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Talking about a past marriage

Telling the kids means admitting we’ve made mistakes.

Gracia Lam

THE APPROACH OF SUMMER reminds me of the great idea my wife and I had last year of sending our 6-year-old son to French camp. Five days of French cultural immersion would be enormously beneficial, teaching him to wear berets and make pithy observations in a language his parents barely know.

I vividly recall the scene at the end of that first day of camp, when I arrived to find only the receptionist in the normally bustling lobby. “The kids are upstairs,” she told me. “There are only two of them.” People were coming through the door behind me, and when I turned I suddenly realized it was my ex-wife and her mother, two people with whom I’d barely communicated for the better part of a decade. We exchanged awkward embraces and a few actual words along the lines of “What the . . . !” My ex was there to pick up her son — the only other child enrolled in the extended-day portion of this obscure French camp. Soon the boys appeared with their teacher. My ex-wife was in a hurry, and my son was peppering me with questions, like “How do you know her?”

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“Old friend,” I said, whisking him out to our bicycle. Riding a bike with a child on a tag-along provides excellent cover for the flummoxed parent, as it’s virtually impossible to communicate, which gives the adult precious minutes to consider what he’ll say when the ride is over. Moreover, a 6-year-old boy pretty much stops thinking about any given situation once it’s firmly in the past (10 minutes ago) and is very likely to forget his feelings of confusion until, say, the very next day, when he returns to French camp and hangs out with that older boy, his new buddy, the son of that woman he found me talking to, and . . . who is she again?

“You’ve got to tell him you were married before,” advised my wife. “The other boy is going to tell him anyway.” I had always known I’d tell the kids about this previous marriage eventually, but until then it was easier to omit it on the grounds that it was irrelevant. Now that it was very much relevant, I felt as if I were about to admit to a major personal defeat.

The fact is, I’ve gone to great lengths to conceal my many deficiencies from our two children, the way most have us have learned to hide shortcomings from potential employers, new friends, the mailman, etc. But as time goes on, the kids are bound to acquire a more complicated understanding of who I really am. This frightens me, even though I know it’s a necessary part of our continually developing relationship.

The people we’re closest to are those about whom we have the deepest knowledge, which includes imperfections. My own father’s limitations didn’t become clear until the passing of my mother, who had effectively shielded us kids from many of his weaknesses. It was a hard reality to come to grips with, but it eventually brought us closer to him. I’m not planning to lay out for my children every youthful indiscretion or botched relationship I’ve had, but they might be better prepared to deal with their own inevitable disappointments if I stop acting as if I’ve always known how to do everything right, and why can’t they?

In the car en route to camp that second day, I turned off the radio and told my son: “You know, back before I met Mommy, I was married to someone else. But that marriage ended and I’m so happy now!”

“Really?” he said. I watched in the rearview mirror as he pondered what I’d said. It clearly confused him, and I’m sure it made him uncomfortable. Little else was said between us on the topic that day, but I’m sure we’ll have a much longer conversation about it soon enough.

Patrick McVay blogs at patrickmcvay.com. Send comments to connections@globe.com.

TELL YOUR STORY. E-mail your 650-word essay on a relationship to connections@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.

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