This Father’s Day is probably the best one we’ve had in this family. Ever.
The beginning of our marriage was plagued with trouble. From intrusive exes, to chronic illness, to extreme financial hardships, things have been challenging from the very first. Hard times take a toll, especially on marriages, and even more especially when those marriages include children.
Because of his sickness, his depression, the constant weight of worry about finances and an ex who was determined to destroy anything that made him happy, my husband couldn’t be the spouse or dad he wanted to be, or the one we needed him to be.
Looking back, I wish I had recognized that his inability to be what the kids and I needed wasn’t a choice, but rather a result of the terrible circumstances he found himself in.
But I was young and inexperienced. I had nothing else to compare to — his illness and other troubles had been with us from the very beginning, so I never got to see him being the man he wanted to be for us. So, I assumed that what he was giving us was all he had, or all he wanted to give. I didn’t have much compassion for him back then. And let me be clear, I don’t blame myself. I was suffering as a result of his suffering, and I deserved better, regardless of the reason. I think most people would have been angry, hurt, and disappointed like I was. That said, I do wish I had the clarity I have now. I wish back then I could have seen the man he wanted to be, the man he would have been if life hadn’t served him such a shitty hand.
This year, just a few short weeks after our 8-year anniversary, we are celebrating Father’s Day the way I always wished we could.
Today, I am full of awe and gratitude for the man I call my husband, the man my kids call Daddy. He has shown up for us in all the ways I always wished he would, the ways he couldn’t when the weeds of hardship choked out whatever goodness was in him. I never thought we’d arrive at this place of happiness, comfort, and ease. In fact, years ago I had accepted that I only had two choices: to stay and endure a marriage that didn’t bring me happiness or fulfillment, or leave. It’s almost incomprehensible to me that today, all these years later, we have found joy together. That this year, Father’s Day feels like a deserved celebration of a man who leaves it all on the field for us every single day.
So, how did we get here?
In short, there are a few things that I think led us to this place of peace and marital bliss, of the type of parenting together that builds up our children and makes us feel like we’re doing it right. Here’s what they are:
#1. I left.
Someday, I hope to write a book called Leave His Ass. I’m so serious. I truly think that sometimes the only way to get through to a partner who hasn’t realized how serious you are about your needs being met is to leave. It might not be the answer for everyone, but our separation was the catalyst that led to all the rest of the things on this list.
#2. We both went to therapy.
We decided to go to individual therapy instead of couples therapy, and that worked well for us. Ultimately, the individual vs. couples therapy thing is a personal choice. For us, we truly felt that we needed to address our individual issues before we could even hope to address the issues in our relationship. As it turned out, going to individual therapy resolved all the things that were a problem in our marriage, so we never went to couples therapy (though I can’t speak highly enough of the usefulness of couples therapy for many, many couples).
#3. We learned a little about each other’s daily lives.
I’m telling you, girlfriend, marriage separation is a magic of its own. While my husband and I were separated, we were — perhaps for the first time — forced to see life from each other’s perspective. On the weeks that Charlie had the kids, he had to learn what it’s like to juggle a job with taking kids to and from school, making lunches, grocery shopping with kids in tow, and all the daily hardships of life that are made even harder because kids are in the mix. He gained a new appreciation for how hard my life had been over the years of being the default parent to our children. By the same token, as I faced the possibility of divorce and my own liberation, I realized that “freedom” comes with handcuffs. Yes, I was going to be free from a marriage that made me unhappy, but I was going to have to figure out how to thrive financially on my own. Suddenly, the anxiety of what will I do if I lose my job, if I can’t pay my bills? was in my face every day. I realized just how much stress there is when you have kids depending on you to provide not just for their current financial needs, but for their future ones, too. I finally understood the toll those financial worries must have had on my husband for all those years. With a newfound appreciation for each other’s burdens when we reconciled, we found that navigating marriage and parenthood became so much easier.
#4. We decided not to sweat the small stuff.
When you’ve been through a separation, suddenly you have a lot of perspective about the day-to-day detritus of life. You realize not everything has to be a big deal, it doesn’t all have to be a fight. You discover how fragile a marriage can be, how easily it can crumble and fade. With that perspective in mind, you just don’t fight over as much.
#5. We found strength in humility.
Difficult marriages have a way of hardening your heart and your ego. You get so entangled in your frustrations over the things your partner is doing wrong that you become incapable of seeing the ways you might be part of the problem. I think one of the biggest accomplishments we’ve had since reconciling our marriage is that we both learned how to take a healthy dose of humility. We both had to accept some less-than-flattering things about ourselves as we rebuilt our marriage. And we’ve found that there is strength in admitting our shortcomings.
It’s been a long and sometimes heartbreaking journey, but I would do it all again if it led me here, with this man who I know is my forever person. To anyone out there who is gritting your teeth through this Father’s Day, feeling like you’re celebrating a man who hardly qualifies as a father, much less a dad, just know that things can get better. There is hope and healing, if both partners are willing to put in the work.
No matter what kind of Father’s Day you’re having, I wish you all the love and support you deserve. You’re going to be okay.
And to Charlie, I love you. Happy Father’s Day.
Amber Wardell is a cognitive psychologist and author who writes about marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Want to see more content like this? Make sure to subscribe so that you never miss a post!