Do you ever ask yourself, Why can’t I be happy? What’s wrong with me? I did almost every day, for the better part of a decade.
I was a STAHM, a stay-at-home-mother on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and by so many measures, I was lucky. I was able to raise my daughters the best way I knew how, by my flawed but mostly loving hands, 24/7/365. I was lucky, because for a lot of women I know, this is not a choice. I know, because of where and how I’d grown up.
I didn’t resent motherhood. I flipping loved it! That was the rub. The staying at home part was an economic decision that seemed to make sense. But it disempowered me due to the particular nature of my marriage. On the other hand, it allowed me to listen to my maternal self a whole lot. And being a mama felt so fundamentally good! I loved our blanket forts, our papier-mâché masks, the cookie batter I ate when my girls were not looking. I loved walking my girls to school, telling them stories and watching them cringe when I made up lyrics. I reveled in watching them swing on the monkey bars, egging them on to get strong, to reach, to not worry about getting dirty. Who cares if you fall? But my marriage was not working.
And inside deep, I felt ashamed and utterly incapable … incapable of changing, incapable of moving to the next rung.
The facts of my failing—and ultimately, failed—marriage are singular, as are the facts of any relationship. Some divorces are friendly, some are chilly, and a few are horribly acrimonious. What is not singular is that I—like many, many women I know—felt trapped. I didn’t know who I was. The marriage wasn’t working, but the alternative was simply too terrifying to consider.
If I divorced, what about the money? I didn’t have an ATM card. What about my girls? How would we survive? I was unemployable, unskilled, a techno has-been. (I stop myself, the word “techno” could not even be applied. I’d been home so long I was only good for cleaning, or telling you how to decorate your house. I was really good at that … telling you what you should get rid of.)
But at some point — some critical breaking point, years after talking around myself and self-justifying and staying there “for the kids,” — something triggered a crack, and it let in a terrible light: I was unhappy staying in a marriage that was untenable, all the while it was untenable I was contributing to its untenability …
I was spinning, but here was this crack shedding light: I was really waiting for somebody to save me when there was no one coming to save me. And what was worse, there was no one coming to save my daughters.
I wish I could tell you that the light transformed me overnight. That the following morning I rubbed my eyes and I was SHAZZAM’ed: cinched up like Linda Carter in a red and blue bustier, wielding titanium-plated bracelets and updated Microsoft Office skills. But it would be years.
What stood in my way was the 360-degree life education I needed to relearn everything, including feeling worthy. Like Kim, I googled a lot back there in the dark, but there was no online class called “Life 101”. For me, I had to go back to school. I had to open up. I had to build a web of support, of friends, of mentors who helped me cross an aching divide of self doubt. They helped me learn how to use a computer to conduct academic research, to apply for a job, to pay bills online. They helped by literally showing me and believing in me.
Ultimately, to really secure my divorce recovery, I learned that it would take more than just the black and white steps of getting divorced, or even finding a lawyer. It would take NOT just facing my fears. It would take walking into my fears — with each step making me bolder and less ashamed, with each step giving me courage. What I learned too is that if I wanted something more than a flat, empty life, it was up to me to find the leader within me, and to move.
I am walking today, running, but when I ask myself, “Am I happy?” I have to admit … I S-L-O-W down. I don’t want to rush over the question for I’ve learned, it’s about letting the question wash over me. And celebrating! Yes. YES! I say I am definitively happy! It’s been a long time coming, but I can savor the now … like the funny video my daughter just sent me (where she’s dying yarn on a stove with vegetables; she’s an “organic knitter” or some other word I have not yet learned) … or the good words from the brilliant doctor who just told me, “Liza, you are cancer free” … Or the deep satisfaction I feel at last for standing on my own two feet, and finally saving me.
Liza is cofounder and director of SAS for Women®. A graduate of Fordham University, she holds an MA in education from Columbia University’s Teachers College where she studied gender and leadership development. Trained in transformational coaching with the faculty of Leadership That Works, she is a certified professional coach (CPC) recognized by the International Coach Federation (ICF). Divorced and happily single, Liza is the mother to two, amazing and currently self-creating young women.
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