Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Tipping Point

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My son, Eli, is a second grader. He has big front teeth that don't fit his face and tawny hair cut straight across his forehead. A toothy smile, and hair that flips into funny shapes from being slept on at night. He refuses to comb it when he wakes up -- he's too busy watching a Spongebob movie or absorbed in some book called Monsters. In the morning he keeps this book in front of his eyes no matter what he is doing -- walking down stairs by feeling each step carefully with his foot; stepping into his underpants; eating toast.

In second grade this year, Eli's class is learning about probability. Posted on the wall outside his classroom are sheets with three columns: Possible, Probable, Impossible. Under "Possible," Eli has written, "I will wake up." Always the optimist, under "Probable" he has written, "I will get candy." Under "Impossible," he has written "I could live without my head." Beneath each column he's drawn pictures. For the first, a stick figure in bed; for the second, a candy cane. The third shows a stick figure with a head floating beside it. In the picture, the head is smiling.
After parent-teacher night, Eli brought the sheets home and I posted the "impossible" column on the refrigerator. I like to look at it -- that smiling head, and the resilience it seems to promise -- because, lately, I've been thinking about getting divorced.

I was in college when I met Bram, who is now my husband. I was a shy, uptight WASP, glued to the nineteenth century novels I read for my literature classes. Bram was a funny, expansive Jew. While I cringed against the walls at parties, Bram, at twenty-one, was already one of those people who could talk to anyone and find some connection. Stick-thin from an inherited illness, he sported a hip haircut, and was free with his caustic opinions and overconfidence. It was the contradictions -- the wasting disease, the hubris -- that fascinated me. In spite of them -- or maybe because of them -- Bram seemed to do well in the world. I wanted to be close to him. I wanted to know how he pulled it off.

Too, there was the excitement of seduction. In the beginning, arguments were a form of foreplay between us. We both studied literature and Bram pooh-poohed my interest in the Victorians, while I scoffed at the Moderns. Fascinated with our own sophistication, we argued over the subtleties of Henry James, the feminism of Angela Carter. Our fights generally ended the same way -- Bram would corner me against a wall and jam his hips into mine.

"What I say goes, y'know," he'd say in a growly whisper.

I'd thrust my hips back. "Oh yeah?"

"Yeah."

I protested at times, but we both knew I reveled in his need for me, the urgency of it, the way he kept coming back. When Bram leaned in to me like that, I didn't know if it was love -- I didn't know if I knew what love was -- but I felt his need. My parents divorced when I was fifteen, after eighteen years of seemingly happy marriage. My father's announcement was a shock to all of us, my mother most of all. By my mid twenties, I had internalized a frightening truth: love can end, just like that, unexpectedly. There are no guarantees. Bram's need for me felt like something I could count on. My body seemed like a physical assurance that I would not be left.

It took only a few years for us to stop fighting over literature and start fighting over more essential things -- what was wrong with the other; what misconceptions the other one had; whose personality was defective; what was the right way to live. Back then, we were stupid enough to think that you could win a fight like that. We slung insults recklessly. Hurting each other was a necessary evil in the service of getting to the Truth. Everyone who knew us was used to our drama: the slammed doors and sarcastic comments; the way we'd arrive separately for a date we'd made together with a mutual friend, then refuse to speak to each other, having argued on the way there.

Three decades is a long time to argue, and everything has its tipping point. Mine came during our last session of couples counseling. Somehow, between the crying and the yelling and the accusations, I realized that there was no point to this. I was never going to get the love I wanted from him. We were never going to see things the same way.

So now there's silence. Not so much truce as détente, a recognition that we're stuck. We keep to silence because we know it's better for Eli than out and out fighting. Beneath it, though, there's a live current of tension, a downed power line running through the center of the house, which we all must step around. Everything is tinged with its presence. The onions I cut up for the stew; discussions about Eli's guitar lessons. The self-control is honorable, I guess. But it's no use pretending Eli doesn't feel it.

"No fighting now," says Eli in a high voice as he stands over the cats, who are tussling over their breakfast. "I want you to be a happy family," he says. I ask myself what's worse for him -- the atmosphere of despair and anger that accompanies an unhappy marriage or the loss and loneliness divorce would bring.

It doesn't seem like much of a choice.

My father left in 1976, the summer of the Bicentennial. He packed his things into his van and drove away from the house. After that, the changes and losses never stopped coming, but my parents never asked my brother and I how we felt about them, or gave us a choice. We had been the center of their lives. My mother took me on Girl Scout camping trips; my father read to us from the classics. After the divorce, my brother and I were leftovers; reminders of a failed relationship. In oblique and then overt ways, we tried to get our parents to listen to us, to recognize the ways that their actions were hurting us. In the end, though, that seemed too much for them to do.

At the corner where we wait for the school bus, Eli's hair is even bumpier than usual. He spins, swinging his school backpack in an arc beside him.

"Am I a blur?" he asks me.

"No," I tell him. He spins faster.

"How about now?"

"Still no."

"Wow," he says. "It's so hard to be a blur!"

Watching him, I think about the distance between children and parents, the parallel but separate lives we lead. How hard it is, sometimes, to bridge the gap.

Eli's bedtime is when we're at our best, most like a family. Bram wrestles with Eli and gives him horsey rides. "Again, again," Eli demands. The giggles squeeze out of him, escalate. At the end he's laughing from a spot buried deep within.

After that, it's Mommy time: we lie in bed together reading a book, then turn the light off and talk. Tonight, it's a question. "Mama, is anything possible?"

I lie on my back and think about it. Possible column: Bram and I will have a good divorce, the low-conflict kind. Probable: If we do divorce, even amicably, Eli will feel a huge loss. Impossible: Eli will suffer the pain and heartbreak I went through.

The worst casualty of my parents' divorce was love -- the loss of it. Not just the way they abandoned us, but how, seized by hatred for each other, they fought it out through us. During our college years the fight over who would pay for what culminated in a confrontation at their lawyer's office. With both parents present, my brother was pulled in to the room and asked which one he wanted to live with. Here are the two people you love most. Now choose between them.

I look at Eli, in bed beside me, already grinning, ready for mischief. He rears up and crouches on me, sticks his hand under my armpit. "Tickle, tickle," he says. Happiness is fragile. He doesn't even know that yet. Right now his life is enclosed in mine. I need to be careful. Don't move too fast.

He gives up and lies down again.

"Well Mommy," he says. "What do you think? About my question."

Is anything possible?

"Honey, I don't know. Really. I don't know." He glares at me.

"But what do you think?"

I look at his feathery eyebrows and dark, shining eyes. I bury my nose in his hair and inhale the smell of his sweat. His very life force is exhausting; I want to get away from it. At the same time, I want it never to end.

"Sleep," I say firmly. "Now."

I get up, turn the light off. I allow myself one last stroke of his cheek, and then, his question still echoing in me, I leave the room and close the door behind me.

I save my answer for another day.


Kate Brandt’s essays have appeared in Tricycle Magazine: The Buddhist Review and KillingtheBuddha.com. She lives in Westchester with her son, Eli, and her husband, Bram.


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Wow! What a powerhouse of a piece. Beautifully written. Beautifully thought. I wish you peace and possibility.
This really is an amazing piece. Thanks so much for sharing this.
loved this, powerful for sure. a mom that loves her son this much will always do him right. and by the way-- mom needs to be happy, too. take good care
Powerful. Thanks for having the courage to share and inspire.
Such beautiful, spare, haunting writing. I so admire it. And you.
I was so happy to read this. It was both a pleasure and poignant. I can well imagine how the happy floating head would reassure you and make you smile. Ann
Beatiful, courageous piece.
Beautiful! So big and so close all at the same time. Fantasic writing. More please.
Amazing how many strands you weave together effortlessly (or so it seems). Beautiful piece.
"Wow, it's so hard to be a blur." Eli's right, except for when you're a blur, but don't look like one. Excellent piece!
I was really moved by your piece, thanks for sharing it.
While I agree with everyone that you write very well, I find such a comment totally unimportnat. I grieve for you (and for your husband). You know very well that divorce will hurt Eli. Then again, hurt and pain and suffering are inevitable in life. Yet, to have the two most important people in your life, the two you love the most, split apart, and having to chose or not chose what to say to whom when and wanting so desperately for them to be together with you must be a pain that never ends. I see only two choices for you: go through with the divorce and hope for the best for Eli, or resign to sacrifice yourself (assuming no physical harm is threatened) and simply suffer yourelf andlove your husband despite his faults. Unconditional love is difficult to give, but then again, you probably are giving it to Eli.
Your honesty in this piece makes me hurt right along with you. Thank you for sharing this huge moment in your life and all of the angst that goes with it. You weave your past and potential future so beautifully with your present struggle. No one can know what it is to be in your shoes at the moment you wrote this or what decision is best, but you do an incredible job of allowing yourself vulnerable enough to share it with us. Thank you, and my heart goes to you.
Very beautiful piece. I have just discovered your blog and I am amazed by your talent at writing. I am very sorry to hear what you are going through, this is really sad. Unfortunately I don't believe there is a right or wrong, more a let' make the most of what we have. My parents got divorced to quite late in life and it is never easy... Good luck through this x
I am also a girl who watched a parent leave and witnessed my family's love disintegrate in front of my eyes. I am now a mother of children who rely on that same love for security and strength. I am a wife married to an imperfect man, who was once perfect. My intention is not to counsel you, your writing is beautiful and I can feel your pain intimately. Please know this, sometimes we forget that life is supposed to be full of darkness so that when it is full of light, we take notice. With time, understanding, and patience however, every dark time is followed by a new sunny day. You are a strong woman, obviously. Be strong in this too, not just for your son, but for your husband and yourself. These are times when it might be easier to run but more rewarding to fight for what you know is "possible": a happy family.
I can't stop reading, so soulfull, rich, real and so fresh, like I'm sharing and seeing something consciously for the first time, that has never been written before. Cutting edge. This is definitely to share with and publish for an international audience.
Please don't divorce. My husband and I nearly divorced when we went broke and due to our disorganization, he was nearly deported. But we didn't. And now I love him more than ever. Think to yourself: I would no sooner divorce this man than I would divorce Eli. I loved the piece, however. Best to you
Huh. Anyone who has lived in a house that is a truce in the middle of a war zone can understand that Eli DOES know that you're not happy. You can say he's learning that people can love each other imperfectly, or that we can grow back together, but more likely he's learning that marriage is a truce. My entire childhood was like walking on a high wire and although I swore I would never live that way again, I still married a man that I don't really get along with. The fights and the drama, it seemed so normal. Not fun, but normal. Living in peace is the best thing you can do for Eli. And he will survive, as long as his parents love him and he knows that. Divorce is not the worst thing in the world. Living with your enemy is.
I did it this year. In the 20-plus years together, we went through the same stages you and Bram did - the fighting, the hoping, and then the silence because neither of us believed anymore that our marriage would ever work. We never made it to couples counseling, though, because my ex was against it. When I announced to the kids that I was leaving, the 16-year-old (whose name, incidentally, is a version of "Eli") said he'd been expecting it for years. Kids know. It's been almost a year. I was told the first two years are the hardest. The ex is still shocked and depressed. Money is tight. Dating is scary. The kids don't know how to adjust to having two separate households. But I don't regret it. I have peace and stability in my life now like I've never had before. For our circumstances, it was best. Only the two of you know what's best for your situation. But it does appear that you have already tried everything. Time to move on. My children are both in high school. Both tell me they will never marry, because they don't want to end up with a marriage like mine and their father's. They have lived in a dysfunctional family all their lives and do not know any other. Maybe I should have left many years ago, then at least one of us could be remarried by now and our kids could maybe see what a normal family is like. What I am saying is, it does not help Eli to live in a family like the one you describe. He might actually benefit in the long run from your separation. Good luck to you all.
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