This series addresses the non-negotiables we have with our exes. Breaking up means making a lot of concessions and dealing with a lot of less than ideal situations. It’s unavoidable. But there are some bridges that are just too far. Is there something that you (rationally or not) just will not stand for in your new relationship with your ex? This is the place for it. Here, Divorcist co-founder Elizabeth writes about the hill she will die on: parent/teacher conferences.
A separate peace
In the five years since we’ve been divorced, things have calmed down considerably between me and my ex. Yes the Great Covid Wedding of 2020 was a point of contention (“We can’t just live in fear, Liz!”), but for the most part, things ran smoothly. Sure, I hated that he had live-in girlfriends in the presence of my sweet baby boy. Hated that as soon as he could talk, my baby would tell me about “Dada’s friends,” whose names were all picked from the list of “most popular baby girls names of 1990.” But was anything my ex was doing in violation of our MSA? Nope. So I had to try to stop caring about it.
The inevitable happens
When my ex did decide to marry one of these young women, it wasn’t the worst. Of course I had my feelings about this whole thing and I sure as heck felt them. But this woman brought value to my son’s life and mine. She loves him (who wouldn’t!) and has a dog that my son thinks is hilarious. As a cat person, I’m grateful my son can get his dog fix far away from my house. She is young and may not have personal goals and ambitions that were so problematic in my marriage to her husband. My ex hated that I wanted an identity beyond that of wife and mom. His new wife seems happy in this role. Good for her! Good for me! She crafts and bakes and puts together Valentines for my son’s classes. She likes doing these things and is good at them. I am very bad at them. This was a life we could live with. Everyone wins!
But when we talk about all of us winning, there was one time since my divorce that I saw with absolute clarity that my son was absolutely at peace with himself and his situation: Parent/teacher conferences.
For the good of the child
My ex had not yet remarried, but he was living with this future wife at the time. It was kindergarten conferences, before Covid. My son goes to this lovely, progressive, no-grades, no homework, no competitive sports school (I know, I never would have thought I’d be in favor of this. I was supposed to be a tiger mom! But here we are!) so their conferences are “student-led.” This means that my son would be there with us and his progress report would come from the student himself.
My child raidated pride as Dada and Mamma sat in tiny seats on either side of him while he showed us his best pictures and worksheets. His teacher pointed out where he was doing especially well. He had three grown ups whose only job for the next 15 minutes was to pay attention to him. It was heaven for him and you could tell. My ex and I were delighted. He gave praise. I clasped my hands and told our little guy how proud I was.
My son’s feet barely touched the ground as we left the classroom. When I suggested going to get pizza and my ex agreed, it was like we were telling him he was going to Disney World or, strangely, Cleveland, which he had a thing for for a while.
This is what it should look like
Getting pizza after my son’s conferences was easily the happiest the three of us had ever been together. More important, it was the happiest I’d seen my son with the three of us together. We laughed, we joked. I got quarters for the arcade where my ex grew to even greater estimation in my son’s eyes after setting new high scores on the games. It was exactly what a happy family should look like. I knew we were living on borrowed time. I knew we couldn’t do this every day or every week or probably even every month. It was like Berlin before the war. But while it lasted, my son was at ease and happy, and for me, that was a powerful drug. I needed to make sure this could happen again.
Hope for the future
It was my ex’s night with my son; his girlfriend was waiting back home. When it was time to leave, I hugged my boy and texted my ex as soon as I got to my car.
“He had the best time! He was so happy! Thank you for this. How about if we make pizza with Mamma and Dada a tradition after every parent/teacher conference?”
“Yeah! Sure! That sounds great!” was his response.
I texted my gratitude and told him how when I was little, I never felt so special as when my divorced parents were together and giving me all their attention. My parents loved me, this I knew, but when it was just the 3 of us, the compounded love was amazing. I felt like the most important and loved person on the planet. It didn’t happen often, and that was okay. Whenever both my parents were present, it usually included my stepmother, who I love and am glad to have in my life. And that was okay, too! Everyone got along. But it doesn’t take a child psychologist to tell them or me that having both parents’ focus solely on their kid is bolstering for that kid.
Another inevitable happens
Of all the commitments my ex has made and broken, the dissolution of The Parent/Teacher Conference Accord hit me the hardest. It shouldn’t have surprised me. My ex could be considered a narcissist. He’s not famous for keeping commitments. I thought this would be different. It wasn’t. I felt like an idiot failure. The day of spring conferences, I was texting him about time and logistics and reminded him of the pizza plan. His response, “Liz, no, [name of his partner] and I are going together.”
They were engaged now, so she was family, he said. She deserves to be at our son’s conferences. I pleaded, I begged. I reminded him how were were going to do this special thing for our kid twice a year and couldn’t we please just be the three of us? He called me cruel and full of hate and never interested in what was best for our son. (This remains his go-to insult*.)
There was nothing I could do. I called school and asked what the rules were about non-parents attending conferences. They said as long as one parent signed off on it, anyone they wanted could be in the room. I asked if we could do conferences separately. They said no. It was better for the child if we all were together.
So instead of going to conferences, I sat on my couch and cried until my sundrenched living room turned dark. I thought I scored 2 hours a year for my son to be with just his mom and dad. I thought I could replicate that first and only magical time for my son, if only twice a year. For everything else I’m not able to control for my kid, I had felt pretty effing good about parent/teacher conferences. I cried and cried, feeling bad for me, for my son, and for the future that would never be any better because my ex would never change.
Covid came and conferences became virtual. I managed first grade by having my ex pick up my son at the time of conferences, so that we could sit at my kitchen counter and zoom together. This last time, though, my ex made it clear that his wife would be joining us forevermore. She’s family, afterall. And sure. That she may be. She’ll be there at every event for as long as their marriage lasts, maybe even beyond. That’s something I’m going to accept. But denying my kid the unique happiness he got from not having to worry about anyone but himself at his parent/teacher conference is the one thing I will not accept.
A woman I consider a “good mom” made me feel better. “Oh I never went to conferences,” she said. So maybe that’s just my fate. Maybe I just don’t go. “But if I don’t go, school will think I’m uncooperative and a bad mom!” I sobbed. “They won’t,” she said. “And if they do, let them. Who cares?”
It’s my hill
Being divorced is deciding when to care and when to let go. I’m not sure I’m doing it right. Maybe my choices are totally legit or maybe they’re super stupid and selfish. At any rate, I will smile my way through baseball games and school plays with all of my son’s other “family.” I will text my praise to the new wife for this year’s Valentine’s execution. But parent/teacher conferences are, for better or worse, the hill I’m going to die on.
*Mine to him is: “You look like a spoon.” I’m not claiming all the moral high ground here.