My Happy, Hurting Heart: The Beauty and Pain of Co-Parenting

Visitation is hard.. So far it hasn’t happened all that often; but when it does, it’s hard.

It’s not just hard because of the obvious struggles of having to share my boys with the person who has hurt me the most in life. It’s not just difficult because of his unreliable track record and frequent inability to follow through. It isn’t just painful because of his alcoholism and knowing what he has repeatedly chosen over valuable time with his sons.

The hardest part is knowing that despite all he’s done and all he’s missed, my boys think he hung the moon. And I’m grateful for that.

But that gratitude mixed with the grief that inevitably rises to the surface when I see him, along with the happiness I feel in my heart when I see my boys so elated, is painful.

They don’t need to know any of the bad things. I want to shelter them from that as much as I can, for as long as I can. On the rare occasion that my ex follows through with a scheduled visit, he tends to show the best of himself. Not always, but most of the time.

Today, he pulled out all the stops. Offered to buy me groceries because he got to our meeting spot before us. Told me the night before he’d gone to the store and stocked up on food for the boys. Agreed to get the boys a haircut tomorrow while I go to the dentist after work without having to bring them with me. Built them a fort in the living room when they got scared of the thunderstorm. Promised to continue his scheduled Wednesdays for the next couple weeks….until summer classes and a different job begin.

The parts of him that I love; the good sides of him that he gave me when it was convenient for him, and that he now gives the boys when it fits into his schedule…those are the parts that kept me hanging on year by year. Those are the parts that kept me believing that underneath all the garbage, he really was who I wanted him to be.

Without fail, those good parts fade back into the background as time goes on. It isn’t sustainable for him, and that’s why we can’t be together. But he can maintain that good facade for 24 hour periods of time occasionally, and when he does, my boys benefit.

So when I tell my sons that they’re going to see their dad and they almost jump out of their skin in excitement, my heart skips a few beats. For many reasons.

When my baby repeatedly says, “Mom! That makes my heart SO happy to see my daddy!!!” as we drive to the grocery store parking lot to meet him, my heart drops; and with a tear in my eye I say, “Oh punkin, that makes my heart happy too!”

When we pull up and my youngest says, “DADA!” while my twins proclaim, “I’m going to give my dad a big hug and kiss!!!” there’s a tightening in my chest.

And when he gets out of his truck with a father of the year smile on his face, and my sons run into his arms, my heart hurts.

It hurts because it reminds me of our brokenness. Of our inability to be together; not because of a lack of love or commitment on my side, but because of core differences that make us unhealthy together. It hurts because for a brief moment, we look like a happy family. For a few seconds, we look, on the outside, like the image I always wanted.

But it’s the same facade we always carried on. The same pained smiles that hid the tears. The same masquerade of family togetherness I tried to create when we were together. And it’s hard.

It’s hard because my sons deserve the image of himself that he presents. They deserve a present, loving, committed father. The kind of father he acts like he is, both to them and the rest of the world. But only for a few hours, every few weeks or months.

The truth is, as long he isn’t hungover, he is a great sometimes dad. They love him and each day they get to see him it’s like Christmas. He’s the Disney dad and pulls out all the stops when he has them. And they’re in heaven.

No matter how much pain he caused me and no matter how much he wrecked my heart, I want my boys to love him. I want them to spend time with him, as long as when he is with them, he gives them his best.

It does make my heart happy to see my sons so excited to spend a night with their daddy. But it also feels like someone is squeezing my heart in their fist. It also makes me angry that they don’t get that part of him more often, and that I don’t either. It makes me furious knowing the truth behind that veneer, and it makes me grieve, again, the loss of what we never had.

I am continuing to release that dream, and now, my heart has stopped chasing after it just because for a moment it looks tangible. But I still feel it for a few minutes as I’m hugging my sons good-bye. I still feel a sense of loss as I watch our two vehicles drive off in separate directions. I still wish he was different.

But I am learning to accept what is, rather than what I wish it was. I am learning how to appreciate the good when it comes. To be grateful for the joy in my boys hearts when they get to spend time with their dad. To let go of my anger because it’s what’s best for me and my sons. And to co-parent with this man who gave me the greatest gifts of my life.

It’s not what I wanted, but it’s our new normal. I’m their all the time mom and he’s their sometimes dad. They love us both. They need us both. And they have the best of us both.

He’s giving them what he’s capable of giving, and I’m grateful for that much.

Although it’s difficult for so many reasons, and it soaks through to each layer of my pain, I’m healing. I’m letting go. I’m releasing the reverie as I relinquish my sons to their father’s arms. I’m absolving him of the debt he owes and appreciating the good he can give.

But I feel everything. The pain, the hate, the love, the joy, the disappointment, the fear… It’s all there. All those emotions in one place is painful. Just like it always was.

Through it all, I can feel myself getting stronger and I see my boys flourishing despite the intermittent visits with their dad. They will learn, like me, to appreciate the good he can offer and let the expectation end there. They’ll love us both, and we’ll both love them, even if it looks different than I hoped it would.

My heart, even though it hurts, is happy. And we will all be ok.

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