real life

'The moment I knew I had to leave the father of my two children.'

My relationship started out rocky with an accidental pregnancy at 20, one of us with a hot temper and the other with ever-changing moods and both of us with the kind of stubbornness that wouldn’t listen to reason.

It may sound typical, temper and mood swings, but I assure you it wasn’t. The temper involved saying things to the extreme with no memory of even saying them after they were said. The mood swings involved never knowing which version you would get but always hoping for the best version because when it was good it was bearable but when it was bad it was just chilling.

Most people at our young age wouldn’t have made it past this part, past the first few years where we were figuring out our new identities as parents, and trying to keep the peace, trying to be a couple when only one of us wanted to be a couple, and the other not willing to try.

Most people would not be willing to allow themselves to be treated the way we treated each other, but we thought we had no option. Stay together for the kid. When we fought I was cold and he was mean. But it didn’t matter, stay together for the kid.

Stephanie Portell with her children. (Image supplied)

Most people fought in front of their kids, not having the restraint and eerie ability to suppress it like we did. I thought it was because we loved out son that much and it was. But it was also both of us not wanting to f*ck up the idea of what we thought it should be.

We had succumbed to the idea that we had to make it work, and as the frequency of the tempers got better, and the moods less extreme and the coldness less cold, we decided to have another baby.

To give our son a sibling, to have something to take up all of our focus now that our oldest was getting older so that we didn't have to focus on each other or because we thought it would fix something. I can't really tell you the reason but I can tell you that I don't regret it for a minute, not only because I obviously love both my kids but because if we hadn't of had the second I don't know that we would have had the courage to face the terrifying truth that this wasn't going to work, to face the reality of the decision that had to be made, we wouldn't have had the courage to face each other.

Having a second child put an even bigger strain on our relationship and we waited, and we waited, and waited some more for it to pass. We rarely talked when the kids were in bed, we never touched, never did anything together, we never had sex, we didn't say I love you, there was no warmness and no love, but there was friendship and an understanding that we both were willing to live this way for our kids. There was still the same crazy sense of humour we shared when we first met that would peek through the sadness after a couple of drinks and we had the same political views, same religious views, similar goals and dreams. But it wasn't enough. Even though both of our fundamental flaws showed their ugly heads less and less when they did come out they came out like a ball of fire that couldn't be put out.

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I remember the moment I knew. The moment I knew if I stayed any longer I'd stay forever and I'd forever lose myself and forever be an unhappy mum and he'd be an unhappy dad. And I so desperately wanted to be a happy mum.

It was the summer before my oldest was going to enter kindergarten and nearing the age I was when my parents got divorced. I have memories but not near as many as my older sisters. There are things they remember that they won't tell me and I knew when my oldest son hit five or six there was no going back. It was a now or never kind of thing because if I didn't go now I would stay until they were 18 or moved out. So I had to decide which the better of the two was.

We read relationship books, we talked, we screamed, we cried, we gave each other the silent treatment, and lastly, we tried counselling. After a few sessions and listening to us, she looked at us and said, "You guys are one of the most mature couples I have ever had in my chair and I think you are making the right decision and that you have the maturity to co parent."

I was relieved to have someone else validate what I felt in my heart and scared shitless at the same time because this was real.

Decisions had to be made, and we finally were ready to make them after seven years of pretending everything would just go away somehow. We spent months still debating over what to do, and at a certain point we just gave in, gave up, and decided we wanted to be happy for our kids even if it meant being apart.

We decided we could love them better, love ourselves better apart together and be better parents apart than we could be together. We decided we wanted them to see a healthy relationship filled with love and affection instead of tension and strain.

We decided even though we would miss them terribly when they weren't with us, the time spent would be of more quality versus quantity.

We decided we would live five minutes from each other so our oldest didn't have to make any other major changes, and we wrote out a script and practiced what we would say when we broke the news to him.

We went through the house and decided who would keep what, and made a list all while having the same emotionless face and tone we kept our entire relationship.

But I know behind closed doors, when I was alone, or in my car on the way to work I cried. I cried for what I tried to do and couldn't, I cried because no matter how happy we were apart, and how happy we would be one day with someone new, nobody would ever share the love we shared for our two boys together. Nobody could love them like we could. And the day I went to sign my lease for my new apartment, I almost didn't sign it. My hand was shaky when I grabbed the pen but once I put the pen to paper my decision wasn't. It was sturdy and determined.

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Listen: How to tell your kids you're getting a divorce. (Post continues...)

The first day I got the keys and walked into my empty apartment alone, I sat on the floor but I didn't cry. I smiled, took a deep breath, took a picture of my new key in my hand that I would never put on Facebook for fear of hurting his feelings, because I knew we did the right thing but back then I am not sure he was so sure of that.

When conflict came, and oh believe me it did, we lost our cool at times but never in front of them, and we still said hello at drop off on Sundays never slamming a door even when we wanted to.

There are times when I feel like the luckiest woman alive to have this man as my children's father and there are also times when I wonder how I stayed that long and there are times he wonders how he lived with someone like me. But that sh*t doesn't matter anymore because now our relationship is important but for different reasons. It's important for them. And when we fight now, we usually stop and ask ourselves what we are even doing because it doesn't matter unless it is something important to do with our children (which it rarely is.)

I admit, the consequence of keeping a close co parenting relationship is the danger of blurred lines, getting too friendly again, wondering if we could maybe, just maybe, try again and do it right this time. We have entertained that idea and figured out that it was not a road we wanted to go down and remembered why we made the choices that we did.

I now realise we have accomplished something most separated parents can't even begin to scrape the surface of - an alliance. A union with a harmony that made not staying together for the kids the best choice for us. And our kids our happier because of it.

Stephanie Portell is a single working mom to two boys, and part-time writer. Lover of literature and bookstores. Trying to keep sane when my kids purposely try to make me insane.

You can see more of my truths about parenting on morethanmothers.com.

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