Navigating life after divorce with kids is never ever easy. As a teenager, I was heartbroken over the tragic ending of my parents’ marriage. Going between two houses was a clumsy and painful experience. The only real relief I felt was in knowing that I’d hear my parents fight a little less. Deep down, I yearned for a happy, united family I knew I’d never fully have.
Just when I thought I had moved on from divorce, it found me again. Twice. Divorce snuck up on my first marriage and totally re-broke my heart. Thankfully on this go around, no children were involved, so it was only me who needed mending.
Then in 2014, I was thrown a major curveball when I met my husband Matt and his 8-year-old daughter Bella.
After a challenging split, Matt and his ex-wife Fernanda worked hard to share an equitable amount of time with their daughter. But just like any custody situation, it was a tough balancing act. And Bella was feeling the effect of being split between two homes.
When Matt and Bella came into my world, I expected the circumstances of divorce to hurt me the way they always have. I assumed I’d feel just as broken and messy as I did years before. I worried that Bella would struggle to ever fully trust me with her heart. And I most definitely expected Matt’s ex-wife to be someone to deal with, rather than someone to love.
We all know divorce isn’t easy. But choosing to open up emotionally in the time after it? Well, that’s a doozy. With feelings still fresh and wounds that haven’t fully been repaired, the act of opening up is darn extraordinary. I can speak to this firsthand, because I had no idea how much healing would occur for me once I opened my heart up to Matt’s ex-wife.
The thing that has always blown me away about Fernanda has been her willingness to trust me to help raise her daughter, even from the beginning. Despite whatever feelings she struggled with during her divorce from Matt, she’s allowed Bella’s world to lovingly expand. In fact, both my husband and his ex-wife helped Bella welcome a stepmom into her life, and even a stepdad, too. And while the journey has been fraught with vulnerability, both of Bella’s families have willingly shown up to help care for her. For better or worse, this kid is deeply loved by four parents, and that is in large part due to Matt and Fernanda.
When Bella graduated fifth grade and there weren’t enough tickets for me and her stepdad to attend, Fernanda found a way to have us all included. Meetings to pick up Bella have turned into moments of deep connection and understanding for us all. We’ve helped each other move into new homes, celebrated birthdays together, and supported one another through new jobs and tough life changes.
But the most amazing development of all has been seeing how easily Fernanda’s 3-year-old son has bonded with my 2-year-old daughter. Most of Matt’s and my extended family members live thousands of miles away, and the same is true for Fernanda and her husband. As I see both young children treat each other with the affection of siblings, I realize there’s a remarkable opportunity to expand my personal definition of what truly makes a family.
I learned early on as a stepmom that by signing up to love Matt and his daughter, I also signed up to love Fernanda, too. And I’m surprisingly glad I did. That love has shown up as compassion, patience, and hope for a situation that continues to teach me how to be a better human. It certainly helps that Matt’s ex-wife has allowed herself to grow in the process, too.
I used to think that two parents and a single home could provide all the love someone needs to feel whole, but that just isn’t true. It’s taken three encounters with divorce to teach me that it really is as simple as choosing who you share your heart with. And if you choose with openness, you just might find your own modern family to be the great love of your life.