Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Good Grief

Me holding a tattered copy of my handwritten vows
on my wedding day.
I haven’t focused much on the grief I feel over losing my life partner. The extent and pure shock of his betrayals made me feel more like that partnership never actually existed. Why mourn the loss of someone who so clearly had such little respect for me? I’m better off now that I know.

I never experienced the pull some women have to stay with their partners in hopes that he’ll change. There is no yearning to go back, no unrequited love. But now that I’m working my way through some of the knee-jerk anger that has dominated my emotions, I do admit there is grief.

A lot of the grief is for the loss of the marriage I thought I had. There were ups and downs and it was damn hard, but we always got through the tough times. Whenever we hit an impasse that seemed to have no solution, a creative path forward would somehow appear. I thought we were in it together, sticking to the whole monogamous lifetime commitment thing and supporting each other as we navigated through life. 

But apparently we weren’t. One of us didn’t want to come home at night. One of us wasn’t happy about our rate of wealth accumulation. One of us wished I was a more “dynamic person.” One of us wanted out.

So here I am. 

I don’t know when it happened, but my life partner changed. I saw him enter a new phase of life, as he was so often prone to doing. I stuck with him through countless job changes, cross-country and even international moves, various fashion phases, advanced degrees, vehicle exchanges, and wildly fluctuating travel plans. Despite his many changes, the one thing he always stuck with was me. 

I know it wasn’t about me. But that’s not how it feels. I’m the house that was no longer luxurious enough, the car he suddenly realized was too old, his childhood cat that got traded for a new CD.

I should have seen it all coming—both the way things ended and the inevitable hurt feelings that remain. But I didn’t. I was too busy holding on to my original vows and the good I thought I could see in him and in us.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Sit, Stay, Heal

Now that my marriage is over (well, technically it’s not over until at least November), I’m getting intimately acquainted with the flip side of this rah rah independence thing. There’s this absolute, unsettling loneliness that takes hold after your life crumbles and an urgent need to connect with somebody—anybody. 

Connection and community have the power to heal, for sure. But we have to forge connections mindfully, slowly, and with great intention or we risk missing out on the lesson our loneliness contains. 

The poet Hafez articulates this so well when he writes:

Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly. Let it cut you more deep. Let it ferment and season you as few humans or even divine ingredients can.

Practice is learning to stay and not react, in asana and in life. I’ve done a lot of flip-flopping trying to navigate and hold the tension between the reality of loneliness and craving for connection. It hasn’t been pretty, but I’ve done ok considering. 

What I’ve learned so far is that there are no shortcuts. It hurts like hell. And I’m getting tough as nails…in a good way.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Independence Day

I’ve never thought of myself as an independent woman, except in the juvenile, rebellious, “I want to do what I want to do and I don’t want to do what YOU tell me to do” sort of way. I always thought I could be independent if I needed to, but who needs that when you have a comfortable dual income existence and a man at the ready to open the pickle jar?

I discovered the hard way that independence is a thing. It’s a thing you need especially when life doesn’t turn out the way you think it will. 

And it’s a powerful thing. 

The best way I know to describe that thing is the way I felt the day nobody was available to help me get this piece of furniture I found on sale from Home Depot to my second-floor condo’s back porch. After every avenue had been exhausted, I called my mom to sit with the kids and then marched over to Home Depot, rented the biggest pickup truck I’ve ever seen, and drove that sucker down South Beach Parkway to my home. Together, my mom and I carried the sofa up the stairs with my 15-month-old strapped to my chest. I took a break to nurse the baby, and then drove the truck back.

The glass of wine I sipped on the sofa that night was divine. I had earned every drop.

I don’t think I ever would have experienced the full feeling of independence if the rug hadn’t been ripped out from under me last fall. I never would have so clearly understood the importance of earning an income in addition to caring for my children. I wouldn’t have tasted the satisfaction of having my own financial goals that line up with my values. I wouldn’t have experienced the thrill of a good credit score, an auto loan in my name, and the possibility of owning my own house in the near future. 

Just as importantly, I’m discovering the joy of standing on my own two feet. I have reason to expect that I can be happy as a single mother. I can take my kids to the beach by myself and have a good time. I can put the kids to bed and then enjoy my own time to write, read, and sleep. I can have meaningful relationships with or without a life partner.

Some days I’m still not so sure. But I have to believe that this is what’s in store for me as an independent woman. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

6 Ways to Cope with Chronic Stress

Divorce sucks. It’s expensive, emotionally draining, and full of unknowns. I’m rounding the corner on 8 months of drama, and boy do I feel it. 

Last week I reached a breaking point. After 8 hours of medical appointments for my 4 year old, a broken clothes dryer, wrapping up the busiest time of year for my job, dealing with last minute complications to closing preparations for our family’s previous primary residence, and coming face-to-face with the repercussions of my in-laws trying to sort out what actually happened to my marriage (you know there are 2 sides to that story), stress got the better of me. 

When stress wins out, adrenaline courses through my veins. My head spins, and my hands shake. Lying horizontal in my bed is about the only thing I can do. 

But last week instead of lying horizontal, I decided to google “how to cope with chronic stress divorce.” I came across a Psychology Today article that proposed a method for measuring the degree of stress involved in your divorce. I promptly assessed my situation and was not shocked to find that my particular blend of divorce drama lands me in the highest, off the charts, “go to the doctor now!” category. 

There’s nothing I can do to make the divorce drama go away. I’m in a tough, transitional period. But if I’m going to make it through in one piece, I have to learn to curb my response to the situation. So, based on the article, Tara Brach, and my personal experience, here are my top 6 ways to cope with the particular brand of chronic stress brought on by divorce.

  1. Cut yourself some slack. Stop beating yourself up for not being up to par emotionally, mentally, and physically. Give yourself a gold star for getting out of bed, showing up to work, and/or feeding your kids.

  2. Offer full presence. In order to get “there,” you have to be here. Be with the anger. Be with the grief and fear. Lie in bed and cry if you can. Accept your responsibilities. Sometimes those responsibilities, especially children, are the only things that will keep you putting one foot in front of the other to move through and forward to peace.

  3. Seek out sensory experience. Aggressively integrate pleasant, sensory experiences like music, essential oils, nature immersion, and massage into your daily life. If you don’t nourish your senses, pretty soon all you will feel is stress. Feeding our senses is a concrete way to build strength and remember what we’re connected to so we can be with the stress and fear.

  4. Move your body. Stress puts us in fight or flight mode, which involves copious amounts of stress hormones just waiting to help us fight or run. Given that divorce rarely involves the need for a physical expenditure of energy (no matter how much you wish you could throw a punch at your ex), the best way to dispel that pent up energy is through exercise. I did this last week when I hit my breaking point, and it made a huge dent in dissipating both the physical and mental tension brought on by stress.

  5. Sleep. Put the phone down. Go to sleep. Sleep deprivation impairs judgement, attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem solving. It also aggravates symptoms of depression. If you aren’t getting a full night’s sleep, you aren’t playing life with a full deck of cards.

  6. Deal with one day at a time. You don’t have to refinance the car, sell the house, get a new job, and buy a new house all at once. These things take time and daily action. Maybe today you just need to cut up a watermelon for your kid’s school picnic and make a phone call to get that clothes dryer fixed. You can refinance the car tomorrow. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Father’s Worth

Last Sunday was my first Father’s Day as a single mom. I went to my Unitarian Universalist (UU) church knowing it might be a hard service to sit through. But so far I’ve found the church to be inclusive of people from all backgrounds, so I went with a semi-optimistic attitude about walking away with something that might resonate with me. 

I made it through the first 20 minutes or so of Father’s Day cliches…and then they lost me. They asked all the fathers to stand to be recognized and then announced there would be a second collection from all the men standing. Children proceeded to canvas the sanctuary asking for money—an obvious play on the societal expectation that fathers are to provide for their children.

I tried to go with it and keep my sense of humor. I really did. But eventually I couldn’t help but turn to my mom and say, “Is this what we expect of our fathers?”

If I was a father, I think I would have felt incredibly devalued, even though it was just a joke.

The joke was followed by a meditation in which we were encouraged to reflect upon our favorite memories from living with our father. I love my father, but we had a pretty rocky relationship as I was growing up, so this wasn’t the easiest exercise for me. And I wondered, what will my boys do on Father’s Day when they’re old enough to sit in the sanctuary and understand the day? Hopefully they’ll have some sort of relationship with their father, but they probably won’t ever remember living with him.

The actual sermon focused on our tendency to either elevate or demonize fathers rather than seeing them as humans. But it too came from a place of privilege, of assuming that the listener grew up with a biological father figure in the household. As a single mom on the receiving end of copious drive-by advice, it has become quite clear to me that society assumes a father figure is a necessary part of growing into a well-adjusted adult. According to my therapist, there are even scientific studies that validate this assumption. 

But what about the rest of us? What about those of us who have 2 moms? What about those of us who are adopted and never had a chance to meet our biological father? What about those of us who grew up seeing our dads every other weekend according to a custody arrangement or twice per year between sea duty assignments? Are we really worse off? And should we just skip church on Father’s Day?

Here’s what I think: my boys are no worse off for the lack of stereotypical male contributions to a household, like fart jokes and wrestling. Men don’t come with supernatural powers. They come with social, economic, and political privilege, for example, higher earning potential. But their maleness on its own does not confer the kindness, resilience, patience, and strength it takes to be a good parent.

I think male influence is important to the extent that it’s helpful to be able to look up to someone else who you can identify with. For example, as a woman, I enjoy action movies with female characters because I can better identify with the female characters than the male ones. I can imagine myself as Laura Croft Tomb Raider a heck of a lot easier than I can imagine myself as Indiana Jones. So it will probably be helpful for my boys to grow up seeing other men in various roles in their lives. 

But even more importantly, I believe my boys need good human beings in their lives. They need to grow up being exposed to an array of good people with various personalities, races, genders, ages, abilities, etc. 

I started going to this UU church because after what I’ve been through, I have an incredible urgency to ensure that I’m raising my boys to be good human beings. I want them to be honest, kind, loyal, excited about life, and true to themselves. I want them to have the qualities that every good father figure—and anyone involved in a child’s life—should have.

Blessed are they who have a good, loving father figure in their lives. But just as blessed are they who have a dedicated single mom surrounded by loving friends and family. Blessed are they who have a family structure that does not involve a man. 

Blessed are they who are surrounded and uplifted by good human beings—uncles, grandmas, step parents, adoptive parents, and ethical, kind, loyal fathers who give so much more than money to their children.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Let It Rip: Anger and Letting Go after Extreme Betrayal

It’s been about 7 months since my life blew up, and anger has been a close companion through it all. For a long while I was convinced that the high road was invented by bad people to get good people like me off their case after they screw me over. I still kind of believe that today. 

In the first month, well-meaning friends kept telling me to not engage in the drama and to not give in to my anger. But honey, when you’re done wrong by your life parter of more than 11 years, shit is going to hit the fan. No amount of Tara Brach podcasts can deflect that bad blood. 

In the process of trying to move through the trauma, I’ve learned a lot about how to work with anger. I’ve given into it in ways I’m not proud of, but it’s all been part of my process, which has gone something like this:

1. Get angry. You have to go into the anger in order to move through it. I vented to friends and family. I gave my soon-to-be ex-husband a venomous scolding. I cried…and cried and cried. I rode the elliptical like a hamster on steroids. Most importantly, I gave myself permission to just be angry as hell.

2. Feel the anger. At first, anger is intoxicating. I felt powerful, validated, and justified in my actions. But there’s a flip side to it. By the end of just one angry conversation with my ex, I felt the stress hormones coursing through my veins and went to bed shaky and drained. It didn’t take too many experiences to realize that the anger, however justified, was burning me up.

3. Let go for you, not for him. After a few months, I realized I had to let go of my anger for my own health and wellbeing. It had nothing to do with the high road or letting my ex off the hook. I had to start feeling something other than anger in order to live a life worth living for me and my boys. I have not perfected this step. Sometimes I still give into the recurring waves of anger. But I feel best when I can allow the anger to swell within me, and breathe my way through it like a labor contraction. Here it comes, and there it goes.

4. Harness the anger. Anger remains in plentiful supply as I work my way through betrayal and divorce. In addition to letting it move through me, I’ve learned to turn it into productive action. The quality of my anger shifted a couple weeks ago after I stopped nagging my ex about financial hang ups and instead turned it over to my lawyer and served divorce papers. It was a concrete step towards moving to resolution of all the outstanding complications. And it made me feel at least somewhat in control of what has been an out-of-control situation.

Lately I’ve been focusing on allowing anger to move through me without letting it drive my direction as I build a new life. I refuse to let anger control my personality and sour my daily life with my boys. I’m committed to using the energy that comes from anger to fuel my strength and resolve as a single mom. And I’m not going to use it to catapult me into premature action just to prove my worth to the world through an advanced degree or a more powerful career. I’m going to keep motoring on as a fierce mother of 2 young boys who need me now more than ever before. 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Gig is Up

I was right. I had this sneaking suspicion that my days of play dates, museums, playgrounds, crafts, and carefully researched preschools was coming to an end. My therapist told me to relax and stop living in a place of unfounded, non-reality-based anxiety. I have a husband who loves me and who isn’t going to leave me tomorrow just because I express the need to make some changes to rebalance my personal and professional life.

A couple weeks later my husband didn’t come home. I cried that night—hysterical sobs—in the bed where we birthed our youngest son just 10 months earlier. I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t know if he was hurt or cheating or something else. All I knew was that my life would be very different in the morning. And my babies would wake up in a few hours just like every other morning, no matter what was transpiring.

It took about a month for the truth to show its ugly face, and when it did, I knew I had to go for my own safety and dignity. And so, I became a single mom at 34 years old with a 3 year old and an 11 month old. I know, it sounds bad. Whatever you can imagine, it’s worse.

The hardest part about being a single mom is not the insane, sustained energy level of living alone with 2 young boys. It’s not the fact that Daddy is never coming home ever again. It’s not even the loss of all hope of sleeping in until my 1 year old is a teenager, which is what I was sure must be the hardest part at 5:52AM last Saturday morning. 

The hardest part is not being enough. There was never enough of me to go around before, and now…holy crap. 

Every time my boys cry, I blame myself. I don’t have enough patience, enough serenity, enough perseverance. I blame myself for not being able to put my divorce drama aside long enough to give my boys the dedicated time and attention I used to be able to pull off. I blame myself for not having the emotional capacity to feel sustained joy from spending time with my children like I did as a married mom. 

I’m not enough, and I need more help than anyone could possibly give me. Family and friends can’t replace the hole left by the loss of a life partner, even if he was a really shitty partner. And no matter how much of myself I manage to give, I cannot fill the void when my now 4 year old repeats, “I really miss Daddy.”

This is the hardest part—adjusting to our new reality and trying desperately to hold on to the flashes of joy that pierce through the overwhelming weightiness of what is now everyday life.