Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
We are Family


We are whitewater rafting along the Yough River in Pennsylvania--two rafts, four adults, three children, ages 6, 7, and 8. The occupancy of the rafts changes several times over the course of our 9-mile journey between Confluence and Ohiopyle, PA. In the beginning, in one raft there's my ex-husband, Mike; our 7-year-old daughter, Taylor; a friend our children call Aunt Carol; Carol's youngest son; and me. In the other raft, there's Carol's husband, Uncle Rob, and their oldest son. Both rafts combined hold only a negligible amount of rafting experience. But this is the Middle Yough (pronounced Yock, short for "Youghiogheny"), and the guys from the rafting equipment rental place dropped us off at this stretch of river, promising a low-level adventure.

While Carol and Rob are not our blood relatives, they fit neatly into the new definition of "family" Mike and I have given to Taylor to allay her fears that divorce means you no longer have a family. A family is a group of people who love, protect, and care for one another. Despite our divorce, we are still a family.

"You make divorce look good."

"If there's such a thing as a 'good' divorce, you have one."

I get these compliments (for lack of a better word) and find them bittersweet. I wish I had had a better marriage and made that institution look good. Instead, people marvel at how well Mike and I get along, that we can be invited to the same parties and not spend the evening in opposite corners of the room, that we still vacation together with the kids. I am now apparently the poster child for divorce, amongst my friends at least. But it could be worse: Ours could be one of the many divorce horror stories of which there seems to be no shortage: vengeful ex-spouses; long, drawn out fights about money and property; and the children caught in the crossfire, casualties. Instead, we are oaring down the Yough River, cracking jokes, getting along.

Rob, whom we mockingly dub our fearless captain, is the first to fall into the water. And the falling's not the worst of it. How to get him back into the raft, when the current is steadily pushing us along, is the worst of it. The rocks and the shallow water are a nightmare. At various turns, Mike, Carol and I all leave the raft to try to help out (or retrieve a lost shoe), to no avail. Through some combination of muscle, strategy, and miracle, Rob makes it back to his raft and we move on.

I imagine to the people in rafts who are passing us by (rapidly), we look like two intact families. They don't know of course that we've left two-and-a-half year old Peyton back at the borrowed condo with a sitter, bribed with snacks and videos to compensate for being left behind. They also can't tell by looking at us that Mike is my ex, that we live completely separate lives except where our children are concerned, that we juggle a million and one practical and logistical details for raising kids in two households, that we are trying to cobble together a new friendship between us. They can't tell by looking at us that this trip is our response to the sad, inconvenient truth of divorce for a kid: You spend almost all your time with one parent or the other, not both.

For a child who witnessed pre-divorce parental battles, having Mom and Dad retire to their respective corners might be somewhat of a relief. But for Taylor, who was completely blindsided by the divorce and who now observes her dad and I working well together as a parenting team, this either-or reality is a confusing disappointment. She's heard our explanation that we had grown-up problems that we could not fix, but she still wishes we all lived in the same place again. She wonders why I can't just love her dad, "the kissing kind of love, not the brother kind of love." In lieu of sharing the kissing kind of love, we can give her the occasional meal, outing, or vacation together, and most importantly, a peaceful family, a safe, stable haven for her and her sister. So here we are, gliding along the Yough River, looking like a family.

Patches of white water promise mini-thrill dips and turns which are sometimes cut short by a big rock or group of rocks. We use our paddles and a lot of muscle to push off and set ourselves right. And so it goes, for four hours: a mini-thrill, stuck, unstuck, followed by long, long stretches of still water, repeat.

At about the half-way point, somewhere between the blessed final chorus of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" and the first of many choruses of "My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean," Carol and I put our oars aside. She cites a generic fatigue; I am achy, uncomfortable, having my period. Carol and I stretch out in the raft to the extent we can, sigh loudly, and wonder how long before we see the big, elephant-ear-shaped rock formation the rental guy said we'd pass just before the take-out point. We know the answer: miles away. We pull our sun-visors down lower, resentful of the sun on our faces, and sigh some more. Mike good-naturedly dubs our raft the SS Miserable. Slightly ashamed of making the kids work harder, Carol and I eventually take up the oars again.

My complaints notwithstanding, I am enjoying this low-level adventure--the physical challenge, the fresh air, a day filled vivid greens and impossible blues. More than anything, though, I'm thrilled to give Taylor a family memory she can cherish. For her part, though, she's more interested in singing silly nautical songs with Rob and Carol's sons. We're all in the same boat, and that seems to be enough for her.

After a lazy picnic lunch docked along the tree-lined riverbank, and after several false sightings, we round a bend and see the elephant-ear rock in the distance. A frenzy of oaring ensues, fourteen arms on one accord.

Like those troublesome moments along the Yough, Mike and I have certainly had our ugly and tense moments, and we continue to face challenges. If it was all sunshine and roses, we'd still be married. But by and large, our post-divorce, co-parenting relationship leads people to ask us, "How do you do it???"

We might make divorce look good, but it's definitely not easy. Divorce hurts parents and kids alike. Our reasoned decision aside, the result is a family torn apart, and when there are children involved the tear must be healed, the pieces put back together, but in different configuration. When we separated, we explained to Taylor all the things that would change, like living arrangements. But, we assured her, some really important things would remain the same, like our love for her and Peyton, our active involvement in their lives, and our promise to put them first. Healing our family requires that we honor this promise, even if it means stepping outside our comfort zones and temporarily bandaging marital wounds which have not yet healed properly. Our new definition of family is based not on shared residence, but shared commitment and effort. As I learned that day on the Yough, everyone oaring together toward a common goal makes for smoother sailing.

Deesha Philyaw’s writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Brevity, TueNight and elsewhere. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, her collection of short stories about Black women, sex, and the Black church, is forthcoming from West Virginia University Press in fall 2020.

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Wow Deesha! Bitter-sweet. Honest. BRAVE. Heart wrenching. Sweet. And, so very LOVING! Thank you! Staycee
Deesha, You've written so beautifully here, about things that become ugly all too easily. Lovely. Steph
This is lovely. Thank you for these images of your family, making its way as it does.
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