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Three Years, part 2: March, 2006

That's funny. I'm sitting in Starbucks, trying to figure out how to start this column, when I notice the ex and her husband ordering lattes. I look up as they leave the store, and only the husband gives me a wave. "Wow," I think to myself. But then the ex comes back a few minutes later, apologizing for not seeing me, and asks how Simone's feeling (she's had a fever off and on this week, but she woke up fine this morning, and wanted to go to religious school, so who am I to argue?).

I'm going to take it on faith that she didn't see me the first time, but if I didn't want to think that way, I could call our little interaction symptomatic of our relationship of late: first instinct toward indifference, if not outright animosity, followed by forced civility.

We're in counseling together, because, though we're civil to each other, especially in front of Simone, the ex has been unable to interact with me without feeling deep rage. I started to feel the sting right around the time she remarried last October, when we were in mediation about developing a new custody plan for Simone. The mediator took me aside and said that the ex was so angry, we needed to find a mental health professional to get us back on the same page.

So we got Simone into therapy, because she's been having meltdowns at school (tantrums and crying over little things), and then found someone to take us on.

What I learned the first time we sat down with Mark, our cool, relaxed family therapist, is that the ex has been angry for three years straight, except for, like, 15 minutes one morning a few years ago, when she was driving to work. When the therapist reminded us that we're bound together forever, the ex said, "I know. That sucks!"

It stung because I can't understand why she's so angry with me (she's incredulous that I feel this way. More on that in a bit). Here's how I see the situation: She didn't want to be married to me anymore, so she left. She ended up marrying her younger "friend," who had been in the picture for at least a year before she moved out. So now she has:

  1. A new marriage
  2. A cute house in a great neighborhood
  3. A wonderful daughter
  4. A cool new job
  5. And, unfortunately for her, an ex-husband who still wants to be an integral part of his daughter's life.

I'm not angry anymore, why should she be?

To me, if feels like she's upset because I won't go away, and she feels a perpetual shadow over her otherwise happy existence. But that's not the way she explains her ire. She says she's worried for Simone that I'll turn her into Emma, from the eponymous book by Jane Austen. That is, the only way Simone will be able to get her needs met will be by taking care of me. "Parentification" is the word the therapist used.

I don't believe that's the main reason she's so unfriendly to me, but it still bothers me, and gives me pause. Do I parentify Simone? Do I put undue stress on her to like what I like and meet my emotional needs first?

God, I hope not. I'm starting a daily journal, where I write down decisions I make that have an impact on Simone, and then decide whose needs were met by that decision. I'm going to be brutally honest with myself about it.

Because I know that Simone's mental health depends quite a bit on her parents getting along. And, truly, I don't want to go through life with poison in my soul. I feel like I've tried so hard to be a good ex/co-parent. I definitely had my moments of stupidity and anger early on, but with time, that has mellowed, and my first priority has been to try to get along. I've made every effort to be conciliatory, civil, even friendly and open-minded.

Sure, I wake up some mornings with a sense of hopelessness, knowing I'll have to deal with my ex for a very long time, and wishing for a painless way to excise each other out of our lives. But I'm not one of those dads who relinquishes ties to his kids and moves off into a new life. We're stuck together because it's best for Simone.

And she's still angry. After three years.

Counseling sucks. So much rehash, so much bile. I feel like I sit there every session, taking the punches, and lowering my defenses to show that I'm committed to the process. The self-doubt and vulnerability I feel after each session is shattering. I can't talk to anyone immediately afterwards without my voice getting gruff and fighting back tears.

I am so far from perfect. I've made so many mistakes over the years, in every relationship, and certainly as a parent. But I want to be better, and I'll take the opportunities to learn wherever I get them. If there are patterns in my dealing with others that cause pain and bitterness, I want to find out what they are and break them.

I only wish my ex could see me in that light, find some forgiveness and kindness in her heart, and let us be friends for our daughter's sake.

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