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It started last October when my daughter found the picture of my girlfriend. (Not that kind of picture, relax.)
From the time I had both a smartphone and children, photos of my kids have served as the “home screen” and the “lock screen,” updated every few months as the kids grew.
And then at the beginning of the fall, I fell in love with a girl from Texas. Hazel and I quickly got serious, and in early October, I put a photo of her on my phone’s home screen.
It took Heloise, my nearly 8-year-old daughter, all of one day to find it.
It was my ex-wife who texted me. “You need to explain who the girl is to Heloise.” My ex and I don’t talk about our private lives, and the only rule we’ve set down is that no one we’re dating gets to meet the kids without the other parent getting a heads-up first. Our marriage ended in 2013 — the children have known us as a divorced couple longer than they knew us as a married one; it’s not rushing into anything for either of us to be dating.
So far, no woman I’ve dated has met my children. And until Hazel, no woman’s picture had been my home screen.
I called Stephanie, the school psychologist, who knows Heloise well. My daughter can remember my last 2 extended psychiatric hospitalizations; therapy has helped her enormously to cope with the stress of a divorce, a mentally ill parent, and so forth.
“The key thing is to let the kids tell you how they feel,” she said. “But don’t feel like you need to answer all their questions. Less is more.”
I sat both kids down on a Sunday afternoon, showed them a few more photos of Hazel, and told them she was Daddy’s girlfriend. The questions came fast and furious: “Are you getting married?” “Will you have more babies?” “Is Texas closer to Israel or America?” (My 4-year-old son, working on his geography.) “Can Hazel do my hair when she visits?” (My daughter, angling.)
So far, no woman I’ve dated has met my children.
I was non-committal about the future. I reminded them that dating was something single parents do and that it’s sometimes a long time before a girlfriend or a boyfriend meets the children.
At the end of October, Hazel came to stay with me. I traded days with my ex, so I spent very little time with my kids while Hazel visited. After she left, the kids peppered me with another round of questions: “Why couldn’t we see her? Are you in love?” “What perfume does she wear?” “Does she like Paw Patrol?” “What’s her favorite Taylor Swift song?” (You can guess the inquisitor from the question.)
I answered, deflected, laughed with them.
In December, I flew to Texas to visit Hazel. On that trip, we broke up, a story I wrote about here. In that story, I mentioned that after we had broken up, but before I left for home, Hazel and I went to buy gifts for my kids. I came back to L.A. with a baseball cap for my son and a bracelet for Heloise. Hazel picked both out.
It was an incredibly difficult trip home on planes, trains, and automobiles. I cried in fits, grieving the loss of what had seemed to me the most promising, light-filled relationship I could remember. After a full day of travel, I got back home at 7 PM on a Sunday night — just enough time to see the kids.
I will be honest. I didn’t want to see them. I was tired and heartbroken. I am a terrible actor, and my children are perceptive. I was afraid I’d cry in front of them. But they called twice as I drove in from the airport, and I stopped by their mother’s house.
I gave them their presents — they were thrilled — gave ’em their baths, read to them and put them to bed while my ex went out. I couldn’t tell them what had happened. Fortunately, they didn’t ask.
It is not my daughter’s job to comfort me and reassure me I am worthy of being wanted
When she got home, Eira studied me. My ex has known me well over 20 years, and we were a couple for 11. She can read me like a book, not that most sentient mammals couldn’t interpret my stricken body language at this point.
“Are you sad because you miss Hazel, or did she dump you?”
I coughed, laughed, and began to tear up again. “We broke up.”
“You didn’t tell the kids yet?”
“Not ready… it just happened.”
“Okay, but make it soon. And think it through before you do.”
I didn’t go back to check in with Stephanie. I took 2 days, then sat Heloise down, and calmly told her that Hazel and I had decided to break up. David listened, nestling close to me, trying to digest what he could.
My daughter asked why. “Did you cheat again, daddy?” In a close-knit community like ours, word gets around, and last year some kids told my daughter that her mom and I had divorced because of my cheating. We’d had a meeting with Heloise and the psychologist, processed as best we could. The subject of infidelity, like the subject of mental illness, came up earlier in her life than I wish it had.
I shook my head. “Did she cheat on you?” I shook my head again.
“I cheated at show and tell,” David interjected remorsefully, “I took Yehuda’s Captain America motorcycle.”
Heloise and I patted her brother.
I explained that sometimes adults break up for reasons that have nothing to do with cheating, that sometimes adults break up and still care about each other, that sometimes they stay friends and sometimes they don’t, and that so many of these reasons will come when she’s older.
The subject of infidelity, like the subject of mental illness, came up earlier in her life than I wish it had.
I do not tell her the truth that I am in love with Hazel, and that Hazel is not in love with me. It is not my daughter’s job to comfort me and reassure me I am worthy of being wanted; she shouldn’t even need a vocabulary for that at not-quite 8.
So I dodge the truth. I ask Heloise how she’s feeling. She shrugs.
The next day, I call Stephanie. She brings Heloise in for a private session. They talk. A day or 2 later, Heloise tells me she’s only sad because Hazel and I would have had beautiful babies. My daughter aches for a little sister. I hear her out, hug her, and we laugh about how little brothers, for all their annoyances, are pretty special too.
Just before New Year’s, I’m with the kids when Hazel calls. Hazel and I are still friendly, chatting every now and then to say hello. When Heloise realizes who it is, she asks to speak to Hazel. I shake my head no — not because Hazel isn’t my girlfriend anymore, but because I haven’t prepped Hazel for it.
After I get off the phone, I ask Heloise what she wanted to say. She smiles.
“I wanted to tell Hazel the bracelet she picked makes me so happy, and I’m so glad she likes Taylor Swift too.”
I laugh. “Anything else?”
Heloise pauses. “I want her to know she’s really pretty, and even if she’s not your girlfriend, she could be my friend too when I’m older.”
“Someday, we’ll talk to her about that.”
This past week, Heloise has started asking when I’ll next have a girlfriend. Not for a while, I tell her.
And next time, I’ll be more careful about the photo on the home screen.
Hugo Schwyzer is a father, and scribbler of things.