My soon-to-be-ex-husband just texted me from an airport 400 miles away.
I was expecting to hear from him. He was about to put our 12-year-old daughter on a plane to fly to me for two weeks’ vacation at the beach. In fact, I was grabbing my car keys to leave for the airport to collect her at the gate.
I stopped when the text popped up. My first thought: maybe the flight was delayed. Or perhaps she was already safely on the flight.
Here is how his text actually read:
“Really bad news. I am nearly positive T. has lice. Pulled a dead one out and just found a live one. Shit!!!!”
Surprise number one: how does my husband know what both live and dead lice look like? In our family’s sordid historical run-ins with lice, DH was always conveniently far, far away.
I, on the other hand – hero mom – could draw you a life cycle diagram of nits, juvenile lice, and full grown WWF adult lice. I have ranked every brand of lice shampoo. In my iPhone contacts list, I have the number of the Lice Lady who can arrange rescue visits within four hours in any East Coast city.
Second surprise: I felt like telling him to keep my beloved baby girl with him. At least until she was certifiably lice-free. T. has thick, curly blonde hair that falls down to her jeans’ waistband. Much as I love the girl and her hair, I wanted to shut the maternal door on this one. To say the problem is my ex’s to solve. Finders’ keepers, right?
I also noted somewhere in the back of my mind to tell my attorney to slip a quick addendum into our divorce agreement: neither parent can ship a child with lice to the other parent. Here’s the legalese: “All children must be returned to the custodial parent lice free.”
Then, an evil idea popped into my head unbidden: was it possible that my Wasband bought some lice and put them on T.’s cute little head right before sticking her on the plane, just to mess with me?
I say 50-50.
Back in those long, unhappy days when I was idly contemplating the pros and cons of uncoupling after 20 years and having three kids together, whether or not my husband was capable of planting lice was most definitely NOT the kind of detail I imagined. Reality has turned out to be slightly more gritty than my musings.
Post-divorce parenting captures the hardest part of splitting up: you’re not parents together anymore. You are co-parents. This is not at all the same as “parents.” In fact, sometimes I think “co-parent” is code for: we hate each other’s guts, but are desperately trying not to leave our beloved children utterly FUBAR.
What I have learned, though, is that my instincts are good – in love, divorce, and parenting. Our daughter’s lice was, at least in part, my husband’s problem to solve. Because the solution to successful co-parenting, unlike parenting where you support and help each other, is to let the other parent to solve their own parenting problems.
You would think this is good news. But it’s complicated. The humans I love most in the world are my children. They are the ones who suffer most from my transition from parenting to co-parenting. And no matter how mature I act, I have zero control over anyone’s behavior.
The reality: the lice may have been my husband’s discovery. That didn’t mean I had the ability to force him to do anything to solve it. He just put her on the plane. Nothing I could do about that. The ensuing helpless feeling brought back in visceral detail about 1,000 frustrating fights while we were still actively married.
So my lovely 12-year old daughter came home to me with lice flying off her scalp like small helicopters. That night, I soaked her head for 12 hours in olive oil, which (in case you need this knowledge one day) suffocates lice. All day today, with professional assistance and lots of goopy hair care products, I picked nits out of every strand on her head of thick, curly hair.
Oddly, the good news is that I am now a single parent. This is the part of getting divorced that I did fantasize about: being responsible only for myself, my decisions, my parenting style, how I live my life. Frustrating and lonely at times, but better than the vicious tug-of-war our life together, including our parenting, had become.
What divorce, for me, means is that I lifted the veil — the gauzy illusion that I was part of a team. In actuality, I’ve been a single parent all along. I was pregnant alone; he never read a pregnancy book, took a parenting class, or even told his co-workers that his wife was expecting. I took care of the babies alone; paternal leave was emasculating. Over the years, I’ve done daycare pick up alone, parent-teacher conferences alone, sex talks with each kid alone.
That is one of the reasons the marriage died; we never came together as a couple, a team, or as true partners in marriage or parenthood. We both are to blame. I should have been more assertive about my needs as a wife and mother; he should have paid closer heed to my frustration and sadness. Acknowledging our collective failure at times feels like liberation, at times like death. My goal for our children is that they can see each of us as individuals who couldn’t love each other, but who will always love them.
That same 12-year-old daughter recently observed that even though her dad moved out only two months ago, she feels like her father and I actually got divorced years ago.
She’s right. Sometimes, all divorce means is admitting the truth you’ve known all along. So what if it takes a few lice to make you notice?