In March of 2022, I had the best week of my life with an unexpected crew. After planning for months, my seven-year-old daughter, my ex-husband, my ex-husband’s girlfriend, and I headed to Disney World. We stayed in separate Airbnbs but flew down together, doing the first three days as a group (the last day reserved for my daughter and me).
I had spent very little time with my ex-husband’s girlfriend during the years they’d been together, but I had always thought she was a lovely person and, from all I had heard, a wonderful stepparent to my child. Even so, I was nervous; it was an awkward grouping even though we’d all agreed to it in good faith. I also hadn’t spent much time with my ex-husband since our divorce five years previous, so I walked into the week with trepidation.
The amount of fun we had shocked me. My ex-husband and daughter (alike in their resourcefulness and organized brains) walked with maps in hand, plotting a perfectly timed path through the parks, while his girlfriend and I found so much in common that we carried on a seamless conversation. The entire week, we all delighted in taking dozens of photos with my daughter who was lit up and wide-eyed like a Disney character herself.
I had anticipated a sense of relief on our last day when my daughter and I could ease into our much less structured meandering around the parks, but instead I felt disappointed by the absence of my daughter’s father and stepmom. We had become an odd but cheerful little almost-family, playing Heads Up on my phone while waiting two hours in line for Rise of the Resistance and running through the brief, unpredictable downpours of Florida. We’d had so much fun.
I take a significant amount of pride in this story and in this trip; blended families are complicated, emotionally taxing, and rarely function with this type of unity. I am also dumbfounded that this is our story. If you had told me a few years ago that I would not only be going on a trip with this combination of people but also having the most fun I’ve had in years, I would have full-body recoiled.
Until 2020, my ex-husband and I could barely stand to be in the same room together. At school events, we found opposite corners of the room. We alternated birthday parties. We made quick work of texts about my daughter because they were deep potholes for potential arguments. We avoided speaking on the phone altogether.
I worry that this sounds petty. At times, we certainly had slipped into pettiness, but there were reasons for our iciness. From the time I was five-weeks-pregnant in late 2013, my then-husband was dangerous, belligerent, and violent. For many years after the separation and eventual divorce, he seemed to still be—or maybe still was—a threat. I could not imagine a universe in which I would want to be friendly with him or even feel safe doing so. Yet here we were, in the “happiest place on Earth,” buying drinks and dinner for each other, laughing until we cried as my daughter repeatedly crashed the Millennium Falcon on Smuggler’s Run.
There was nothing easy about the path to forgiving my daughter’s father. In addition to the very real pain and abuse, I had a nasty habit of holding a mean, cold, long-lasting grudge. I could cut someone off and feel nothing. It’s true that my therapist would identify this as a trauma response, and it is also true that this was wildly unhealthy. What was once a survival mechanism had become a troubling lifestyle; my husband was, no bones about it, no grayscale, no reconsidering, bad. We got divorced, and there he stayed, on that side of the line: my bad, horrible, abusive ex-husband.
It was achingly slow to re-humanize him, and it had everything to do with my growing older, his behavior changing, and my realizing that outside of being my ex-husband he was, so crucially, my daughter’s father. I started to feel again. I recognized that, yes, he had done horrible things, and also, we had destroyed each other. I recognized that he had been a bad husband, but he was working to be a much better father.
We met at the start of college when I was sitting on the floor of my dorm room, assorted snacks and decorations splayed out in front of me, and I saw him walk by with his parents. “Wait!” I’d called out and scrambled to the door, “Come be my friend!” When I returned to my dorm later that day, I found a sticky note with his number stuck to my door.
We began dating, and we were perfect and horrible for each other. He had grown up sheltered: homeschooled by fundamentalist Christian parents who didn’t want women to wear pants and didn’t want him to do anything but run the family crane business while living in their house. I had grown up with Catholic, staunchly conservative parents who had some vague notion I was queer and hated it about me and who had forced me to move schools and called me a slut when I came forward about a sexual assault at age fourteen. We were both so terribly alone and in absolutely no condition to commit to each other before finding ourselves. We got engaged a year later.
When my parents begged us not to get married until we graduated college, we planned a wedding only a few weeks after the end of our sophomore year. When his parents told us we were too young, we pointed out that they’d been our same age. When we had no money to fund a wedding, we took out loans to book a venue, plan a honeymoon, and buy a white dress that still sits in cobwebs in my closet. We were reckless and delighted and absolutely, absolutely, going to get married.
By the time our relationship rapidly deteriorated into violence and hatred, we were pregnant. I had been told I would struggle to get pregnant because of my PCOS, so we had been lazy about condoms, and our mutually religious upbringing meant we were wary of any other birth control. That’s the truth, but it isn’t the complete truth, either, because at a church picnic a month before we conceived our daughter, I’d asked him if we could flip a coin like children—heads for baby, tails for waiting—and I swear, when he flicked the quarter into the air, it landed in a picnic table crevice, standing straight up.
The pregnancy and the year that followed the birth of our daughter in 2014 contained a kind of viciousness I don’t want to document. Suffice it to say, we were dirt poor, pulling in $14,000 a year total while we finished our respective college degrees, and our families, painful and difficult in our childhoods, only got more critical and distant as we dug and dug and dug into our hole of bad decisions. When he sat on the bathroom floor next to the tub I was in and told me he didn’t see himself in the next chapter of my life, I resisted this thing we both knew was true. He moved out six months later.
We were horrible at co-parenting. He’d count diapers in the trash can, attempting to prove that I was an unfit mother, and I documented every cruelty in screenshots, each of us waiting to rip custody out from under the other. We could barely speak to one another. When we did, we could only scream. My daughter was two.
The last five years have been unspeakably difficult for both of us, though for him especially, but that is not mine to tell. I struggled with losses and betrayals not only within my family, but also in my new relationships. We were both hurting, and we were both, in a lot of ways, alone.
It would be a lie to make things neat and tidy, to say that our mutual but separate pains brought us together. If anything, these challenges were only weaponized, used to question each other’s parental competency, to cut one another when we felt particularly jaded or angry. It sounds cliché, but it’s true: Our daughter brought us together. There is more here that is not mine to say, but as we worked together to protect our daughter from harm because of her experiences and identity, we found a startling amount of humanity in each other.
Amid the two of us coming together on behalf of our daughter, I realized that I owed it to her to cut off that perception of him as nothing more than my abuser; I needed to recognize that, yes, what had happened to me six years ago was true, but that, against my expectations, against the stereotypes, he had become better. He had actually changed.
Maybe another flaw, like my dedication to holding a grudge: I hadn’t believed this possible. Like so much of millennial mob mentality and Twitter culture, I liked things drawn in black-and-white. My ex was an abuser. That is who he was. That is where he would stay. It helped, at first, to categorize him in this stark way; for a long time, I needed him to stay in that box because if he got out of the box before I was ready, I would struggle to hold on to the truth that I had been abused. I would struggle to believe myself.
In time, I realized that who my ex-husband had been to me didn’t have to be who he was to other people, didn’t have to be who he was all the time, forever. Concurrently, my ex-husband showed me that in light of his genuine personal growth, forgiveness and this new sort of almost-friendship could begin. He’d grown calmer, more patient. He accepted my daughter as she was. He dealt with points of friction with me without yelling. He, like me, had matured, and we were both finding better versions of the volatile, teenage selves we’d been when we married. We, as a family, were changing, and it was time we both adapted to that change.
We’ve created a kind of peace I never, never would have thought possible. We exchange photos of our daughter. We laugh about her latest absurdities. He asks me about my new house, and I ask him about his new job. We are, simply, people to each other. Whole people.
I am very lucky. I know this. Not all abusers change; maybe most don’t. I recognize that this story is mine, my ex-husband’s, and my daughter’s. I am not and would never advocate for a victim/survivor to seek reconciliation with an abuser—even the parent of their child—if it is not safe. But for me, in co-parenting with my ex-husband, I have found true and cheesy and necessary forgiveness and almost, perhaps, a kind of love. I have learned to see this man as a multiplicitous, full self who caused me so much pain; who gave me my daughter, my greatest joy; and who also deeply wants, and is trying, to be better. I found, for the sake of my daughter, the room to forgive and be open to change.
This weird, unexpected gift has released me from so much: from years of anger, fear, and pain; from a pit in my stomach when I hear my ex-husband’s name; from pigeonholing my ex; but most importantly, from pigeonholing myself. It has enabled me to see beyond these harsh lines, and this has opened me up for not only a happier, better motherhood, but also a happier, better approach to life wherein I have the smallest bit of hope that the worst of us isn’t who we have to be forever.
Rumpus original art by Eva Azenaro-Acero