What to say?

I have been fortunate enough to have more than a few people express how I have helped them to understand what their friend/sister/relative is going through while they struggle through their divorce. Some have even said that it has helped them talk about it, or just listen, and really mean it.

I am more than touched. I am grateful and thankful for their words of encouragement, and knowing that somehow I am helping somebody out there, who is involved with a divorce in a variety of ways, is a silver lining to what is a pretty dark cloud. If nobody really talks about it, if nobody tells the story in realistic terms, how will anyone know what to do? What to say?

It all starts from that point. Just being willing to help, to listen, to support is the biggest step.

It makes me think back to the early days, when the idea of getting divorced was still new and incredibly scary for me. The things that people would say at the beginning, just upon hearing that it was happening, slowly changed as time went by and the reality of the process became more clear.

Divorce takes time. Sometimes a lot of time…

For many the story got old, almost boring, and it wasn’t very creative since you hear about this type of thing happening everywhere. Why should it be so special, or remotely interesting, just because it was happening to me? For some, it was clear to me, that it wasn’t moving along fast enough so I could “just be done” and maybe focus on something else for awhile – usually something that they found important or exciting in their own lives.

I get it. Really, I seriously do.

Divorce can be a pain in the ass and boring as hell, especially if it’s not happening to you.

It’s more than difficult to listen to the same problem over and over again, even if new details emerge along the way, or side story lines come out of it like an episode of “As the World Turns”. There is only so much “drama” anyone wants to deal with, especially if it isn’t their own drama.

Unless they are the type of friend who feeds off of your pain and struggle, almost enjoys being in the trenches with you. They’re out there, believe me.

The friend who needs to feel needed, close up and personal to your problems, a cheerleader, your confidant. Those are actually the people you need to limit in your life during this stressful and painful time. Nobody needs a cheerleader, telling them to smile, cheer up and have fun! Trying to lift you up out of your funk, to be fun again, while sweeping it all out the door. Or worse, there’s the Church Lady from SNL friend. That’s the one that corrects you when you stumble and slip back into your old habits, for just a moment, and refer to your spouse or family as intact in the present tense.

“You mean your ex-husband, don’t you??” usually said with arched eyebrows and pursed lips. Thanks for that reminder, I almost forgot that the fabric of my life, that defined who I was, was unraveling after twenty-five years.

Good catch.

But from it all, I’ve come away with what I consider more than a few do’s and don’ts of what to say to someone going through a divorce, maybe more don’ts at this point. Because, let’s be honest, people are stupid. They mean well, most of the time, but they don’t make a habit of thinking it through before they speak sometimes.

When these phrases come out, phrases of hope or motivational quotes waiting to be made into a meme posted on your Facebook page, I sort of nod my head, like “yep, that’s one I hope to never hear again”.

Maybe my reaction to some of these may seem over-sensitive, maybe someone else would be able to let it roll off of their back, but like everything in life one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

And one person’s devastation is another person’s shoulder shrug. It’s all relative.

In the beginning, I heard the standard “you’re still young enough, and attractive, you’ll find someone soon I’m sure” – what exactly is ‘young enough’? And attractive? And why the push to find someone soon, if at all? What would make me so excited, or so desperate, to try this again?

Or “you’ll fall in love again and probably be married in five years!” First of all, why is the bar set at five years? Is this some sort of national average of divorced middle-aged women found in a recent study? You’d better have a graph to back that up.

As if I should be chomping at the bit to get back out there and date again, after twenty-five years with the same person, I should be looking for my next husband at the grocery store, or the gym. There are people out there who won’t even consider getting another dog once their beloved friend dies after many years, but a new spouse? Easy fix.

What’s the big deal??

No need to take a step back and figure out the new direction of your life. There should be no time to think about it, catch your breath and figure out what you really want your next step to be, you don’t want to overthink it. And don’t even consider that maybe you may not even want to go down this road again, that you may be happier as a divorced single, because you’re a woman and you need a man in your life! Time is a-wasting! No girl, you get back out there and shake it!

Isn’t this the dream of every middle-aged woman??

After the divorce was final, the comments were more indignant and less sympathetic. Almost dismissive. “You got a good settlement and got out of an unhappy marriage, you should be happy!”, “you made a twenty year mistake, accept it and move on” (that one was from a medical professional, believe it or not) or something similar. How does a ‘good settlement’ replace the last half of my life and my solidly formed identity?

And what exactly is considered a good settlement? Is it just about the money, the assets you’ve negotiated to keep, just the material things? According to what most people have said, I would guess it is just about the money.

It’s not about the loss of your identity, that you’ve worked to create over the last twenty five years. The loss of family and friends that you shared for half of your lifetime.

It’s not about now having to think separately about the very things that you did together as a family, splitting your children in half with visitation, holidays and insurance coverage. It’s not about your unknown future that is now hanging on some sort of string, and yet still tethered to someone for the unforeseeable future that you can’t even stand to be in the same room with now.

But hey, the money’s good, am I right?

It’s been a year now. I have been fully divorced for a full year, and while the comments have slowed down or had less of a chance to be uttered around me, they still manage to poke into a conversation when you least expect it.

“Yeah, a lot of people are getting divorced now, it’s everywhere.” (translation: you’re not that unique) Just because it’s a common occurrence, and can happen to anyone at any time, doesn’t make it any less devastating or life changing for the person going through it.

But thanks for being so condescending, that helps.

“At least you’re not married to that jerk anymore and now you can do whatever you want with your life!” (translation: you’re free now, completely free! what’s the problem with that?) While that statement is true on some level, it also glosses over what that life of ‘freedom’ will possibly look like. The assumption is that your life will somehow magically improve exponentially now that you’ve “cut your losses”, life will be full of opportunity and fulfillment. You will become that beautiful butterfly and the world is fresh and new!

Obviously, this ignores the fact that you still have children to take care of and consider with each life choice you make, who are also dealing with a great deal of change and loss. It filters the reality that you have had to move (again) and uproot your entire life, basically going back to the starting line and trying out a new path, now in your fifties, when you thought you already had that mapped out with someone.

Chances are that you’ll have to take at least a couple, or maybe even a few, years just to get your bearings and figure out what that new shiny future should/will look like, and then time to figure out if you still have time to make that new future happen, whatever it may be.

You’re no longer twenty five and fresh out of college, living in an apartment with roommates, partying on the weekends. You’re an adult with people depending upon you to function and get stuff done, and not just your kids, people from all points of your life.

“You should try a new hobby, something to get excited about” (translation: avoidance of your feelings is the best cure and will give you something else to talk about. Finally!) I tried the “new hobby” idea in the beginning, that’s what most of the divorce advice on the internet tells you to do. I took a sewing class, inquired into ballroom dancing, joined a different gym with a personal trainer, diligently researched the possibility of going back to school to get my masters, and volunteered in new areas to get more involved in my community, all to hopefully distract me enough to have a some sense of normalcy.

But here’s the thing, I can’t fully commit to learning anything new, or giving of my time, when my normal life is no longer working. It is no longer “normal”.

I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t get excited, I just couldn’t make it work the way that everyone promised me it would. I couldn’t do any of it with the same dedication and drive that I would usually bring to a new venture. I was only able to half-ass most attempts, that lead to me eventually quit, and that made me feel even worse. “I can’t even do (insert new hobby/interest here) right.”

“So when are you going back to work?” (translation: why are still sitting around, and not contributing to the world?) I heard this one almost from the beginning. I’m sure the idea was keeping busy will help you feel better. You’re divorced now so you need to fill in those hours that you used to be a stay at home wife and mother, be productive!

Here’s a newsflash, this is my job.

My job didn’t change because I got divorced. I didn’t divorce my kids, I didn’t divorce my responsibilities to my children, or to the home that they should grow up in. Yes, I can and will eventually go back to work, but I’ve been working for twenty years in the same job and I’m damn good at it. The challenge now is to find a way to dovetail those skills into a meaningful (financially lucrative) career or job. And this is definitely not the right time to force my kids into another new adjustment, having me gone all day everyday, to satisfy some status quo of what a divorced mother should be doing with her time.

Yes, I am very fortunate that I was able to negotiate a way to maintain this standard of living for my children, to keep something in their life normal and familiar, I completely admit that. But I am not going to give that up just to satisfy some insensitive idea that I need to prove my worth to the world by working outside of our home. Or that I need to pull my financial weight in this divorced relationship. If being unavailable to them everyday for 8 to 10 hours a day somehow proves my worth, makes me appear more productive and valuable in society, I’d like someone to show me the flowchart on how that makes my children grow up to be happier, more productive and secure adults in the end.

They may be old enough to not really need me, but they do need me. Especially now.

There are probably more than a few that I am forgetting, or have chosen to conveniently erase from my memory for good reason. But the idea is the same, isn’t it? We just need to think before we speak sometimes. Maybe put yourself in that situation – and I know, that will ‘never happen to you’. That’s the comforting mantra that we all repeat in our own head, isn’t it? You know how I know that?

Because that was my mantra for twenty years.

But just for kicks, put yourself in that person’s shoes, at this time in their life. Of course, you don’t know exactly what they’re feeling, or how they’re dealing with it, but you also don’t know what it’s like to die and yet you go to funerals and give heartfelt condolences to the grieving families. You don’t have to know exactly how it feels to be empathetic, you don’t have to have the same experience to understand how devastating this is in any family.

A simple hug, a warm smile, a basic “I’m so sorry to hear that” goes a long way. Sometimes just listening while they are ranting, crying, losing their mind is the best you can do, and that’s enough.

You don’t have to know what to say, sometimes you don’t have to say anything at all.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Is this all there is?

I was watching an episode of “Dexter” with my son the other night – yes, we bond over serial killers and crime scenes, there are worse things. In this episode, Dexter is helping a woman track down her rapists – yes, plural – to kill them.

What are friends for, right?

She recounts the experience of leaving her fiancee at the altar only three months before her life took this ugly turn, and how she had arrived at the decision not to marry him. It was so real, so full of truth, and sounded so eerily familiar that I almost couldn’t breathe.

She told Dexter how she had pushed herself hard all of her life to please her parents. She was a good student, the first in her family to go onto college to get her degree. Followed by her masters. She was involved, athletic, smart. She was a good girl. Then she met the “perfect” guy, fell in love, and that eventually lead to planning a wedding. She had checked all of the boxes, and done all of the right things, her entire life.

It wasn’t until she was almost at her wedding day that it finally struck her. This is it.

For the rest of her life, she would be part of a couple that had the same friends, the same neighbors. They would have cookouts in the backyard on weekends, visit their families for holidays, attend PTA meetings and birthday parties for their kids, and have “date nights” once a week. They would do these average but good things, for the rest of their lives, and grow old together. That was it, that was the sum of her future life.

Is that all there is? she wondered. And so, she didn’t show up to her own wedding.

The reason that this struck me, made me sit still as stone as I listened to her, was the fact that I had basically the same epiphany about 18 years ago. Not at the altar, of course, already married with a child.

It was a typical day in our fairly new tri-level home. I was already a stay at home mom, taking care of our baby, who was about a year old at the time. He was in the pack ‘n play in our bedroom, watching a kids singing show, while I scrubbed the toilet in our attached bathroom. Innocent enough.

Something that I did weekly, along with all of the other household upkeep and day to day life. But for some reason, that day, it suddenly washed over me…this is it.

This is my life for the next thirty, or probably more, years.

We will have the same friends and neighbors, that we have over for barbecues on weekends and parties for our children’s birthdays. Our families lived close enough that we would see them on just about every holiday (and I’m talking every holiday – that includes Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, and any other “day” holiday you can imagine), every birthday, milestone and reason to celebrate. We would probably live in this house for awhile, until we could afford to move into something bigger, but not too far from the same area most likely.

There would be football and basketball games for the guys to watch at the bar, Tupperware and Candlelight parties for the wives to attend to order more of what we really didn’t need. Possibly a group camping trip, with all of our kids, once or twice a year. Baby showers, graduations, funerals, weddings and everything else in-between with the same people.

That was it. That was our future. My future. For the next thirty plus years.

And for some reason that day, with the toilet brush in my hand and the sound of ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ being sung in the background, I thought to myself “Is this all there is? Is this it? There has to be more.” I could see our future like a movie montage, because it was all so familiar already.

How did I get here?

This is what I had always wanted, had dreamed of, wasn’t it? I wanted to be married to a good guy, live in my own house to take care of, have kids and be a mom. But that wasn’t always the end story I had seen for myself, had always dreamed.

In the beginning, I had also seen a career in a big city, meeting new people, making big decisions and earning my way through life. Having one of those cool apartments with the hardwood floors and glass doorknobs, downtown over a convenience store or bar. Walking to museums and plays, getting opportunities to travel and see the world somehow. I had dreamed of being independent.

I wanted more.

As much as I loved what I had, and really did want it, I also wanted the other side of the dream that I didn’t really give myself much time to figure out. After graduating from college, the constant mantra of “you need to find a job” was pounding in my head, and repeated by my parents, so I basically took the first job I was offered. Not in the city, not in a cool design firm like I had always dreamed of, but instead a corporate art department job with benefits and vacation time. And a commute of about an hour, to another suburb, still outside of the city.

All of this came flooding back to me that day, while I looked around, toilet brush still in my hand.

When my ex came home that day, I asked what it would take for him to be offered a position in another country and if it was possible. I had heard of others in his line of work taking jobs in France, England, Germany. Why not him? He explained that he didn’t have the qualifications to go; he didn’t speak another language, he didn’t have any foreign clients, and he was married. They usually preferred to send single people who were more available and easier to move.

I still pushed on with the idea, telling him that if an opportunity ever came up to go somewhere else, like another country, I was willing to move. To have a new experience. If I couldn’t make it happen personally, I was willing to support him to make it happen.

Oddly enough, only a few weeks later, he was approached for a foreign assignment.

And as they say, the rest is history. That began the crazy, and challenging, journey that lasted close to ten years. And that journey brought me here, to this place. This place in time, in location, in mind and soul.

Almost back home, but not quite. Almost back to “normal”, but not really.

It wasn’t the dream I had dreamed when I was a child, or in high school or college, but it was very much like a dream in many ways. The meaning to the old adage “be careful what you wish for” became incredibly clear as time went on though.

It was amazing and exciting, the new experiences and meeting new people from different backgrounds, speaking different languages – so much to learn about the world! So much to explore. But at the same time it was also scary and confusing, and sometimes more difficult than I ever could have imagined. There were many highs and lows along the way,  over the many years and multiple moves, making me stronger in the end.

It had challenged everything I thought I knew or understood, pushed me out of my comfort zone, made me question everything about my previous life. There was more than one “right” way to do things, and more than one type of person or food or language. It changed the very core of who I was, for the better, in my opinion.

Would I have been just as happy without this experience? Would I have gotten over my feeling that there had to be more to life, blamed it on hormones or sleepless nights with a teething baby? Shut my mouth and just went along with the program, like everyone else was happily doing? I mean, what you don’t know you don’t know, right?

No need to second guess it or go through the list of possible “what if” scenarios now, it was the life I was meant to live. It was more than the life I had ever expected, or even thought I wanted. It was life changing.

I had asked myself so long ago “is this all there is?” never realizing where it would lead, how it would end, or how it would shape me in the future.

But now I know, no this isn’t all there is, there is so much more.