Eight years ago I was dragged — kicking and screaming — into the Divorce Club. When I joke about it, I say that I really wanted to stay married but my husband and his girlfriend had other plans. That joke is met with either all-knowing guffaws or uncomfortable smiles, depending on the audience.
Since then, I’ve faced many obstacles: a woman who was a SAHM for a dozen years doesn’t exactly have employers beating down her door with awesome job offers. The financial fallout was devastating. I fought for child support for five years, and in the meantime lost my house, my credit and a considerable chunk of my sanity. Foreclosure and bankruptcy might sound like character-building challenges, but believe me … they suck. The emotional battles were no picnic either. Parenting four children while struggling to keep a roof over their heads took a toll. Having an ex-husband who dropped in and out of their lives like a tornado, touching down occasionally and leaving disrepair in his wake, didn’t help.
Somehow, we made it through the worst of times. The kids are thriving: two in college and two in high school, all of them growing into wonderful, good people who make me all kinds of proud. Me? I’ve worked my ass off. Gotten myself to a place that feels safe. I write a lot about divorce, and many people have come to me for advice and reassurance. They want to know that they, too, will be OK. That they’ll overcome the pain and the humiliation and the utter sadness that often accompanies divorce.
I owe those people an apology.
Because I am always the one waving the flags, cheering loudly and preaching about how you will survive, how you will be able to forgive and how you will get over it. I’m the one answering heartbreaking pleas for help with paragraphs full of empowerment and hope with proclamations like this:
“You’ve got this, sister!”
“Yes, it hurts like hell when your hopes and dreams are blown to bits but you WILL rise again and be fabulous!”
“There will come a day when seeing him won’t be like a sharp knife being thrust right between your shoulder blades.”
I crow about how well parallel parenting has worked for me. How basically pretending my ex-husband doesn’t exist has made everything okey-dokie. Peachy keen. The bee’s freaking knees!
I’m sorry to inform you that I’m full of shit. Kind of.
Why do I say I’m full of shit? Because a couple of weeks ago, I came face-to-face with my ex, and I didn’t handle it the way someone who is fully recovered would have.
I handled it like an immature tween. Or worse, like a temperamental preschooler.
Let me set it up for you, OK?
Three nights a week I work late. Our elementary school has a before/after school childcare program, and there needs to be someone in the front office until they are closed, for security purposes.
Our gymnasium is used by the local Park and Rec department after school hours. There are a variety of programs offered, everything from adult volleyball leagues to martial arts to toddler gymnastics.
When I’m in the office those three evenings, I sometimes encounter the people coming into our school to participate in the Park and Rec programs.
See where I’m going with this?
So there I was, in the office that is essentially my home-away-from-home, doing what I do. Making copies, filing stuff, entering super important facts onto super important spreadsheets. Minding my own sweet business.
There’s a Park and Rec employee who has a desk outside of our office. He is the one who usually buzzes people in for those non-school activities.
That day, his buzzer was broken. Every so often I’d hear a little bumpy noise at my door, and I’d buzz the people in.
I was walking back to my desk from the copy room, and I saw a person standing outside the door. I rushed over to hit the button to let them in. And that’s when I saw who it was.
It was my ex. I froze, people. Like a mother effing popsicle.
Did I mention he wasn’t alone?
He was there with his child, his little toddler/person he made with his current wife.
It was like a scene from The Matrix, only instead of Keanu Reeves in a long black coat dodging slow motion bullets, it was ME in a flowy black sweater and leggings, begging the universe to rip wide open so I could escape.
Our eyes met, and his face showed some shock. And some disbelief. Here’s what my face looked like, at first:
Yes, the Debbie Downer look is hot, y’all. I was trying really hard to process the moment. In those few seconds, every single thing that has gone down over the past decade tumbled over and under and through me. The good. The bad. And oh my God … the ugly.
Seeing him knocked the air out of me. Seeing him being all fatherly and sweet with a little kid who looks SO MUCH like our sons? I’ll be honest with you. It made me sick. It dug up the bones of all my supposedly dead issues and they did a macabre little jig, right there in that office. Neither of us said anything.
What was there to say? I suppose I could have played it cool. Played it like most mature people would have done. I could have said:
“Oh, hey. How’s it going?” or “Hello.” or maybe “Well, fancy meeting you here!”
I could have gone the really snarky route and said something bitchy.
“Wow! So you’re actually parenting this one?” or “Oh my gosh what a cutie. How long until you walk out of his life?” or perhaps “Hi, Satan.”
Of course I didn’t say any of that. The mature things I didn’t say because obviously, I’m not mature. The snarky things I didn’t say because I do have a heart, and I respect my place of employment too much to drag that crap in there. Also, it’s not cool to be a dick in front of kids.
But what I did do is something I’m not proud of. It wasn’t even something I did with any intention; it was a physical response. I swear on all things holy and pure, it was a knee-jerk reaction.
I made a face.
I made a freaking face at my ex-husband.
Now, like I said, it was something organic. It happened naturally, without any thought behind it whatsoever. I have scoured the Internet looking for the perfect picture, but couldn’t find one. So I tried to replicate it in selfie form. Here’s what I looked like:
Yes. It was the look of someone who had just stepped in dog poop. Barefoot.
He looked at me, and then looked down at his boy, I suppose to make sure none of the scathing lasers from my crazy eye had burned the lad. He looked back at me, one more time, and I was still in face mode.
Only by that time, the shock was beginning to wear off and hopefully I looked a tiny bit less whackadoo.
After he left my office, I began shaking. Not like f-f-frozen teeth-chattering shakes or anything, but a trembling-hand sort of thing. I felt nauseous, just a little bit. And there was something else.
I felt ashamed.
Ashamed that I didn’t just say hello. Ashamed that there he was, enjoying a fun night with his child and there I was, wrapping up a 10-hour workday in an elementary school office, buzzing people in like a night watchman.
Ashamed that after all these years, after all these words, after all of my HEAR ME ROAR proclamations and after all of the so-called bravery and forgiveness and recovery I’m always spewing …
I made a face. That’s all I had.
On the brief drive home I ranted to myself. Beating myself up a bit, and also calling him out. Telling the imaginary him in my car how shitty his past behavior was, what a cruel man he was, and how pissed I was for the hurt our children felt. I gripped the steering wheel hard, like I was on the Autobahn instead of a little Minneapolis suburb street.
When I got home, my boys were gone. Out with friends, playing basketball at the park. I was alone with my shame and my anger and the unwelcome, unwanted sadness. I texted my best friend and poured out the contents of my heart. She listened. She comforted.
I made a martini, then I sat out on my porch and I cried for a little bit.
How’s that for “moving on”?
How’s that for “getting over it”?
After I recovered from FaceGate ’15, I decided a few things.
Number One: maybe this parallel parenting thing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Perhaps if I was forced to interact with him on a more regular basis, seeing him wouldn’t be such a shock. But there’s the rub … with the kids getting older, we don’t have many opportunities to be face-to-face. And as much as I’d like to nudge my maturity along, I sure as hell am not going to call him up and invite him to coffee just to desensitize myself.
Number Two: I need to admit to myself, and to those scared and unsure people who come to me seeking advice and support, that I’m not that strong. I’m not as far along in the healing process as I claim to be.
Number Three: this shit is hard. And some days are harder than others. We need to be forgiving, not only to those around us, but to ourselves. It’s like I tell so many women just beginning this trek: You’re going to screw up. And that’s OK.
We are all going to be OK. Right?
Because now that I know what it really looks like, I think it’s time to retire that face.
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