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.
"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
"Dad's wife is not his mother," I explained.
Zack said, "His mother is Grandma Leah."
"Right. And I am your mother, but I am not your wife."
Zack found this terribly amusing. "I know you're not my wife. If you were my wife, we'd sleep in the same bed together—or I'd sleep on the bottom bunk and you'd sleep on the top."
I got Zack to tell me what he understood from our conversation so far. "Dad's old wife is not my old mother," he said. "She never was my mother, even for a minute—right?"
A few months passed. I ran into my husband's ex-wife at a dinner party. She now lives with her third husband and her two sons from a second marriage. I told her Zack was considering her as a possible replacement for me. She laughed sympathetically and confided that she avoids talking to her two sons about her first marriage. "They have enough trouble dealing with me being married to someone who is not their father," she said.
Two weeks later Zack and I were exiting a local toy store when I saw that we were about to have a chance encounter with Zack's "ex-mother." Well, I thought, this is the moment. As we drew nearer, I whispered to Zack, "Here's somebody you've been wanting to meet."
"Don't say it, Suzanne," my husband's ex cautioned before I could make introductions. "Just don't do it." She attempted a warm greeting, but Zack shrank back against my legs.
Zack and I crossed the street to our car. "That was Dad's old wife, wasn't it," he said.
"Yes," I answered.
"Why didn't she want to talk to me?"
"That's an interesting question," I said. "I think maybe she was uncomfortable." Of course he asked why. "She thinks it's too hard for young children to understand about old wives and new wives," I explained.
Zack poured out his indignation at being underestimated. Finally there was silence. "You're the better mom," he said emphatically. It was a cheap victory, but I was past being picky.
Some years later Zack's dad and I divorced. Will there come a day when my son wonders whether a "new" mom or "new" dad is better? Definitely. He's a teenager now. But when I tell him the story of his worrying over choosing the better mom, he looks at me like I've lost my mind. "I never said that," he says.
More O on exes: Dealing with someone else's messy divorce