We are seated along the bar at the local Starbucks.
Patrons crowd around waiting for their drinks to be called out, or are jostling for position to grab a mobile order. It is a busy Friday morning and people are rushing to work.
But not us.
We are in a different place.
Our order was ready when we arrived, there were three open stools, and we’ve now all settled in for breakfast before school and work. Amid the bustle, we are relaxed, joyful, and laughing. We share stories and plans for the weekend.
An older man watches for a moment, then remarks with some nostalgia: “What a rare and beautiful thing to see a family together enjoying breakfast on a Friday morning! It’s so special!”
The term is laden with emotional triggers for me: it evokes feelings of loss over what I imagined life would be. I feel regret and guilt for what I’ve taken from my son. Most days, it stings. But on this day, in this context, it instills great pride—in our dynamic, we can’t take being a family for granted. We made a commitment that we would hold on to it, and with every opportunity, we fight to earn and preserve the label.
The man sees a family gathered together to share a special end-of-the-week moment. He isn’t wrong: it is our family, and it is special, but it is not as he thinks it is.
The man fails to notice the absence of wedding rings. He wasn’t there when we walked in separately—my son with his dad, and me on my own. He couldn’t hear the questions about what each had been up to in our time apart, or our son telling his dad about the time he was looking forward to spending with my boyfriend in the weekend ahead.
The man only observes a family that is blessed beyond measure. He sees the reasons for which we feel tremendous and genuine gratitude, but he does not understand how we came to be or how rare it truly is.
As our marriage was coming apart and we worked through the terms of a divorce, I had read “an open letter to my children” penned by another divorcée. The author stated how badly she felt that her children would only have the two people who loved them most together once a year on their birthdays.
It rattled me. I went to my husband, devastated about what we might be doing to our son, and concerned that I was putting my selfish interests ahead of his well-being. He listened, then calmly stated, “Okay. we won’t do that to him.”
From that conversation, we committed to keeping a family intact, even as our marriage ended. We vowed to have regular family dinners. We agreed to joint attendance at special events. Christmas mornings and Halloween trick-or-treating became shared events in our parenting plan. We gave our son documentation of his whole family by arranging family pictures five months after we separated.
At what (for me) was the lowest point of our separation, we attended a court-mandated parenting class for anyone intending to divorce in Connecticut. The state cautioned us to sign up separately, but I could not stomach going alone.
As we listened to advice on visitation rights for incarcerated parents and how to handle it if someone shows up intoxicated for their scheduled parenting time, I was smacked with the social stigma of being a divorced mom. I passed notes to my son’s dad and he joked back. After, he reminded me that what others struggled with would not be our life and that our commitment to family was designed for the benefit of all three of us.
We have been out of our marriage for three years, but our family has remained.
As in any family, it isn’t always easy: we question one another’s choices and styles. Scheduling conflicts, unexpected school closures, and illnesses wreak havoc on well-intended plans. There are awkward interactions and clumsy conversations, both within our family and with friends who wonder if they should be choosing a side.
This is not the family we would have designed. We did not set out to consciously uncouple, to co-parent, or to split time with our son. We anticipated a life together, and we fell short of that. And yet…we didn’t. We just built something unique.
Like the man at Starbucks says: it is a rare and beautiful thing to have a family like this.
Author: Jill Nowacki
Image: terren in Virginia/Flickr
Editor: Catherine Monkman