CHICAGO (JTA) — “Do you want me to make you a sandwich?” I heard my boyfriend say calmly to his young son, as if there weren’t an adult woman hiding a foot away in his tiny Israeli bathroom.
It was early in the morning and Yoav’s children had shown up unexpectedly on their way to school. Hearing the key in the door, Yoav called out: “Quick! The children are here!” and without even thinking, I ran to hide in the only place in his small apartment where I would be out of sight. That’s because right from the start, Yoav had made it clear to me that unless we were very serious, his children were not to know about me.
While the bathroom incident only happened once, there were countless other reminders during our short but intense relationship that his life as a family man and his life with me were separate and distinct universes. This meant I had to be extra vigilant not to forget any of my things at his house, lest his children stumble upon them. And while we spent romantic weekends together with much intimacy and laughter, when Yoav had his kids — it was often since he had joint custody — he was off limits to me, even to talk on the phone.
That, however, was the least of our problems.
“Do you want more children?” I had asked on our very first date.
“No,” he said vehemently. Perhaps sensing my distress, he softened it with, “but if I loved someone, maybe.”
I was 39 and desperately wanted to be a mother, which should have been reason enough to say goodbye to Yoav after the first date. Instead, I believed that if he really loved me, he would change his mind.
Looking back, I’m surprised we even lasted three months.
“What are you doing with me?” he even asked me once. “I can’t give you a child and I’m not going to change my mind.”
Two months after parting, we both fulfilled our dreams, almost as if we had been standing in each other’s way. His was to take a romantic trip for one to Europe. Mine was to become a mother. At the age of 40, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer for a man to give me a child, and just short of a year after Yoav and I ended, I gave birth on my own to a son.
But for a long time I was still angry with Yoav. I felt betrayed. I felt like he was selfish for not giving me a child.
It wasn’t until I drove from Jerusalem to the Galilee one warm winter day to visit my relatives that I suddenly remembered the words of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. With the mountains rising above me like a promise and the baby tucked safely in his car seat, I understood for the first time what “To be whole, you first must be broken” really meant.
Someone had shared that sentiment with me soon after my divorce 10 years earlier. It had comforted me then to know that because of my pain, I’d be better in the long run. It gave me strength to search for someone new.
But driving that day in the Galilee a decade later, something clicked. Maybe it took becoming a mother and feeling at peace about it to finally recognize that a person doesn’t suddenly become whole, that in order to heal, we must glue our broken pieces back together, one by one.
Yoav, I realized, broke up with me because he cared about me, not because he didn’t. But he was also broken. So were a host of other men who had crossed my path over years and years of dating. And I was broken, too. Why else would I choose to be with so many men who could give me so little and who inevitably disappointed me?
Not long afterward I moved back to Chicago and started dating a handsome and slender man I had met at a Passover seder when I was pregnant. That he was also the father of the same number of children as Yoav is, I like to think, a sort of tikkun, a corrective.
Soon after we became a couple, he introduced me to his children as his “girlfriend.” Being with him is like one of Oprah’s “aha” moments: After years and years of knocking on the wrong doors, I have finally found the right door, answered by a man who could let me in.
Five months into this relationship with this nurturing and kind man, I still feel like a doe taking its first tentative steps. Will he bolt like all the others? Will I run away first, like I often have before?
I see now that finding the “right” person is about being open to someone who can give you what you need. It’s about saying yes to the person who makes you feel good and who gives you the strength to start, slowly but surely, mending the brokenness to finally feel whole.
(Abigail Pickus is a writer and editor living in Chicago.)