally set in that I would become another marital statistic, albeit outlier – we were educated, from intact families, and financially comfortable, any one by itself putting us, demographically, ‘above’ divorce – one thing became very important. I would do whatever necessary to make my children feel at home in my new house as they would at her’s.
The prevailing narrative is of a husband and wife separating, they divide assets, debts, Mikasa flatware and run off in opposite directions with shares of the booty to create new lives. The story takes a sad but near inescapable turn when the father’s altered position becomes something removed and distant from that of the mother’s. Through biased custody arrangements or his own bad choices, the father falls into a different category, closer to ‘parent-lite’ in most cases. This is underscored by that four-letter word ‘visitation’.
The kids quickly feel this; as they grow accustomed to bouncing in and out of his life, they start experiencing that common emotion most have when ‘visiting’. We don’t sleep as well because it’s not our bed; we grow agitated when we forget the toothbrush or curling iron. We’re frustrated because we didn’t bring our favorite jeans. It’s that near universal awareness when wherever we are isn’t ‘home’.
Whether through revenge or despair, it became a mission to arrange things so my kids, and I, wouldn’t experience a similar phenomenon; so they might consider ‘dad’s’ home as more than just a place to ‘visit’. I started by ensuring my ‘divorce house’ didn’t become a representation of my new relationship status. My real estate agent had two deal killers, I never wanted to mow another lawn and the house must have three bedrooms.
But in all likelihood, competition led to this way of thinking. She had taken plenty; must she also get the satisfaction of her house alone being our kids’ real home? Just because she was granted primary custody did that mean I was suddenly the equivalent of a Motel 6? Soon after moving into my house, I did what any parent might; we decorated their rooms to match their style. My daughter wanted a zebra print bed comforter and butterfly pictures. My son hung a stuffed deer head and basketball hoop. I worked to make friends with as many neighbors as I could in hopes of arranging play dates and friendships that might anchor them in the new neighborhood. The older they got the more necessary this became. I lived a mere six miles from their mother, but we passed two school districts getting there, which in a ‘suburban bubble’ may as well be separate continents with different languages. It seems most parents’ tolerance with picking up or dropping off is a 15-minute one-way commute, anything more is considered a long distance road trip across three time zones.
Yet with all the effort, I still failed to realize the dream. After a decade I’m certain my children felt ‘comfortable’ at my house but I don’t believe they ever had that sense of it being ‘home’. It wasn’t something exactly tangible or always evident; but I could sense it in their spirits and mannerisms. Perhaps lives more resembling yo-yo’s affected how they perceived things. Hard as I wished otherwise, my house was always ‘dad’s house’.
I thought it was something I might have done wrong. Perhaps the house wasn’t the right one. There weren’t enough kids in my neighborhood, the yard wasn’t very big, and the rooms were small and cramped. Maybe the house wasn’t cheerful enough, and since I was absolutely unwilling to get a pet, maybe that made it even less ‘homey’. Their mother had amassed a small zoo.
But those notions were put to rest soon after meeting the Queen. The more I got to know her kids the more I saw the same behavior in them I was seeing in my own. I started noticing how they also distinguished her house from their father’s. The Queen’s house was always ‘ours’ while his house was always ‘dad’s’. It remains much the same to this day. When her oldest now comes home from college – he always stays with us.
I’ve never downplayed the importance of motherhood. No matter how some try to minimize the necessity of fathers, I’ve never chosen to respond in kind. As I’ve written, the need of a mother in a child’s life, especially in the younger years, is absolutely essential to the child’s long-term wellbeing. But what I failed to consider was the impact that importance would have on my kids’ perceptions of ‘home’, and how in the context of a divorce those perceptions might change. They weren’t left to pick one parent’s house over the other, because in their little minds there wasn’t a need to choose. Divorce didn’t stop my kids’ mom from being the center of their young universes; and like any planet they naturally gravitated towards her axis no matter what other stars might have been pulling them in other directions.
For many years I fought against that tug, doing what I could, sometimes with subtle force but always to soothe my blistered pride, getting them to see things differently, to see dad’s home with the same fondness and possession they did mom’s. I would correct them, and sometimes still do, when they refer to my house as ‘dad’s’ instead of ‘our’s’.
I was hopeful that a new marriage with step-siblings, a home with shinier ornaments, bigger yard, media room, and most importantly a stepmother might change alter of their thinking. The tables had finally turned in my favor, so I thought, and at last they would embrace dad’s house with the same affection and sense of ‘home’ they had their mom’s. But that has yet to happen. To this day, mom’s house continues to be ‘home’. This house, even with all its accessories continues to be, in their minds, ‘dad’s house.’
Recently however that I’ve found some peace in much of this. Certainly I wanted my kids to see dad’s house in a similar way they had their mom’s. But ten years of personal experience and observing it in the Queen’s kids and other divorced families, I now think this is how God may have intended things to be . From birth, the mother, good or bad, is the foundation in a child’s life. She represents his everything. Except for the most extreme cases, divorce will simply not change that. When a family is fractured, and chaos reigns, the mother is most likely whom the child runs for. She epitomizes for that child everything that a home should, compassion, warmth, gentleness, and refuge. Any effort at undermining this, especially through selfish motives fueled on anger and revenge, will only reinforce what most children already know – home is where the mom is.