When the grenade was launched into life a few months ago, I suddenly found myself with a racing mind and heart. Interestingly, I found myself full of stories about the journey the boys and I are in, some of heartache, but also of humor. I hope to chronicle the ups and downs of this unexpected detour.
First off, let me just say that next time I go on vacation with my kids, would someone try to slap the fantasies of us getting along right out of my head? I am not saying it has been awful, but with teen boys, tropical paradise does nothing to cure their natural apathy or make them suddenly willing to open up and chat…. or even just make an attempt at pleasantry towards me. The grunts to my questions are still very much alive and the “pretending” they don’t hear me is ever present. Don’t get me wrong, we have done some amazing things. We have whitewater rafted and hiked through the rainforest, and seen all sorts of critters. Probably the highlight for them was ziplining through the Cloud Forest of Monteverde.
For those that do not know me well, I wouldn’t say I am unadventurous – after all I have hiked on glaciers of the North Cascades and along the cliffs of the northern coast of Kauai. I went to Ethiopia alone, having never travelled internationally. I moved my family across the country, knowing no one. However, I have a very deathly fear of heights, particularly when I must rely on another device (swinging bridge, ropes course, or harness) to keep me safe. Many years ago I used to lead for a youth program called Young Life. As part of this experience, I would take a group of teenagers to camp every summer and we would do ziplining and ropes courses. I did it every year, but it was not something I enjoyed. I loved going to camp with the kids, but this part of the experience I approached with trepidation – worse yearly. When I stopped leading (shortly after the boys came home), I banished the thoughts of ever having do get harnessed in and fly through the air again. Of course, why I would think that when I had two very athletic and adventurous boys, is beyond me.
Yesterday, we enjoyed a great walk through the Cloud Forest, but the whole time, my fear was building. When the walk was over, it was time to do what the boys had been looking forward to for months – zipline through the forest. Some people may ask why I did it if I was so afraid. However, with both leading youth and parenting my sons, I feel it is important to lead through fear. It isn’t about overcoming the fear for me – I will probably always be afraid of ziplining. Rather, it is about showing my sons that I can, and will do things that scare me. So, as I watched the boys take the leap, I knew I had to do it as well.
The hardest thing about this experience was that it was not just one zipline, but rather 13! We went from platform to platform, high above the treetops. Yes, the scenery was beautiful, but, 13 times I had to step off that platform and trust that the equipment designed to protect me, would do just that. It is fortunate that I did not know just how many times I would have to do this, otherwise I would have never gotten off the first platform. So, my legs shook, tears rolled down my cheeks and my stomach heaved, but one time after another, I got hooked onto the line and off I went.
As I was walking through the forest, finally on solid ground, I began to cry in earnest. It felt like the fear of the past year just washed over me. When my ex walked out the door for the last time on May 4th, 2017, I put on my harness and had to trust that it would work out. I have gotten to a platform and swore, I couldn’t leap again, but, when you’re the only one, you just buckle up and pray that the harness will not fail. There are days that the task of getting out of bed seems monumental. I have had some rough landings, been pelted by rain and wind, spun around mid-air and approached things backwards, but I am still here, as are the boys. I hope someday that this whole single mom to teen boys thing feels less like a leap of faith and more like a walk on solid ground, but for now let’s just double check that the harness is secure. Hopefully, someday I will be able to look back and I say, “I was terrified, but I kept leaping”.
For every 100 books on parenting a newborn, there is probably like one on parenting a middle schooler. I remember yelling at my ex one day “next time you decide to abandon a family, don’t do it when the kids are in middle school”. All of us were once this precious, awkward age, straddling childhood and young adulthood and we lived to tell the story, or write about it. But, if you are anything like me, the middle school years, may still be a blur of anxiety. I prefer not to think about them at all. Yet, now I find myself parenting alone during perhaps one of the most challenging ages and I feel so ill equipped.
I currently have two 13-year-old boys living under my roof and I keep thinking “but I have never been a teenage boy”! Most days, I feel like I am talking to myself. The average response to my questions is a grunt, if they acknowledge me at all. One day, I tripped over something and gloriously landed in a laundry basket, yelping in pain as I landed. Forget the Olympic athletes, managing to land in a laundry basket without breaking yourself or the basket, a truly marvelous feat. One of my sons took one ear out of is headphone, cocked his head to the left, looked at me (perhaps just to make sure I was not injured enough to not cook dinner), and once he determined that I was alive, put the headphones back on and resumed his video game – no questions asked. I frequently ask them to do something and get a lot of “I heard you already” or “I know what I am supposed to do” only to wake up the next day to NONE OF IT being done. There are many days, the only words I hear are “when is dinner ready” and “can I check Amazon for…?”. One boys showers and primps for 30 minutes a day…. the other I have to question if he has showered this week or when the last time he took off those soccer socks was. Two nights ago, I came into the kitchen at 5pm to see that one had made himself FIVE burritos and was eating them…then he trotted in the kitchen 90 minutes later to question if dinner is ready yet. One boy drinks a half a gallon of orange juice every other day, the other a gallon of whole milk. I often just look at them in complete bafflement.
In between all this typical middle school boy stuff is the undercurrent of “should I be worried” and “is this normal”. For a middle schooler, I don’t think there is any such thing as normal, but it is more question of “is this too abnormal?”. If my ex had walked out when they were say, eight, it would be right to be worried if they suddenly became withdrawn, listening to music for hours on end, and sleeping until noon. Yet, they are 13, and even if the behavior change is sudden, I know I cannot rightly blame everything on my ex. So, I find myself doing a lot of observing, trying to listen more to their non-verbal cues, and trying to not make a big deal of everything. Developmentally, their behavior is appropriate, but it is also behavior seen in grief and trauma. So, sometimes it is difficult to determine where that line is and when to worry and when to intervene.
Friday the boys and I embark on our first vacation as a family of three. I am trying to keep my expectations as to their behavior low. At the same time, I really want this to just be a fun trip. The past year has been anything but fun, and I want to create some memories of us enjoying doing something cool together. I want my boys to see me smile and laugh again. I want us to learn that we can be happy as a family, even though our family looks different. I see this trip as kind of a milestone and I want to use it as an opportunity to bury the past year and start the next phase of our life.
One might assume that after the past year of marital turmoil, culminating in a disastrous end, that I might be completely jaded on marriage. Ironically, my thoughts on marriage are even stronger. I believe in marriage as an institution, but more than that I believe it everything it entails. I don’t regret my marriage, nor the years I committed to my ex-husband. Would I get married again? Absolutely. Would I marry the same man again? No, probably not, even not knowing the future. That isn’t the voice of regret talking, but rather the voice of my 35-year-old self.
When I met my ex, I was 19 years old and I had never dated. I had been on one blind date in college, but beyond that, nothing. He was my first everything. Having said that, I can look back now and see that there was a part of me that feared no one would ever love me, so I jumped quickly at the first opportunity. Even then, though, there were a lot of alarm bells that I ignored. I often felt like I was tagging along with him and he frequently reminded me of how many women liked him and I should feel lucky that he chose me. I let him off the hook close to our wedding on some decisions he made, carelessly hurting me without much of an apology. He was famous for asking forgiveness, not permission. I was afraid to call off the wedding – all the time, energy, money, and of course the embarrassment. You know what they say about hindsight, though.
Over the past 14 years, I would look at some of my friends, and even my parents’ marriage with envy. My girlfriends’ husbands would talk lovingly about them and brag sweetly about them. The only thing my ex ever bragged on about me was that I could cook. I don’t ever remember hearing that I was a great mom or even I great wife. Very rarely was I told I was beautiful or smart. Really, I think the second my ex was away from me, he just didn’t think much about me. I remember a conversation vividly from a few years ago where I, in real vulnerability, shared that I felt that if something happened between us, everyone, my family and boys included, would choose him over me and I would be left with nothing. He agreed and later used that conversation against me, assuming that I would let him walk all over me and not put up a fight for my family. Boy was he wrong. Because in the 14 years we were married he failed to really get to know one of my strongest (and sometimes weakest) character traits. I fight with passion for the things I value and believe in and nothing will stop me.
I also see some of my own role in the flaws in my marriage. I was too needy, and I didn’t have a lot of outside relationships. I can be quite a bit of a nag about things. I yell when I am angry and was too critical at times. I also didn’t talk my ex up enough to his face, though I did to friends and family. However, knowing that my ex had been cheating off an on for over 10 years, I feel a little less culpable in the problems in our marriage. He never saw me has his partner or his equal, but rather saw me as being “lucky” that he put up with me. I really believe that was the fundamental flaw in our marriage and I don’t think any actions on my part could have changed that.
I didn’t mean this to be a reflection on my marriage, but it seems to have become so. It takes having been in a troubled marriage, to appreciate the good parts, but know things that should have been different. I want to be celebrated, rather than criticized or mocked, for my quirks. I want to feel like I am an equal in the partnership, rather than the lucky one. It is funny because despite all the heartache of the past year (or even more), I still would love the chance to marry again someday. Believe me, though, my bar is unbelievably high. I know myself better now and I also know that I don’t need to be married to be whole. I am not half a person as a divorced woman and I don’t need a man to complete me. However, it would be nice to be able to share my life and my heart with another person someday.
Something about having a free night or weekend to myself, seems to trigger emotional releases in me. Today, I met my sister half-way to New York City, so the boys could spend the night with her, then cried most of the way home. My boys are old enough that I have allowed them on some social media, but with that comes their dad. As I am responsible for making sure their accounts are private and appropriate, I was confronted by the smiling images of my ex and the other woman. Then, I saw the mutual friends and family who loved those images. And now, here I sit, with an afternoon free and tears streaming down my face.
When you marry young, most of your friends end up mutual friends. So, when 14 years later and the rug is pulled out from under you, suddenly everyone comes under suspicion. I have had to learn who I can trust and those who are safe people. This is hard to do, and even harder with family members. I had hoped to maintain a relationship with my ex siblings-in-law, but I realized that I can no longer have people in my life who support my ex and the choices he has made, so today I made the painful decision to write them a note, but explain that I didn’t want them to choose me over their brother, so I was severing our relationship I have known most of them most of their lives as they are all younger than my ex and I. I honestly, though, couldn’t stomach the idea of them loving seeing pictures of the life he chose when he walked out the door on the boys and me.
Nine months in and the actions of the man who I chose to love, still bring me to my knees in grief and pain. Many days, I just feel stuck, like I will never be through this. Other days, I just wish I had a timeline on this grief, so I could see the end, how ever far it may be. I am so emotionally exhausted, trying to parent well (and often failing), trying to work, trying to grieve, and trying to move one. When, when, will I have shed my last tear over the actions of the man who broke my heart?
Yesterday Bolt and I had a couple of hours to kill while someone was cleaning our house. What to do with a quiet 13-year-old in sub-freezing temperatures on a holiday? My initial thought was the library, until I realized it would be closed for the holiday. He isn’t the type of kid who likes to sit and chat over a meal, so that option too was out. A friend suggested we go hang out at Barnes and Noble, which he reluctantly agreed to do. So, after getting a small breakfast sandwich we headed there. At first, he didn’t seem to know what to do, but I helped guide him to the teen and comic sections while I went in search of travel books. After browsing for a while, we sat down at a table and begin sorting through our chosen books. Before we knew it two hours had flown by. I let him pick a pair of comics to purchase and as we left the store he said, “I thought that would be boring, but it was actually kind of fun”. He is a hard kid to please, but he also doesn’t ask for much, so this was a huge win for us to be able to spend a few comfortable hours in each other’s presence. As we were leaving the store, I was struck by a wave of nostalgia. Sitting for hours in Barnes and Noble pouring over books reminded me of the countless hours my ex and I spent doing the same thing when we were dating and early in our marriage. My ex passed on his love for comics to both of our sons. It was so strange to sit there with my son, doing something my ex and I used to do, while he is across the country creating a new life. Oddly, though, the memory didn’t bring a wave a sadness or grief, but fondness. I am not romanticizing anything, but this memory wasn’t entrenched in the lies of the past decade, but rather in the man I knew then…before…before infertility, before all the lies, before all the affairs. It was a memory that I could dwell in without wondering what and who he was lying to me about. Unfortunately, when the affair came to light, the affairs of the previous decade did as well, and for that reason, I really struggle with my memories with him. However, there is the brief window of time – 4 or so years – that I can think about fondly. So, as Bolt and I hopped in the car, I shared that memory with him too. I want him to know that, while his dad hurt me deeply, I loved him and have some very pleasant memories and hopefully, one day, he will say the same.
It is funny because part of the thing I decided to due to grieve the losses of the past few months was to write a list of all the things I lost. And in writing it, I found the list was much shorter than imagined and even many of the things I had thought of as losses were not actually losses. I am not going to go into detail on everything I wrote, but it was interesting because the more I wrote the less I felt the loss.
The first thing I listed was the loss of my best friend and the more I thought about it, the more clarity has come regarding our relationship. A best friend doesn’t repeatedly lie to and about you. A best friend is honest about problems in the relationship. A best friend doesn’t tell everyone who will listen how lucky you are that he puts up with you. A best friend doesn’t walk out of your life without looking back.
As I look through the list of everything, I see nothing about these losses is irreplaceable, except maybe the loss of a co-parent. Considering he only responds to about 10% of what I email and has not continued to same standards in his house, that we had for our sons together, I can honestly say that is an irreplaceable loss. No longer do I have anyone to consult about issues our sons are facing or have a partner to help parent or give me a break. And no longer do my sons have a day-to-day father that watches tv with them or coaches soccer.
Every other loss is one that can be replaced. I didn’t lose my future, but rather the one I imagined, and I am okay with that. The more I wrote the list, the more I see what I have gained…
- My self-confidence – as a woman and as a parent. I had spent years hearing how much I needed him and, surprisingly, I don’t.
- My future – it was never set in stone, so I realized it was never there to be lost, but only to be gained.
- Freedom – to make decisions without worrying about what he thinks or wishes.
- A relationship with my sons – he had always been the “good cop” in our parenting relationship, so now I get to learn to be both good and bad cop. It is hard, but it is good.
- Quiet – I used to feel the need to fill silences with talking…now I am content to sit silent with myself and my thoughts.
- Potential relationships – I spent years hearing how lucky I was that he put up with me. I watched friends with husbands who treated them like queens. I assumed our relationship was different, but now I see that I settled for feeling like I was not equal to him, so therefore I couldn’t expect to be treated better. Now, in any relationship, friendship or romantic, I have clearer expectations of what I need and what I am willing to give. I can also say that I deserve so much better than what I experienced.
As hard has the holiday season was, I feel like it was one of the big hurdles that I needed to survive before I could really start to move forward. I have started the new year with a calmness and peace, as have the boys. As I sat in church today, I was reminded that the faith I profess to follow is based in resurrection. Last year, I experienced the death of my marriage, but I do serve a God who is very comfortable with loss and death, but also in re-birth. So, this is my year of renaissance…of rebirth and finding beauty in ashes.
Believe me, I am ready to put 2017 into my rearview mirror. In fact, I am looking forward to the new year more than I even realized. There is something freeing about putting concrete ending on a year of heartbreak and grief. I had been thinking about what I would say about the new year, but when I woke up, I saw a beautiful post from author, Shauna Niequist:
“Every New Year’s Eve, before we ring in the New Year, we share ten blessings of the year that’s ending.
I love this tradition: instead of jumping forward into new & next, we pause & pray & express gratitude for what we’ve been given.”
That made me stop and pause. For all the pain 2017 has brought, I can also see the blessings sprawled across the pages of the year. When in the middle of a painful season, it is often challenging to see past ones’ own grief, but acknowledging the rays of sunshine is not only important, but part of the healing process. So, without further ado…10 blessings of 2017:
- Bolt and Messi – they are my heart, they are my reason for getting up, and they have taught me more about resilience then anyone I have ever met. They make me laugh, cry, worry, and beam with pride. They are my harshest critics and yet, the most forgiving. Without having them with me, I would have no reason for crawling through this season.
- My furbabies – I have my beloved pups – my two big boys who will hug me when no one else will. I have my 3 kitties, who provided entertaining stories this year. Then there is the bearded dragon that came to live with us as a gift for Messi. She has been surprisingly interesting and helped me break a fear of reptiles.
- My home – in a divorce, many people are forced to move, but we have been blessed to stay in the home we rent. I have slowly removed reminders of my ex, while re-creating a safe space for my own healing.
- My community – I have written about this before, but this year has been about me finding and building a community to embrace.
- My family and friends – my parents have listened to many incoherent rants and tears in the past nine months. They live 3000 miles away, but are also just on the other end of the phone. I also have some new friends and have reengaged with other “old” friends. These people have helped provide some much-needed perspective at times.
- A new job – leaving my job as and ER nurse of nearly a decade was hard, but it was time. I felt like my life necessitated the change, but it has been good and challenging.
- School – in 2017 I completed four courses towards my master of public health (MPH) or 16 out of 58 credit hours. As of now, I have straight A’s, which feels awesome! School has been a great distraction, but also a way for me to start planning my own future.
- The outdoors – I love being outside – whether at the beach or on a hike or walking in my neighborhood. As I sit here, it is 12 degrees and there is snow on the ground, but even breathing in the frigid air while staring at the blanket of white, leaves a feeling a peace. The past few months, I have been so tired that I haven’t been outside as much, and I feel the loss, so I need to work on that this next month.
- Writing – I wouldn’t call myself a writer. This blog was born out of a suggestion of a friend. I am not great at journaling, but something about blogging has allowed me to organize my thoughts into some semblance of coherence. I have ranted and rejoiced. I have been able to diary the process of loss and grief and rebuilding. Looking back allows me to see the growth and the pain of the process.
- Faith – God and I are still in a rough spot. I am still trying to reconcile years of religious platitudes with the truth of my faith. It has been a difficult decade and this year brought my world crashing down. I feel like my faith is in pieces and I am often angry with God, but it has also been the one thing that I can cling to…sometimes just out of habit. However, just when I am about to say, I am done with God…something brings me back.
So, 2017, you have not been kind, but there have been redeeming qualities. I love harder and feel more deeply. I am more appreciative of the small blessings and simple beauties. And, at the end of the day I have a home full of chaos and hormones and laughter and love.