Some choices are hard because we are torn between two options and the “right” outcome is not necessarily clear. We feel polarized because it is not obvious which path is the best one. With other choices, we know the answer in our deepest selves, we can clearly see what we have to do, but we know our decision is going to be painful. Those choices are equally hard.
The hardest choice I have ever made was not difficult in the first sense; I knew in my heart what needed to be done. Perhaps it could have even been considered a “no-brainer.” But it wasn’t really- it took a healthy dose of uncomfortable awareness, asking myself hard questions that I wasn’t sure I wanted answered, and the knowledge that people’s lives would be made more difficult as a result of my decision.
The hardest choice I ever made was also one of the most transformative- the decision to divorce my first husband when my daughter was eight months old.
I have no interest in trash-talking my ex-husband, nor do I wish to relive and justify the reasons I came to this monumental decision. The line between leaving an unhealthy marriage to preserve your own happiness and jumping ship on a relationship because you have been deluded into thinking marriage shouldn’t be so much “work” is a fine one, and one that may be classified very differently from person to person. On the one hand, there is something to be said for sticking things out, putting forth as much effort as possible, and leaving your comfort zone to advocate for your marriage. But let the pendulum swing a bit too far, and you have found yourself merely surviving a marriage to a partner that you know is not the right person for you.
I knew I had made the right decision; not only had I prioritized my own self-preservation, I believed that the only way to someday teach my daughter what it meant to be in a healthy relationship was by modeling it for her. I left her biological father with the intention of doing the right thing for both of us. I knew it would complicate things, that to a degree I was making things harder on myself. I felt humiliated by a sense of failure that I had not followed through with my commitment. Memories of wedding gifts from great-uncles and wishes from grandparents plagued my guilty conscience. Getting a divorce was a very demoralizing experience for someone like me- a perfectionist, a people pleaser, and a somewhat apologetic conformist.
My foray into single parenthood was not terribly long; my husband came into our lives when my daughter was still very young, and she has no conscious memories of a time in her life in which he was not enmeshed. When Izzy was just three years old, I remarried; it was around this time that my ex-husband signed the necessary paperwork to begin the stepparent adoption process. Again, my intention is not to vilify him- his forfeit of legal rights to my daughter was one of the most generous gifts I could have been given, and not having access to his private thoughts, I will never know what motivated his acquiescence.
My husband adopted Izzy several months before her 4th birthday. She has a clear recollection of “Adoption Day” and the special exchange of gifts and words shared that morning. Izzy played a central role in our wedding day, and has fond memories of throwing flower petals on the beach as she walked down the aisle.
When I look back on all the hard work that went into our preparation to be a family– the counseling, the hard conversations, the parenting classes, the paperwork– I feel extremely proud. But there is something else that hides beneath the surface. Many people have no idea that I was married before and that my husband adopted Izzy. It’s not that I lie about it, and certainly my close friends have heard the story, but I will admit- it’s not something I make public knowledge very often.
I have reflected quite a bit on why I tend to keep this information to myself, and I’m not thrilled with my conclusion: my divorce was a source of shame to me, and as I mentioned, I perceived it to be a failure. I felt terribly self-conscious about my naked ring finger during the years I spent unmarried, and once my new relationship grew serious, I occasionally pondered if I could get away with pretending the whole thing never happened. As in- the first husband and subsequent divorce was nothing but an illusion! This guy was here all along! We’re just like everyone else! In some ways, I may have succeeded.
Certainly we look just the same as every other “regular” family. When I look back on those years, I almost forget that my husband hasn’t been here all along. One of the things that brings me the most joy and pride is the knowledge that in all important ways, Izzy is my husband’s daughter. He loves her just as much as I do, and just as much as he loves our other daughter- his dedication to both his children is unquestionable. I have frequently remarked that I think he is a better parent than I am. I am particularly defensive about any implications that he is not her real father.
We have never tried to hide Izzy’s birth and adoption stories from her- she knows that she has a biological father who lives in another state, and she talks to him on the phone several times a month. Earlier this year, she and I finally had an illuminating conversation about biological parents, divorce, and adoption. She asked astute questions, and I answered openly and honestly, doing my best to make her feel secure about her place in the family. I never, never want her to feel that her story is anything to hide or be ashamed of.
So why would I hide it? Why am I ashamed of the fact that this is my second marriage, and that my husband is not the biological father of my oldest child? Shouldn’t I celebrate the uniqueness of our history, and share my pride in the hard work and love that went into building our family?
Because after all, we chose each other. My husband came into his fatherhood in the noblest of ways- he chose the child of the woman he loved and vowed to love us both unconditionally. That type of choice is so powerful, so beautiful, that surely it casts a shadow over any sense of shame or discomfort.
I found freedom in my choice to leave my first marriage, and I believe I will find freedom in acknowledging and sharing the path I chose. So I am going to try, particularly for the sake of my daughter, to abandon any sense of apology or embarrassment over the fact that our story is different than others, and simply embrace the choice I made. Families come in all kinds of packages– be they traditional or blended, joined through adoption or biology — but each has a unique history. It’s time for me to remember to honor ours, and all the choices that led to its creation.