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Divorce Made Me a Better Parent

My son keeps asking me if he has to be divorced when he grows up. That’s a pretty killer question to come at you from your baby (said baby is seven years old), and every time he asks, I remind him (after I wince somewhere deep inside) that no, he doesn’t have to be divorced when he grows up – and, for that matter, he doesn’t have to be married, either. And then I add my little piece of youth-appropriate wisdom and remind him that life isn’t something that you plan. All you can do is do your best and be kind. And then I pour myself a bourbon after he goes to bed.

Astringent though they may be, these moments of carefully doled-out honesty my son, Zack, and I share have been eye-opening – yes, possibly for him, but mostly for me. Because they remind me again and again that I thought I was going to raise my son in some sort of hydroponically sealed universe in which I got to control everything he experienced. All we parents think that at first – otherwise we’d never be able to brave the task. But since Zack’s father ended our 10-year marriage when our son was just ten months old, I had to fast-track the parental-wisdom thing so that my son and I had a chance in hell to come out the other side of all that heartbreak in one piece. (And the good news is: we have.)

So, yes, I learned early that you can’t protect your child from everything. And I also had to come to terms with the fact that his father wasn’t going to parent the same way I did, because, suddenly, he would be parenting Zack away from my watchful eye. Who knows if he was remembering to cut the blueberries in half or if he was rubbing Zack’s back the “right” way when he put him to bed at night without me? I had to set all that firmly aside and just keep learning how to parent – on my own, without a partner to help me. How terrifying.

But it turns out I learned a lot about being a parent BECAUSE of being divorced. Here are the most important things:

  1. Family isn’t defined by who lives in the house.This issue looms big and large when you are divorcing because the child’s first sense of loss is from missing the parent who’s not home. But fortunately for me, Zack was so young when my husband moved out that we didn’t have to have a Big Conversation about what was happening. And the first night my baby said, “Daddy?” one night when I was putting on his pajamas, I got one of those lucky, brilliant brain waves: I remembered that there had been many nights before Chris moved out that he wasn’t home, because we had been splitting the weeknights as part of the separating process. So I simply said, “Daddy’s not here right now, but he loves you. You’ll see him tomorrow.” And then I went on and named all the other people in his life who loved him but who weren’t at home with us that night: my best friend and her dogs, my brothers and their families, my friend from college and his partner, and so on. Every night I put him to bed after that, Zack asked me to play the “All the People Who Love You Who Don’t Live Here” game. Not only did it comfort him, it comforted me, and it made both our worlds bigger and more diverse (great lessons for any family, intact or not).
  2. Letting your child sleep with you is not such a big deal.Oh, the handwringing over this topic! I do understand some of it, of course. But you know what? There are times your child needs to sleep with you, and, more importantly, there are times you need to sleep with your child. I realized in some of my lonelier moments during my divorce that I simply wanted to be close to Zack – especially since I had such little time with him during the day because of my job – and that most nights it was very, very hard to get him to go to sleep in a reasonable amount of time. So rather than stress myself out with the bedtime battles – which I couldn’t handle without bursting into tears in the loneliest moments of the divorce – I decided instead to just let him in: I’d put him to sleep in my bed and then sit next to him and edit copy for work. Once he was asleep, I’d sneak away for an hour or so by myself in the living room and then cuddled him when I got into bed. And I really, really enjoyed those nights and let myself not feel guilty for them. When I was feeling stronger, I then was able to take the time to retrain him. The weeks that it will take for you to do that is well worth the comfort you give – and receive – in the moments your family needs it.
  3. Love is more flexible than I’d believed.I learned a lot about forgiveness in my divorce. My ex-husband and I were able to separate without creating more permanent damage in our relationship (notice that I’m not saying “without fighting, screaming, yelling and enduring confused moments of blinding hatred,” which is always part of the picture). In turn, that has allowed us to keep loving each other, genuinely, not like before but because of all we’ve shared in life. This has been a beautiful thing to let our son see. We’ve had to do a bit of explaining about why it is, then, that we’re not together, but it’s an easier conversation than the alternative. Plus, I also learned to forgive myself, which has made me more compassionate, flexible and reflexively kind. I’m a better partner now and a better parent, since I was forced to really live the truth of love: it always pulls you to the right place, if you can set aside being “right.” I learned that without someone else in the house to blame, I am annoyed by far fewer things. Bring a little more forgiveness into your marriage and your parenting. You won’t regret it.
  4. I can always choose to be happy right now, this second – really.At the height of my divorce, I was running a huge national magazine, renovating a falling-apart house from basement to rooftop, scrambling to find money to pay for the renovations, crying about five hours a week, working for a couple hours at home every night, still learning how to be a mother and doing very intense, once-in-a-lifetime-things, like having a one-on-one interview with then-president G.W. Bush. So, yeah, I was overwhelmed, but I was also blessed with a child who didn’t know what was happening. When I got home every night, he just wanted to show me that water would come pouring out of the faucet if you turned a knob just right, his eyes filled with wonder and delight, or that cell phones made incredibly fascinating beeping sounds if he pressed his thumbs all over them. He taught me that I really could set aside the day’s list of agonies as soon as I walked in the front door – and not after a 15-minute cooling-off period, which I had used to think was necessary. He made me realize that being cranky is kind of self-indulgent – without making me feel bad about realizing it. And so it is that the children teach the parents.
  5. I wasn’t – and life wasn’t – meant to be perfect.One of the most important lessons of all, and if it took my divorce for me to learn it, so be it. Now I’m just happy to spend the rest of my life trying to get people to learn – and believe – that none of us are, without their having to get divorced to understand. Relax and take a deep breath. Now do it again.
  6. And last, but not least: Life is fragile.I am fragile, my son is fragile, our futures are fragile. But this doesn’t lead to being afraid or being falsely strong. I learned from my divorce that I can be strong and weak at the same time, and, as a parent, I learned that passing this simple truth on to my child is a much better lesson than the ones I wanted to teach him before he was born (that he would always be safe, that he will have a bright future, that he is destined to be happy all the time). For me, letting those ideas go captures the eternally poignant joy of parenting: we learn and we love and we fail and we fall and then we get up and we learn and we love some more, but that there is always, always the love. That’s all we get for sure, and it is more than enough. Actually, it’s everything.
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