It took me a long time to accept that the only thing worse than my fear of my own emptiness, was the emptiness of my bottomed-out relationship with my husband of nearly 12 years. We are good people, and we are good parents, but that doesn’t make two people a good couple. So he moved out of our house and into a condominium by the kid’s school. I had one dog, a house, and—most of the time—I had our two children.
A year later, a thrum of panic washes over me when the children’s father comes to pick them up on Thursdays. The divorced-parenting class that I attended focused—as they must—on how to best protect and nurture the children. But there were no classes on how parents should learn to be without children or a family. It took me a vulnerable, soul searching year before I came up with a few guidelines of my own, most of them established after hours of reflection and prayer:
1. Surrender to Forever
Girlfriends coming over to the house—their eyes barely containing the dread of visualizing themselves in the same position—say something along these lines: “It’ll be okay. This isn’t forever.” Which is true in the huge, universal sense of the word; nothing is forever. But my living without my children part of the time is my forever, a daily reality. We will never be a family again. This is an earth-shattering, heart-wrenching realization. Surrendering to the pain of was more unbearable than I could have anticipated. This isn’t where I want to be after all of the time and effort it took to cultivate a lasting relationship; it’s not what I wished for my children; it’s not at all what I would have chosen for my future. It is, however, reality, even though I didn’t choose it. Until my divorce, I hadn’t realized that my outcome in a situation wasn’t a reflection of my effort.
2. Join a Support Group
I’ve never been fond of cocktail parties, charity events, and obligatory dinners, so I automatically decline any invitations to the same. But with empty evenings stretching ahead of me—the weekends were the worst—I found myself scouring the Facebook events for distractions from the dreaded silence of no-children. I found Divorce Care at my local church. It was a refuge for people who were experiencing the same process that I was. There was an understanding, sympathy, and compassion that my married friends couldn’t show me, because until you’re in this place, it’s very difficult to relate. My experience taught me that like death, there are different phases to this type of grief and being around others that were further along in their divorce was inspiring.
3. Close the Door to Unnecessary Sorrow
For the first six months, my knees caved with sadness every time I got to the stair landing and saw the kids’ bedrooms; smelled their adolescent scents; noticed the trail of towels and books and toys that led from their closets to the bathroom to their desks. It took me that long not to get drawn into a Bermuda Triangle of heartache, panic, and guilt; only to find myself standing with mute regret in their innocent spaces. Eventually, I learned to allow myself the sadness but to shut the children’s bedroom doors on the nights I didn’t have them. Their laundry and chaos could wait until I felt stronger. I accepted that I was going to be messy and human and unstable for a while, but that I didn’t need to create unnecessary pain and anxiety for myself. What I needed was to feel the loneliness, let it wash over me and move forward. This is the fundamental rule in therapy. Dwell in the pain. If you continue to push it away or drown it out, you’ll never move forward. Not dealing with the grief now, would have made me a victim and I refused to let my ex-husband and the choices he made have any more power over me.
4. Be Gentle With Yourself
For the first few months after my ex moved out of the house, I would wake up at 3 a.m. and relive every moment of being left behind. I wanted to find fault in what I’d done. Where had I messed up? What had I done to drive him into the arms of another person? Was I that miserable to be around that he would give up his children seventy percent of the time just to get away from me? I considered myself a smart person and yet I had missed the fact that he was having an affair. After a lot of reflection and prayer, I realized that I may have faults but ultimately he made the choice to destroy our family. Nothing I could have said or done could have stopped it, because I wasn’t the issue. He was. His feelings about himself and who he is, lead to the choices he decided to make. We all have flaws but at the end of the day, we deserve respect, unconditional love, and feeling valued in our relationships.
5. Get to Know the New You
For nearly 12 years, the person I was at home was “Mommy” or “wife.” What I answered to most frequently was “Mom.” Suddenly, I found myself in a free fall of mostly unlabeled, uncalled-upon silence. There was no one demanding my attention at times. I went from having no spare time to having huge blocks of time alone. I missed being needed.
Then one day, I wondered “who am I right now?” If I could be a mother but also nurture my own identity, who would I be? I had grown up very timid and shy, afraid of stepping out of my comfort zone. I decided my strategy from now on would be the same advice I give my children. It’s ok to be afraid but you also have to be brave. Being brave is moving ahead despite your fears. I would now try things that in the past, I wouldn’t have done. It could be something as simple as experiencing a new cuisine or as thrilling as sky diving. I was no longer held by the boundaries of “wife” and who that meant I was as a person. There was freedom from having to consider how my ex-spouse felt about anything I did or how it made him look to others. I gained confidence in myself because I was calling the shots now. I set an example for my children by taking my most broken self and making her into someone that lived life with exuberance and joy.
6. What Now
I bought a t-shirt shortly after my divorce was final. It say’s “Know your worth, then add tax.” There is value in being the person you were created to be. The grieving process is long. I don’t feel emotionally wounded for myself anymore but I experience their trauma daily when I see my kids trying to navigate through the minefield of emotions that they experience. I remind myself that I’m a roll model for my children, especially my daughter. They have seen the devastation that divorce has caused and they have seen me rise from it. You are worth more than the circumstances of your past. You have been broken but You have a choice. We can continue to be stuck in the “what if’s” of life or we can choose to pick ourselves up, dust off and move on with joy to “what now”?