On the mornings I drop my two bright, loving, beautiful boys at school, hug and kiss them goodbye and then hear myself say, “I’ll see you next week,” I linger a little, watching as they walk into their classrooms, and it takes all the self-discipline I have not to run after them, kiss them one more time, tell them I’m sorry it has to be this way, hold them just a little bit more. This is because, on those mornings, I know they will be spending the next five nights in a row with their father, according to the custody arrangement we made when we separated more than six years ago. Most days I shake it off, focus my attention on all the things I need to do that I put off doing when they were with me. But some days, even now, I cry. I hate being separated from my children when I don’t want to be. It feels utterly wrong to me. On those days, I think divorce is the worst thing that ever happened to me in my life.
On the days when my boys come back to me, particularly after those five-nights-in-a-row stretches (which only happen every other week), barreling down the hallway of my apartment building with arms outstretched, yelling, “Mama!”, as they meet me at the door, and we go inside and talk and play and fight and wrestle and ask each other questions and tell each other stories, and when at last the three of us sit down for dinner at our small table together and I am my whole, authentic self, bright-eyed and totally present, I think about the mother they would have known if I had not gotten a divorce — shut down, depressed, lost to herself — and I am more grateful for divorce than I am grateful for just about anything.
I am grateful for divorce. Divorce sucks. I am grateful for divorce. Divorce sucks. And so on. It is hard to hold such totally contradictory thoughts in my mind, but I have to because they are both true. Divorce gave me a new life, but divorce also destroyed the life I always hoped and dreamed I’d have, and I still mourn the loss of it.
Divorce sucks. First of all, let me be clear: I am writing about divorce when there are children involved. I am sure divorce without children has its own unique horrors, as well as reasons for gratitude, but I don’t know what they are because I’ve never experienced it. A few years after my divorce, I participated in a divorce-themed reading at a bar. One guy read a piece about deciding he wanted to divorce his wife during a game of Monopoly. This is not something that married people with children — who are probably playing Monopoly with them — do. Listening to the no-kids divorce stories that night, and then to the with-kids divorce stories, I felt like we had no place being in the same room together, like two people set up on blind date based on a shared love of sailing, the only problem being the matchmaker’s failure to notice that one person spoke French and the other spoke Chinese.
When you have children, there is no doubt that the ongoing, never-okay pain of divorce is being separated from them against your will. A lot of married people really don’t get this. Very often, a married person, after confirming that I was the one who wanted the divorce (and by the way, I “wanted” divorce the way a person with cancer wants to irradiate her own body), says, “That must be so great, having all that time to yourself!”, like I won the lottery. After years of being on the receiving end of this thoughtless observation, I’ve perfected my reply: “It would be great if I could have a night or two away from my kids when I felt like it. Living fifty-percent of my life without my own children in my house is not great. It sucks.”
Part of what these people do not understand is that divorce is not a time warp where suddenly, half the time, you get to live the life you used to live before you had kids — a life most parents spend a lot of time lamenting the loss of. For one thing, it is very likely, if you are of a certain age, that most of your friends have kids, which makes nights out partying like a twenty-something with the people you like most next to impossible. In my case, divorcing when my children were very young, my closest friends were the women in my mommy group, and while in many ways they rallied around me, in other ways my very existence saddened and scared them. A lot of the time my new life saddened and scared me, too. In the years between my separation and now, a life where I am in a happy relationship, I often felt completely lost, adrift in a no-man’s land between the busy urgent dash of motherhood and the empty silent strangeness of “single” life. I drank a lot. I watched a lot of serial television on Netflix. I forced myself to join dating sites where I was hit on by men ten or even twenty years older than I was. I sought out new, unmarried friends, which helped, and there were nights when I thought, “This is great!” But not very many. I’m not the type to stay in every night with my kids — I like getting a babysitter and getting the hell out as much as the next parent does. But I also love coming home to a house with my children in it. Having someone I love to go to bed with on my kid-free nights makes it much easier now, to be sure. But it doesn’t make it okay.
It isn’t only being separated from your children, of course, that makes divorce when children are involved “a unique kind of pain,” as a fellow sufferer once put it to me. It is being wedded, for life, even when you are no longer wed, to someone you either hurt, or were hurt by (though most likely both), in the most raw, terrifyingly vulnerable, gut-wrenching, turn-your-world-upside-down kind of way, because he or she will forever be the other parent of your child. My relationship with my ex is (now) as civil as it could be. We go to parent/teacher conferences together, speak well of each other to our children and share basic child-rearing values. Still, there are times when his name in my inbox stops me in my tracks with fear and dread. He has that power not only because of our past — thirteen years of intimacy that blew up in our faces — but because of our present, where he has authority over the most precious people in my life, and at the same time the damage we did to our relationship and the distrust it sowed has not, and may never, go away. For the people I know whose exes are unstable, angry, untrustworthy or unreliable, this is a far more agonizing reality. One woman, when I said I was leaving my husband, said ruefully, “I wish I could leave X, but I don’t trust him with the children.” Knowing the man in question, I nodded. She had a point.
Divorce is awful, and whenever a married friend asks me how I knew when things were bad enough to do it, I say, “If you are still asking yourself whether you should or shouldn’t, don’t.” It has to get to the point where you feel like if you don’t leave, you’ll die. Anything short of that it isn’t worth it.
I am grateful for divorce. I’ve gone on about how horrible it is to be separated from my children. (I could go on a lot more.) But here’s the thing: divorce has also helped me be an even better mother to my boys than I might have been without it.
This is partly for the obvious reason that married people usually trot out when they try to tell me, essentially, that it’s okay with them that I got divorced, which is something along the lines of, if I was unhappy, my kids would have been unhappy, and therefore I did the right thing for them by leaving. (I never put it this way, as I never wanted to put my decision to leave at my children’s feet.) But I was surprised by the less obvious ways I found this to be true, too.
First among them is that divorce forced me, very early in my life as a mother, to let go of the illusion/burden that I was the center of my children’s lives, that only I was capable of loving and caring for them the way they needed to be loved and cared for. This was more difficult for me than I can say. My boys were very young when their father and I split, and I’ve often felt that while this was easier for them (they have no memory of our ever being together), it was especially excruciating for me, as my youngest, at eighteen months when we began our trial separation, was essentially still a baby. I was his mother! He needed me! But from that time on, my ex was forced to take care of his sons without me around, and I was forced to let him. And my boys were fine. Divorce taught me that children can get love from many different places, and be cared for in many different ways, and as long as they are safe with the other parent (which in some cases they are not), it is your job to embrace and celebrate this, rather than insist on your position at the center of their world. They are the centers of their own worlds, and they carry that center with them wherever they go — in my case, from my house, to their dad’s and back again.
Divorce taught me how to let go of my boys earlier than I wanted to learn that lesson. But it also taught me how to hold them more closely, to be present in their lives. When my kids are with me, I’m with them, and while I inevitably sometimes succumb to the pull of my phone, my laptop or my own worries or work, there is a quality to our time together that I cherish. I am absolutely terrible at bedtime, in fact, because I cherish it so much, and sometimes I don’t want to let them go, not even to sleep! But it’s been during those late night cuddles that I’ve received some of the most precious confidences of their hearts.
The reason I am most grateful for divorce, however, has nothing to do with my kids. It has everything to do with me. I married the wrong person. This was for some of the usual reasons — I was too young, I was insecure and chose someone completely different from me because I thought I was a mess that marrying could fix (I may have been right about the problem, but the solution only compounded it), I went with my “should” self and not with my gut. It was also for some very specific reasons it isn’t my place to share. I married the wrong person, and I am so grateful for divorce for giving me a chance at a life not defined by that mistake. I am grateful for divorce. Divorce sucks. I am grateful for divorce.
And so on.
Kamy Wicoff is the bestselling author of Wishful Thinking, and founder of She Writes.com, the largest online community for women who write, with members in all fifty states and more than thirty countries. She serves on the Advisory Council for the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, and on the Board of Directors for Girls Write Now. She lives with her two sons, and not her husband, in New York.