"As they wandered through their new house, the words 'broken family' ran through my mind over and over. A panicky flutter rose to my throat—I didn’t know how to raise my children alone. How could they be happy as a mere fragment of a family?"
Danielle Teller is the author of All the Ever Afters ($25, amazon.com), a reimagining of Cinderella told from the perspective of her evil step-mother, Agnes. In an exclusive essay for Real Simple, she writes about parenting her two daughters immediately after her divorce.
The new apartment was on of the bottom floor of a grand old Victorian house. Outside, the blue paint peeled and the banisters wobbled, but much of the original interior had been maintained. The rent exceeded my budget—I was newly divorced and worried about money—but I took the place anyway, because I could envision my two little girls bursting out the front door into the yard, something they couldn’t do in a building with a lobby.
The girls’ faces were somber and their eyes full of apprehension as I let them into the apartment for the first time. The air hung abnormally still in the vaulted, wood-paneled foyer, a gloomy space that must once have boasted an imposing staircase, but no longer served any purpose. I trailed my children on their silent exploration of their new home, their second home, a weird pastiche of old world elegance and 40-year-old frugal renovations. As they wandered through the formal dining room to the cramped appendix of a kitchen with its warped linoleum and chipped countertops, the words “broken family” ran through my mind over and over, a mantra of anxiety and self-doubt. A panicky flutter rose to my throat—I didn’t know how to raise my children alone. How could they be happy as a mere fragment of a family?
We ended our tour in the bedroom the girls would share. I had given them the best room in the house, what had once been a bright, airy front parlor, with picture windows and ornate plaster work. I had decorated it with a floral rug and a butterfly mobile. Trying to see through my children’s eyes, I felt sad. The flimsy Ikea twin beds looked so small and out-of-place. It didn’t look like a bedroom was supposed to look at all.
Lucy, my elder daughter, flopped onto one of the beds. Claire took the other, looking pensively at the ceiling. “We could have sleepovers,” she said.
“Sleepovers?” I wasn’t sure what she meant. They were already sharing a room.
Timidly, joy bloomed in my chest. “Maybe this weekend,” I said.
The following Saturday, I rented Finding Nemo and laid a picnic blanket on the floor in front of the TV so we could eat our favorite meal, spaghetti, while watching the movie in our pajamas. When it was over, we all piled onto my bed, whispering in the dark about what sort of animal each of us most resembled. The girls’ eyelids grew heavy, and I watched them fall asleep, their dear faces banded by the orange light that filtered through the blinds from the street.
Saturday became a regular Sleepover Night, and then we added Sunday Dance Party to combat the glumness of goodbye when the children switched homes. I plated their supper like hors d'oeuvres, speared with brightly colored toothpicks. We donned our favorite dancing clothes to do the Twist and the Electric Slide.
We developed seasonal traditions too. In the autumn, the three of us went apple picking and made pie as a “baking army,” Claire barking out commands, urging us to go faster, Lucy and me scrambling to keep up until we were a mess of flour and giggles. In winter, we built snow caves in the yard, or we piled blankets and cushions behind the couch, pretending it was our ship. We sailed to locations we picked out of the atlas; along the way, we faced pirates and storms and even built ourselves a time machine. In the summer, the girls cheered me on as I ran around the block for exercise, and I helped them make lemonade and trompe l’oeil cupcakes decorated as corn-on-the-cob to sell on the sidewalk.
During our second year in the apartment, we weathered a scary event—I was diagnosed with breast cancer. After surgery and during chemotherapy, I needed help taking care of the kids. It did not surprise me that my daughters were upset by these new circumstances, but the source of their sadness did surprise me. I found them huddled together on the porch, looking forlorn, and I reassured them that I would get better. “We know,” they said. They told me that they didn’t want any more family members or friends staying with us, disrupting our routines. They understood that we needed assistance and admitted that the people who came to our rescue were wonderfully kind. Nevertheless, they keenly felt the loss of the sweet, quiet rhythms of our life.
It was then that I understood the gift I had been given. We were not, as I had feared, a broken family. We were a whole new tribe, and together we made a home. Our traditions reflected our three personalities and the way we fit one another perfectly, like the soundless, hidden gears of a mechanical watch. The intimacy my children and I shared in that little apartment was deeper than any I had ever known. What I had worried would be a difficult, painful time for my precious daughters turned into some of the happiest years of our lives.