Coping with divorce was not on my list of goals as a happily married mom of three. But my husband of twelve years had a different list, one he shared with me just weeks before Christmas.
He asked me to join him at the dining room table, where he sat with a piece of paper and two fingers of scotch in front of him and read the words he’d prepared: He’d been unfaithful for more than ten years, and he was leaving me for someone he’d met and known for one day in Las Vegas.
I remember sliding off my chair onto the floor as he walked out, leaving me alone with the kids sleeping in their beds.
When I finally got to my feet, an image of my mother flashed before me and I felt weak with shame. How could I be here, in a situation so similar to what she had faced with my father? How was it possible when I had done everything right? I had chosen my husband so carefully, certain that I could never be fooled by an unfaithful man.
Let the ghosts out
I dreaded telling her, certain that she would make the inevitable comparisons and that my experience would invite more dad-bashing.
But my mother only cried with me. A lot. I felt the depth of her pain through the phone line, and I was soothed because there is nothing in the world like crying to your mother. I believe it waters some dry patch in us that, as adults, we tend to overlook, intent instead on staking up our Proven-Winner lives.
Here I had believed my life was in full bloom. I had vowed to do everything differently from my mother, different from all the divorced women who came before me. My mother didn’t know how to write a check when my parents divorced. She had never handled her own money. I may have been a stay-at-home mom when my husband left, but I had a college degree and I knew how to run a Quickbooks spreadsheet. I was part of a new generation of smart women.
But the helplessness, the sense of doom, that my mother must have felt flared in me, and I understood it in a way I never could before.
In a session with my therapist, I cried, “I don’t want to be like my mother, alone and bitter!”
“That’s one picture,” he said. “But there are others.”
Those words would become a lifeline for me: there are other pictures, other ways of being. I didn’t have to become my mother. Now that I’d been thrust into the same situation, I felt the anger and judgments I’d carried toward her dissolve, replaced by a resolve that I would do all I could to feel powerful again after divorce.
So I created a new list:
Refuse to repeat the past
I found ways to ground myself in the present, even if that meant constantly repeating the obvious to myself: I lived in a different city, had a different education, personality, and support system than my mother. I could move on and choose a new future simply by deciding to.
Break the rules that need to be broken
During my divorce process I was told what to do by a variety of experts, including lawyers, mediators, vocational counselors, judges, and even other divorced friends. When I decided, on my own, to move myself and my kids to a cheaper apartment, my lawyer warned me to get permission from the court first. Instead, I trusted my gut and calmly explained that my move would save everyone money, including my former husband. My lawyer shifted gears so enthusiastically that I almost thought it was his idea!
Put yourself first
I learned that coping includes not only setting boundaries but stretching them too. I trained myself to tell my Ex-husband, “Sorry, that won’t work for me.” That was it. End of sentence. I stopped adding explanations and entertaining objections.
And then I went dancing. I took every lesson I’d always dreamed of taking, enduring the embarrassment of being up close and personal with strangers or stepping on someone’s toes. Dancing would become one of the unexpected gifts of my divorce. And when I knew enough to hold my own, I invited my mom to a jazz club, where we tore up the dance floor and had a blast.
I saw that we had very different ways of moving, both on the dance floor and through our divorces.
My divorce wasn’t my mother’s divorce. It was mine. And it was perfectly orchestrated for me to become my best self—past, present, and future.
Tammy Letherer is an author and writing coach. Her most recent book, The Buddha at My Table: How I Found Peace in Betrayal and Divorce, is a Gold Medal Winner in the Living Now Book Awards and in the Human Relations Indie Book Awards. It was also a finalist in the 2018 Best Book Awards. Tammy writes regularly about creativity, the writing life, inspiration, and spirituality. You can find her blogs on Huffington Post, SheKnows, GrokNation, SheDoesTheCity, and more. Connect with her at TammyLetherer.com.