The girls have been struggling with a kind of separation anxiety lately. There have been more than five announcements of separations/divorce from couples they know over the last year. When it first began it was easy enough to gently explain that sometimes, like with being sisters, you need to get a little space or take a break. They would nod softly, ask if Sean and I were OK, and then move on to the next thing.
I was hanging out with Finley one day and she said, "Mum, do I have a stepmum?"
I shook my head, looked down at her, and said, "What, babe?"
She stopped walking, turned to me, and repeated, "Do I have a stepmum?"
I knelt down and said, "No, Fin, you don't have a stepmum. I am married to Dad and you are our kid, so you have a mum and a dad, no stepmum." She thought about it, "Will I ever?"
I took a deep breath, being the weeper and worrier that I am, my mind immediately went to the place of early death. What if I die and she does end up with a stepmum? What I say now might influence how she deals with that person.
I said, "Well, I kind of hope not, because that would mean that I wasn't here anymore. So I kind of think no, but if you ever did, I would hope that she was nice."
She thought about it, "So, not like the Tangled mum, you wouldn't want a person who would steal my sparkle, right?"
I was teetering between crying and laughing. "Exactly." She nodded, satisfied, and we walked toward the car.
Fast forward a few months and the proximity and intensity of the breakups around us has begun to permeate every conversation. I fret over how much they know, but also realize that divorce and stepparents will become more and more a part of their lexicon -- completely shielding them from it doesn't help. The girls draw comparisons from movies to what they think they see happening around us. "Could it be like The Parent Trap, could they come back together?" they wondered aloud at the dinner table. We explained that sometimes, taking a break can help people remember why they fell in love or that they realize that they made a mistake.
"Oooooh, like when we got into trouble for fighting and went in our rooms, but then we came out and told each other we were sorry?" We nodded.
"Other times though, other times it may just not be OK again and they have to split up." The table was quiet.
"So, Mum, will you and Dad like, will you like divorce or break up or whatever?" Briar asked without making eye contact with me. I wanted to cry. Memories of my own childhood and my parents' divorce came rushing back. Tuesday nights and Sundays with my dad, sad talks with both parents, their exhaustion and sadness close to the surface as I pressed for a why. Briar waited.
I thought of the hurt her question roused and that one girl back in school who wouldn't let up, "Amanda, I know your parents are divorcing, but I can't be friends with someone who uses bad words."
Her name was Lisa, and she stormed away, taking the other kids with her. I'd said "goddamnit" after getting whipped with a bit of Weeping Willow branch as I tried to climb a tree. The cursing had nothing to with the divorce, but the way she threw it out into conversation made me feel like I was relegated to some lower category.
"Honey, I really hope not. Dad and I love each other. We argue like everyone does, but we talk about things and we work really hard to be together." I watched her as I spoke. "You know when you were born, I made Dad promise to kiss me in front of you." She scrunched her nose up. "I did. I told him I wanted you to see that we loved each other and I wanted us to remember to act like we did when we first fell in love." She smiled and then said quietly without looking up, "Can that be enough?"
Avery was quiet, then Finley said, "Well I hope you never split up, because I am never getting married and I want to live with you and Dad forever," effectively breaking the tension and leading her sisters down a path of declarations of it not being OK to live with your parents forever. I listened to the banter and thought about our family. It certainly isn't easy. Parenting three kids and running a business... Take either of those on their own and you have stress, but put them together and throw in a marriage? It brings to mind a quote I have heard about multi-tasking, that there is no such thing, you just take turns doing something better than others all the time.
Finley still asks me about stepparents with great frequency. I think of mine and I don't know what to say. Fin is too young to understand what it means that my stepdad once drove to my middle school and dropped off a bag with pads in it. She's too young to hear that my stepmum talked to me about tampons. All she would get from that is a weird connection to blood and private parts. I could tell her about my relationship with my parents; the original Mum and Dad. I could tell her that my mum never once stopped being my mum, that divorce didn't take away my childhood, the lullabyes, legends and memories all came through it unscathed. Would she understand that sometimes you have a lot of anger, but that time and life give you new shots, that dads can be great as grandparents, that sometimes maybe divorce is the start of happily ever after?
"OK, Mum, you be the Magic Eight ball. I'll ask you questions about divorce and you give the answers. OK, Magic Eight ball, will mum and dad get a divorce?"
I shake my head, not liking the game, but I say, "No. Definitely not."
She looks at me, "You know, mum, I remember all the Magic Eight ball answers. You could also say without a doubt."
I look at her: "Without a doubt means yes."
"Oh. OK, mum, just shake yourself, let's get a different answer."
Five is so forgiving, the ability to leapfrog from sorrow to silly helps navigate the heartbreak of divorce. Still, having so much heartbreak around us is taking a toll on our entire family. I am grateful that the girls are learning the other side to the fairy tale endings that are drummed into them in nearly every book, movie, and song. I am not, however, doing very well with the constant scrutiny of love and giving up. "But how come they are doing this if they loved each other enough to get married. And what happens next?" Ave pressed one night as we drove home. Finley immediately chimed in, "Yeah, because I love them both. Do I have to pick one?"
"We can still love everyone." I said.
They were quiet again. I thought about the promise Sean and I made all those years ago. How I told him that I wanted the girls to know how to be loved. "Kisses in the kitchen, ok? I want us to kiss in front of them and say I love you." I remember he hooked his arm around my waist, pulling me in tight, and said, "Just try and stop me."
I think lately I've been getting all rusty and kinked-up, thinking too much about relationships that aren't working. The girls' worry, as much as it pains me, is a piercing reminder that I need to be working on my marriage too, not because it's bad, but because it's good and not something I ever want to lose.
Amanda Magee is raising her three daughters with her husband Sean. She owns an advertising agency. She's been known to tweet irreverently about life, work and everything in between at @amandamagee. She blogs about life with 3 girls, and how the bitter and the sweet tumble together, at amandamagee.com.