by Petra McQueen
We are in my front room. Richard is perching on the arm of a chair and I am on the sofa still in my pajamas. This morning he dropped the boys off early and they are rattling through the house finding what they need for school. There’s time for a quick chat and, for a change, we don’t negotiate the next week’s timetable, nor discuss the boys’ activities. We are congratulating ourselves.
“We’ve worked hard,” I say. “You and me. We’ve both worked hard.”
“Yes,” he says. “Some of my mates look up to me as a role model.”
I smirk at this particular Richardism (he’s never modest), but can see why he says it. We’ve negotiated our way through an awful break-up. We’ve worked and worked so that we can now sit in the same room together and see each other as parents of equal weight and stature.
The alternative – bitterness and court contracts – is in my mind because a friend’s ex-wife had him arrested for breaking a court order when he was five minutes late taking his children back to her. Since then the children panic if they think they might be late, they rush and temper those important last minutes.
I have another friend, grown up and with a family of her own now, whose father decided to run away with her and her sister and take them from England to Canada. The airports were put on alert but he sidestepped the authorities by leaving on the QE2. Her mum fought and fought but by the time the courts gave her custody the girls were almost grown.
These stories are horrific. But I can see how it happens. When Richard left, my emotions were fear, bewilderment and hate. I wanted to block him out, never see him again. I didn’t want him to have anything to do with the children. I felt that if he was going to reject me in such a way there would come a time when he would reject our children, become bored with them as he becomes bored with many of his hobbies. I wanted to protect them, but mainly I wanted to protect myself. I couldn’t look at him.
I am surprised I never crashed driving away after dropping the children off because I was hysterical, blind with tears. It was only fear, fear of yet another row, that stopped me curtailing his hours with the kids, telling him that he couldn’t see them so much, because I couldn’t see him so much.
Then I spent a strange and miserable weekend at an ex-boyfriend’s wedding. The best man’s speech revealed that the happy couple had met while I was still going out with the groom. This was another blow. I was afraid that I would never be able to function again. The only thing that I had was the children. They were what I clung to. “I love them so much,” I declared to one of the guests at the table.
“Oh, of course you do,” she said.
Then, leaning over and tapping the back of my hand, she said, “Kids don’t need to feel loved, you know? They need to feel safe.”
What an odd thing to say. Kids need to feel loved, right? First and foremost. But the idea mushroomed. She was right. Kids need to feel loved and safe.
When I was honest with myself, I knew that my children’s safety didn’t mean I should bunker down with them, protect them from someone who had hurt me. It meant letting their father love them his way, and letting them express their love for him. Ultimately, they had to feel my approval: they had to know that their dad’s love was as safe as their mother’s love. And they had to feel safe enough to express that love back to him, and in the presence of the other parent.
It hasn’t been easy. It’s been the hardest lip-biting, soul-twisting thing I have ever done. It took years, too. Probably three for it to start to feel half normal. We don’t always get it right. As the boys grow up they will be able to tell us precisely how we went wrong.
I know we bicker – I don’t want to wait outside his house on a freezing afternoon when he’s late; he doesn’t want to schlep over to my house for the umpteenth time. I can find a million things to criticise him about – but not his fatherhood, rarely that.
Over time, I have come to see what his love is. And what it means to our children. It is different in its tone and timbre from mine. I could nitpick endlessly. But I don’t. Richard loves our children fiercely and well.
What he knows, and I know, and many other single parents know, is that in loving your child fiercely and well, you have to let other people love them too. You have to let a whole raft of people love your kids. It is only through the clear expression of this love in the everyday details of life that they will be safe.
The woman at the wedding was right: they need to be safe.
This essay first appeared in The Guardian.