How Toddlers Raised My Standards for Relationships

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The first time I ever traveled without my children, in the year of my divorce, I went to Italy for a week with a friend. I was half in love with him, but when we got there, he made it clear that we shouldn’t anymore, it wouldn’t work, and anyway, he didn’t want to.

We were just a couple of pals, hanging out in Tuscany. We were basically the middle-aged guys from Sideways. In Siena, on top of the duomo, we got into a fight. How could we not be in love on top of a duomo, with all that potent golden light frothing over the tiles of the crumbling city and the green fields beyond studded with cypresses that looked as if they had been placed there expressly to pin all that beauty to the earth? I mean, seriously: How?

I said I was probably going to throw myself off the roof of the cathedral. He’d have to arrange a funeral for me in the Piazza del Campo. Unfortunately, he knew I was joking. We walked back down the narrow steps; we looked at the statues that had once guarded the walls, and the eroded face of every prophet and philosopher was my dumb face, trying not to cry.

“This place is aggressively romantic,” he said that night at our Airbnb. I was upset that he had said that, like it was a mistake to have come. We were screwing up the whole country’s vibe. I went outside and patted the owner’s big white dogs until they knocked me over into the pea gravel and battered me about with their big white paws. They were the next best thing to my children, whom I missed every minute and now yearned for with a desperation that verged on actual panic.

Small children don’t consume just a little bit of a person; they don’t say, “I want this much of you and no further.” One of the joys of parenthood is the discovery that there is always more to give, that love is a deep, deep well, and that any concept of balance is bogus. This dynamic, I was learning, is not great preparation for dating.

I had left my marriage six months earlier. The man I went to Italy with was the first new person I’d kissed in 15 years. I had felt—and this is embarrassing to admit—incapacitated by desire.

As we planned the trip, I agonized over it. But it was only a week. My kids could visit their grandparents and play with their cousins; they would be okay. So I did it; I went. I put all my romantic desires into the golden light, I put them into the crumbling city, I crammed them into every alleyway until they tumbled back out at me like hockey sticks from an overstuffed closet. But it didn’t work, and anyway, he didn’t want to.

After the duomo letdown, I was furious with myself. I was missing the real life of my children for a phantasmagoria, a fresco on a wall. I felt like I’d been walking around Tuscany not seeing it at all, seeing only a landscape I myself had created, as if with one of those text-to-image generators. Romance, ravishment, olive grove, I’d fed into the algorithm—and out popped some trees with leaves like silver blades.

Delete, delete, correction: Heartbreak, olive grove. Now I had to tell Italy to cut it out. But of course, it didn’t, couldn’t. The trees didn’t care; they remained themselves. The breeze flicked the leaves up and down; they flickered on and off in the sunlight. Siena kept on crumbling, indifferently, beautifully. This place is aggressively romantic, I thought, feeling not nothing, but otherwise.


Flying to Italy without children, I didn’t have to worry about stockpiling snacks or downloading Paw Patrol episodes or precisely timing a baby’s nursing to takeoff and landing in hopes the sucking would help his little ears pop. Like I said, I missed them very much, but this part of the trip—the sitting-on-a-plane-with-a-book part—was exceptionally pleasant.

Next to me was a woman about 20 years older. She had wealthy-looking hair and was dressed in creamy tailored things. She asked about my holiday plans, and we got to talking. I checked the boxes of my life: newly single, first time away from kids, etcetera, and asked about her own. Her boys were practically grown now—the older one was studying abroad this year in Rome, and she was bringing the younger one to visit. Husband? Stayed home to work. They’d been married for a long time, and she conveyed, with a series of you-know-how-it-is sighs, that she wasn’t very happy. Quietly: But the kids, but the money, but the fear of dying alone. We ordered white wine and tapped our plastic cups together.

Changing the subject, I asked if she’d been to Rome before, and she said yes: In fact, just like her son, she’d studied there for a year as a young woman. And then suddenly, almost as if she’d only just remembered it, she said that she’d been involved in a love affair that year, with an Italian man. She’d even gotten engaged to him.

Naturally I squealed, and was about to say, Tell me everything. I was picturing a late-in-life reencounter—some dark-eyed widower with graying temples and a very, very good memory, stopped in his tracks in the streets of Rome by the apparition of his long-lost love—when a young man in the seat in front of us, a big floppy-haired college kid, swiveled around.

“Mom?”

“Oh, honey,” she said, and there was dismay in her face. He was afraid, or maybe angry—I wasn’t sure. “I didn’t think you could hear!” she said. “It was before I met Dad. It was nothing, a fling.”

He kept looking at her through the gap in the seats, wide-eyed, as if the plane was going down and he needed her to fix it. His mother had a life that wasn’t his; his mother had cracked open and a woman had come out. “I’ll tell you later,” she said. “I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”

Motherhood, I thought. It goes on and on.


Children are supposed to be the death of freedom. But that hasn’t been my experience exactly. The death of free time, certainly, but not of free thought. It was my marriage that took that from me. I could be myself and be a mother. I got divorced because I could not be myself and a wife.

Getting married was expected; all I had to do was say yes. But I’ve come to realize that I’ve really only chosen two things in my life: motherhood and divorce. Children are supposed to make divorce much harder. For me, they made it easier.

I know that this sounds strange, that it makes people angry. People I know, people I don’t know. Probably my children themselves will feel angry about it someday, and sometimes they already do—about the 50–50 back-and-forth and the two apartments and the juggling act that is now our family. I can see a man reading this, and it’s late at night, and his face is all the colors of the internet. He thinks I’ve made some very poor choices. He thinks, because I left my marriage, that I’m not a good mother.

Back when I got engaged, I wanted to think that marriage was a bold adventure. The lengths I went to in order to persuade myself of this are, in hindsight, a sign of how little I believed it. My mother planned the wedding; it was very beautiful. All we really had to do was register for a china set, express some opinions about flowers (pro-thistle, anti-orchid), taste the cakes, and choose the poems. At our ceremony, one of our friends read aloud part of Tennyson’s Ulysses. We’d picked it because I thought it was romantic (“one equal temper of heroic hearts”) and bold (“to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”) and because it had one line that sounded vaguely social-justice-y (“’tis not too late to seek a newer world”). We would sail off together through the stormy seas of life!

But we edited out all the parts that didn’t sound like a love poem, which are, in fact, almost all of it.

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race.

What the hell? It’s like I hadn’t even read the words on the page. It’s such a deeply weird choice that it’s almost as if I put that poem there, then, for me, now.

Ulysses is old, but he wants to hit the seas again. In the corner of his eye gleams the “untravell’d world”; he wants “life piled on life.” He’ll smite the waves and dash against rocks and probably drown and he doesn’t care—he’s not just hungry for experience; his head is spinning with desire for it. Ulysses, do you want to go to Italy with me? (Of course, he’s an asshole; he abandons his wife and foists the governing of Ithaca onto his son. If a mother did that, no one would write a poem about it.)

My husband—the good man I started a life with that I could not finish—kept the china. It belongs to him and the children now. It’s white with a green ring of cypresses.


Many people, I’m sure, are ambivalent about having a baby, or it just happens. But for me it was a deliberate choice, both romantic and radical. I knew that it would obliterate the world and the self I knew. Each time I peed on a stick, it was like peeking over the rim of another world.
  
My second child was born during the total solar eclipse of 2017. All week, up until I went into labor, I’d been editing stories about “the totality” for the newspaper where I worked—about that impossible coincidence when the moon blacks out the sun and time stops and the planet is cast into strangeness. Everyone was talking about ordering those special sunglasses so they could look up and not go blind. I missed it all. When it happened, I was in a hospital room, begging a nurse to get the anesthesiologist to stop gazing at the sky and come back inside and drug me up. Above, the celestial collision, below, the contractions, the pain coming in focusing waves. “Everything revolved around me in the darkness, things, countries, years”—that’s Proust. And then my son was born.
  
Sleep loss, tantrums, feats of strength and patience—sure. But also every dawn, lifting the child from the crib: Good morning! The rapture of the loved one’s return. The pleasure of listening to them as they grow: the way they name the world, cataloging, inventing, figuring out who is who and what is what. See doggy, want snuggle, Mommy’s apple, my apple. The way they play: They’re baby owls, they’re baby foxes, they’re baby Arctic foxes. They need me to build them a nest out of blankets. Don’t call it a fort! It’s a nest. No: It’s a burrow. They test with a toe the surface of language, and soon they’re treating it like a bouncy castle, somersaulting, throwing themselves against the walls.

My eclipse baby wants to know if we can get married, and I say, no—Mommy has no plans to get married, but if I do someday, it will have to be to another grown-up. Then we go to a cookout with some of my friends, and he notices it’s full of grown-ups. The kids want to know, “Will you marry these grown-ups?” They want to know about life and death and the meaning of it all, and one explains to us how it works: First Nanny will die; then you, Mommy, will die; then he and his brother will wait a long, long time, and die. And then the baby will die. He pretends to choke then, like an actor on a stage, and his brother cracks up, and they throw their heads back and laugh.

At times like these I’m reminded that romantic longing, sexual passion, humiliation, desire—all these grand forces—are just wiped off the map by the animal love of parents for their children. And that’s how it should be. One reason my friend and I didn’t work out—a good one—was that he wanted to marry someone. He wanted children of his own.


The first draft of the divorce papers arrived in my email one morning. It shocked me to read our names—his, mine, the kids’—in that document. “Hereafter” I would be referred to as “Honor” or “the Mother.” Yes, these are my names, but the document made them sound like indictments. It felt like something had reached out and grasped me by the wrist.

But that’s the long arm of marriage again; that’s not motherhood. Of course we’ll sign the papers agreeing to our shared obligations, but I can’t help feeling that it’s a little absurd—this attempt to capture, in the impersonal language of the law, the sempiternal pledge of parenthood. I mean: I’m their mother.  

There’s that corny line about motherhood being like walking around with your heart outside your body. If it were just my heart, I wouldn’t be fussed. I could throw my heart out a helicopter and watch it hurtle to the earth; my heart could use the thrill. But it’s my child’s heart, my child’s cold nose, his cheek with the almost imperceptible scar that his own newborn fingernail made before we’d even left the hospital.

Sometimes I worry that I’m going to be a basket case when they grow up. What will I be for then? But I don’t really think the joy of them can dissipate. They are wonderful because they grow and change. Hopefully I can grow and change too. I want to be a better mother. But you can’t give yourself to another unless you have a full and free self to give. Well, no, that’s not quite true—of course you can—but the offering isn’t worth that much.

Another thing I’m learning is that getting free is tougher than it looks, that it’s full of false starts and humiliating setbacks, that it never ends.

Soon after that week in Italy, the Airbnb owner posted a review of us, which my friend texted me months later, meaning, I don’t know what: The flat was left very clean and tidy. It was a pleasure to host this guest and his wife.


The other day, quarter to six, I was at the playground, and my littlest was losing it. She wouldn’t let me put her down, and one of her brothers was starving while the other was refusing to get off the swings. I hitched her up on my hip, handed him a half-eaten peanut-butter sandwich out of his lunchbox. No! He threw it in the dirt. Two out of three, crying. Me, alternating threats and bribes, cunning and charm, failing at everything.

A family we know—a perfectly nice family—stopped. Two parents, two children, no one crying, no one shouting. “Do you need some help?” they asked me, perfectly nicely. And oh, I was filled with shame and rage.

All I could do was laugh, ruefully. Rueful laughing is my thing now. How could they help me? I’d made my choices.

“If you stop crying,” I told my kids, “I’ll spin you around. I’ll spin you so fast, you’ll be a blur.” They stopped crying. They took turns. I spun them and spun them and spun them. I was an axis, and in that moment, that was all they needed me to be. We got pizza (“three cheese, one pepperoni, don’t bother warming them up”) from the spot on the corner. One block, another, the littlest in my arms, the boys dragging their sneakers, the backpacks trailing anchors behind us. “Mom, can I ask you something?” my oldest said.

“Of course, what is it?”

“You ever notice how patriotic dogs are always wearing sunglasses?”

I laughed, not ruefully. We rounded the corner, and there it was: the final stretch, the smooth shore of the sidewalk leading to our building’s front door. We’d made it home. Ulysses had nothing on us. We read three stories about grumpy bears, and I put them to bed.

After that, my best friend in the city came over, as she often does, to talk about our kids and our jobs and our new relationships. She’s a single mother too. She understands everything, which is the only kind of help that matters. Each time I see her, all I want to do is lay my head down in her lap.    

I told her what I’m telling you now. Like the woman on the plane, I too had been to Italy before. It was with my husband, before we were married. We went to Tuscany; we went to the cathedral in Siena; we saw the faces of the prophets.

One day on that trip, we got lost driving somewhere out in the countryside on our way to a restaurant. We were following the GPS, and it took us down ever-narrower streets until we were on an actual dirt track bumping through a field. I remember tall grass growing everywhere around us. I could put my arm out the window and run my fingers through the seedheads as we drove. I remember my husband’s concern for the rental car’s undercarriage. “This cannot possibly be right,” we said to each other.

But it was. The track spat us out onto a back road that delivered us to the restaurant’s front door. It wasn’t wrong; it was just a shortcut. It was a shortcut, and now I’m doubling back and back. I know it’s weird to say that my toddlers raised my standards for relationships, but that’s the way it is. The usual lament—that the romance of marriage dissipates in the commotion of child-rearing—isn’t what happened to me. Rather, being a parent brought me so much joy that it threw the labor of my marriage into relief. I hadn’t been prepared to work that hard to make myself happy, or hadn’t thought that I deserved to be. But if my children’s happiness depends on my own—and I believe that it does—then that was a reason to try.

Parenting, likewise, brought the absurdity of that trip with my friend into relief. I was half in love, then a third, then a quarter, then a little poof and it was gone. My friend remained my friend. Italy, like romance, was a place I’d traveled to. Someday, probably, I’ll go back there and stay a little longer, with someone better suited. Or maybe I won’t. I don’t need to be swept off my feet on top of a cathedral (though it would have been fun for a minute!). I want the long view out over the cypresses. I want to stand in the battering weather of another person’s experience. I have that already. Motherhood: It goes on and on.

https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2022/10/motherhood-women-priority-divorce-relationships/671792/