Exes and O’s

On figuring out the best name for the father of my children.

"My Ex"
What should we call the guy on the right?

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Yobro10/Thinkstock and Thinkstock.

What’s in a name? For me, quite a lot, as I’ve struggled to find the right word for the person who was my husband but is not anymore. The man with whom I shared a bed, a home, a life. The man from whom I am now divorced.

We have a name for that person, of course: ex-husband. Frequently shortened to ex. As in, My ex loves to surf. Or, My ex and I watched all five seasons of The Wire on his laptop, the last when I was pregnant with our son. We have names for his family members: ex-mother-in-law, ex-father-in-law, ex-brother-in-law. Long-winded multihyphenate names grown even longer, a sour mouthful.


I do not like the word ex when applied to people, not to those who are still integral to my life. Ex is a Latin word; it means “out from,” “out of,” “removal.” Applied to a person, it means “no longer.” A face covered by the crosshatched strokes of a dark pen until the features are obliterated.


Ex does not capture my relationship with the person I see several times a week, sometimes daily. He is the person I stand beside at our children’s sports games and school events. The first person I told last September, sobbing incoherently, that a family member had been diagnosed with cancer.

In early December, my ex-husband’s father died unexpectedly. Our children’s beloved grandpa, he was a fixture in their lives and in mine. “I’ll always love you and consider you my family,” he told me after the divorce. At his memorial service, my ex-husband and I sat bookending our children. He delivered the eulogy. I was proud of how strong and poised he was, how he did justice to words that, like him, were spare, direct, and wry. I laughed and cried with the other 300 people in the room even though I already knew the jokes and heartfelt descriptions; he had given me the speech to read beforehand.


Recently, my ex-husband moved into his new house. It was not in good shape when he bought it. But when I saw it for the first time months later, dropping by with our children, the hideous carpets had been stripped away, the floors sanded and stained. The dingy walls had new colors—the hallway a brilliant sunshine yellow, the kids’ bedroom a green-blue. It is not a big house, but with no furniture, smelling of new paint, it seemed larger, at once inviting and raw. Tugging at my hands, our son and daughter excitedly led me from room to room. The back windows faced west, with a view of the ocean. I stood looking out, feeling in equal measure happy and deeply sad for all of us.


We took the kids out to dinner that night. We went early, but there was still a wait, so we went to stand outside in the sunny, windless San Francisco early evening. My ex-husband’s phone pinged: a delivery. He had to walk the four blocks back to let in the guy from the mattress store. “Ten minutes,” he told me.

Five minutes later, the hostess called out my name.

“Our dad’s not here,” my daughter said.

The hostess asked me, “Is your husband outside?”

“He’s not,” I trailed off. Not what? Not outside, and not my husband.

I tried again. “The fourth person will be back very soon.” As the hostess led us to our table, I felt a flush of shame. Ex-husband might feel like a poor fit, but surely I could do better than the awkward and bizarre “fourth person.” I remembered a former colleague’s devastating cross-examination of a government official in a criminal case we tried together years ago. “You weren’t important enough to be the primary or even the secondary agent on this case,” he said. “You were tertiary, weren’t you?” I had just made the father of my children quaternary.


Recently, I spent two weeks at a retreat in New Hampshire, working on a book I am writing about wrongful convictions and restorative justice. Restorative justice is a centuries-old practice that brings together victims and offenders, their families and the larger community to make reparations as they work through trauma and loss. At the retreat, by silent agreement, everyone referred to their significant other as “my partner” whether they were gay or straight, 72 or 22, usually without adding a gender or even a name. At first, when asked who was taking care of my 4- and 6-year-olds, I said, “Their dad.” After a few days, I tried again. “My partner,” I said. The words felt strange. Throughout our married life, we had not been partners, only two rigidly separate individuals eking out a grim coexistence. Our inability to create a partnership was why we had gotten a divorce. And yet, after breaking apart, we had stood by and with each other, bound up by tragedy and everyday life events.

The other day, I felt a rising sadness, even despair. In a flat voice, I presented my ex-husband with a list of failures. At the top was our marriage.

He disagreed. “We may no longer be husband and wife,” he texted later, “but we will forever be partners in this life.”

I stared at the word partners for a long time. “That’s true,” I texted back. “And comforting.”