Seventeen years after my then husband and I split up, we found ourselves sharing a two-bedroom rental for five days in California while caring for our 25-year-old daughter before and after jaw surgery. When we’d separated, I knew we would be in the same room for graduations and other big events, but sharing a rental property for almost a week? Unlikely—and unwelcome.
After the divorce, I was furious at him for leaving while the kids were young, and I felt abandoned, having devoted 20 years to him. I showed my anger by being as uncooperative as possible in altering visitation weekends while adhering to the custody arrangement.
Gradually, though, I softened. I saw that he kept his responsibilities with our children and was generous in financial help for them and emotional support for me, the custodial parent. When our 16-year-old daughter chased me around the house because I refused to let her use my car in an ice storm, he came to my defense, telling her never to treat me that way. Over time, I became happier, more independent and confident. I went back to work and educated myself on my finances as well as home and car maintenance. I also moved on romantically, as did he. About a decade into the new reality, we shared a few dinners with the kids to celebrate birthdays and graduations, but spending five nights with him in close quarters was a milestone. To say it was weird is an understatement.
Having been married to him for 20 years, I intimately know his habits and ways of reacting. I wasn’t surprised he diffused his anxiety during the six-hour surgery by standing guard in the waiting room, taking breaks only for coffee and a bite in the cafeteria, while I went on a strenuous hike. Watching TV with him and dining out together felt much as they had when we were a couple. The evening after the operation, he turned to me and said, “Let me buy you a bourbon old fashioned”—the cocktail we’d enjoyed together while married.
But because we no longer had the same emotional expectations, we could let go of unhealthy dynamics and simply be a mom and dad putting our daughter’s needs above all else. Gone was the sniping I used to do over unenforced bedtimes or his sometimes passive-aggressive canceling of plans when he had overcommitted. It felt like a friendship or a business partnership. Our expectation was simply to be there for our daughter. She thanked us more than once for making the time to be with her, and our two twentysomething sons, who couldn’t be with us, said how good it felt to know we were by her side.
All of this was somewhat easier partly because we’ve rarely fought about how to raise our children. We grew up in similar circumstances and have always shared values and approaches to parenting. I admire his fierce intelligence, reliability in a crisis, and fulfillment of duty, and continue to be fond of him—those traits are among the reasons I married him. Unfortunately, the way we wanted to live our lives diverged.
Shortly after the surgery, I invited him over for a holiday dinner. I had found a bottle of homemade red wine aspiring to be a Cabernet that we were given at our wedding and instructed to open on our 25th anniversary. We drank it with our children that evening, 37 years since our wedding and 17 since our marriage was dissolved. The wine had not turned to vinegar.
Ann Symonds (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer in Arlington.
This article appears in our April 2016 issue of Washingtonian.