I never expected to be an A student in the School of Divorced Parent Studies, but here I am. I’ve learned a number of lessons over the years, some more difficult than others. These are my top 10:
1. Grief wallops you in the grocery store.
You think you’re safe in the frozen food aisle, or presenting to a client at work, or chaperoning a field trip with your child, but you’re wrong.
Grief doesn’t care where you are or what you’d prefer to be doing. It arrives on its own schedule, brought on by a song or a stray thought about breakfast cereal. Grief often conveniently forgets the details of the divorce: It doesn’t remember that the marriage died years before you separated or that it’s been more than a year since he moved out. Grief moves you through the change on its own timeline, with little to no regard for your preferences or expectations or need for privacy. Carry tissues.
2. You think you’ll never get used to the quiet. Then you do, and you feel guilty.
Time without the children drags endlessly. Eventually, you get used to this new rhythm and plan for it. You choose to spend time with friends at a vineyard or binge on a wildly inappropriate Netflix series or clean out the garage in blissful quiet. Somewhere in the middle of that activity, you notice you’re not missing them. You spend the rest of the weekend wondering what kind of parent you are and worried that getting used to time without your children is unnatural. It may be, but it is normal and appropriate.
3. Sometimes, single is easier than married.
You’re in charge of changing the burned-out bulb in the closet and unloading the dishwasher. There’s no one to nag or resent you when it doesn’t get done. You alone decide if the kids are too dirty to skip bath night or if it’s time to refinance the house. You put the kids to bed and there’s no one waiting to continue the tense conversation started hours ago as you dressed for work. Sometimes you notice these newly missing things and feel sad, and sometimes you feel something like relief.
4. Telling your divorce story never ends.
You practice for that first time, rehearsing the words in the mirror, preparing to break their hearts and change your family. You breathe a deep sigh when it’s over and look forward to putting that conversation far, far behind you. Instead, you find you’re constantly telling the children the G-rated story of why Mom and Dad live apart.
The teenager you tell tomorrow is interested in relationships and love in a way that the 12-year-old you told last year wasn’t. The 8-year-old’s friends have a different perspective on divorce than she does, and she’s worried maybe she’s missing something. You tell your story again and again, each time to a child who has changed since the last time they heard it.
5. Dating can be fun and horrifying and awkward. Try not to bring all that to dinner.
Getting dressed for the first date in decades is exhausting. You worry about who you are and what you look like in excruciating ninth-grade detail. By the time the date arrives, you’re drenched in sweat and on your third outfit. You forget about opening doors and not cutting his food and walking in heels. You wonder whether its normal to spend the full time talking about your 6-year-old’s food allergies and your ex’s inability to tell time. You notice your date’s blue eyes and easy smile and wonder insanely whether he sleeps in pajamas. You ask him and realize you hadn’t fully considered all the implications of that question.
You realize after a disaster or seven that dating can be just time with someone funny. Finding a spot on the table for the baggage you’re carrying about your last relationship or future spinster status makes it harder. It’s just dinner.
6. No matter what, you’ll worry about the money.
Once, two of you were adding to the family pot. Even though, through the magic of child support, that often is still the case, it feels different. Even if you managed the finances before, and none of the mechanics of this are new to you, it feels panicky. The money feels big and overwhelming and scary.
7. Even years later, happy in your new spot, you’ll miss your old life.
You miss the sound of the waves lapping the shore at your ex’s family beach cottage. You can’t find his mother’s recipe for corned beef. You see the start of an old inside joke and giggle before you realize no one but you understands why.
At first, missing your old life makes you momentarily panic. Did you make a terrible mistake? Are you somehow not as happy as you first thought in this new spot? As years pass, you’ll realize missing your old life just means you were lucky enough to have magic in the mess.
8. The other parent is still your best partner.
There will be new components to your relationship: anger, pain, jealousy. You will not communicate the way you once did. You’ll both become beginners, finding your way as you learn to co-parent. You will make so many mistakes you’ll begin to lose hope. Some days will feel impossible.
And yet no one loves your children the way the two of you do. No one else remembers her nine-day NICU stay or the way he breathes when he’s really asleep and no longer faking. No one else gets choked up at the way she tilts her head during her ballet recital or knows he needs time to work through a problem on his own before he can accept a parent’s help. After everything you’ve been through, the two of you are still forever united by the people you love.
9. The kids will carry a wound and also be okay.
Every time your kid gets weird, you’ll blame the divorce. You’ll be on high alert for signs they are not adjusting as well as you want them to be. And you’re right, sometimes. Divorce changes the course of a family and a life, just like any other milestone event. The children won’t ever be the same as they were before.
But they will be okay. You learn that the choices you make after the divorce are every bit as important as the choice you made to separate. You realize you have an opportunity every day to contribute to healing. Kids survive cancer and middle school and divorce both changed and okay.
10. You are enough.
Even in the early days of your brokenness, you are enough. Even as you screw it up, you are enough. Even as you look at your little family, different from the others and beaten and weathered in a way you’d never imagined, you are enough.
You belong to them, and they you. This journey is yours together. You are enough for those babies you love like with every part of your being, and you are enough for you.