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It actually gave me hope

It was six months after our marriage had ended and my daughter had yet to meet someone I was dating. As far as she knew (if she thought about it at all), when she was with her mom, I was at home or work, spending too much time on the computer, or not cleaning, or going to film screenings.

But I’d been out a few times with the new girl, and dinner would be our only chance to hang out together that weekend. So, I invited her over on a Friday night for dinner with Simone and me.

Andrea and Simone seemed to hit it off right away, so they colored together at the dining room table while I prepared dinner. My daughter did get a little silly at times, throwing a crayon or pretending to bite it, but all was relatively quiet. The two went off to play in another room, so I set the table, finished cooking, and called to them to wash their hands while I put food on the table. Simone didn’t want to stop what she was doing, and that’s where the fun began.

What would this woman think? Would she ever want to hang out with us again?

Have you ever been to a meal with a strange family and the kids started to act out? You sat quietly, uncomfortable, averting your eyes until it was resolved. Suddenly, I was having a rare verbal tussle with my daughter in front of company. I felt self-conscious reasoning with a histrionic three-year-old.

What would this woman think? Would she ever want to hang out with the two of us again? When I finally got Simone’s hands washed, it was another struggle to convince her to sit down at the table. And that’s when she thought it would be fun to knock her silverware on the floor.

After taking a deep breath and internally counting to five, I gently picked my daughter up in my arms, and took her to her bedroom for a time-out. She screamed, she cried, she made me think I’d never be able to bring a woman home again. I told Simone to call me when she was ready to be polite at the dinner table, closed her door, and went downstairs to apologize to Andrea. She didn’t seem too troubled by it, but I could almost see the pot roast I’d cooked getting cold, could almost smell the fresh asparagus turning from spring emerald to steamed green. Simone was calling, so I headed back upstairs. She was ready to come down.

Tossing.. . cookies?

To lighten things up a bit, I tossed my little girl over my shoulder, and brought her downstairs upside-down (if you’re a parent, you already know what comes next). We were both laughing together by the time I got her to her chair. She stood on the cushion, getting ready to sit down, when she threw up all over herself, the dining room chair, the table. The more fluid parts began to make their viscous way down to the carpet.

Here’s what went through my mind in the first milliseconds:

1. Oh, my poor baby, better get her to the bathroom!
2. It had to happen tonight. I can’t wait to tell this story.
3. I’m never going to have a girlfriend.

I conveyed Simone to her upstairs bathroom, and held her hair back as she vomited another time into the toilet, then removed her soiled clothes, brilliantly pulling her shirt over her head and getting chunks stuck in her hair. I stripped off my shirt, picked up my tiny, naked, whimpering daughter, and ran downstairs.

“I’m sorry,” I said to Andrea, “I need to take Simone in the shower.” I waited for this new girl to say something like, “Well, you have your hands full, I’d better go.” But she just nodded, so I turned toward the staircase.

A beautiful mess

Then: “Hey, do you have any upholstery cleaner for the chair? I already took care of the carpet.”

I may have cried later, but I didn’t at that moment. It was one of those times of pure magic – I’d expected this younger woman to make a quick escape, but instead she was cleaning my daughter’s gastric exhalations out of the crevices of the dining room table. I’d been through half a year without backup, making discoveries about the easiest or best way of maintaining a house and being a parent by default (or miscalculation).

I’d fully expected Andrea to leave me to deal with the mess, the sick baby, the lonely house in the suburbs, my doubts. She’d asked a simple question, but, for me, it caused a momentary shift in my sense of the world, in the possibilities for a happy future.

I held Simone’s warm body close to mine in the shower, calming her, and carefully untangled her hair. I made her laugh by gargling the hot water, and helped her rinse out her mouth. I looked at her open, trusting face, and felt horrible for the evening’s events. I’m still pretty good at beating myself up.

Once she was toasty in her fleece pajamas, sitting on the family room floor with a big plastic bowl in front of her and “A Bug’s Life” on the TV, I went back to the dining room to find Andrea.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “What a disaster. Simone’s parked downstairs, and I need to stay with her. So, if you want to go, I’ll understand. I’m just going to put my dinner on a plate and eat it downstairs.” I gave a wan smile, and braced myself for the answer.

She said, “Would it be okay if I stayed with you guys?”

Andrea no longer lives in Colorado — she moved to the East Coast for law school last summer. But I’ll be forever grateful for the way she treated me that evening. It was only my first foray into the emotional juggling act of the single dad’s social life, but the lessons I learned and the optimism it bred have stuck with me.

Excerpted with permission from Best Of The Dating Dad. Original post written in 2004. Eric hasn’t introduced his daughter to a woman he’s dating in a very long time. 

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dating disaster

What I learned when my husband and I separated is that going through a divorce is kind of like a death in the family or being diagnosed with cancer: Everyone wants to say the right thing, but very few people actually do. Most of the time what comes out of people’s mouths is clumsy at best and hurtful at worst.

Here are 10 things I heard over and over again (and wish I hadn’t). I bet you’ve heard them too.

1. “I never really liked your spouse anyway.”

Really? We were married for 9 years and you never liked him? What about all those dinner parties you invited us to? That vacation we took together? 

Yes, apparently my friends and family thought he was a complete jerk the whole time—and never told me. But once we separated, they felt compelled to list every negative quality they ever noticed about him. (His friends and family must’ve done the same for him.) They probably thought this would make me feel better—as in “good riddance” and “how lucky for you.” But you know, even if they never did like him, I did. Besides, he and I are well aware of each other’s negative qualities. That’s why we’re not together anymore.

2. “You won’t have any trouble finding someone new.”

For some reason everyone seemed to think my #1 concern was how quickly I could meet another man. What I was actually focused on was my legal situation, my financial situation, my housing situation, and most of all, my son. Getting divorced is not like trading in a used car.

3. “I know someone I can fix you up with.”

Everyone has someone they’d like to fix a single parent up with. Once in a while the fix-up works. The vast majority of the time it doesn’t. So…thanks, but no thanks.

4. “Wow, you’re really trying, aren’t you?”

New haircut? New clothes? Dropped 10 pounds? It didn’t matter what I did…once I was suddenly single, every effort to look good was interpreted as a ploy to land a new partner. Actually, maybe it was just an attempt to look and feel better than I’d felt in a long time. A much nicer thing to say would’ve been: “Wow, you look amazing.”

5. “It must be so hard being on your own.”

This sounds like sympathy, but in my experience it’s anything but. What it means is: “I feel so sorry for you that you don’t have a partner like I do.” And it’s usually sexist, in reference to the poor single mother who has to take out her garbage all by herself or the poor single father who has to change the baby’s diaper all by himself. But women have been taking out garbage and men have been changing diapers for quite some time now. On the other hand, I appreciated the friends who genuinely were concerned about my “being on my own”—and showed it by inviting me over for dinner or out for drinks.

6. “It must be so hard for your kid, being so different from everyone else.”

Like point #5, this is not a kind or helpful thing to say. The people saying this invariably have “typical” families—and by that I mean mother, father, and kids living under the same roof—and what they mean is “It’s too bad your kid is not like my kid.” Maybe these people haven’t noticed that there are many ways to configure a family and that their way is only one of them—or that what matters much more than the marital status of the parents is that the children are deeply loved.

7. “I don’t know how you do it.”

This exudes fake admiration. What’s really meant is: “It’s too bad you have to do it—unlike me, who has help from my husband/wife.” The truth is that not having an extra pair of hands or a backup system is tough sometimes—and most single parents are amazing at juggling everything solo. On the most difficult days, it would’ve been great to hear this: “I just want you to know I think you’re doing a fantastic job.”

8. “It must be nice having so much free time.”

This is the corollary to “I don’t know how you do it.” If I’m not overwhelmed by the demands of being a single parent, I must be jumping for joy over the endless hours of free time I have when my son is with his dad two nights a week and on alternating weekends. Well, it’s true that my son does spend time with his dad, and at those times I’m generally free to do what I please. But it’s also true that at those times I’m usually working extra hours to make up for the times I stop working at 5:30 to do the evening routine by myself. And even when my son is with his dad, I’m still overseeing activities, homework and carpools. I’m still attending his baseball games. So let’s lay to rest the myth of the carefree single- parent lifestyle. Most single parents don’t have a lot of free time. Single parents without custody arrangements have zero.

9. “Have you considered getting back together?”

Yes, of course we’ve considered it. We considered it for years before we separated, just like every other couple who tried their absolute best to make their marriage work before determining they couldn’t.

10. “Sometimes I wish I were divorced.”

I heard this a few times and never had the right response. Looking back, here’s what I should’ve said: “No, you don’t. You really, really don’t. Because then you’d have to listen to comments like these from everyone around you—instead of the only thing anyone really needs to say, which is: ‘Gee, I’m really sorry.’”

 

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ASK LINDA, PSYCHOTHERAPIST, SINGLE MOM:

Dear Linda,

My husband was the love of my life. Or so I thought. We’re divorcing after 12 years together and I just can’t stop crying. I want to pull it together for the kids, but I often am just overcome with grief. I feel like my best friend – and my life plan – have both died. To make it worse, the kids are reacting to the tension and are acting out. Which just adds to the stress and sadness and makes it harder for me to hold it together. How I can cope?

Linda answers:  

I am so sorry that you are going through this major loss. Your grief, tears and feeling overwhelmed are normal for the trauma you have suffered. These emotions are part of the mourning process, which will eventually lead you forward in your life. The “airplane safety demonstration” provides a key life lesson on the importance of taking care of yourself during a crisis such as this. The flight attendant says, “Put your oxygen mask on before placing an oxygen mask on your child.” Why? If you do not take care of yourself, you will not be here to take care of your children. When you have a major life stressor, you might forget to take care of yourself.

Your kids feel your pain and stress and are having their lives turned upside down, too. Talk with them. Let them know it is OK to feel sad. It is OK to cry. It is OK to be angry. Explain that both your emotions and theirs are real and that it is OK to feel whatever they feel. Here is the tricky part: What you do with your emotions is where you have choices. To help overcome difficult emotions, MOVE: exercise, play physical games, go skating, biking, running, play kickball, or play hide and seek. Move and get those feel-good chemicals activated in your body. Also, make sure you are all eating well and getting enough sleep.

Often when emotions become overwhelming, you might get caught up with repetitive thoughts and get “stuck in your head.” One simple and great technique for moving through these emotions is to start naming all the colors that you see. You can do this by yourself or with the kids. Try this for about 5 minutes, when you or they start to feel overwhelmed. It’s a mindfulness trick, sort of a mini meditation break: When you are concentrating on the colors and their names, you cannot simultaneously stay trapped in your negative thoughts.

Divorce or breakup is a loss, and you will need to mourn. It takes time, but you are a survivor and you and the children will come through this. A qualified family therapist might help guide you through this process together. I recommend that you seek out this kind of support for yourself and your children, since it will help you to “normalize” and move through the mourning process.

HAVE A QUESTION FOR LINDA? Sent it to info [at] singlewith.com, and put ASK LINDA in the subject heading. She may use your question for an upcoming post!
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Sticking together as a family has gone from painful to joyful

My ex-husband and I had only been separated for five months when we signed up our 21-month-old son for his first music class. The class took place early on Saturday mornings, and due to our custody arrangement — alternate visitation on the weekends — that meant we would take turns accompanying him to class.

From day one, my son was obsessed with the class. He loved the songs, the dancing, the instruments, and especially his teacher. All the other kids sat calmly in their parents’ laps, but our son — a born performer — couldn’t sit still. Instead, he danced around in the center of the circle, making requests for his favorite melodies from class or from his personal repertoire, which grew to include songs by the Beatles, Lionel Richie, and tunes from Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town.” I jokingly began referring to him as “The Conductor.”

I didn’t want to miss seeing my son’s exuberance in music class, so even if he was scheduled to be with his dad on a particular Saturday morning, I would often join them for those 45 minutes. My ex always seemed to welcome my presence, and we both agreed that it was good for our son to see us interacting in a friendly way.

The first few times the three of us attended class together were extremely difficult for me. The wounds of our broken marriage were still exceptionally raw, and I was teeming with anger at my ex, who had secretly cheated on me for 10 months before announcing that he wanted a divorce — giving me no warning that our marriage was even in trouble. I was still in a state of shock, processing the reality that we were no longer the nuclear family I thought we would be. That reality was even harder to swallow when we were in a class surrounded by seemingly happy couples. I tried to hide the tears that welled up in my eyes so that our son wouldn’t notice. And though it was painful, I was always glad I went.

Since then, we have embarked on other activities as a threesome. We have taken our son to his doctor’s appointments together and were both present for his first soccer class and his first “big boy” haircut at a real barber. For his third birthday, his father and I decided to take him out for a special dinner, where we talked mostly about our son and focused on all his new skills and interests. Our son was very excited for the three of us to be together, and it felt good to be able to do that for him.

After that positive experience, my ex suggested we meet monthly for dinner, saying he thought it would be good for our son — and even for us — to talk about things we usually only addressed via email or text message. We’ve been meeting monthly ever since.

I look forward to our dinners. It’s nice to be able to discuss our son in person with my ex — the only other person in the world who knows our child as intimately as I do. We also talk about our daily routines to make sure we are on the same page when it comes to discipline, eating, potty training, etc. We have made a very concerted effort to maintain one set of rules between both homes.

Occasionally during these dinners, I catch myself shifting into a temporary comfort zone. It feels so normal to be interacting as a family unit — like we used to. And then I remember that it’s only for dinner, and that reality burns. Sometimes, when our son is busy playing out of earshot, I make obnoxious side comments to my ex. I don’t intend to do it, but these poisonous barbs just slip out. He rolls his eyes, and we try to move on.

But more often than not, I savor the rare moments when my ex and I can once again connect on common ground. While I am acutely aware of the distance that exists between us and the copious amounts of water under the proverbial bridge, I also recognize the bond that remains. And it’s not just because we have a child together.

We were a couple for seven years, married for three, and went through several major life experiences together. Those connections don’t just disappear because we are no longer married. Sometimes it’s nice to touch base on our shared history — like how our parents and siblings are doing, or which of our mutual friends got married and are having babies — even if it reminds me of the relationship I lost. I trust that I will find that type of intimate relationship with another partner someday.

For now, I’m proud that my ex-husband and I can rise above our own issues and be more than just civil in front of our child — we can be friendly. Our son enjoys these dinners and looks forward to them. Just last week he said, “Mommy, I want to have dinner with you and Daddy soon” — so of course, we made it happen.

I know of a couple who got divorced under very similar circumstances and many years later they are friends again. They attend family events together with their new spouses and share in these occasions with their children. I hope that my ex-husband and I will also become real friends someday. Though I don’t expect him to be my best friend like he once was, I believe that these shared experiences will grow easier and become more enjoyable over time.

The dinners started at our son’s third birthday, but they are a gift we keep giving him — and ourselves — month after month.

Follow Annette Powers on Twitter: www.twitter.com/annettepowers

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