When Hunter and I began the work of ending our marriage, a new battle started: blame. “You kicked me out,” he’d often say to me.
“Because you relapsed,” I’d shoot back. “You weren’t sober, Hunter. That was our rule.”
I felt a new sense of strength and purpose. I wasn’t fighting for Hunter or my marriage anymore, I was fighting for myself. But I grasped too hard at the things I could control, one of them being my children. Naomi was in college, but Finnegan and Maisy felt the full weight of it.
I had already established a rhythm as a hypervigilant mom, but now I became intolerant of the slightest missteps. I didn’t want them to use our situation as an excuse to not work hard, because I was afraid those excuses could snowball. I would not bend on homework, chores, or curfew. “If you don’t want to be late,” I’d say, “aim for early.” Anything I felt I could control, I held on to with a death grip.
It was as if my obsession with Hunter was replaced by an obsession with the girls. My mantra to them now was: We will not break. These words were my response to their complaints over my strictness. In my mind, we needed to show that we were more than okay. We were strong.
Finnegan was a junior in high school that fall, and she now found herself grounded almost nonstop.
One night I woke to my alarm clock at 10:55 and headed downstairs to see if she would make it home for her eleven o’clock curfew. The car wasn’t in the driveway, so I sat on the front hall stairway and waited. At 11:15, the car’s headlights shone through the front door as she pulled into the driveway. When she flew through the door, flushed and breathless, I stood up and announced she was grounded again.
“Mom,” she said, her face instantly filled with tears. “Please, no! The traffic was stopped on the bridge, and I had to go around. Mom, please don’t ground me again. Please!”
I walked into the kitchen and leaned against the counter, holding firm. Maisy heard Finnegan crying and came downstairs. By now, the girls were both exhausted by my rules and punishments. “Mom, what are you doing? Stop making Finnegan cry,” Maisy said, looking pained.
“You both know the rules,” I said, with no sympathy. “I’m not making exceptions. I know things are hard for you right now, but we will not be broken.” Every day I carried this in- tense fear inside me that the chaos in our life would somehow destroy us.
Maisy looked at me with such exasperation. “Mom,” she said, “it’s okay if we break a little.”
Her words hit me like a punch.
“Go up to my room, please,” I told them. “I need a minute to think.” I went outside and sat down on the patio couch. The kitchen lights illuminated the yard, and I watched leaves drift down from the trees.
Since they were toddlers, my girls had been teaching me how to be a better person. Maisy’s words that night seemed like an epiphany. It’s okay if we break.
I sat and stared at the sky and saw that I’d been so focused on the idea of not breaking that I hadn’t allowed us to mourn the broken family that we already were. Because we really were broken now. Sitting on that porch, I accepted Maisy’s challenge: I could try to become less controlling. More willing to show the cracks. More willing to break.
I went inside and found both girls lying on my bed, tears still in their eyes. I wrapped my arms around them and pulled them close and kissed them.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “You’re right. It is okay if we break a little.”
We lay in silence for a while, holding one another. “I’ll be more patient with you if you’ll be more patient with me,” I said. “And I promise, I’m only trying to do what I think is best for you.”
It was a relief to let go of some fear. We were living a different life now, and I needed to change with it. The girls needed to trust me more than to fear me. They needed my compassion more than my rules. I pulled the comforter up over us, craving their bodies close to me. We all fell asleep.
From the book IF WE BREAK: A Memoir of Marriage, Addiction, and Healing by Kathleen Buhle. Copyright © 2022 by Kathleen Buhle. Published by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
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