It was well past midnight when my phone dinged urgently from the nightstand next to me. I debated not checking it: the kids were tucked safely in their beds upstairs and my work rarely requires an immediate response to client issues. I’m not a live organ transplant surgeon, after all. No message I get after midnight needs an answer before dawn.
But my curiosity got the better of me, and I rolled over to check my messages. And there it was, a note from a reader, also up much too late:
“I had to ask you this one question … I wonder when I will stop secretly grieving the loss of my ‘first family?’ It’s been four years and every now and again it hits me like a freight train that it’s over … that this ‘post first family, blended family life’ is really happening. Trying to coparent and trying to bond with step children and trying to ensure that everybody is ‘getting along’ is so overwhelming sometimes … nights like tonight, I just secretly wish that my ‘first family’ was still intact.”
I read it twice, quickly, and then once more as I thought about what to say.
I could’ve written the message myself
Yesterday I called my children to say goodnight and listened to their stories of the day at the beach on vacation with their father. Simon is relishing his freedom, old enough now to spend the afternoon at the pier eating ice cream and talking to girls with the casual, laid back attitude I also perfected at home in the mirror when I was 16. Lottie spent the day in the pool, practicing hand stands, and Caden continued his beach trench digging. For as long as I can remember, that child has spent his week at the beach digging a trench so long and straight it makes me wonder how long it will be before the army recruits him off the sand.
I know where they are and what they had for lunch and how it feels to sit on the deck of their family beach condo, salty air blowing softly at the end of a long day in the sun. I spent my 20th birthday with my beach chair sitting in that low tide, lost in a book before heading to the very restaurant where they ate dinner last night. I know the pattern of the cracks in the bathroom ceiling, and the soft murmured cadence of adult conversation after the children fall, sandy and exhausted, into their beds in the back bunk room.
But I’m not there. Someone else is now.
It was the background conversation that stayed with me longest after I hung up the phone last night. I could hear their father, Billy, laughing with his dad, and his mother’s murmured response. Suddenly, the adults all started laughing, sharing a joke I’m not a part of any longer and in that instant I felt overwhelmingly homesick.
Homesick for a time and place where I belonged, simply and wholly. Where I didn’t have to add a prefix and no one had come before me. Where people were free to love me unencumbered by grief and heartbreak. Where I didn’t yet understand what those words meant, really.
And yet, I wouldn’t choose to be there. I didn’t choose that, after all.
As I hung up the phone, I took Gabe’s outstretched hand and we left for dinner, hand in hand, walking in our now-familiar rhythm. We spend the night working through an investment strategy, diving deep into the details of our latest television obsession, and thinking about where we might find ourselves a year from now.
We spend the meal as we’ve spent our day: enjoying each other’s company and exploring the world around us. We are, like our stride, perfectly in sync. The joy I feel when I am with Gabe, secure in our partnership and overwhelmed by his love, is something I’d never experienced before. I wouldn’t have even said it existed.
I’m becoming more comfortable with the “both and-ness” of this life
I am both homesick for the life I once had and filled with joy at the life I am living. I am both overwhelmed by the complexity of raising six children and on-my-knees-grateful at the chance to bear witness to the miracle of their transition to adulthood. I both miss my first husband’s quick wit and remember its sting. I both worry about the effects of our choice to separate and know deep in my bones it was the right choice for my family.
I spent the morning on a new beach today
I watched the older couples walking, hand in hand, some deep in conversation, some silent. I watched the teen girls primp and preen, carefully adjusting their pose as they captured and posted the perfect candid moment. I watched the young moms and dads slather sunscreen and chase down lost yellow shovels and explain for the fourth time that sand is not for eating.
For just a moment, I want one more chubby toddler. One I share with the man next to me, one who will eat sand and learn to ride a bike in our driveway and belong to just the two of us. And in that same moment I remember that I never want to own another swim diaper or blue plastic bathtub or attend another endless kindergarten orientation.
I both want to wear that teenage-girl black crocheted bikini and not think twice about it and also know I never, ever want to be 16 again.
I both want to walk on the beach with someone I loved as a girl and also know the person I want beside me today joined me much later in my life.
Grief and sadness and gratitude and giddy joy wrap around me
They weave intertwined through my memory, tangled so closely I sometimes can’t separate the two. I’ve stopped trying. I’m learning the experience of one often highlights the other, and this swirling life in progress has enough room for both.
I’ve slowly stopped trying to rationalize or make sense of how I feel in any given moment, and just accept where I am. Feelings are not right or wrong or good or bad. Sometimes I am still sad about a decision we made I know to be the right one. Sometimes I am filled with joy I found only after making a decision that caused people I love pain. A complicated path sometimes yields complicated feelings.
And so, late that night, I respond to my new friend with the truth, the only wisdom I have to offer:
“I get that. I sometimes feel that way too.”
This article was originally published on This Life in Progress.