I don’t usually have a lot of time for quiet thought—my life has become a maelstrom of coffee swilling, bill paying, pitching articles, child visitation, truck driving, winery gigs, pep talks with my agent, and grocery shopping. It’s kind of a nutty life, but someone’s got to live it.
But recently, I had a bit of quiet time. I found myself cleaning my toaster oven—not because I’m the kind of guy that would do something like that, but because the last time I tried to make a french bread pizza, the kitchen filled with smoke and the alarm went off. It’s the sort of thing that would usually cause me to just forego eating anything—but I had the time, so I did it.
As I scrubbed the burnt, processed Mozzarella cheese from the thin aluminum bottom tray, my thoughts drifted back seven years to when I was in Target and my girlfriend at the time called and asked me to buy that very toaster oven. The significance of that one particular phone call hadn’t dawned on me once before that very moment.
Playing the mind tape of that call, it became clear that her original intentions—when we decided to move in with her mom and split the mortgage—was to have our own way to prepare food. The initial plan was to have autonomy. We had our first child on the way and she was envisioning a separate life for us upstairs from her mom’s, which took place primarily downstairs.
That’s not at all how things ended up, though. The only thing that took place upstairs was extraordinarily sporadic vanilla sex and potty training. Her mother was so ubiquitous in our day to day that we never had a single argument—right up to the moment I was leaving. What we had were emails with ultimatums and rebuttals. Months turned to years where I felt neglected both sexually and even in terms of just general affection and it caused me to become angrier and angrier.
I would lay in bed at night and try to reconcile the fact that her mother was always in the same room or at least within earshot of 95% of our interactions. I would think about how there never seemed to be any time for sex—with the very notable exception of when she wanted to have a second child. Normally, we’d sometimes go months without it, but the week she was ovulating—somehow, we managed to have sex four times. Which was more than we did for all of 2014. I felt duped. I felt used. I felt unimportant.
The last winter we lived together, all of this began to manifest as physical ailments—and not little ones, either. There were emergency room visits and appointments with specialists and lots of missed days of work. What’s funny—or not funny, depending on how you look at it—was that these illnesses were all localized or directly linked to my reproductive parts. I never had issues like this in the past, and ironically, I’ve never had any of these problems since I left. We’ll save the article on psychosomatic illnesses for another time, though.
The takeaway was that I really just had to leave. We discussed counseling on numerous occasions, but it never came to fruition. By the time she finally agreed to it, I was looking at apartments. It was a terribly sad time. We had two very little girls and I had no idea, at that point, what my role in their life was going to look like after I left.
The big epiphany that I had when I was cleaning the toaster oven was that my ex-girlfriend had originally planned for things to go very differently. I am imagining that it was typical inertia that brought us to a premature conclusion. I loved being a breadwinner but earning enough money to support all of us required me to work 12-hour days with only one day off every week. For her to stay separate from her mom when I was gone all the time was just not practical. And so, the result was the result.
Obviously, things could’ve been done differently. I doubt anyone who has ever suffered through a break-up—especially with children involved—has ever failed to play a good game of Monday morning quarterback after the dust settles. It’s only human.
It’s funny to think that the next time I find myself as a new dad living with my girlfriend in a house with her mother, and having to work 70 hours a week, I’ll know exactly how to handle the situation—but isn’t that the way it is with life sometimes? So much gray area.
There are a few things I can make sure to do, however. I can keep working hard to make it so that she gets enough support money every week. I can show up on schedule every time and I can still be a very present and kind dad. Which, by the way, I have been doing all along since the day I left.
If I could add anything to all of that, it would be to stop resenting my ex. I don’t know what her situation with the physical stuff was, but I am pretty sure it was not done to torture me. It’s just the way things went, unfortunately.
And, as long as we are meditating on gray area, I am going to honor the most glaring one of all: maybe it wasn’t anyone’s fault. It is so common for us to experience a break-up with a clear-cut definition of who should take the blame, but I hate commonality. Sometimes things happen and there’s no one to blame. Maybe it just “is.”
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