THE BLOG
05/16/2014 05:45 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2014

A Mother's Lesson in Listening

Tom Grill via Getty Images

My parents stayed together for us kids, but I chose not to. By the time my son celebrates his second birthday, his father and I will be divorced. Hourly, I battle between crowning that decision selfless or selfish.

The realities of sharing our son were initially devastating, with all of the blink-and-miss-it milestones and tug-of-war over our toddler's time. We'd worn ourselves down trying to salvage the last shred of blueprints from our shared life. Out of desperation, we cast emotions to the side and our mantra became, just because our marriage is broken doesn't mean our family has to be. We fell into a rhythm that beat anything else we'd tried before: his days, my days, shared days. Our unconventional tag-team parenting felt like the best thing we could give our son and each other.

Until last week. The three of us had gone to dinner together, a pattern we practice regularly. After our boy had pitched all silverware under the table and shoved the last of the edamame down his shirt, his father walked us home.

I opened the door to the lobby of my apartment building, an early 1900's walk-up just a few minutes from "Daddy house, Daddy house," which he perpetually chanted. Four flights up was a small price to pay for sufficient square footage required for our rowdy toddler and his new scooter. When the landlord offered to let me store the stroller downstairs, I was sold.

"Say bye-bye to your father," I said in singsong. At the bottom of the steps we huddled into a group hug when our baby began to cry. Not the whimpering, I-want-juice-right-now-now-now whine, but full blast sobs.

"No, come, come!" he yelled, motioning with his tiny hands.

My aching heart shattered right there. We'd been certain we were doing a decent job, but with two fallen tears and a pleading for Daddy, that confidence unraveled.

I consoled my son, explaining that he would see Daddy tomorrow for a ferry ride and ice cream and-

"I KILL you!" he shouted, his young voice giving the L's a W sound.

"Honey, what did you say?" I asked quietly, staring down his father. Even in the months leading up to our separation, when conversations were cloaked in curses and empty threats, we certainly hadn't taught our son that word.

His father shrugged, equally mystified by our son's suddenly violent eruption.

"I kill you, I kill you Daddy!" he rattled, unfazed by our shared shock.

After a kiss and quick exit from my partner, we headed upstairs. Thirty pounds felt like a hundred, climbing up each flight with a wiggling, weeping, weight.

Where had he learned those words? I couldn't shake his sentence even though by the time we finished the bedtime routine his father and I mimicked (providing stability between our two homes), he was light again. He dozed quickly but I couldn't sleep. Maybe our separation was severely impacting him. Perhaps he was too young to witness the implications of a matrimonial death, or maybe I wasn't ready.

"Hello?" his father answered the phone groggily.

"Should we stay together for our kid? Do you think that we're destroying his innocence by separating while he's so young?" I asked blankly.

"Honey, no. He's fine, he'll be fine, its nothing. He probably heard it on the playground," he mumbled, convinced.

The following morning over a bowl of berries, I interrogated.

"Baby, tell Mama, are you happy?"

He grinned, red juice staining his fingertips.

"Uh huh, Uh huh," he repeated nodding his head.

"Do you love Mama?"

"Yah!"

"Do you love Daddy?"

"Yah!" he yelled, pink dribble racing down his chin.

"Do you want to... kill Mama?"

"Bananaaaas!" he yelled and threw his bowl on the floor.

After spending the weekend with his father, we began our goodbyes at the bottom of the steps.
Again his back arched dramatically.

"No!" He yelled, I KILLLLL YOU."

Almost in tears before my son was, I met his father's stare in distress.

"Okay, I'll come up too," he pacified.

Together we all walked up tear and terror-free.

What was happening to my cheerful, sane, son? We changed into pajamas and sang together, going about things as if his little psyche wasn't traumatized.

Suddenly, his blue eyes widened, "scootah, scootah?" he searched the room panicked. Distracted by his new, broken-home-behaviors, I'd left his scooter downstairs. His lip began to quiver, I quickly acquiesced, the guilt of giving him a future of shared Christmases and no siblings devoured me; the least I could do was fulfill a simple scooter request.

I trekked down 56 steps in bedroom slippers; his body clung to my waist. While I unpacked his scooter he waited on the bottom step. A satisfied smile crossed his chubby face as he mustered up all of the strength in his 32-inch frame to haul his toy out of my arms and into his. He slowly carried it up the steps.

"I killl you, scootah, I kill you." He mumbled proudly to himself as he climbed up each step.

I laughed as I retold the story to his father, "I carry you. He is saying I carry you."

"See, I told you," he exhaled, relieved.

Our son wasn't plotting revenge for our irreconcilable differences; he thought Daddy simply didn't want to walk up the stairs. He wanted to carry him.

We fell asleep together that night, reassured the three of us were doing just fine. Separating while he was still learning to speak wasn't easy but if we continued learning to listen, we would survive this. Maybe he would need to carry one of us, or we would have to carry each other, but that's what family is for, broken or not.