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A Question of Love

My son was 6 when he asked me the first really hard question of his childhood. The one that stopped me in my tracks as I was fumbling with the front-door key and juggling the groceries we'd just schlepped from the car.

"Mommy, do you love Dad?" Will asked, and though my eyes were trained on that lock, I could feel him looking at me intently.

Ordinarily, not a difficult question. Ordinarily, a mom would respond to this query with an unqualified "Of course I do, honey!" because the man in question would be her husband. But "Dad" was my ex-husband, John.

Nothing in the divorce how-to books had prepared me for this one. In fact, because John and I had separated when Will was 3, I thought maybe I'd sidestepped the typical tough questions about the situation: "Was it something I did?" "Where will Daddy go?" "Who will take care of me?" I hoped that for him it might seem like one big adventure: a move to a new apartment, with his very own room and brand-new big-boy bed. And I thought it helped that as an actor who consistently found work in regional theaters, John hadn't been around much, so Will was used to seeing him in spurts. It didn't seem that our move a few blocks away would feel to Will as if he'd been wrenched away from his dad.

Not that John or I was naive enough to think that Will wasn't going to feel some adverse effects from the divorce. We both worked hard to maneuver around them. Those first few years, John spent Christmas Eve with us so that Will would be with both parents on the magical morning. When John got a part in a touring play, I drove Will from New York to Maryland to leave him with his dad for a couple of days, and then made the trip back to pick him up. I even lent John my car one snowy weekend so they could go visit some old friends in Rhode Island.

At that time, the psychic wounds from the marriage still fresh, our lawyers still hammering out the details that would render our relationship a multipage document of schedules and payment plans, it was all tough. I'd find myself wishing that John would land a role in a sitcom on the West Coast. Wouldn't it be exciting for Will to see his dad on TV? I'd rationalize, fully aware that I'd be getting the real payoff  -- a reprieve from the day-to-day hassle of dealing with a man I didn't like so much anymore.

An Evolution of Love

All along Will seemed to be doing okay. There were never any meltdowns when he left me to spend time with his dad, or vice versa. He was funny and bright and adjusted beautifully to preschool. He liked the man I got involved with after John and I split, and he was enthusiastic a few years later when I told him that Michael and I would be getting married and that we'd all be living together. He didn't seem to need any special reassurance that he would continue to see his dad on weekends. And he didn't have any questions about the way his broken family was reassembling itself.

So when Will asked me about my feelings for John, I was stunned that it had even crossed his mind. I was able to buy some extra moments by fumbling with that front-door key, wrestling with the groceries, saying, "Let's put this stuff inside and then we can talk," and then taking my sweet time getting the bags into the kitchen. It gave me five minutes to think about how I could tell my son that I didn't love the most important man in his life. Because of course I didn't love John. I'd left him. I'd even, at times, nearly loathed him.

And yet, when I finally had to face my son and say something real and true about my feelings for his father, I considered how far John and I had come as a couple  -- a couple who couldn't share a home but who could share in the utter joy and delight of the product of their brief union. Our relationship hadn't really devolved, it had evolved  -- into one that had room for pleasant chitchat while Will gathered his things for the weekend, with only rare unpleasant exchanges and a good deal of enjoyable ones.

Standing there in the kitchen, I realized that I'd actually come full circle, to liking a man I'd fallen in and out of love with. But this wasn't what made me offer Will the answer I did. It was looking into those eyes, brown like his dad's, and running my fingers through his fine hair, with its umpteen cowlicks and its funny way of growing into a point at the nape of his neck  -- like John's. It was seeing the gap between his two front teeth, also inherited from his dad.

And so I said, "Yes, Will, I do love your dad. Not the way husbands and wives do, but if it weren't for him, I wouldn't have you. I'll love him all my life for that."

Will blinked, nodded, picked up a book to read. He was satisfied. And so was I.

  Maura Rhodes is a senior editor at PARENTING.