Published on April 22nd, 2020 | by Marika Lindholm0
What I Would Tell My Younger Self About Getting Divorced
I divorced my husband when my children were three and five years old. He wasn’t abusive, mean, or a drunk, but I was miserable. Divorce seemed like my shot at happiness. And although I was strong enough to get out, the leaving almost killed me. The guilt, economic insecurity, loss of identity, and overwhelming juggle of work and young children were so unrelentingly stressful that my healthy body finally rebelled: Nine months after leaving my husband, I was diagnosed with a potentially fatal blood disorder.
Now, more than 20 years later, here are some things I wish I could have whispered in the ear of my younger self.
You will not survive on popcorn and red wine. I was careful to feed my children healthy food, yet in the midst of teaching extra courses, worrying about bills, shuttling the kids, and agonizing over my decision, I barely ate. The only thing I looked forward to was the victorious moment when both children were contentedly tucked in bed and I could numb my brain with a glass of red wine, bad TV, and a bowl of popcorn. I never admitted to myself that nightly snack wasn’t enough sustenance. Oblivious to the muscle and fat melting off as weeks passed, I forged forward as a spunky skeleton hidden under a bulky sweater. My daughter recently found a pair of size 2 suede pants from that time. “Whose are these?” she exclaimed, holding up pants that no one in our tall, athletic family would be able to squeeze into. Ashamed of the evidence, I confessed that I’d lost some weight a while back. What I didn’t say was that the mother who fit into those pants barely had the energy to play with her children. That mother was so intent on making sure her kids were stable that she forgot her own physical needs. I wish that someone had taken me by the hand, placed me in front of a mirror, and forced me to see: I’d allowed myself to be diminished. In retrospect, it’s not shocking that I became vulnerable to a life-threatening illness.
You will lose friends—and true friends will reveal themselves. Some of my closest friends resented that I chose to divorce. They pulled me aside and lectured, or wrote passionate letters warning me that my decision was selfish and harmful to my kids. They treated me as if I were contagious, withdrawing from our friendship to “protect” their family, and particularly their husbands, from me. True friends stepped up, especially when I was sick, in ways that still make me teary-eyed in appreciation. My symptoms were high fevers, rashes, and complete body ache—to the point that I sometimes couldn’t get out of bed or even hold a glass of water. My postdivorce community was there for me, providing months of physical and emotional support, while doctors flailed and failed to make a proper diagnosis through rounds of futile tests and frightening discussions of multiple sclerosis, lupus, blood clots, and heart failure. (In my dark moments, I imagined my red blood cells, angry and punishing, wreaking havoc because I’d left my marriage.) Acquiring newfound empathy for 19th-century “hysterics,” I began to wonder if it were all in my head. I confessed to my remaining close friends that I was scared of dying. They took my late-night phone calls when my terror got the best of me and made me laugh. We celebrated together when a biopsy revealed the red chaos running through my veins could be cured with a simple pill once a day for two weeks. (Turns out this same pill also cures leprosy!) It worked. With my strength back, I began to make new friends, and I realized that those who had treated me as if I wore a scarlet letter were terrified and even a little bit jealous that I had the guts to go after my own joy.
You will have days you are not proud of. My children and I moved from a condo with a washer/dryer and dishwasher to a fourth-floor walk-up with none of those luxuries and a bathroom with stains and rust that no amount of cleaning could make appealing. I slept on the couch, since my bottomless guilt propelled me to give each child a room of their own. We strove to make a new life for ourselves. Photo albums of that time belie the pain that came with going to a new school, heartbreaking transitions between each parent’s home, and holidays that I strained to make festive. One year, we dedicated a full day to baking cookies for our new neighbors, and when we went door to door, no one was home except an elderly gentleman who grabbed the plate and shut the door. Not the holiday vibe I was hoping to summon.
Among my many challenges was finding a parking spot close enough to our apartment so that my exhausted preschooler and kindergartner could make it to the building and then up all those stairs. I took risks that I’m not proud of—leaving them in the foyer, asking a sketchy neighbor to keep watch, or locking them in the car while I ran bags of groceries upstairs. My new life was full of missteps, misgivings, and mistakes, and moments when I became unhinged. One day in the midst of a Chicago snowstorm, I double-parked, sat the kids in the foyer, and promised I’d be right back. With snow pounding the windshield and the car slipping and sliding as I inched forward, I circled a two-block, three-block, and five-block radius, searching for a place to park. I pleaded with fate: “Keep my kids safe, and I’ll never leave them alone again.” Berating myself, I finally ditched the car in a snowdrift and ran home. To my enormous relief, I found them reading together in the foyer. I pulled them close and sobbed, “I’m so sorry. Mommy is really sorry.” They looked up at me as if I were out of my mind—because I was. If I could, I would tell this desperate younger me, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re a good mom, and you’re doing your best in an impossible situation.” I did get through it, and it did get easier.
You will never be the same person. Not every woman who goes through a divorce ends up with a blood disorder, but we all endure a life-changing transition. Some of us might get physically sick. Others may battle depression or anxiety. A rare few are fortunate to maintain bodily and psychological integrity, but none of us will ever be the same. The happy secret that I would tell my divorcing self is that the incredibly challenging process eventually makes you a stronger, more empathetic, and more connected human being. Facing the emotional hardship of divorce carves new reservoirs of compassion that make you more forgiving and supportive of others as they struggle with their own challenges.
Through my work, I have the honor of witnessing acts of solo-mom generosity—no matter how deeply they’re struggling, solo moms will lend a hand to another person in need. I’ve seen them give money and clothes, offer free babysitting, and impart words of kindness to other solo moms when they themselves are struggling. Getting to the other side of divorce and reestablishing one’s sense of self requires self-love and self-care. You must be resilient to endure your new reality. Mama bear comes out because it’s all up to you; you gain efficacy as all the tasks your partner took care of now fall on you. And while challenging, going through it is empowering and instills confidence.
Your children will be just fine. Your son will grow to be brave and passionate, and join the Peace Corps, traveling Mozambique; your daughter will find joy teaching 5th grade boys at an all scholarship school in Massachusetts.
Please take care of yourself, mamas. Respect the process, and know that you will be forever changed, but in a good way. You join a fellowship of divorced women who walk in the knowledge that they were psychologically and physically tested but made it. The rewards—self-confidence, fulfillment, and good health—are sweet.