The Doubled Edged Sword:
Thoughts on Being a Single Mother After Divorce
By Mary Eisenhauer
Just over five years ago, I stood in the courtroom and answered a judge as she posed a short list of questions. Standing next to the man I had spent my college and young adult years with, I choked out responses to “have you tried everything possible to stay together” and “do you agree with the custody and financial arrangements documented here”. It was a very strange experience, appearing next to my husband for the last time. The man who had been my best friend, who knew me better than anyone, who had grown to adulthood with me, the man who had become my daughters’ father. Who ultimately buckled under the pressures of a home and children and was unable to find a way to rise to the occasion. I cried in court, from the stress of the event. Six weeks later during the holiday season, I cried nonstop for 3 days. Not for the loss of that man; that loss had occurred years earlier. I cried for the loss of what was supposed to be.
In the years since that time, I have read numerous books on divorce that all express similar concepts: how important it is to spend time getting to know myself, how essential it is not to settle for less than I want, that this is a chance to create the life of my dreams, and how strong and liberated I will find myself to be. How, if I just allow it to happen, I can learn to love again, have well-adjusted kids, and successfully co-parent with my former spouse. And many more optimistic, upbeat, overly simplistic messages.
I’m not going to go on about any of those themes. The truth is that divorce is a double edged sword, and for every bit of relief, there is a sense of overwhelming loss. For every aspect of sadness, there is hope. For every delight, there is anger. The man you once vowed to love until eternity no longer plays that role but is still part of your life. Like it or not. He’s not going away and you must find a way to interact with him for your children’s sake. Your kids’ lives are forever changed, as is yours. Every aspect of your life – financial, medical, emotional, social, spiritual – is impacted. That’s a tough pill to swallow and it takes time and a strong will to fully swallow it. Yet I think I have, and have absorbed a few pearls of wisdom along the way.
What have I learned?
- The divorce books will tell you that this is your opportunity to learn new things and find out what you’re made of. That is, you will be tested and challenged. After divorce, women must re-negotiate their roles in society. Women who once relied on their husbands for everything from car repairs to lawn care to financial support now own those daunting responsibilities. Society has historically expected less of women in these areas, and even in the new millennium, is not ready for them to be in the driver’s seat. Those of us who accordingly expected less of ourselves must now face many tasks once performed by our husbands. A malfunctioning furnace or squealing brakes are sources of major stress to a single mom who feels ill equipped to manage them among everything else. The good news? It can be amazingly fun to take control of a situation where you once needed your husband. Talking down the price of a new car, repairing the garbage disposal, or installing virus software on the laptop post-divorce gives a woman a sense of independence and satisfaction. Not to mention courage. It just takes one accomplishment to make us stronger.
- Every single mom will tell you there aren’t enough hours in the day and a long list of things to do that never gets shorter. The responsibilities of children and a home are daunting, aside from anything additional like a career or volunteer work. It’s the lucky mom whose ex-husband takes on a portion of the list, with many moms exclaiming that they just need a cleaning lady/cook/chauffeur/tutor. And the books emphasize that you must ask for help, to maintain sanity and to be a good mom. For many women, asking for help is difficult, whether they believe they have no one to ask or simply aren’t accustomed to asking. The good news? Help comes from unexpected sources. You may or may not have a cooperative ex-spouse, and you may or may not have extended family living locally who can pick up some of the slack. But it is the rare mom who can’t identify a small circle of friends and neighbors to pinch hit. Sometimes it is the kindly old man two doors down who has time to take your kids for ice cream while you get a long overdue haircut. Or your coworker whose children have outgrown their ice skates and are looking for other kids to take them. Or the teenager next door who enjoys playing Wii with your kids (something you hate and your husband used to do) so you can pay bills in peace. ‘Help’ can mean many different things as well. A stranger on the train who takes the time to make a meaningful comment to you can have equal value to any teenage babysitter.
- It’s true that you may give up freedoms you had when your husband was in the picture. Sleeping late on Saturday mornings, going out for drinks with colleagues after work, even simply slipping out for a pint of gelato at 10:00 pm are no longer a given when you are home alone with the kids. Meals may take longer to prepare, time alone more difficult to come by, adult social outings more limited. Getting out without the kids can be a greater challenge. The good news? Time spent with the kids makes a lasting impression on them. And the older they get, the more clearly they see just how much effort you expend on their behalf and how strong their mom really is. A neighbor (a member of my own small circle of supportive pinch hitters) recently passed along that my daughter insists I am independent and very important at work. Of course, my daughter is unlikely to give me this feedback to my face, but I take the indirect comments as high praise.
- Newly single moms learn who their friends are. Friends are often perplexed at how to remain friends once the couple separates and may awkwardly try to maintain surface relationships with both individuals. Some friends stop communicating at all, for fear of having to choose between one spouse or the other. A single mom can also become a threat to the married moms in her neighborhood, regardless of whether that ever crossed her mind. None of these instances seems fair, nor do they feel good at the time a single mom needs support. The good news? It stings at the time these changes take place, but the people who stop talking to you or view you as a threat are the people you would have outgrown anyway. The friends you make once you have changed your life this way are the ones who are interested in you and see the best in you. I can say with confidence that while I was saddened after my divorce to no longer exchange Christmas cards with a handful of old friends, I also feel fortunate beyond words for the brotherly coworker who helped me move into my new house, and for my daughter’s Brownie leader who regularly invites me for coffee to discuss our careers and dreams.
- It’s true that most divorced people experience a period of hating their ex-spouses. The first few years can be particularly challenging, as everyone settles into new routines and details that fell through the cracks of the divorce agreement finally come to the surface. And the stress of the situation brings out the worst in everyone. Ex-wives scratch their heads and wonder what they could have ever had in common with such a jerk. The good news? Time does heal wounds, if you let it. And with a little finesse, a single mom can get to the other side of the anger and sorrow. This might require a little distance from your ex, or a cease fire, or even a written contract. Maybe therapy or coaching. It will require compromise. But with determination and an eye on the big picture, you can find respect or at a minimum, peacefully co-exist with your ex husband. I recently wound down a long period of negativity in my own situation, yet occasionally old issues still rear their ugly heads. But in the past few weeks, I have found myself realizing that my daughters are versatile and well rounded in social situations; they can hold their own with a variety of other kids. Their father and I and our respective families couldn’t be more different. But the girls are able to successfully fit into both worlds and feel loved and appreciated. And isn’t that the best case scenario for kids in this family structure?
I still haven’t begun to discuss many aspects of change brought about by divorce, and am certain there is a great deal of wisdom I have yet to realize. It has been a long time since that day in the courtroom, along with many tears, disappointments, adjustments, hopes and surprises. I am happy to say that today there are more highs than lows. Divorce is undoubtedly a double edged sword. But time and courage can begin to dull the sharp edge.