When I was thirteen my parents divorced, and after a bloody and expensive battle, only their two lawyers, who happened to be brothers, gained anything. In the mean time, my parents both went through hell, and most of the people around them experienced a lesser version of the same. For a fairly sheltered girl from the Midwest, who had never really looked at a price tag,* it was a devastating and life changing event. By that point I had been saying for at least ten years that I wanted to be a lawyer, and while that continued, I swore I would never practice family law, to never marry, and to never have children.
Fast-forward to today, I have four children, was divorced** once, and am married now. I am not licensed to practice and never violate the rule against practicing without a license, but I try to help anyone in a bad situation, especially women struggling in a bad situation.
How did that happen? Well, that is a long, complicated story that would definitely result in a lawsuit if I attempted to tell it here. The short version: I made a bad choice that had the most incredibly wonderful results, and because I wanted to do the right thing, I made subsequent decisions out of guilt and fear, which in time I learned is no way to live.
And to be honest, if not for a number of unlikely events and strong-minded people, I would have continued to live that way for many years, maybe forever. I can remember the moment I admitted to a close friend how unhappy I was, and my plan to basically continue to do my own thing, focus on my children, work hard, etc. She knew a little bit about my family background and asked me if I thought my oldest daughter was stupid. The question caught me off-guard, and not just because my oldest daughter is something of a genius. That’s just not the sort of thing people ask. We had enjoyed a few glasses of wine and were having a girls’ night sleepover (she was sleeping over at my house with her kids), so I entertained the question.
“Of course not.”
“But you knew your mother was unhappy. You’ve talked about how unhappy she was all of those years, and how you resented her for it. How you knew she was unhappy and felt it was your fault, your responsibility. If you don’t think your daughter is stupid, you have to imagine she will figure out what’s going on at some point and will probably feel the same way. Don’t you think it would be better to just get a divorce?”
That was honestly the first time that word had ever crossed my mind. I’m Catholic. I’m a good girl. Even though I’ve made some mistakes, I actually try really hard. There was no way this could be the right decision. Still, what she said hit me right in the chest. Would my daughter grow up feeling responsible for my unhappiness? Would I be able to hide my feelings for the rest of my life? I have the worst “poker face” of anyone I know, and probably the most intuitive daughter on the planet, how could I possibly expect to hide such a huge part of myself?
I went to sleep that night with so many questions. Unfortunately, because I was so afraid of how everyone else would react, I turned only to people who I knew would not judge me, because they had made, or were making, much riskier decisions. The next week I started counseling and slowly realized I could not continue on as I had. I was very lucky. Although my parents (my mother and her husband – my dad didn’t know about anything until much later) did not help me with the costs of my divorce and were very scared for me, they were supportive, and I knew my children and I would never starve. I had a law degree and an amazing boss who found a full-time position that only required me to be away from my children twenty hours per week (he is a saint). I had some money in the bank. I had friends who were willing to help.
I was most afraid to tell my grandmother, who raised five kids without much help from my grandfather and dealt with much more than any person should, but who stood by her husband through more than her fair share of trauma.*** I told her in the diaper aisle of a Target store one weekend when I flew down with the kids to see her. She hugged me, said she loved me always, and only said, “Being a single parent is so hard, but if anyone can do it, you can.”
After my divorce, when I became romantically involved with my husband, there were a lot of things I still had to sort out, and he was and is extremely patient about it. I still carry the guilt that just comes with the territory, and the stresses of dealing with another “grown-up” that has some parenting rights, but does none of the parenting. Thankfully, my husband has always been up to the job.
Now that I am happily married,**** I can say how important it is to marry the person you truly love. Someone who is your best friend in every way that matters. Even if it’s complicated. Even if he is a giant pain in the ass. If you really love him, figure it out, because life is going to throw a lot of things your way, good and bad, and most of the time, it will be the two of you figuring it out together. Friends will come and go. Children will grow up and make their own lives.
*That is not to say we lived extravagantly, by objective standards, but only to say that where we lived, and the way we lived, I never had to think about or worry about what something would cost. I had everything I needed, and anything I wanted I put on a Christmas list, and it would magically appear on Christmas morning. We had great family trips, but more along the lines of Disney World, not Europe. I am not advocating for this kind of obliviousness, and in fact try to help my children to be more aware, but am only describing my reality, as I experienced it.
**I was divorced once, but because that was never really a marriage, it was a very different kind of thing.
***For as long as I can remember, he has been a truly amazing and wonderful man, and I really believe they are happy together. I know a lot of people with similar stories, and all of the women, while acknowledging their current happiness, always express that they wouldn’t want it for anyone else.
****Happily married does not mean perfection. We have had our share of ups and downs, and sometimes we have real fights. It means that we love each other, and nothing can take that from us.