No Family Is a Broken Family: Life 15 Years After my Divorce and my Modern Love

This weekend is emotional flashback weekend. With the New York Times‘ reprinting of my essay “The Chicken’s in the Oven, My Husband’s Out the Door,” my life is rolling back to that Sunday morning in the fall of 2004 when I was newly divorced and a very personal part of my life was arriving on doorsteps in blue bags.

It was the best of times: After seven solid years of writing and a few victories and a lot of disappointments, I’d caught a lucky break. Thanks to Modern Love Editor Daniel Jones, my writing was now in the hands of millions of readers. It was the worst of times: I lived in a fairly constant state of fear. A short list of things that scared me: Being alone at night, sitting alone at school events, a shortage money, the possibility of not being able to give my children a happy and stable life, the abundance of conflict in my life now that I had an ex-husband who was often angry with me, the thought of not having enough time and energy to earn a living, make it as a writer, take care of my children and take care of myself. I was also afraid that the original sin of divorce canceled out all that I’d created that was good.

But mostly, I was afraid that we–my daughters and I–wouldn’t survive. Although I wasn’t sure what “not making it” might look like, I would often ask myself, “Will we make it?” I did know what making it would look like. I wanted my daughters to arrive at adulthood confident in who they were. I wanted to know that we’d come to a time when I wasn’t–as one friend once remarked with acknowledgement rather than unkindness–“a woman on the verge of a total nervous breakdown.” I wanted to pay my Verizon bill without breaking into a sweat. I wanted to throw my head back when I laughed.

Another friend once said, “Faith doesn’t mean you’ll be spared hard things. It means trusting you’ll get through them.” And in those early days of divorce, I didn’t trust that we’d get through the birthday party that ended in sprained arm, the sudden jump in the monthly health insurance premium, the exploding water heater, the death of a beloved pet, the ordinary disappointments of love and friendship that feel anything but ordinary. Sometimes I wasn’t even sure how we’d get through dinner and bedtime.

There are some sound reasons why I was afraid. Conflict was abundant. Funds were scarce. The road felt long. But my fear was also fueled by a culture in which divorce is a common phenomenon that is treated as if it is rare. We have few structures in place to support the suddenly single parent. We act as if it’s possible to earn a living and pay for daycare and take care of your family as a single head of household. We create meal trains for the sick, but who brings meals to the family going through divorce? And, we talk about divorced families as if there is something wrong with them.

Recently, a group of friends and I were talking about a news story involving two teenage boys on a killing spree.

“They’re from broken homes,” my friend said to me with a knowing look.

“What are you saying?” I said, feeling the wind knocked out of me.

“Those kids went back and forth, back and forth between the parents’ houses.”

“You know my kids went back and forth? You know that you’re describing my family?” I said to her, but someone from the other side of the room was talking loudly now, and my friend didn’t hear me.

And, many times I did feel as a divorced mother that my voice wasn’t heard, and my perspective wasn’t understood. I really did have to leave work right at 5:00pm. It’s not that I wasn’t a “team player.” I had to pick up a kid at 5:20, and I had no one else who could do it for me.

But many friends did hear me. And friends are a crucial part of the recipe of how we “made it.” Friends celebrated all the major holidays with us and nursed all our minor and major wounds. Friends made my family larger, more festive and more glorious by coming to our potlucks and dancing with us in the living room. Friends even came and spent the night when I was too scared to be alone.

And because we were helped and because we were lucky and because we worked hard, we DID make it. My daughters are now grown—thriving and pursuing their dreams. They are beautiful and smart and kind and talented and confident, even though they went “back and forth, back and forth.” Of course, we have struggles. But all families do.

I want readers with young children going through divorce to know that you are not alone in your fear. So many of us have known that same fear, and we lived through it. We got up every day and pushed the boulder of family life up the hill. We had hard days, yes, but we had more happy days than hard. And you will too. Just keep going.

You can read the full glorious, messy story of my divorce in How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed. You can read the glorious, messy story of me finding my voice as a writer in Writing Is My Drink: A Writer’s Story of Finding Your Voice (and a Guide to How You Can Too). Want help with your own Modern Love essay or memoir? Learn about my coaching here.

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