Honestly Ever After was originally a personal essay I wrote at the request of a friend of mine, Carrie Saum, who writes the blog, Our Stable Table. I shared my story because she asked.
Honestly Ever After
A few years ago I read an article titled, “Why Divorce Is Good For Children.” I was married at the time. I hadn’t ever imagined myself as divorced. I was in it to win it! What the win it part was, I’m still not sure. My marriage was 10 years old and bore 2 bright-eyed, articulate children who flipped my world on its head and made me see life and relationships through a new lens. “Why Divorce Is Good For Children.” Was it? Is it? Or is it just all SEO headlines and stock photos brimming with smiling, lightly tanned models plus a sidebar of recommended articles with click-bait titles? It was a HuffPo article, so it could go either way …
I’m a child of divorce. In fact, my parents believed in divorce so strongly they divorced each other twice! When they got divorced the first time I admit I didn’t really know what was happening, and I don’t recall how it affected me. I went away to Girl Scout camp, my mom was a troop leader, and when we got back my dad was living with another woman. His girlfriend had finches. And they were really loud. It was the first time I ever hated a bird. When my folks got back together I thought it was a bad idea, and when they separated again, but this time for realsies, I was relieved. Not grief. Relief.
So here I was, in my early 30s, married, and finding myself digging in to an article on divorce. I read it several times through, and then bookmarked it. It was hitting a nerve that I didn’t realize was even there, and it stung. More than stung. It collapsed me. Scarcely able to keep my head up after 6pm, struggling with making dinner or tending to my brood, nauseous, whispering that word to myself to see if I could even say it … “divorce”. I would read that article no less than 20 times over the course of the next year as I wrestled with the first real re-introduction to myself by way of marital detachment.
The morning that I woke up and felt an urge to lace up my shoes and run a few miles, I knew I was a changed woman. I don’t run. I am not a runner. Do not ask me to run any kind of k with you (unless there are tacos involved, and then … there’s a chance). But that morning my body told me to run, and then my heart started to wake up, and I was afraid, but my body was collaborating with my heart which were together in cahoots with my brain, and I was for once able to recognize and see beyond the fear. Running, for the brief time I was suckered in to it, helped steer me to clarity. There was openness in front of me. I needed a new place to set myself down and re-ground. I took a breath and leapt with these words to my then-husband (who I will refer to as Mr. Swayze, cause he’d like that), “I am unhappy,” I said. And the trepidation with which I said those words and the Bassett Hound grimace on my face told him this wasn’t just dissatisfaction with the living room furniture. This was life altering, and with those words, “I am unhappy” a new world opened up in front of us.
Mr. Swayze and I separated. I moved out. I handled the transition with gentle words, but rough hands, which is as sloppy and misleading as it sounds. Mr. Swayze was mad at me for the way in which I left. He had every right to be. I saw what I wanted in that new openness and then recklessly pursued it.
But as the shitstorm swirled around me, I put out an intention that I vowed to fulfill: one day this divorce would show itself as being good for my children, and also good for me and good for their dad.
Mr. Swayze is now re-partnered to an incredible woman, and poof, now he’s a dad of 4! Which is great, cause my uterus wasn’t going to give him 2 more children, I enjoy sleeping on my stomach far too much to be pregnant again. And now my children have 2 older siblings who are smart and adventurous and respectful and fun, and how could that not be a wonderful thing? Divorce expanded their concept of family! I have another mom to work alongside of, to share in the kid-shuffling, the homework-managing and the Mr. Swayze corralling. Parenting is a helluva job! It’s like constantly making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, blindfolded, with one arm tied behind your back, while riding a roller coaster, in a hurricane.
From this divorce a community of guardians arose, which is as epic as it sounds. My kids have multiple grown-ups in whom they trust, and I have multiple grown-ups who I trust want the best for my children. So whenever I battle the stabbing gut feeling that hits me when I watch my kids get picked up from school by someone else, even though I’m right next door, or when my daughter comes home with an un-approved haircut, or when another parent at school assumes I’m my own children’s babysitter and not their biological mother, I try to remember the epic guardians and take stock in that. When I miss my kids on the 4th of July and wince with bittersweet fondness as the families around me snuggle with their own little ones in front of the fireworks, I try to remember the epic guardians who are giving them 4th of July memories that they’ll hold with them for their lifetimes, and I am overcome with gratitude. Plus then I get to hear their stories when they return! They’ll point to all their bruises and use flailing gestures and overtalking to convey to me the grandness of their adventures. And then when they’re with me, I’ll give them other adventures that complement the ones with Mr. Swayze, not compete against them. This practice of sharing and appreciating is the quickest balm to that stabbing gut feeling.
True to my non-impulsive, measured and cautious self that I dream I might one day be, I entered in to a new relationship before a half a year had elapsed on my divorce.
I fell for Mr. Tennant, clever and funny and possessing a brain so puckered with information I often felt like a drooling toddler with a crayon in my teeth by contrast. I introduced Mr. Tennant to the kids a few months in, not as a boyfriend, but as a friend of mine. Mr. Tennant and I were still discovering each other, and I was still discovering life as a single mom. And you know what? That shit’s hard. Take that roller coaster in a hurricane and remove the guard rail across your lap, upside down and holding on with all your strength – that’s single parenting. With time I was Mr. Tennant’s Rose. We were partnered and then shacked up a couple years in. My kids had inherited another epic guardian, someone to introduce them to things that I never could, nor never would have thought to teach them. Like Minecraft. Or Weird Al. But all the polka music and video games and Lego mini-figs in the world don’t point to unending and unchanging perceptions of happiness.
Mr. Tennant and I were honest with each other. For 3 ½ years we struggled in the face of incompatibility. We knew it early on, but dammit, we liked each other. We saw value in each other. We were friends. But we always felt like two strong magnets on swivels, pushing together then pulling apart, pushing together then pulling apart. The truth is I didn’t celebrate him the way he deserved to be celebrated, and he couldn’t do the same for me. So despite fear of a new openness, we released our grip, and instead reached out for worlds that were true and consistently magnetic to each of us. I had to allow myself to be pulled fiercely by a life lived honestly, instead of being pulled intermittently by someone.
We waited a month after making the decision before we told the kids. One night after dinner I told them they could go to the pantry and get down the horrifyingly huge jar of leftover holiday candy and pick out a few pieces. Not one! A few. As they delightedly separated the Nerds from the Sweet Tarts, I took a deep breath and let the kids know that Mr. Tennant and I would no longer be boyfriend and girlfriend. But, Mr. Tennant would always be our friend, and in fact, would continue to be our roommate for awhile. My daughter’s lip quivered and she asked “But … will you still cook him food?” I answered that I would if he wanted to join us, and that seemed to satisfy her, and thus the candy consuming continued. Amidst a sugar-buzzed semi-sadness, Mr. Tennant and I toasted teacups and glanced at each other with a shared thought “Well that went as well as possible.”
We still do eat together sometimes. Sometimes we watch a movie or hike together. My daughter still gets sad at the thought of him not living with us come fall, and she cries. She loves Mr. Tennant, her other epic guardian. It’s not like we’re all starry eyed and tie-dyed and know no feeling but effervescent bliss. But we’re being honest. And it’s hard to feel bitter when you know all are being honest in word and emotion. I’ve watched already as Mr. Tennant has re-gained some important pieces of himself that he lost in partnership with me. I’m finding pieces of my own.
If a relationship isn’t working, no matter if it’s romantic or friendly or biologically related, and you’ve tried and tried and tried but you’re still kinda treading water in an increasingly murky pool with that person, it’s time to swim to a new part of your waters. Head toward that openness.
When I was younger I couldn’t fathom ever not getting married. That was just the way you did things, that’s the way life moved forward in a comfortable linear fashion. It sounded safe. When I was divorced I couldn’t fathom ever getting married again. That just wouldn’t be in-line with my shiny new “buck the status quo” mentality. Mr. Tennant and I vowed to never marry, but maybe one day to have an exchanging of vows, but with a specifically non-wedding celebration. We discussed it less and less as our magnetic selves swiveled. But being in a relationship that was so staunchly bucketed into “definitely married” or “definitely never marrying” missed the boat entirely. It’s not about the bucket you choose to put yourself in. It’s about who you’re with and what you feel is honest and true between you. It’s about valuing that person even if the nature of your relationship changes.
We are, generally speaking, social and lonely people. The draw of validation from someone can be overwhelmingly magnetic — it often keeps us near someone we would otherwise detach from were it not for the constant attention. It’s apparent evidence that we’re someone worthy of intimate love, and a distraction from ever having to hang out and get to know, truthfully, our own silly selves. We crave that connection. Even as I sit here and write, contentedly eating GORP in bed while my cat bats at my toes and I’m feeling like I’m doing this un-partnered, casual dating and split custody thing pretty well, I crave it. I dream of being swept off my feet by a kind and compassionate man with dazzling eyes and a killer smile and a SF Giants baseball cap and a tattoo of Ferdinand the gentle bull, who inspires me to create and to write and who reads what I write and doesn’t criticize my grammar or run-on sentences and who wants to dance and believes in karma and prefers to eat plants and cleans the toilet ~ around the pissy base, too ~ and who is working hard to make this world a better place and loves people and is motivated and making good shit happen. That guy. That guy who seeks adventure and shares stories and can feel at home away from home because he’s comfortable in his own skin. That guy who can stare at the stars with me for hours on end and not glance down at his phone even once. That guy who doesn’t compartmentalize himself to suit the status quo of a fickle community, he’s himself wholeheartedly, unapologetically, and gives in to whimsy and passion and only allows fear to be a fuel for a new adventure. I don’t know if Mr. Matt Damon and I have a future together, but I do believe in the fairytale, just with a different set of vows.
What if instead of “happily ever after” we vow to live “honestly ever after”? To have and to hold fiercely, passionately, and respectfully, and to honor each other even if the poles begin to reverse.
We can’t anticipate what “happily” will be in any moment but right now. But we can commit to being honest, and respectful, and kind. I’m not suggesting that a vow of “honestly ever after” would result in fewer divorces, but I am suggesting it would result in fewer toxic break ups. I don’t know. I’m my own social experiment it seems, but I’d be lying if I didn’t truly believe there was truth in this approach.
My kids are currently on my favorite lake in California with Mr. Swayze and his tribe, people that I loved and laughed with when I was the wife on that annual trip. I helped them pack. Mrs. Swayze and I coordinated their gear and talked about who would purchase more size 10/12 boxer briefs. And as the kids rolled off with their dad in his truck, and I braced myself for that stupid stabbing gut feeling, my phone buzzed in my hand. I glanced down and saw a text from Mr. Swayze, which I’m assuming he sent from a safe spot pulled to the side of the road. It read, “You’re a great ex-wife and baby mama.”
It’s not just a community of epic guardians that sprang up from this divorce, it’s a whole new branch of family, and from my perch in this tree, I am confident that it is good.