To My Co-Parent:

I thought my heart was going to stop when I heard our 5-year-old daughter tell a friend she wished you lived with us. I’m not sure if she heard my audible gasp, or she simply turned to me to see if this was a viable wish. But as soon as the words fell out of her mouth, she turned toward my direction. Somewhere on my face she must have found a suitable response because before I could say anything, she told her friend, “But that can’t happen, and I’m not sure why.”

I knew in that moment that we needed to have a difficult conversation. I anticipated that one day it would happen, I just wasn’t prepared for it to happen at such a young age. It’s hard explaining to a child that a huge reason her parents aren’t together is because of her dad’s relationship with another woman, and the grip of another man that was too strong for Mom to shake. I still haven’t found the right words to help her understand. Perhaps those “right words” are buried under the layers of problems that killed our marriage.

Unpacking these layers is like sorting through an attic filled with stuff you stored away in the midst of an emotional frenzy. It’s messy and easy to see that things have been mislabeled. Years later, I recognize them more clearly.

The first year after I ended our marriage, people naturally asked me what happened and if I regretted my decision. I responded by holding firm in my choice to dissolve our union, and I provided what I believed to be the truth. I stated, “Well he did yxz, and I couldn’t take it.” Three years later, I responded to the same question with, “Well he did xyz, and I did abc and we couldn’t take it.”

Now, six years later, if I were asked those same questions, I would respond slightly differently. I would affirm that I still don’t regret leaving, but I would provide a more comprehensive answer for the why. I would say that it’s hard to love a man fully when he doesn’t have a full understanding of his love for his mother. I would continue to share my newly revealed truth and say it’s even harder for a woman to love a man that she can never truly see. I would explain your complicated relationship with your mother–it’s almost as if you love her for being a strong single mom, yet you blame her for being the reason your dad was absent. That love infused with resentment often looked like anger—that was directed toward your mother. That anger, which grew too large to only hit one target, often wounded me, too. That anger was the force behind words like, “Black women always drive their men away.”

It took me a long time to recognize your anger. My vision was too clouded by preconceived ideas of what a man should be. I could never see the man I was with. I saw everything that was missing based on a donated perspective of what I thought a man should be, and I evaluated you based on the man my stepfather was.

Growing up, I was taught men were supposed to lead and provide. I measured your worth as a man based on those two qualities. I don’t know what’s worse, the fact that I measured you based on two narrow standards that weren’t even my own, or the idea that I was so preoccupied with your inability to measure up in those areas that I missed where you excelled, and ignored where you were toxic. Even more, I didn’t know or understand what I needed from a relationship. I thought I needed you to be like my stepfather, and you could never see that I wasn’t your mother.  As individuals, we were fractured; as a couple, we were broken.

And all my nagging and all your yelling, couldn’t put Shanita and Prep back together again.

Now, here we are.

As an individual, I have done “the work” required to be whole. Or maybe I didn’t. Maybe it’s a lifelong commitment that doesn’t really end and sort of just shifts.  Like our relationship. We are no longer an “us,” but we are two people joined together by the responsibility of our child. Right now, our child has questions, and in my search for honest answers, I found greater understanding.

I have a greater understanding of how the baggage two people carry with them can destroy a relationship. This understanding will shape how I answer our daughter’s questions in the future. If she asks as an adult, I will unpack it for her. But as a child, my response will be, “It’s complicated, but we both love you.”

Although that answer is the truth, you and I both know our mutual love for her is not enough to build a healthy co-parenting relationship. Our love for each other wasn’t enough to sustain a marriage. Sometimes love isn’t enough; it certainly couldn’t sustain the weight of our unhealthy baggage.

Now, I am letting go of any “divorce baggage” that is preventing us from being healthy co-parents. I am letting go of any hurt and disappointment that comes from a failed marriage, and I hope you can do the same. We have to let go–or I will become your mother and you will continue to become your father. But I would rather we heal.

The road to healing can get hard—hard enough to make you want to quit.

So this letter is addressed to you, but it’s for all co-parents who considered quitting when their love wasn’t enough.

Shanita Hubbard is a mom, writer, traveler, speaker and social justice advocate. Her background includes juvenile justice reform, nationwide consulting and collaborating on multimillion-dollar grants. However, she is most proud of her title as the mom of an amazing Black girl. Follow her on Twitter.