Facing the divorced parent's elephant in the room

There’s an empty room down the hall.
There’s an empty room down the hall. Photo: Shutterstock

There’s an empty room down the hall. It’s got all his things in it: guitars, more pairs of Nike shoes than one boy needs, a corkboard full of photos and a well-thumbed copy of his favourite Australian novel. But he’s not there.

He’s chosen, by default, to live at his dad’s house. Although, neither of us is prepared to admit that yet. We just pretend that he still lives here and I keep his room exactly as he left it, like some sort of morbid shrine.

My son is 19 and he’s a child of divorce. For eight years he has divided his time evenly between my house and his father’s house. But, over the past six months, I’ve felt him slowly slipping from my domestic grasp.

His workplace – and, by default, most of his life – is closer to his father’s house and so it’s become easier for him to stay there for most of the week. Occasionally he shows up at mine, sneaking through the house in his light-footed way and giving me the fright of my life when he appears at my study door and says, simply, “hello”.

Then he retreats to his room, plays his guitar and eats all the avocados in the fruit bowl before suddenly leaving in a flurry of "I’m going to be late for work!", as he runs for the bus at the end of the street. It’s like he’s just putting in an appearance to prove that he still lives here. Whatever. I’m always happy to see him.

But within this self-deceiving mother/son pantomime, there’s been an elephant in the room.

While he’s been luxuriating across two bedrooms in two houses, his 15-year-old twin brothers have been sharing a bedroom in both houses. It was cute when they were little, when their days were spent huddled together industriously over a pile of Lego, but now it’s more like a dysfunctional episode of The Odd Couple.

They are getting on each other's nerves. And, to be fair, these two have shared a room since before they were born. After 15 years and nine months of it, they each deserve their own space.

The logical solution is to suggest my eldest gives up his bedroom at my house so that the twins can have a bedroom each. Cue the irrational, emotional spanner in the works: I have this idealistic notion that, as a child of divorce, he does have the right to a bedroom in each house.

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Eight years ago, when we (his parents) split his world in two, we agreed to provide the comfortsof home in both places, always, forever and ever, amen. If I cease to provide that to him, I feel like I’m reneging on the unspoken pledge that I would not allow the divorce to affect him negatively.

But this is mother-guilt folly. Divorce is an ongoing butterfly effect. It ripples onwards for years in ways you cannot predict. This is but one of those ripples and I didn’t see coming.

The real truth of it is: asking him to give up his bedroom is an admission that he simply doesn’t live here anymore. And I don’t want to admit that, because I love him. But there are two other children in this family who are equally loved and the empty room down the hall is unfair to them. For their sake, the topic must be broached.

Over the past few weeks, I had been waiting for him to show up, so I could say it delicately in person. But he hadn’t been around. It was like he knew we needed to say it and couldn't face it either.

Recently, with the twins enduring their dual captivity with increasing fractiousness, I decided to send him a carefully worded text. I told him I missed him, but I didn’t want him to feel guilty about being at his dad’s all the time. I completely understood that it was easier to live in one house. With that in mind, I asked him if he’d possibly consider giving up his room in my house to one of his brothers.

I hit send and waited.

He came straight back to me. So gracious. So loving. “I wish I could be around more. I miss you too. I can see that it makes sense for me to give up my room.” Then I invited him to family dinner that Sunday night, guest of honour. I was half expecting him to be too busy. But straight back he came, complete with love heart emojis.

“I’ll be there.”

And those three words meant so much to me, for so many reasons.

Penelope Flanagan's latest novel, Surviving Hal, is available here.

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