Redefining the Nucleus

We're so afraid to lose the people we love that sometimes we don't even want to share them. Silly… as if you could even hold on to something as immaterial and impossible to define as love.

By Colette Coughlin

My husband of seventeen years and I separated peacefully, wishing each other the best. Which doesn't mean there wasn't any hurt, pain or fear, just, I guess, a blind confidence that we would never lose track of each other and the deep connection we'd shared from the beginning, no matter what. And sharing four kids insured that we would remain in contact, whether we liked it or not.

But how do you let another woman into the lives of your children, too? I used to daydream that if for some reason I died, I would turn into an angel watching over John and the kids selflessly wishing them the best, applauding and encouraging the wonderful new woman that would painlessly slip into their lives to help take care of them. In this state of perfect compassion I would know they could never replace or forget me and be perfectly willing to let her move in and fill the void.

But in the real life scenario, I'm not dead. (This is where the noise of the needle scratching on a vinyl record comes in and the angelic music stops). They are all still there in the family house without me but I am alive, and all of us are struggling to get used to living apart from each other, which although very necessary, has torn into my heart in a way I feared would never heal.

I met Ariane one Tuesday afternoon in the kitchen of my own house. I'd moved out six months before, but I was still in the neighbourhood and still had a key so that John and I could share weekends with the kids back and forth in the family home. My tiny shared apartment didn't have room for four visitors, even if they were children, and those children didn't want anything to do with it anyways. They just wanted me to come home.

I'd rushed in to pick up piano music for some lessons I was teaching. The woman at the sink turned around when I unlocked the door; we were both surprised to find someone else there. She clued in quicker than I did “Oh – you must be Colette” she said, with a rich European accent. I'd heard a tiny bit about her, but I barely knew her name; I was probably trying hard not to think about John's new girlfriend even if I knew he had one. I was too busy concentrating on rebuilding my life without him at the centre of it anymore.

I thought she was beautiful… honestly, that was my first reaction. Her eyes were wide-set and dark, and her skin was much whiter than mine, especially in contrast to her jet black hair. I smiled and gave her a hug but then fear crept in and my heart started beating so quickly I just wanted to run away. I went to grab the music I'd come for, fumbling a bit because I was so anxious to leave. When I had my hand on the doorknob I turned around and looked at her again. She was happy then, unafraid; she was in love with a wonderful man, who could blame her? I remember her complimenting me on how beautiful my kids were and how well they were all getting along, that they were very affectionate with her. And then she said: “Thank you, for John – but I don't understand… how could anyone leave John?” Besides my discomfort with her declaration of closeness with my kids, that last comment really irked me. Obviously she didn't know the whole story. That I'd tried everything to find balance in my marriage, that the last thing I'd ever wanted to do was to leave him, but that he'd played his role too and in the end he was the one who pushed me to leave with his infidelity… or perhaps, I should say, he set me free.

But I still liked her. I hugged her again. I didn't want to chat, but I did want to acknowledge her. And I wanted to like her. Because letting her in where I thought only I could be was not going to be easy, but that was where we were at. It was a long hug, sincere, and she started to cry, so I just held on to her. And so the connection between us was established, much beyond our comprehension.

I didn't see much of them for the first year. I took a contract out of town, and when I came back to visit it was tough to see her in my kitchen offering me a glass of wine or food when I didn't even want to go in and sit down. It still felt too much like my house and John still felt too much like my husband.

They were talking about moving in together, which meant moving to where she lives, two hours away from our family home. She couldn't transfer her job to another city, but John was willing to try to transfer his or find a new one. They'd been travelling back and forth to visit each other for this whole year, juggling work and five children between them to spend time together. When I went out of town to work, it made it more difficult and probably made them more determined to find a way to blend their families permanently.

My own physical absence definitely made it easier for me to accept the move when it came. I was so far away that I could only see the kids monthly, but the blessing was that I didn't have to witness the dissolution of the family home we'd worked so hard to maintain together. When I came back, they were gone, and everything being relative, a two-hour visit was now closer than where I'd been away working, and we were all willing to make arrangements to continue to share weekends with the kids.

John and I were still spending time together whenever we could to talk about the kids, how to support them, and to share funny stories about what they were going through. He never talked about Ariane. He wanted to be respectful, I guess, but I suspect it also bothered him deep down that there was something he couldn't be completely open about. As if by showing love for her to me it would take away from our desire to stay loving towards each other, in spite of our separation. Or, maybe, could he feel that I wasn't ready to hear about her?

I've had to let them go, again and again. When the kids come to visit me on weekends we are overjoyed to reunite and torn to bits again every time they must leave. And when the toilet overflowed in my apartment just the other day and I was left with two inches of dirty water and no plunger I just wanted to cry out for John to come and fix it for me.

But there are perks. Because I am the visited parent and not the usual live-in mom, I am the good-cop, the hero. I get the hugs and the heart-felt talks and the performances worth photographing. I don't have to bug them to pick up their dirty clothes and get their homework done and help with the dishes. I did that for fifteen years. Now, finally, we can play together. It is Ariane who gets to plays the bad-cop, the tired impatient mom, the intolerant. Because she is the one who lives with them every day. And when I think of that, I have to be grateful. That a woman who did not carry or give birth to these children has been willing to step in and offer her presence, her constancy and her love for my children when it became impossible for me to do it myself. Because she loves their father…. which is where they came from in the first place; because I loved their father… and always will.

Have I been jealous? Yes. Fearful? Yes. Discouraged? Regretful? Untrusting? Yes. Yes. Yes. But deeper than all that, and beyond all that, in the worst moments I have chosen life, again and again. And life without love is a hell I can't put up with… so how can I continue to love my children in their new lives if I refuse to recognize that others than I are a part of it?

Immediately after the move, John continued at his old job, which meant a horrible two-hour commute, which he could only manage every few days. So Ariane often found herself alone with five children, four of whom were not her own and who weren't sure they even wanted to be there, with her, in a new city yet. That was a tough stretch for everyone. The worst moment was one Sunday night, when, after returning the children home in the family van, I stepped into their house and was greeted by silence. John and Adriane were sitting at the dining room table staunchly ignoring me; or at least that's how I perceived it. I needed their help getting home – two hours away – since the family van stayed with them. Uncomfortable, and too scared to communicate my needs, I kissed the kids good-bye and walked out the door, looking for the nearest local bus stop to take me to the subway and then to the inter-city bus station. It was late, dark, cold and  I didn't know where I was going, and I was hurt and angered by their lack of hospitality. I went back to the house, and, crying, asked for help making my way to the bus station or permission to stay the night so I could return with John in the morning. It felt like trying to break through three feet of ice with a toothpick.

They disappeared into their bedroom for consultation as the kids clung to me anxiously. When John came back he said it would be okay if I slept in the basement. My two youngest sons crawled happily into the futon we made up down there for me, and just as we were falling asleep, Ariane came down to collect some laundry. When she walked by the second time, I called her over in a whisper, and she came and gave me a hug. “Don't worry – he'll come around” she said, and instantly, our female complicity was back. My youngest son looked up and me and said “Wouldn't it be fun if we could ALL spend weekends here together sometimes?”

It took another year or so for that to happen… and the funniest things appeared to break through my resistances to being a part of “their” family. During Spring Break, the whole gang was gone away skiing, leaving my oldest, a daughter, behind because she was overwhelmed with a ton of last-year-of-high school projects. She whined on the phone that she'd be alone, but wouldn't take the bus to come and hang with me because her projects required too many materials. So I asked John if I could go spend the weekend there with her, which he agreed to without hesitation.

I walked into a house turned upside-down by six people leaving for a week-long skiing camping trip and leaving behind a frantic teenager with too much homework. My natural instinct was to cook and clean, which I did happily because it made me feel useful and probably relieved some of my guilt about not living with my own kids. I was actually thrilled just to be in the presence of their stuff… sitting in the boys' room surrounded by their things made me feel close to them even if they weren't there.

The test was waiting for me on the kitchen table. I was cleaning, deciding what to keep and what to throw away, and I came across an email – an innocent grocery list – that John had sent to Ariane the day before in preparation for their trip. I had to look at it to decide whether it was to keep or to chuck, but it was the very first line that was the kicker – a pet name he called her that I'd never heard before. When I read it I felt like I'd been punched in the gut and I literally yelled out loud, attracting my daughter's attention which I immediately redirected elsewhere.

But the freedom came through just as quickly. After the sharp twinge of pain, I saw clearly that this was a pet name he'd never called me before… it belongs to them and their relationship, leaving intact my past with John and the things we'd shared just us two.

It was so liberating to see things that way. I took great care of my daughter and their house that weekend, happy to let them come home to empty laundry baskets and a few home-cooked meals in the fridge. And I couldn't help but notice that my presence was everywhere in that house; furniture I'd restored, dishes I'd purchased and pots I'd cooked with for years before they moved in with this new form of our “old” family. And I realized that Ariane, too, had to live with me every day, every time she picks up a plate, every time she sits on the couch… every time she looks into the eyes of my children.

It's just been getting better since then. I went and spent a weekend with the kids while John and Ariane went camping, and got more familiar with the house and the kitchen. Then my car broke down and I was stuck there two extra days, so I got to visit the neighbourhood and actually cook with Ariane. There's nothing like women bonding over a kitchen stove, except maybe men bonding doing renovations. Keep your hands busy and your mind stays at peace. Then there is room for something unknown to happen.

So what happened? Ariane and I have become friends. We actually like each other. We did from the start. We never talk about John or our respective relationships with him, but we have these kids in common and probably so much more that we've yet to discover. We're from a generation that grew up knowing divorce as a painful finality and we're trying hard to re-weave it into something less dividing. Part of the reason I moved away from my husband and children was an intense desire for community that was lacking in the closed shell of our little nuclear family. They couldn't follow me then in my community-building projects, but they have opened their hearts and their home to allow me to continue to be a part of the expanding family.

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Planet Waves 2007 Almanac

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