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You've heard about ex-wives. But what about ex-mothers? Suzanne O'Malley on the mother of all parenting dilemmas.
My son wanted to meet his ex-mother. He was, at the tender age of 4, entrenched in preschooler's logic: His father had a previous wife, therefore he must have a previous mother. Of all the maternal challenges I'd dealt with up to that point, this was the most perplexing. And—dare I say it —irritating. But let me start from the beginning.

It was one of those nights. My then-husband was out of town on business, and my son, Zack, and I were at our local childproof diner. On the Muzak system I heard the unmistakable opening flourish of "You Light Up My Life." "Zack," I said, "this is the song that was playing when Dad asked me to marry him."

Zack seemed to let the comment pass. I was thinking how unfortunate it was that "You Light Up My Life" was the song I had to remember for the rest of my life when Zack made the following pronouncement: "Dad had a wife before you, and they're divorced."

This was a true statement. Before my husband met and married me, he was married to someone else. He and his ex-wife had no children together, and ten years had passed between his divorce and the birth of our son. But so what? Why was Zack telling me this?

"I want to meet her," Zack said.

"Who?"

"Dad's wife before you." Dad's wife before you. There's a catchy phrase to hear from one's 4-year-old.

"Why do you want to meet her?" I asked.

"I would like to meet her because I just want to see, between you, who'd be the better wife. I think you must be the better wife," my son said, "but I'd just like to see."

"Zack," I protested, "Dad's other wife is from a long, long time ago—before you were born. He married me because he likes to be with me. And I'm sure you would like me best, because I am your mama."

Zack reassured me that he was almost positive he would like me best, but he did still want to compare the two of us. "I want to see if she's nicer than you are, or if she's like Ursula in The Little Mermaid," Zack said. Ursula is an evil sea witch.

Against my better judgment, this was the next question I asked: "What if she is nicer than I am?" To which Zack replied, "Then I would choose her." "For what?" I wanted to say, and I did. "For my mom," Zack said.

This was the point at which it occurred to me to be glad I had about a hundred years of therapy under my belt. Let him ask who'd be the better wife until doomsday, but who's the better mom? My son was considering a woman he had never even met as a replacement for me? Me, his own mother, who had given up her life's blood and, conservatively speaking, 12,000 hours of sleep for him?

I swallowed these thoughts in favor of healthful mothering. "Zack," I said, "I gave birth to you. I am your only mother."

"What about my old mother?" he said. Was it possible that Zack thought he had two mothers? Why not? His dad had had two wives. "She was never my mother?" Zack asked. "Not for an hour? Not for a minute? Not for a second?"

A chance encounter at the toy store

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