After a few weeks lull, I started thinking more frequently about my ex again. I am not sure what prompted my brain to start dwelling on the past, but I have found myself lost in my thoughts on more than a few occasions over the past week. This, of course, was partially what prompted my grief filled weekend. However, unlike in previous times of grief over this whole situation, this time the grief wasn’t rooted in anger or betrayal; this grief was rooted in the loss of the man I thought I knew.
So much of what I have shared and written about paints my ex out to be a horrible person. There is no doubt that the things he did to me and the betrayal of our marriage are horrid. Walking out on one’s children for “the love of my life” is despicable. However, I think maybe one of the greatest challenges is reconciling that the actions of the past year do not really reflect a large part of the man I shared my life with and the father my sons knew.
My ex is very charismatic – he can talk to anyone and has a George Clooney smile where his eyes crinkle into slits when he smiles. He is great at massages and I still miss him working out the kinks in my shoulders after a crazy shift in the ER. Most importantly, he was (and yes, was, is the correct term) a great dad. He was patient with our sons and always willing to stop and teach them something. He was very physical – allowing them to wrestle or tickle him. He was soft-spoken and rarely raised his voice. My sons love him dearly.
So, while it may be easy to see him as the villain in the story, I cannot, because, for many years he was my hero. I wished I could be more patient and more fun and more like him. What happens when the hero and the villain are one in the same? My head and my heart don’t even know where to put it…I spend days trying to make sense of everything and it overwhelms me at times. I am also reminded of the times I have played the villain in this story…there are many. The truth is that in this life there are very few true heroes and probably even fewer true villains. For all the beauty and evil in the world, it is all shaped by someone’s story and sometimes the line between the villain and the hero isn’t that clear.
I think one of the struggles of those who identify as “control freaks” is fear. I don’t like to do anything without thinking of variables and outcomes, so sometimes I avoid being spontaneous or overthink things. Over the past few months, so much of my life has been out of control that I find myself embracing the unknown and embracing my fears.
I was a fearless kid, but around middle school something shifted. There was some bullying and I sank into the safety of my mind. I found myself diving into fictional worlds and with the internet, the worlds were expanded through chat groups. I emerged in high school and developed a solid group of friends and the same in college. I met my ex the beginning of my sophomore year and we were great friends and study mates for 6 months before we started dating. In hindsight, I now see some of the disfunction of our relationship. Rather than push me to be better, he fed off a lot of my insecurities. It was a lot of “don’t worry about it, I will take care of it” (even when he didn’t). When we would go to group functions, he was the social butterfly and I just tagged along, but he never tried to actively include me in things. I often felt like a third wheel when we went out, like I was holding him back. Over the past few years, I dreaded going places because it was like watching his performance while I sat in the back ignored. Again, this isn’t about bashing him, but rather seeing that this affair was the straw that broke us, but it was far from the only issue. These subtle things had created a deep fear that I didn’t live up to expectations or I wasn’t capable of doing things without him.
Fast-forward to May, when I woke up one day a realized that I had to do it all. I had to make those phone calls I hated making. I had to be more social and meet the other soccer parents, so I could ask for rides! I had to drive places when driving is not something I enjoy. So, I started doing those things and what has emerged in me is something interesting. No longer to I get anxious when I think about driving into New York. The phone calls are now part of my day (and now my job). I now socialize with the other soccer parents and don’t hesitate to ask for a ride (or give one). I also just dive in without overthinking things. I just managed to get my cat home from a shelter in Wyoming in a matter of weeks because I was willing to ask friends for help, make numerous phone calls, invite strangers into the story, and just trust that it would work out.
I also have been finding my sense of adventure returning. I walk every day at lunch and started looking around during my walks and, in the process, found a network of public trails in the woods behind my work, that I walk daily. Rather than sit home and sulk over Christmas, I texted a friend and am going to spend it with her family (can we say time for a tea party!). I just bought a ticket to go see P!nk by myself in Philly this spring! I have also started thinking about my future and the things I look forward to doing. Maybe a hiking trip in Africa or South America or whatever. And guess what, it doesn’t scare me to think of doing it alone!
I grew up as one of those very black and white people…right and wrong, yes and no, etc. So, I have a tendency towards being judgmental (shocking, I know). Over the past few years as I begun living my own story…full of the joys of motherhood and the scars of infertility, I really began trying to look past the external facade and think about the story behind the mask. Interestingly, though, I have struggled with this when thinking about divorce.
I grew up believing in marriage – my parents have been married for 36 years and have weathered lots of ups and downs, but remain committed to one another. I believe that marriage was a lifetime commitment and that there were very few “exceptions” for leaving a marriage. I still believe in marriage, despite my experience. I believe in the beauty of two people choosing the ideals of “until death do us part”. I looked forward to growing old with my ex-husband. That being said, the longer I was married, the more I understood that marriage is hard and the black and white exceptions to divorce were maybe not as black and white as it seemed. Yes, infidelity is an “exception”, but what about emotional infidelity when one partner repeatedly goes outside the marriage for emotional intimacy? What about abuse…where is the line between physical abuse, emotional abuse and the partner who treats the other like they are “less than”. So, over the past few years, I would see someone who is divorced and appreciate that there is probably a lot to the story, but “thank goodness that isn’t me”.
And I here I sit before 7 am on a Saturday, as I was awoken at 5 unable to stop thinking about my own marriage, relationship issues, and now divorce. I tossed and turned for over an hour thinking about my ex and the pain of the past 6 months…and that dragged me into the pain of the past few years. The longer we are apart, the more I recognize how unhealthy our relationship was for years. I can’t really talk about that right now, but I can say that his infidelity was just the final nail in the coffin of a marriage where I had been considered an unequal for many years. One thing I never want to hear again was the thing my ex would always say, jokingly “oh, she is so lucky I love her because no one else would put up with her”. It is only now, months later, that I can see how much I believed that.
So, now I sit here as a divorced woman and the judgmental side of me is trying to creep out because “I am not one of those…”. There is this side of me that wants everyone to know that I am not divorced because my marriage failed, but because my ex is a liar and cheater (which is true). However, I have really had to work on not setting up some hierarchy of divorce where those of us “with good excuses” are at the top, then assorted reasons fall at various levels. I am really trying to look at women (and men) who are divorced and acknowledge that, no matter the circumstances of a divorce, no one enters a marriage with the thought that it will fail. We all walk the stories of our relationships and every marriage is full of its own unique struggles…and every divorce hurts. There is no hierarchy here. I am just one of the legions of divorced parents trying to grieve, trying to heal, and trying to love and parent through pain…and just live my own story.
When my sons came home from Ethiopia in 2009, they were four and five years old, thus they had years to learn to speak, listen, and communicate. Immediately, we jumped into the challenges of parenting children who literally cannot understand what you are saying. Quickly, I discovered that I had to simplify my language – I learned a few words in Amharic, but really, I began communicating through my arms and gestures and pointing at things. One of the first things I remember is “ow, house owie” when trying to explain why “hurting the house” (i.e. coloring on walls, picking off paint, setting curtains on fire) is bad. Messi acquired English quickly, Bolt a little longer. Within the next 18 months or so, I could effectively communicate with my sons. However, I still found myself speaking “simply” just to avoid trying to explain terms that are hard to define.
Fast forward to 2017. My sons are in middle school, we are hurting, grieving, and surviving. However, I feel the emotional “language” of our family never really caught up with the developmental stages of my sons. We still use a lot of “happy, sad, mad, frustrated” when we all know that emotions are much more complex than that. What appears happy may actually be confused or what appears angry may reflect sadness.
Over the past few months, as I have sat in both the therapist of my son and of myself, I find myself thinking about the language I use to communicate with my sons. It is still simple, which can be useful, but the problem is that the language of being part of a family is not simple. Families are messy and involve love, hate, grief, joy, contentment, safety, anger, frustration, and so many other feelings and ideas. I have been trying to make a conscious effort to expand the language of our family to reflect on its complexities.
Of all the language I use, the one term that comes out daily is GRACE. Give each other grace to grieve, grace to be angry, grace to laugh, grace to be annoying, and grace to walk in the moment. As I tucked my son in tonight, on his first day of school, and he was being a punk, I had to take a step back and verbalize that “it looks like you need a little grace tonight”. Of all the language, I use with my sons, grace is the one I want them to remember when they think of our family.
I am not a crier. Sure, I will get teary during a moving part in a movie or book, but as for crying about my feelings, it just doesn’t happen much. I am much more likely to lash out in anger over my grief than to cry. However, over the past few months the tears find me during unexpected moments…driving home from the grocery store, seeing that empty seat at church, or trying to open a jar that refuses to budge. Interestingly, I feel like writing has helped me release my anger, but has also left me feeling raw as I lay out my story for my friends (and the world) to read. One unexpected result of this new vulnerability is the effect it has had on my parenting.
I think it would be fascinating to ask the boys to describe me as a parent, but I don’t know that they would be able to describe my parenting personality. Prior to becoming a single parent, I think they would think of me as the facilitator. I am the rule follower and like to have everything done before we have fun and have a tough time relaxing until things are done. I like the dishes done when I get home from work and the house clean before we watch a movie. I also like to be prepared for serious conversations. The past few months have been chaos as I struggle to juggle logistics through grief. Through this process a new mom has emerged.
The boys have seen me cry, and not just silent tears, but my body wracked with sobs, more in the past 5 months than in the prior 8 years combined. It isn’t like I do it on purpose, but sometimes I am just completely overwhelmed and they are sometimes present when that happens. In the past two months or so, I have begun talking with them about it. Sometimes I will come home from work and say, “it has been a really rough day and I need to just go into my room for a little bit”. One night, in particular, something was triggered, and I began crying as I was making dinner. As soon as I finished cooking, I told the boys I needed to go process alone. I came back about 30 minutes later to find them having eaten, and now cooperating to put away dinner and clean up the kitchen.
I have been talking to both boys a lot about giving each other grace. The frequent conversation is something like “we are all grieving in different ways and we need to give each other the grace to have a bad day”. It has been amazing to see them respond to that…. sometimes Bolt will stop picking on Messi or they will clean up without being asked or stop arguing with each other.
Being vulnerable with my sons hasn’t really involved me laying out the specifics of what is on my heart and mind, but rather acknowledging that something is going on that is larger than what they may understand. Sometimes I say, “oh, I got some sad news today” or “I had a phone call that upset me” and that is enough to make them pause. Earlier this week, as I prepared to meet with my new therapist for the first time, I kind of laid out the plans for the night and said that I would be unavailable for an hour and when they pressed me on it, I explained I was seeing a therapist. They asked me why and I didn’t spill the details, but did say “the news about your dad and the baby have upset me and I need to talk to someone about it”. I have been careful to try not to bash their dad in front of them, while still acknowledging that his actions sometimes upset me.
I feel like it is through me being willing to show my emotions and talk about how they are affecting me, that both my sons have responded in a way where they are more willing to talk to me and ask me tough questions. Remember, I do have two middle school boys, so having more serious conversations does somewhat reflect their developmental stage. However, I don’t think they would be as willing to engage in these conversations with me if I was not exhibiting my own vulnerability.
I think there is the tendency as parents to try and be the strong, stable ones for children. There is value in making our kids feel secure and safe. However, I think there needs to be a balance. My kids need to see me working through my own issues and asking the tough questions, so that they understand that this is a normal part of the human experience. They need to see that mom does not have it all figured out, but is striving to keep growing. So, I guess for me, this season is teaching me the value of living authentically and vulnerably, not just for myself, but for my sons.
Today Messi and I were working on a wooden birdhouse. I had saved some of our old Washington license plates for just such a project. Unfortunately, I knew they were in my damp basement, which is home to all sorts of critters and creeps me out to no end. So, after Messi and Bolt were unable to locate the license plates, I ventured downstairs. Before my ex left I had asked him to clean up the basement, which he had been promising to do since a water pipe burst a year ago. He said he cleaned it up and, for the most part, he had. However, on the search for the license plates we found a whole area which had been neglected, including a damp box of photo albums. As the box disintegrated in my hands, the albums fell to the cement floor. In that box were the photo albums of the first years of our marriage, our wedding guest book, and his old baby book and childhood photos. His photos were damp, but mostly salvageable. The other albums were a soggy, moldy mess. The irony was not lost on me. I chucked the evidence of our first happy years, before he started cheating on me, into the trash. There are days I wish I could do the same with my memories. The reality is, though, that affairs are messy and brutally painful. While he moved out and basically tried to shut a door on the past 14 years, I am left holding the sopping, moldy mess of our shared history. I am hurting, my sons are hurting, meanwhile he jumped into a new relationship with her and a whole bunch of kids, seemingly not grieving the loss of my sons and I. I wouldn’t trade places with him, though. I would much rather be left cleaning up the mess and rebuilding my life than pretending like it never happened. I am a product of my past, but I want to learn from it and build on it. So, while I may have thrown away years of evidence of the best years in my marriage, it is still part of me and of that I have no regrets.
In one of my favorite podcasts, which I mentioned previously, For the Love with Jen Hatmaker, she asks all her guests “what is saving your life right now?”. I have thought about this question as I have listened to these podcasts over the past month and initially I was unsure of the answer. However, over the past two weeks, the phrase that keeps coming back to me is “coming home”.
When you envision “home” what comes to mind? Is it a place, a feeling, a sound, a sight, or a smell? For me it is all of it. For the longest time after relocating from Washington to Pennsylvania, I wondered if Pennsylvania would ever feel like home to me. It is only over the past few months that I have really begun to embrace my new community, quirks and all, and pull into my driveway and feel like I am home. I rent this cute little 90-year-old red house full of oddities from being built up and out over nearly a century. The house is in a beautiful neighborhood where everyone is on about an acre (including me) with lots of old oak and maple trees. In our neighborhood there are various ponds, and streams and I enjoy the beauty of nature while walking the dogs.
When I walk into my front door, chaos often erupts as I am greeted by two Labradors, two affectionate cats, and, of course, my two rambunctious sons. Half of the time my front room is littered with dirty socks, empty boxes from Amazon and whatever project Messi is working on. Laundry sits on the couch, dog toys provide an obstacle course, and one of the boys has always left a backpack out on the floor. It isn’t that we are slobs, but my sons have not yet mastered picking up after themselves and I have been unable to train the dogs to put their toys away. There are days that the chaos gets to me, but more and more I find myself walking into my home and feeling peace in the chaos because it is mine! There is the business of running to and from activities, juggling chores, refereeing arguments, but also eating together, watching movies, or planning new adventures. This is my family and this is us loving, fighting, laughing, crying and just living life.
Coming home is saving my life right now. Coming home reminds me of God’s grace and the power of redemption. In the wake of one of the darkest periods in my life, God has given me the gift of home.