16 years ago we promised for better or worse, I promised to watch Seahawks games and he promised to make sure I didn’t always live in an RV. But, life is unexpected and complicated, ours maybe more than some, and if you can’t grow with it, then everyone hurts.
Jason and I ran into each in 2003. He made my heart literally skip a beat the first time I saw him. We went out on a casual date and never had an awkward moment. We talked about travel, music, families, and life. He was like no boy I’d met before. 15 months later, after a gazillion phone calls, 2 in person visits, we decided to move in together. I packed up my LA apartment (again) and we packed the cats and drove up north.
We moved into the tiny dark apartment he was already renting. It was October and cold and rainy and we didn’t care a bit. We quickly got accustomed to each other’s stuff, I stopped getting spooked by the giant Austin Powers cardboard cutout he had behind the door and he finally stopped saying “oh shit”, when he came around the corner and saw the dress form I had put there.
We got engaged a year later in Ireland, married in his parent’s backyard a year after that, in a beautiful, colorful outdoor celebration, packed with friends and family and flowers and love. I couldn’t wait to kiss him, I remember thinking that from the moment I started walking down the path. I wore a red dress, he wore a shirt with butterflies on it. It was magic.
We had a year full of adventures, we lived in an RV, It was easy, un-complicated, there was no arguing- ever. We were a fantastic couple, everyone told us so and we agreed.
When we turned 35, we weren’t especially eager to have kids, but thought perhaps we should m try as I wasn’t getting younger. Almost instantly, we were pregnant. We didn’t tell anyone until we were 15 weeks along. We found out it was a girl (we’d already picked out the name Zoe) and then we started to tell those closest to us. Three weeks later, the unthinkable happened, a phone call that changed our lives. Your daughter has this birth defect, CDH.. chances of survival are slim … time in hospital is months… will need life support…. I don’t even remember the rest.
No one can know how their lives will change when faced with a traumatic event. We thought ourselves invincible to any strife, any disagreement, any division, but apparently we were wrong.
The first few months in that hospital with Zoe were hard. She and I were in Portland 24/7, Jason came down on weekends and as needed in emergencies. He had to work; we had two insurance policies to cover and a house being built. I had gone from working full time to an instantly overnight, full time, stay at home mom of a medically fragile kid.
We came home from the hospital at 3 months old. He was working long days at his job, I stayed home with Zoe, I read to her, tube fed her every 3 hours, snuggled her, researched and researched and researched, I called insurance companies and doctors and more insurance companies and DSHS, and Medicaid, and more insurance. I paid bills and cleaned house and did soooo much laundry because Zoe would throw up ALL.THE.TIME. I lost my sense of who I was, no career anymore, no friends I saw on a regular basis who had any idea what I was going through. I missed my friends who reminded me of who I used to be, I missed the moms who I had met in the hospital who knew and could understand what we were going through. I felt extremely alone in my bubble. It was lonely and really hard.
It was non-stop busy chaos with Zoe: therapists, doctor appointments, oxygen deliveries, neither of us slept for more than 2.5 hours at a time, for years on end. Every noise woke us up, every beep, every slight gagging. Family helped out as much as they could, but with meds to mix and tube feeds to happen, it wasn’t a world where she could spend more than a few hours or an afternoon with someone else.
I started therapy, and it helped.. some. Got me past resentment and back to realizing that we were a team. Then we started couples therapy, and things got a bit better. We started talking about our individual needs in order to find balance and how to find the missing spark.
Then I was offered my dream job, it meant, Jason now being the stay home parent. A whole new life and schedule, but would provide some financial relief from what we were scraping by on. So we went for it.
After Zoe started school all day. Jason got offered a job working for the school district, same hours and days and time off as Zoe. It was ideal. With my 60+ hour weeks and 3 hour commutes, knowing he was home to watch her was peace of mind. We fell into a very much a divide and conquer sort of house to get everything done. He did yard work, cared for Zoe after school, cooked and cleaned. I worked in the city, paid bills, scheduled appointments, dealt with all things insurance and doctors.
We became a family trying to stay afloat with two working parents, parenting a medical kid with all sorts of learning and social issues and disabilities. We were all about how to keep Zoe happy and healthy and somewhere in the middle we lost ourselves, as individuals and as a couple. We talked only about the day to day, Zoe, and how to give her her best life. We ignored who we were becoming.
Over the following years, I became unhappy, lost, quiet, afraid to say what I was really thinking because I felt like a crazy person for questioning this life I had. How could I be unsure about this amazing man who excelled at caregiving, who thought I was beautiful, who took such care of our house and yard, who my parents adored, as did everyone else we knew. But he was unhappy too, he had lost his independence, his spontaneity, his joy. We were on eggshells around each other, trying not to hurt the other’s feelings, trying to show we cared by making assumptions about what the other person didn’t need or did want. He would try to talk about what was happening, I’d be scared to answer with the truths that had started nagging away in my brain and heart.. I’d try to give him a break from watching Zoe by sending him off on a boys weekend and he would call home 12 times. I’d make a suggestion of a fun family thing and he’d have some house thing he wanted to work on. He’d tell me to go sit and relax and read a book, and I would spend the day cooking instead and then bitch about all the dishes. It was a relentless cycle that left us all performing the roles that neither of us wanted to be in, or at least in the capacity and volume we were performing them. The pandemic came along and all of that exploded even more. Home school, work from home, fear of Zoe getting sick, loss of creativity at work. We were miserable in our worlds and yet performing them ad nauseum as a way to avoid talking it all through.
Is it possible to love someone so much and yet not be in love with them? Is it possible to want out of a romantic relationship and yet not want to leave this beautiful life we had created for our daughter? Yes, it is.
Jason and I were on our way to a wedding recently, all dressed up with an hour car ride to talk. What do you want, he asked me? Do you want out, do you need a break? What do you want, how do we fix this? Where do we go? I’m not sure what the magic moment was about all of that, but I took a deep breath and said I think I need a break from us as a couple, I haven’t been IN LOVE with you for a long time. I want to spend time making Zoe’s life magic. I want to give Zoe a home that is loving and kind and relaxed and not filled with coded conversation. I want to remember who I am under all the rules and expectations and pretenses. I’ve lost myself, I miss me, I miss happy you. I want you to be happy and relaxed and be loved and needed, but I can’t give you that right now. I don’t have it in me.
I am still not sure where those words came from or why at that moment it felt safe to say them, but it was instant relief. We spent the rest of that car trip talking about what all this means and how we do this. And then we went to a wedding and had a great time together even if the ”forever and ever” moments made us giggle quietly a bit.
It’s now four months after this initial conversation, we’ve had many talks about possible incarnations of our relationship and what we want and need, So what is happening now? What does this mean for us? Well so far it’s been pretty great, for both of us. Really, I promise. We have decided to officially separate and become partners in co-parenting, the thing that is actually the most important job to both of us. We are enjoying family time, we have spent hours on the porch talking about us, both as a (former) couple and as individuals. We’ve talked about what we want for each other in the future. We’ve cried and talked about feelings and about how scary this all is. We got over the fear of telling our parents and close friends and while they have been sad ( and in general, surprised), it’s hard to be mad at either of us when we are on the same page about next steps and this being a mutual decision. I have dealt ( and am still dealing with)h my guilt over not being IN love any more? But you know what, it made us closer than we’ve been in a long time. We aren’t bad people, we are just two people who are living this crazy life and rolling with all the punches.
Jason is a fantastic father, a caring, kind, considerate person who loves with his whole being. He’s everything I should be romantically in love with, but I’m not. I sometimes feel like I let people down, I’m working on that.
So what now? Right now, we are living in our house, co-parenting, continuing to share expenses and schedules and spaces. The plan is to move into the second residence on our property that we would swap off in so that Zoe’s day to day stays the same. Right now, we have cathartic conversations, great hugs, shoulders to cry on, a safe space to hold conversations, a great friend to work things out with, and we always put Zoe first, making sure she knows she is loved.
Forcing ourselves into a relationship that doesn’t work anymore wasn’t giving Zoe the example of what love should look like. Do I wish she could have seen us sixteen years ago? Yes, of course, we were mad about each other. But also I’m learning that life happens. It’s not wrong. Neither of us messed up. Neither of us is a bad person. I also know this isn’t the end of us as a family.
It’s not traditional, We know. But it’s working for us right now. We are partners in co-parenting. The English language is driving me crazy lately. There are no words or terms to describe this situation. “Ex” feels harsh and divided. “Former” sounds like one of us is no longer involved, which couldn’t be further from the truth. We are Zoe’s Mom and Pops, her best advocates and caretakers, guardians of our beautiful home, cheerleaders for each other’s futures as we forge this new future and find our individual joy again. We are family vacation adventure takers, new holiday tradition creators, and front porch conversationalists.
This is our new norm. Maybe this is the ultimate grown up way to deal with relationships changing over the years? Maybe he or I will lose friends and family over this, but you know what, none of it matters. Zoe hasn’t noticed a difference, if anything she senses more joy and laughter and heart in our house again. I’ve gained a friend again, we’ve gained a safe place to talk all the things through. Our hearts are a little lighter and hopeful while at the same time a bit sad and broken. It’s hard and messy and complicated and full of unknowns. It’s not the choice many people would make, it’s not the choice society and my upbringing taught us to make, But we did. And it is working.
So now you know. We are talking about this now because it feels right to be honest and genuine with those we love. We are finally listening to the voices inside our hearts and souls instead of the voices of societal expectations. We’re talking about this because perfection is overrated and hard and untrue and doesn’t help anyone in the long run and if one more person tells us how great a couple we are and they don’t know how we do it, I’m going to lose my shit. We’re doing this to hold ourselves accountable to being honest with each other and Zoe. We’d rather be honest with ourselves, than continue to project an image that is hurting us. We’re doing this because it is the right thing to do, for the three of us. And we get to decide what is best for us: the three of us. Our forever family in whatever form that takes.
I’ve been doing lots of reflecting and reading the past several months and this quote from Cheryl Strayed hit me hard with it’s truth.
“One ends a romantic relationship while remaining a compassionate friend by being kind above all else. By explaining one’s decision to leave the relationship with love and respect and emotional transparency. By being honest without being brutal. By expressing gratitude for what was given. By taking responsibility for mistakes and attempting to make amends. By acknowledging that one’s decision has caused another human being to suffer. By suffering because of that. By having the guts to stand by one’s partner even while one is leaving. By talking it all the way through and by listening. By honoring what once was. By bearing witness to the undoing and salvaging what one can. By being a friend, even if an actual friendship is impossible. By having good manners. By considering how one might feel if the tables were turned. By going out of one’s way to minimize hurt and humiliation. By trusting that the most compassionate thing of all is to release those we don’t love hard enough or true enough or big enough or right. By believing we are all worthy of hard, true, big, right love. By remembering while letting go.”
So that is what we’re attempting to do, remember with gratitude, stand by each other, releasing each other to find the type of love we now need, talking it through and listening.
You’re welcome to support us on our journey, but please don’t judge what you haven’t lived. But do know that we love you all, we appreciate your support and love, there is no need to take sides. This is a joint decision, and we are learning to lead with love, not fear. We are grateful for the kindness in each other that is letting us get to this place together, I truly know that is a gift and circumstance many relationships do not have.
My sister sent me this link the other day to Ted Talk. She said it reminded her of Jason and I right now and it brought me hope that this is doable and that this can be the healthiest version of us. So a link to a bit of listening in case you’re curious.
XO, Shannin AND Jason, AKA: Partners in Co-Parenting