(By Sean O’Connor, first published on ChangeExchange.co.za)
When a radical idea evolved into a practical proposition, it was time to have the most difficult conversation about family matters. The one about money…
We need to talk about money, she said. Can you talk now? Okay, I said, because now was as good a time as any, even if I didn’t feel ready. I took a breath, and prepared to listen.
We were in the kitchen of my flat, my ex-wife and I, in the late afternoon. She had returned from Germany to tend to her terminally ill mother, and had brought our daughter to join our son, who has been living with me.
Our family split 10 years ago, when we divorced, amicably enough but still soaked in the hurt and disappointment that comes from a love that has withered. About two years ago we split further, when she immigrated with our children.
Some difficult conversations later, our son came to live with me and our daughter with her. It’s not perfect for any of us. But it’s been workable as we co-parent from afar, each with a child by our side. As we now prepared to speak, both children were in their rooms, fastened to their screens.
Even with a new partner overseas, the ex (I’m really not sure what to call her – the possessive pronoun seems inappropriate, but let’s try ‘the mother of my children’) had decided to stay in South Africa.
A few months ago she had proposed a radical idea: that we all move into a big home, pooling our resources.
The kids would no longer have to be nomads, but could benefit from the stability one home could provide. I accepted, with the proviso that we engage in some form of counselling. I was worried about boundaries – we had divorced for good reason.
The initial discussions skirted around the big issue. How would we split the rent for the big house we’d found? An eye-watering amount for anyone on their own, but perhaps just manageable for the two of us.
We dallied onto safe ground, agreeing to share costs for the children, although there was a tricky temptation to make a reckoning of the past. Who paid for what before? Who had sacrificed more? I didn’t want to be held back by this. What’s past is past.
We managed to emerge from this relatively undented, acknowledging that we had both done what we could with what we had. Sort of. Enough. I asked what she thought the proposed split should be. She gave some figures that seemed unfair to me. Mmm, I said. Mmmm.
So I decided to just listen.
I found myself saying I could manage, in theory, but didn’t quite agree. She sensed something in me unspoken. The mother of my children, who knows me well, said: You’ll be generous like you always are, then become resentful. This needs to be fair. You need to be okay with it and so do I.
I pondered another weighting, equally speculative, even playful. My proposal was not well-received. I think right then the mother of my children was reminded of the man she had married many years ago, the man whom she had worked hard to wash out of her system.
Here she was, about to share a house with him! This guy, instead of the man she had chosen to love, far away, and the life she cherished there. I realised a decision would be impossible with emotions running high. We didn’t have to make one now.
This was a work in progress, just an exploratory conversation so we could see where we stood, what we felt. The conversation petered out. It resumed a day after we moved into what we call ‘the mansion.’ Again, the mother of my children became emotional talking about money with me. And why not?
Here I was again, tricky me. I decided to listen even harder than the last time.
When she had finished speaking, I waited. I waited until she spoke again, and listened some more. It all came out.
Again, I proposed a split that seemed to be ‘equally uncomfortable’ and asked that we could sit with it for a day or two. A day later, things had settled again. The split looked good, but she wanted it expressed as a percentage. I asked for more time.
Maybe a percentage would emerge that was near these numbers. Later that day, it did. I heard some hard things in these talks. But I also gained an understanding. I’m glad it took us a while to sort this out, and I’m glad we both had the patience for it. These things take time.
I’m glad I managed to shut up, and speak only when I needed to. It’s made all the difference, and augurs well for all of us, in this new home we are making together.