Category Archives: sadness

the mother figure

I got home late from work, tossed the mail on the counter and was still taking off my coat as I grabbed the phone to pick up the messages indicated by the blinking red light.

When I heard the voice, I stopped.  Moving.  Breathing.  Thinking.

It was the sweet little voice of James’ 9-year-old daughter, Chelsea, calling from her mother’s home, across the country.  “Hi Miss _____,” she said softly.  “Or Bryn or Sabrina or whoever picks up this message.  It’s Chelsea, and I miss you so much.  I was just talking to my daddy and decided to call you and tell you how much I can’t wait to see you over Spring Break and the summer.  I wish I was in Colorado with you.  Call me back sometime soon.  I miss you.  Bye.”

By the time the voicemail clicked onto the next message, I was sitting on the floor of my foyer, coat half-on/half-off, with damp cheeks.  How I love those children of his…

Dating with kids is a dicey prospect at best.  In previous posts,  I have written about how much it hurt me to say goodbye to his children, and how upset my daughter Bryn was when I told her that James and I had broken up.  They are innocent passengers on our dating journeys, buffeted by the ups and downs of relationships they can’t begin to understand.

Just a short time ago, I was worrying about his three children as if they were my own.  Their mother is pretty chaotic and unstable, and unfortunately more interested in partying and drinking than in them.   The children don’t trust her or feel safe with her, and their reports of  physical and verbal abuse between her and her fiance had James racing to his attorney to evaluate his legal options.   They are smart, good kids caught in a difficult and sad situation.

My time with James’ children meant a lot to me, but I realize now that it was good for them, too.  In fact, I was probably one of the best things to happen to those kids in a long time.  Unlike their own mother, I know how to love completely and without conditions or manipulation.  Even when they pushed me away, I was steady and committed to them.  I cared for and about them without asking for anything in return.  I listened to them and supported them and showered them with affection.  And I offered a role model to the two little girls that they didn’t have anywhere else in their life.

And now I have to let them go.

James always said that the kids came first.  If that’s true, then the best thing he can do for those children is to create a safe, stable family for them.  I hope that he goes out and finds a good woman he can truly love who will love them and nurture them.  I hope that someday he models for them a healthy romantic relationship so that they will have some idea of what one looks like.  I hope that those precious girls have a woman in their life to guide them to their fullest potential, because they have so very much.  I hope that his son will have a mother figure who helps him understand that not all women will make him feel inadequate and helpless.

Is it too much to hope for?  Maybe.  But it’s all I can do now.

So, I picked myself up off the floor, shrugged off my coat, and sent a quick text to Chelsea letting her know that Bryn would call her over the weekend.   Then I said a silent prayer for all of them — that they be happy, healthy, and protected.

It’s all I can do.

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Filed under dating, love, parenthood, relationships, sadness, single mom

for Lisa….

This morning I was introduced to a woman whose eyes took me back three years in time.  This post is dedicated to her and all the other “Lisas”….

“Lisa” and I met awkwardly and unexpectedly, in a waiting room, through a mutual friend.  Our friend wanted me to meet Lisa because she is struggling through the end of her marriage, and our friend thought my blog might help her.  I reached out my hand in hello and Lisa took it, but when she turned her eyes to me, my heart broke.

The tears were about to spill over, when she asked me, in a soft voice, “It does get better, right?”

Oh boy.

I remember those days.  I remember the fear and the helplessness.  The near desperation and the loneliness.  I knew no one my own age who was divorcing or had been divorced.  I felt like I was alone in a sea of people making different choices from me.  I didn’t have anyone to point to and say “THERE!  That’s what I want to have!  That’s what I’m aiming for, too!”  I remember saying to Annie, before she had left her marriage, “I need to see a divorced woman who has made it to the other side.  I need to see someone who is happy and content and past all of this.  I need to see it and I need to see it NOW because I am afraid that it doesn’t actually exist.”

When your marriage is falling apart — whether because you are leaving or he is — you’re awash in doubts and regrets and uncertainties.  It seems that every time you find something you feel certain about, another wave of doubt washes over you and you’re floating in ambivalence again.  The pain of the broken dreams and smashed hopes is palpable; it’s true:  depression hurts.  And the whole time, you’re grasping for a lifesaver that you can ride to the other side.

What has amazed me (and my friends who came through it after me) is how similar the process is for most of us.  No matter the reasons for the marriage’s failure, or the proportion of guilt assigned, the process of moving through those feelings and struggles is very, very similar.  True, some people stall at one point or another, and some are more extreme in the expression of their feelings at particular places along the way, but, overall, the journey is very similar.

And thank God for that.

Because, Lisa, there are lots and lots of us who have been where you are.  Who have had the same fears and sadness you are facing.  Who have had to pick up the pieces of lives blown apart and start anew.  Small steps…. little victories… until we begin to create a life that is whole and good and hopeful again.

In fact, hope might be the defining feature of these new lives.  Not the feigned or desperate or false hopes you’ve experienced time and again as your marriage has unraveled, but the true, buoyant hope of possibilities grounded in the certainty of your own strength and knowledge of your own needs and desires.  I have had my heart broken twice since my divorce, but it was an entirely different kind of pain.  It’s not the pain of being stuck or of being hopeless.  It’s the pain of being alive.  And that distinction is real and true and makes all the difference.

Moving through a divorce is not easy, and anyone who claims it was for them is either lying or delusional.  Building a new life is never easy, and when you’re weighed down by the guilt and fear and doubts that you carry out of a broken marriage, it’s doubly hard.  But nothing truly worth having has ever come easily.  Nothing.  And when you reach the other side and realize that, somewhere along the way, you have put the guilt aside, overcome the fear, and cast off the doubts, you’ll find yourself standing in the middle of a life you hardly recognize but can claim as your own.

I remember reading the book “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” to my daughters when they were small.  It’s the whimsical, lyrical tale of a family that sets off on an imaginary bear hunt (only to, quite comically, encounter a real bear).  The part of the book that I loved, and stressed to my girls, was the refrain the family chanted every time they hit an obstacle  — “Can’t go over it.  Can’t go under it.  Guess we’ll have to go through it!”  And so the family does.

Divorce is like a bear hunt.  There is no easy way around it or over it or under it.  You’ve just got to square your shoulders, straighten your back, set your focus, and go through it.   That’s the only way to the other side.  Sitting in your misery and expecting it will change of its own accord won’t do it.  Neither will hoping that someday you’ll have the strength.  There’s never a “good time” to get a divorce.  It’s never going to hurt less.  It will suck.

But then, one day, it won’t.

One of the first men I dated after my separation told me about his divorce recovery from his first wife.  He spoke about how he had simply put one foot in front of another for what seemed an eternity but was probably about 6 months.  He told me how he’d begun to wonder if he’d ever be happy again….  And then, one day, he was running errands on an ordinary Saturday, and he went into the bank to make a deposit.  He came out and the sun was shining. He stopped for a moment and let its warmth touch his face, and as he did, it hit him.  He was okay again.  In fact, he was kind of happy again.  He said he stood in the bank parking lot and cried silent tears of gratitude.  He had made it.  He had made it to the other side.  Life was beginning again.

I think most of us have similar moments we could relate.  They are precious and they are sacred, and, if I could, I would box them up and deliver them to you, Lisa, to carry you through the days ahead.  But since I can’t, you’ll just have to have faith that yours are awaiting you.

One small step after another.  It’s the only way any of us got here.  It’s how you’ll get here, too.

And someday, you’ll feel the sun on your face and the hope in your heart.  Again.

P.S. — There is an email button on this website.  Feel free to use it.  🙂

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meet the modern American family

I have been spending an inordinate amount of time lately with my ex-husband, Bryce.  No, we’re not grabbing beers together after work or hitting the tennis court for a doubles match.  We’re attending informational meetings, open houses, and promotional tours for local middle schools in the hopes of selecting the best fit for my elder daughter, Sabrina.  It is a choice we will make jointly.

Now, for those of you who are not from this area and are already scratching your head, our school district is somewhat unique in that you can “open enroll” your child in any school in the district.  You are guaranteed a place in your local, neighborhood school, but if you’d like to enroll in a different school, you may do so through the open enrollment system.  Essentially, with open enrollment, you toss your child’s name into a lottery system for that school, which determines their acceptance or not.   So, there is a lot of school shopping in my town.  Sabrina is a very bright kid with some special needs  at the talented and gifted end of the spectrum so we’re visiting four different schools, all of them more than once, to make this decision with her.

And tonight, quite unexpectedly, I found myself facing one of those surreal divorce moments that always seem to sneak up on me….

I was sitting in an auditorium, with Sabrina on one side and Bryce on the other, when one of the elementary school moms I’d once been friends with walked in.  Our eyes met briefly, then I saw them sweep and take in Bryce and Sabrina, and finally determinedly look elsewhere.  I couldn’t help but grin.

For this was one of a handful of women who stopped speaking to me altogether when word hit the grapevine that I was leaving Bryce.  She didn’t know Bryce — I’m pretty sure they’d never spoken before — but she was instantly judgmental and appalled at my gall.   She and her friends haughtily and publicly insisted that I was making a big mistake and would regret it in short order.

Except that I wasn’t and I haven’t.

And frankly, I’m not sure which aspect of my present life confounds and annoys them more…

  • Is it that I didn’t crumple under the weight of guilt and regret and become a frumpy and pathetic divorcee?
  • Is it that I have made a life — however modest and humble — of which I am proud and with which I am content?
  • Is it that my standing within our community has not been altered or affected in any appreciable way?
  • Is it that Bryce and I have (at least on the surface) a very congenial and mutually-supportive friendship?
  • Is it that we have both found happiness with others and have accepted those other partners?
  • Or is it that they were so damn wrong and can’t figure out how or why???

I know that after the divorce, I was supposed to slink around town looking guilt-ridden and glum, but I didn’t feel that way and wasn’t about to play that role for anyone’s benefit.  I know that my relationship with Bryce — the fact that we sit with each other at soccer games and school functions and community events — is surprising and confusing to those who don’t know us and our commitment to our daughters.  I know that my sincere acceptance and welcome of his girlfriend Debbie makes some people just plain uncomfortable.

But you know what?

They need to just get over it.

Because it’s actually pretty simple:  Bryce is not a terrible person; he just wasn’t the right partner for me, nor me for him.  Debbie is a very nice, sweet, friendly woman whom I have absolutely no reason to dislike.  We are all doing our mutual best to support and raise my daughters.  For the life of me, I will never understand what is wrong with this picture.

I had a phone conversation this week with a guy friend I’ve known for 27 years, during which he told me that he thinks it’s “unnatural” for Bryce and Debbie and me to attend the girls’ events together.  Now it was my turn to be confused.  “Unnatural”??  Seriously?  What exactly are we “supposed” to do — take turns loving them?  Maybe I should only love them on Tuesdays and Thursdays so that Bryce and Debbie can also get their days?  Or perhaps we should do the time-honored thing and shove them in the middle of some acrimony so that they can get the more traditional divorce experience?

So here we are now, reviewing and considering schools, discussing pros and cons for Sabrina and trying to make the best choices possible for her, and I am reminded — once again — that even in our attempts to do what is best by our girls, we are somehow different.

I have made my peace with different.  I am proud of where we are now and what it’s taken us to get here.  I am glad that my children are not embarrassed by our behavior, nor do they feel torn between us.  There will be arguments and hurt feelings and maybe even legal battles down the road, but we are establishing a good, strong precedent for working together for the sake of our children. We are integrating new partners and trying to support each other in our new lives.  We are the embodiment of the modern American family, for better or for worse.

And we’re not going anywhere.

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breaking up with his kids

When I was first divorced, I knew that I would likely end up dating men who had children.  I thought that I was prepared for this eventuality, even though the first few men that I was involved with did not actually have children.  I thought that I knew what I was in for.

Statistics tell us that step-children are the primary stressor on second marriages and the biggest reported contributor to the deterioration of those marriages.  I am not here to dispute that.  Between my kids and James’ kids, we accumulated some pretty good examples of children acting out against the interloper in their family.  And some of my worst arguments with James — including the last one — stemmed from disagreements about the children.

But that didn’t stop me from falling in love with his kids.

Sure, his son Jay’s teasing of me ventured into the disrespectful realm sometimes, and yes his teenage daughter, Taylor, once spent an hour pretending like I wasn’t in the room.   His two youngest girls, devoid of guile, would sometimes ask me directly what I was doing there and how long I was staying, with the clear implication being that I was somehow interrupting.  But the moments that stuck in my heart were preciously sweet..  Like how, when we were all lying on the sofa watching a movie, Jay would allow me to put my arm around him, and he would ever so subtly snuggle against me.  Or the times when 9-year-old Chelsea would beg me to stay and hang out with them.  Or how little 5-year-old Chloe  insisted on carrying my purse to the car for me, just to be “helpful.”  So many tender, small moments that I cherish.

I last saw them 10 days ago, when I went to his house to say goodbye.  I couldn’t believe how sad it made me, how many tears fell on my solitary drive home over children that are not even my own.

I knew, from my own childhood experience, that when you date a single parent, you also date their children.  What I hadn’t fully appreciated is that when you break up with that single parent, you also break up with those children.  And it hurts.  A lot.

I have spent some time recently remembering my own experience on the other side.  I remember many of the men my mom dated, but none so clearly or so fondly as Van.  Van and my mom dated off and on from the time I was roughly two until I was 12.  They had a passionate, tempestuous relationship, and I learned early on that when they broke up, it was never forever.   Other men didn’t get a second chance, but Van kept coming back.

Van was as much of a father as I had in those early years.  On Sunday mornings, I’d curl up on his lap and he’d read me the comics, changing his voice for each of the Peanuts characters.  He took me hiking in the Shenandoahs, and built me snowmen in the yard, and taught me to ride a two-wheel bike.  He was the one who told me that my grandfather had died.  He was tall and handsome and funny and one of my best friends.

But one day he was gone.  The last time they broke up, I remember asking my mom what had happened.  She pursed her lips and said tersely, “We broke up.” I shrugged, certain that it didn’t mean anything and certain that he’d be back. But I never saw him again.  The weeks melted into months and the months turned into a year and my mom met and married the man who became my stepfather.  I loved my stepfather, but I never forgot about Van.

When I was 27, I finally tracked Van down and wrote him a long letter, telling him of my educational and professional achievements, my budding relationship with my now ex-husband, and updating him on all my friends and family he’d known.  I enclosed a photo of myself and my boyfriend.  I had no idea what to expect when I mailed the letter, but what I got back was no less than wonderful:  a lengthy missive telling me how often he’d thought of me over the years and how much he’d missed me.   He told me how he’d always regretted not having the opportunity to say good-bye to me, but my mother wouldn’t allow it.  He’d remarried and later retired, and he sent me a photo of him and his wife.

How I wish I could talk to Van now.  Not only must I get over James (damn hard on its own), but I must also let go of his children.  I can still see Chelsea’s smile and feel Chloe’s small hand in my own and laugh at Jay’s constant tickling or rib-poking.  I was not in their lives long enough to have made more than a passing impression on them; but I’ll remember them, and the weeks we spent together, always.  I protected my heart mightily with regard to James — walls and buttresses surrounding it lest I should fall completely in love with him and end up broken beyond repair.  But I had no such ramparts in place to protect my sorry heart from his kids.

There is so much about dating this time around that surprises me…. so much for which I am woefully unprepared.  Breaking up is brutal.  Around every corner is another reminder of James that cuts me quickly and cleanly and makes me wonder again how we ended up here.   Then, just when I catch my breath again, I round another corner and smack squarely into a reminder of his kids.  It’s bruising, I tell you.

I have found myself sinking into my own children for solace.  Their hugs and kisses ease my sense of loss.  Like the jilted lover who takes a new partner to bed to forget the smell and taste and touch of the one just lost, I am burying myself in my own children to block out memories of time spent in that other family.

I wonder what will happen the next time I date a man with children…. I suspect that I will not be so unguarded, so open to his children.  I suspect that I will begin — maybe already have begun? — to construct the walls that protect us from future grief.

And I wonder if I will ever see them again.  Possibly, but probably not.  Maybe for me they will remain frozen in time… captured in my photos from this hot summer that we spent together.   Locked in my heart forever.

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grieving before leaving

Last night I spent some time with my friend Lindsay, who is in town visiting.  A few months ago, she moved 1500 miles away from here to take an amazing job opportunity in the Pacific Northwest.  At the time, she was incredibly frightened about what the move would mean for she and Gray, her husband, but she was also hopeful that it would be the fresh start that they so desperately needed.  I wrote about my sadness in watching her go in I already miss her.

Seeing her last night was wonderful.  She looked amazing and her new job is everything she wanted and deserves and more.   We talked as if the time and distance between us did not exist, and I was so very grateful to be in her presence again.

But it was also very sad.  Because she is very sad.  Her marriage is crumbling around her and she is awash in the myriad of emotions that accompany that experience.  She vacillates between wanting — truly and completely — to save her marriage, and feeling almost certain that it is too late.  We sat at a cafe in the twilight by the creek, and I watched the candlelight play off her face and listened to her voice crack as she struggled to get the words out, and my heart broke for her.  I don’t know what her outcome will be, but I know that she is miserable and desperate for change and feeling hopeless, and those are all feelings I know all too well.

She has tried to reach her husband.  They have had some heart-wrenching, honest, no-holds-barred talks and each time she comes away convinced — certain! — that her marriage can be saved and they have finally turned a corner.  But within a week, the momentum is lost and their relationship has backslid into complacency and despair and silence.

Lindsay is grieving, and she’s only partly aware of it.  She is grieving her marriage and the end of all their mutual hopes and dreams.  She is processing the past and contemplating the future and considering her options.  Her heart and mind are engaged and attentive to their situation.  She is not passively awaiting some conclusion or resolution of their problem.

But Gray? As best she can tell, he has resigned himself.  She is frustrated that he doesn’t seem to see what is happening to them, that he is resigned to their situation and appears willing to live in that dismal space forever.

A few years ago I would have been puzzled and unconvinced by Gray’s apparent attitude toward their problems.  He couldn’t possibly not see it, could he??  He must realize what’s happening, mustn’t he???

Now I know better.

Between the work I’ve done in therapy and lots of reading on relationship ambivalence and my own observations,  I have realized that men and women face the end of relationships differently.  This is especially true of men and women over the age of 40.  Most women are proactive about examining their relationships, whereas most men are passive.  Men seem to mostly assume that things will be fine, or at least stay the same, while most women seem to think that things will have to change and get better or else they will leave.  I think this is why most men I know are surprised and stunned by the end of their marriages, while their wives report feeling like they were shouting at the top of their lungs for years before it ended.

I was one such wife.  I — quite literally and sincerely — informed my husband during our first year of marriage that if he continued to tell me I was stupid and treat me as such, I would be gone 10 years from then.  I loved him enough to want to work it out, but I made it clear that I knew myself well enough to know that I wouldn’t live like that forever.  Over the course of our 11-year marriage, I reminded him.  Each time he apologized and acknowledged it and then…. nothing changed.

I think he, and many of my male friends, assume that the wedding contract is non-negotiable.  You signed on, you’re in it, the rest is just details.  Including whatever misery you might be in.

The best example of this is a man I used to be friends with named John.  John cheated on his wife throughout their 14-year marriage and spent considerable energy detailing her every failing. The space between them gradually opened to form an enormous emotional chasm, but he was basically okay with things and, although he talked about leaving, it was clear he never would.  Then his wife, Heidi, came home from a trip to visit family and announced that she was leaving him.  From that moment onward, Heidi seemed to lighten.  Her depressed state lifted and she moved forward, and out of their marriage.  Meanwhile, John was stunned.  Truly speechless and in utter disbelief.  And I was stunned that he was stunned.  Their marriage had been a mess for many, many years.  Heidi’s needs and feelings had played second fiddle to everything else in their lives for ages, and yet he was shocked that she was leaving.  I hardly knew what to say to him.

Someone once told me that when a man in his 40’s says he wants a divorce, you need to call a marriage counselor; but when a woman in her 40’s says she wants a divorce, you need to call a lawyer.  Because when we say we’re done, we’re really and truly done.

Every divorced woman I know spent months if not years being unhappy and grieving her marriage before she finally left.  I don’t know a single woman who made the decision impulsively or without enormous angst.  I also don’t know a single woman who regrets that decision.

Granted, my survey is by no means scientific, and it absolutely can apply in the reverse — there are women who feel blindsided while their husbands feel like it was years in coming, too.   But my point — and one that is borne out in psychological literature on divorce — is that 40-something women who leave tend to process quite a bit of their divorce before they leave.   To a very large extent, much of their grieving and pain occurs while they are still in the marriage.  Which is why, I think, so many men feel like their wives simply stroll out of the marriage without a glance back or a tear shed.  What they are missing is the simple and sad fact that she is already months ahead of him in her grief process, while he is only just beginning.  The pain and reality is fresh and new and harsh to him.  It is accepted and familiar and well-worn to her.

This is not a scientific white paper on divorce psychology, so I am necessarily making gross generalizations, but I think they are useful as a jumping off point when considering why men and women experience the demise of their marriages so differently.  Lindsay is lost in a morass of “what next?” s, while Gray is sitting with sad resignation.  Their experiences of this moment in their marriage are very different.

Sadly, I think that Lindsay will ultimately leave, because Gray has made it fairly clear that he is not interested in working on their marriage.  But she’s not ready yet.  She has a lot of processing and feeling and grieving to do before she’s going to be able to take that step away from him.  In the meantime, he is likely to continue assuming that their marriage, while far from good, is perfectly stable.  And when she finally goes to him and enumerates her reasons for leaving, he will be shocked.

And I will be sad for both of them.

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