Sistering

Sistering

This is my ex-husband’s wife. My son’s stepmother. In this patriarchy in which we live, there is language for who she is to these primary people in my life. But there is no language for who she is to me.

I have been searching for a term that expresses the depth of vulnerability and beauty, courage and grace that has shaped who we are to each other.

When I heard Glennon Doyle Melton speak with Marie Forleo recently, she explained that when a builder needs to strengthen a joist, s/he puts a new one next to the original one and fastens the two together. Sometimes, two new joists are needed—one on either side. This collaborative power is called a sister joist. And builders call this act of structural reinforcement “sistering.”

Sistering.

Instead of language that locks us into a static role of family position or status, this verb that embodies how we show up for each other and our family. That reflects the choices we make every day to move toward understanding, trust, and tribe. To recognize how much stronger we are together. And how stable the structure of self can become when we stand shoulder to shoulder with the sisters we are given.

What I love about you is everything

At the personal development workshop, we paired up to do a “What I love about you” exercise. After practicing in pairs with other workshop participants, we were asked to choose someone outside the workshop and do the exercise with them that evening.

I chose to call my seven-year-old son. I explained to Teddy that I was going to talk for a while about what I loved about him. And when I finished, his job was to say, “Thank you, I know.”

I began:

“What I love about you is everything.
What I love about you is how creative and inventive you are.
What I love about you is how kind you are to our animals and your friends.
What I love about you is how hard you work to learn things that interest you.
What I love about you is your passion for perfect grammar…”

For 90 seconds, I riffed on mommy love and my son listened on the other end. When it was his turn, he dutifully said, “Thank you, I know,” and we said goodbye.

When I got home from the workshop and picked up Teddy from his father’s home, the first thing he wanted to know was, “What was that thing we did on the phone while you were gone?”

“Oh, you mean the ‘What I love about you’ exercise?” I answered.

“Yeah,” he responded, “Why did you do that? What was it for?”

“It was to give you practice hearing how lovable you are,” I explained.

“Oh. Well, how did you remember all of those things? Did you write down a list and memorize it?” he wanted to know.

“My love, I could talk for hours about what I love about you without needing to look at a list. It’s all right in here,” I said, pressing my heart. “Did you like hearing all the things I loved about you?”

“Yes,” he said simply.

The next day on our dog walk, I asked Teddy if he wanted to hear more about what I loved about him. He said no.

“Ok. What about the rest of our family? Would you like to hear what I love about Daddy or Taylor (Teddy’s step-mother) or Mark (my boyfriend)?”

Teddy wanted to hear about all three, starting with Daddy. So I riffed out loud for a few minutes with a nonstop stream of “What I love about Daddy is…” statements. Teddy’s face got brighter and brighter as he took in all of my appreciation for and admiration of his father, my ex-husband and co-parent. The truth is, it filled me up, too. I had so much good to say about this man I had worked so hard to reinvent a collaborative friendship with. As the flood of words came through, I became a third-person narrator observing myself, noticing that this young boy’s mother had healed her heart well.

Teddy chose Taylor next. I may have gone on for five minutes about how grateful I am for my son’s other mother, this woman I did not choose who is thankfully someone I respect, admire, truly enjoy, and have come to consider family. Tears were pouring down my cheeks as I spoke, and my chest physically hurt from the press of this third, cherished parent in my heart. Teddy was half-skipping now, his cheeks flushed and his eyes a little shy as they are when I am celebrating him. He recognized that he was at the center of all this love.

“Now, Marky!!” he shouted with glee once I had declared, “What I love about Taylor is everything.”

This time, Teddy started chiming in things he didn’t want me to forget to love about Mark as I started rattling off my beloved’s fine qualities and contributions to our hearts and our family. We volleyed our love of Mark back and forth all the way home.

I don’t know if I’ve ever spent a better 10 minutes with my son. Declaring my position as a mother he could count on to love and appreciate the rest of his parents, in great specificity and with heartfelt enthusiasm, broke something open in me. A split seam where my sense of self had expanded toward greater integration.

This larger version of me unlocked the front door as we moved into the rest of our day.

 

You are not alone

I was at a weekend self-development workshop, seated at a dinner table with five other people, a few of whom had known me well for many years. When it was my turn to share my goals for the workshop, I declared that I was committed to discovering new ways to connect, collaborate, and feel less alone.

Gavin gasped. This man sitting next to me who’s known me since 2004 looked at me as if trying to make sense of what I was saying for a long moment before quickly apologizing for the interruption. I completed my declaration of intentions, and we continued sharing around the table.

But that gasp stayed with me.

In the way that we can hike all day up a mountain without arriving at the scenic view at the top, my friend’s gasp revealed an insight I’d been laboring for years to realize but had never understood: I am not alone. And I had never been alone. I simply had not learned to turn my gaze up high enough to see this truth. Until now.

When I considered how Gavin might perceive me, I saw a woman incredibly rich in community: friends, family, colleagues and readers. A great many of whom had supported me emotionally, practically and even financially throughout some of my most treacherous (and also my most joyous) years. And I marveled that this view had been so difficult to take in through my own eyes, as a result of my habit of interpretation.

The next morning at breakfast I told Gavin that in a single inhalation, he had completely changed my perspective. Recently remarried to a woman who had been a single mother for many years, Gavin affirmed that he understood the enormity of what I am responsible for in running a household and co-parenting a child on my own. He said he could understand that I feel isolated under the weight of it all. It just surprised him, given the love he observed all around me.

Gavin helped me uncover what I now call my Toxic Myth of Alienation. Despite the evident and overwhelming facts to the contrary, I have spent my single mothering years unable to see, feel, or be nourished by much of the rich and widespread support that was available to me. If you’re the only adult in your household who is responsible for parenting, earning, running a household and occasionally sleeping (or any one of these), chances are good that you are also vulnerable to at least temporarily slipping into this same toxic illusion of how alone and unsupported you are.

But I’m here to tell you that it’s not true.

What’s true is that you are loved. You are held. I’ll bet you can list five people you could call or email right now, starting with me, who would be honored to support you with whatever you are struggling with. Plus, you are a part of a global community just like you: parents who are fiercely committed to doing right by their children, their jobs, their pets, their co-parent, their household, their friends, their communities. Who are exhausted, overwhelmed, and maybe even terrified, but are making that steep climb against all odds.

What’s true is that you are not alone. None of us are alone. We can see this more accurately in the eyes of others–such as I did with Gavin, and in this incredible moment at Disneyland.

Look for and listen to the proof when it is given that you have help. You have friends. You have people who want to see you thrive. You have enough of everything and everyone you need to reach that vista at the end of the climb.

I invite you to soak in the truth of that view.

* * * * *

The most powerful way I know to transform a state of mind or a habit of thinking is through rewriting the stories we live by. If you live in or near Portland, I’d love you to join me this Wednesday for a free poetry workshop for people in transition.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Workshop
Making the Crossing: A Poetry Workshop for People in Transition
Wednesday, April 20, 3 to 4:30 pm

239 Northwest Everett Street, Portland, Oregon 97209
15-20 participants
Free with admission or membership

If you can’t join us, remember that poetry, journaling, freewriting, or any other genre of writing is available at any moment to accompany you across any threshold you are seeking.

The Most Important Secret of Being A Person

We are driving home from soccer, and Teddy is in a great mood. His team won three to one, though officially no one keeps score.

As Teddy takes a drink of water, I watch his face change in the rear-view mirror. He picks up where he left off whining on the drive to soccer about not having access to the video games he plays at his dad’s home while he’s with me. We’ve discussed this discrepancy from every angle, and I’m not sure I have anything new to offer.

I reassure Teddy that he’s in charge of his thoughts, and he can think what he pleases. But I point out that he has options he may not have considered. For example, he could keep thinking about his video game disappointment and generate a lot more unhappiness, or he could think about something that makes him happy.

Teddy insists that he prefers to be unhappy about his video game, thank you very much. And we move onto another topic.

But a few days later, Teddy gets into the car after school and declares, “I tried that thing you told me about, and it worked.”

Being a mom of a certain age and memory capacity, I have no idea what he is talking about. “What thing that I told you about?”

“I tried to think about something that made me happy instead of something that made me unhappy, and it worked!”

“Isn’t that cool? I think this is the most important secret of being a person,” I respond. “And now you know it.”

As Teddy digs through his lunch box for leftover carrots and explains a few of the decisions he made at recess, I look out over the Ross Island Bridge at the Willamette River moving deep below us and feel the enormity of the crossing we make twice daily to and from school.

I feel, too, the enormity of the crossing I have made through divorce. From its funeral pyre, this illumination that we get to choose—and live by—what we think.

My son and I steer our thoughts all the way home.

 

Praise for stepmothers

My son spends half of his life under another roof with his father and a woman I did not choose. This woman rises earlier than she’d prefer to care for my son. She cooks meals for him, listens to him, plays with him, considers his preferences and needs and desires. She rides airplanes with him, holds him when he cries, advises him on making the choices that shape who he is becoming. She attends his soccer games and school events and consults on his health and the evolution of his character.

This woman is raising my child: A thought that once broke me open. Now it puts me back together.

I did not meet Taylor for a year and a half. I did not meet her until there was no other choice. She was Pete’s private girlfriend, and I was his private wife. Until we sat across from each other that April evening in the tea shop, steeping.

Slowly, deliberately, and with a great deal of honesty, respect and intention, we plodded toward a sense of community and collaboration.

This Mother’s Day, with Teddy in his other home and the day to myself, I felt a little lost. I asked myself what I wanted to do to honor myself as a mother.

The answer came back immediately: Thank Taylor.

With the answer came tears. Thank Taylor.

This woman I did not choose, who did not choose me, is the most important mother in my life. My son’s other mother.

Nearly five years into the evolution of our blended family, I trust her. I respect her. I like her. Maybe I even love her.

It occurs to me that Taylor and I could be considered a kind of arranged marriage, one step askew. Both of us married the same man, cementing us to the same tribe. We have bonded through the ego-exploding work of weaving a family from the scraps we have been given.

I chose to bring my child into the world. Taylor chose to bring him into her world.

It is choice that makes family. Not blood.

The Joy of Ex

I didn’t know when I was divorcing that I’d eventually come out the other side happier.

I didn’t know that I’d come to love and appreciate and respect my co-parent again, in a fresh and true and far more sustainable way.

I didn’t know that my son would would thrive.

I didn’t know how incredibly resourced, powerful, and courageous I was.

I didn’t know if I’d ever sleep through the night again.

I didn’t know that I’d fall in love again.

I didn’t know if my hair would grow back, or if my body would stop hurting.

I couldn’t imagine laughing, playing, trusting again.

So I set out on what I now call a “Joy of Ex” quest: to find proof that such possibilities existed in the world. To convince myself that there was life and joy and family and hope and healing and relationship and sleep and rejuvenation on the other side of divorce. That there were people living in such bounty right now.

I sought out people who appeared to have made it to the other side. I asked them questions. I studied their lives. I got to know their kids.

What I came to understand is this: When people take responsibility for their happiness, incredible possibilities open up for everyone in the family. As they develop new faith in themselves and new trust in their capacity, the whole family comes into balance. Their children move between two happy (or at least functional) homes. And through their fierce commitment to do right by their children, they repair their relationship with each each other. For those who choose to be in relationship again, this reinvention of family is the taproot of new love.

Not everyone makes these choices.

But this point of view and way of life is available to all of us.

As I understand it now, the Joy of Ex is about letting go of what is leaving, accepting what is entering, embracing the love of our children as the centrifugal force of our lives, taking a clear stand for our blending family, weeding out the stories that keep us tangled together, and letting joy fill in those cleared spaces.

What is the Joy of Ex like in your life? And if you’re not there yet, what do you intend for it to be?

The body is a wonderland

Pete is getting married on Saturday.

When Natasha asked how I was feeling about the wedding, for a moment I went blank and couldn’t figure out whose wedding she was talking about. When I realized she was talking about Pete, my conclusion was that I must be feeling just fine about the wedding.

That night, I dreamed that I was trying to run away with two cats that I believed were mine and Pete believed were his. Pete’s friend Ethan was helping him chase me down. As they started catching up with me, I realized with great surprise that I could simply let the cats go. I understood that they didn’t need my protection as I’d thought they had. That maybe they weren’t even mine.

This morning, I woke up with an interpretation of the dream. I understood it to mean that I could surrender my point of view — my lingering stories (that I no longer tell and haven’t for a long time admitted to myself that I still believe) of how Pete wronged me, hurt me, betrayed me — all of it. Those stories don’t need me, and I don’t need them.

I said out loud to my empty kitchen, “I release Pete and I release myself. We did our best, and we are done.” Then I said it again. 

An hour later, I was sitting at my desk, trying to work, feeling like I was coming down with the flu. All shaky and achey. Because a client of mine wants to create a customer experience like Dutch Brothers and requested that I experience buying a coffee there, and because I wasn’t getting much done at my desk, anyway, I got in my car and headed to the Dutch Brothers drive through. 

Two beautiful young women were in the little stand. The one taking my order leaned out practically into my car and asked me a number of sincere questions about how I’m doing and what’s ahead for my day. She saw Teddy’s car seat and asked me how old he is and where he’s in school. Though I was specifically at this drive-through on a mission to check out the customer service, this woman’s level of engagement and empathy caught me off guard.

I drove out of there crying. The kind stranger’s listening had dislodged something deep in me.

As the tears kept coming, I understood that my “flu” was not an actual illness, but grief surfacing about the “failure” and “finality” of my marriage. Despite the fact that we were nearly four years deep into our divorce, I still had some unmarrying of Pete left to do.  

As I drove, I told my body (I said it out loud, several times) that it didn’t need to get sick for me to grieve this loss completely. That I’d let it feel whatever it needed to feel to move the grief on through.

And I cried and cried. While driving. Between client calls. While talking to friends.

The body is a wonderland. And so is the heart. They let us know what needs our attention. What needs to be fully felt to be completed.

I grieved. I said goodbye to the cats I am no longer responsible for–and maybe never was. And then I let the story of Pete and me go.

Stepping Out of the Boat

Inside the story of our marriage, I was a certain kind of woman, a certain kind of wife and mother. Even if things weren’t happy or whole, I knew my part and how to play it. It was understood between Pete and me that I would be the one to willingly exhaust and overextend myself if I thought something needed doing for our son or our family. And he would be the one resting up, having a drink, watching a movie or doing whatever was necessary to sidestep the whole messy affair of what our relationship had become.

Our therapist described the dynamic like this: We were in a boat, and I had the oars. I was rowing furiously, while shouting, “I need help.” Pete was in the back of the boat, drinking a beer. He knew I had it covered, and he was not the kind of guy to wrestle the oars out of my hands to take over.

Meeting with the lawyer was terrifying, because it meant I had stepped out of our boat, or at the very least put down the oars. If I wasn’t rowing us all forward, who was I? If I wasn’t going to continue to expect to be generous to the point of self-destruction, what would I expect instead?

I didn’t know what fair looked like, or how to calculate parenting time, child support and legal custody as an expression of this new attempt at justice. Taking a stand for myself and my son meant that I would have to invent an entirely new lens through which to perceive my relationship with Pete–but more importantly my sense of myself. The agreeable Sage had to make way for the contentious Sage. The Sage who had made it all ok and defended Pete against the disdain of friends and family had to admit, finally, that it was not all ok. She had to inhabit the truth of what this relationship had cost her–and then give it all a price tag.

Something essential to who I thought I was needed to give way for this to be possible. I stopped sleeping, I cried constantly, I threw up before and after every negotiation with Pete. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t write or wash the dishes or leave the house. I gobbled candies at the lawyer’s office while sitting on the client side of her enormous desk and watching her giant diamond earrings glitter and dangle while attempting to focus on what I was being advised to do and say. Each clause of the legal agreement that took shape was a plank stripped from our little boat, a sinkhole in the mythology of our marriage. With boat and oars and Sage-the-savior deconstructed, I was a lost woman adrift in the turbulent waters of the soul.

Blind date

You realize with a shock as you are hugging her that you have arranged to meet at the same coffee shop where you first met your ex-husband. You blurt this out ungracefully as you sit down across from this stranger who has been a planet in your family constellation for more than a year. The other woman your son loves. The other woman your ex-husband loves.

You talk for two and a half hours. She is backlit by a great bank of windows, and it is almost blinding to look at the almost-shadow of her. In a trance of voice and story, tears rising like a buoy to the surface as the tea goes down, you clasp hands across the table like friends, like family. Your cheeks are a deep flush as your heart is doing something strenuous like the last stretch an elastic has to give. You like her, and the ache of it travels around in you like the clot of a lost story.

You drive her home to the place that is not your home, where she will spend the rest of the day with your son and his father. You drive home alone, the car a big gulp of air that no one is breathing. When you get home you are too tired to stand. You look swollen and strange. You understand who you have become: a woman familiar enough with grief to trust the waves that take you out, then bring you back again to shore. A woman who knows it is the struggle that sinks you.

Self-Responsibility and Storytelling

The tricky thing about telling the truth is that there is no single truth. A diamond has endless refractions, and so do the events we live through. How we dig a moment up, shape it, and polish it influences what we can see and feel at any given time. But this process is in constant flow, as we are.

The way we tell our stories has the power to shape our relationships—and our lives. twit-bird

I am plagued with the inevitabilities of inaccuracy as I write here at Radical Divorce. And I am obsessed with self-responsibility as I tell stories that involve other people.

My essay “Why I Turned Down The New York Times” in Kerry Cohen’s fabulous new book, The Truth of Memoir considers one such struggle to honor the ambiguities and the contradictions of shared experience. In this excerpt, I am recounting my conversation with a New York Times columnist who was considering interviewing Pete and me for a story about “what happened” in our marriage:

As the journalist pressed me for my thesis statement about why our marriage ended, I became increasingly uncomfortable. I was giving her metaphors about the mismatch of my depths and Pete’s heights, but she wanted facts.

“Remember that New Yorkers are going to be reading this article. They’re going to want to understand what actually happened here,” she advised, steering me toward the clincher.

The problem wasn’t that I had grown too “woo-woo” since moving to the west coast to give a clear, factual answer. Though it took me a few hours after our call to understand, the problem was that I was fundamentally opposed to giving such an answer.

Pete and I had not betrayed each other in any kind of conventional way. There had been no affair. No lies or deceit or violence. I had a very specific moment to point to when I knew that it was over, but this was my moment, and it was hinged to a lifetime of moments that could not be summed up in one sentence. There seemed no way to say it without blame. And this was the whole point of my project—to move away from blame and instead seek the opportunities of each heartbreak and hardship.

I knew enough from a lifetime of storytelling to expect that twenty years from now, Pete and I would likely each have a sentence or two that distilled the entire experience of our relationship to a “Why it ended” synopsis. Maybe we’d even use the same two sentences. But it was all still too fresh. I was still writing myself out of the hole. I could not send the arrow of a summary statement through my heart or his. Whatever I might say would not be true enough, and might not even be true at all.

Many of us were told as children, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” There is good wisdom in this. But I’d modify it to say, when hearts are on the line, “If you can’t say something absolute, don’t say anything at all.” There will be plenty of time to declare “what happened” once and for all after the story settles.

Stepping off of the merry go round of disappointment

Locked into a dynamic defined by opposing camps of “Disappointer” and “Disappointed”, there’s not much room for anyone to find new ground. Trying to get something that has never been attainable from someone who was never equipped to give it in the first place is like being on a merry-go-round and expecting to end up someplace different.

About six months after Pete moved out, I stepped off that merry go round.

I had become a whiny, sad and resentful person in my marriage, and I showed every sign of continuing in that vein in my relationship with Pete for the rest of our lives. However, the longer he was gone, the easier it was to perceive choices–about my expectations and my attitude.

Simply, and not maliciously, I decided to pretend Pete didn’t exist. Sure, Theo would spend time with him at the allotted intervals, and we would see each other. But beyond that, I understood that I needed to not think of him as a resource–to me or to Theo. No guilt, no blame, no nothing. Just Pete free to be Pete and me responsible for whatever I deemed necessary for our son.

Was it fair? No. But I could not make things fair. And I could not afford to suffer any longer over how things weren’t working out the way I thought they should. The only thing I had control of was my thinking. I knew for sure that focusing on what was unfair was not contributing to my peace or wellbeing.

So: I asked for nothing. I wanted nothing. I expected nothing. It was a complete system reboot.

Remarkably quickly, Pete started showing up in ways he never had in our marriage. He became genuinely, enthusiastically helpful. And I became genuinely, enthusiastically appreciative. When you expect nothing, anything you receive is a gift.

For the first time in my son’s life, I didn’t feel alone in raising him. Had things suddenly become fair or equal? No. However, it felt like Pete and I had built a bridge on air–in which there could be gratitude and grace anyway. I had to let go of the idea that only fairness would make me happy to see how much suffering this idea had caused me.

Becoming an outlaw

Since he had words, my son has been trying to find the right names for the complicated constellation of adults in his life. For years, he called Taylor “Daddy’s husband” and could not be persuaded to call her what she was: Daddy’s girlfriend.

With a good number of his aunts, uncles and grandparents divorced and reconfigured in relationship, Teddy still struggles with the nuanced language of step-families, in-laws, and what to call partnerships and tribes that don’t fit easily within our societal norms.

For example, Teddy seems to feel strongly that the new kitty at his father’s home must have a specific relationship with me. In his attempt to define our roles, first Teddy experimented with calling me Lucky’s mother-in-law. Nope. Step-mother? I don’t think so.  We settled on calling me Lucky’s aunt, as this seemed friendly, non-parental and vague enough for our loose affiliation.

Teddy is not the only one in the family struggling to define the undefinable. Taylor and I had a conversation recently about what we should call each other. The language available to us offered two choices: defining Pete’s possession or non-possession of us (I the ex-wife, she the soon-to-be new wife), or defining our primary or semi-primary parenting roles (mother, step-mother).

No thank you. 

What all of these choices lack is the definition of who we are to each other: the two women who share a love of a man and a child—each with different roles to play in those loves.

We’re not in-laws, exactly. We needed something that put us close to that ground, but also honored the contradictions, the pain, the sacrifices that welcoming each other as family involved.

I proposed that we call each other “outlaws”. And it stuck.

I love about thinking about Taylor as my outlaw. It’s language that honors that we’re doing family in our own way. To me, “outlaw” says we’re close, but there’s an edginess to that closeness. We take our power to affect each other’s lives seriously, and we navigate the terms of our relationship with great care and respect.

Outlaws. No one wants to mess with them. They’ve found a way around the conventional. They take fate into their own hands. They do heroism in their own way, together.

The Co-Parent Carpool

When I returned to full-time employment, my new job’s hours were exactly the hours of my son’s preschool. Which meant that I would need to be commuting to work at the times I would otherwise be transporting my son to and from school.

I negotiated a daily rhythm that had me coming in an hour early and leaving an hour early. This would enable me to make it to school in time to pick up Teddy every day. My plan was to find a babysitter to cover from 7 to 8:30 every morning and drive him to school in my place. Instead, Pete volunteered to do the morning shift. This would save me money and give Pete and Theo daily time together for the first time since we all lived together. Win/win! The hitch was that Pete did not own a car. We agreed that he would use mine.

As a result, my days looked like this: Wake at 5:30, leave the house by 6:45, drive Teddy to Pete’s and leave both son and car with Pete. Take the bus from Pete’s to work, arriving at 7:30 while Pete fed Teddy his second breakfast and then delivered him to school in my car. Pete would use the car for the day and then make sure it was in his apartment parking lot for me by 5 when I’d arrive by bus to drive to the preschool and collect Teddy.

It had been nearly two years since we split, and I was long past the point of needing as little contact with Pete as possible. It was actually sweet to have a daily hand-off where we discussed our son’s sleep, mood and needs for the day. Equally organized and well-prepared, Pete and I tended to do transitions smoothly. Usually, the necessary stuff was where it was intended to be. We could count on each other for that. As I loaded up with purse, computer bag, coffee mug and whatever else I was lugging to the bus, we’d have a group hug, and then my son would gleefully run up the outside steps with his father to their apartment home in the sky. It was as good as a co-parenting collaboration gets, as I saw it, and both Pete and I had pitched in to make it so.

When my dog was sick, Pete came to collect me at work–and then brought both the dog and me back to work. When I was sick, Pete delivered the car to a nearby, downtown parking lot so I would be able to get home whenever I was ready to leave the office without a major commuting ordeal. He used my car on some days to do errands, commute to work, drive to remote running spots. Everyone’s needs got met.

On the bus one morning, I was looking out the window at rain-streaked Portland blurring by and found myself wondering if maybe our rhythm worked as well and felt as good as what “real” families do. I knew for sure we couldn’t have arrived anywhere as sweet with the original shell of our family in tact. Maybe, I proposed to the disinterested sky, some things just work better once they have been broken open.

Claim Your Own Independence Day

Once, a man I had just met at a seminar casually mentioned that he was celebrating his own, personal Independence Day. When I inquired, he explained that he had decided to quit smoking 14 years ago on this day. Every year, he celebrated this choice and its related freedom.

More than two years after Pete and I split, I was walking through a lunchtime crowd back to my office and noticed that I was smiling for no particular reason. The next thought I had was of that man who had freed himself of smoking. I decided the day of the spontaneous smile would be my Independence Day from here on out. I had freed myself of the agonies of marriage and a good number of the agonies of divorce. That was worth commemorating.

What if you were to choose an Independence Day–one that signifies for you the power of your choices and the freedom you are coming home to? It could be the day you discovered the affair, the day you (or he) decided to leave, the day you signed the divorce papers, the day you could smile at him in a co-parenting hand-off and really mean it, the day you slept through the night, or your hair stopped falling out–the options are endless. All that is required is that this date has symbolic impact for you.

Once you choose it, honor that Independence Day with as much care as you cherish each child’s birthday. Because this is, in a sense, your birthday. The woman, wife and mother you once were was reborn in divorce. Give thanks to her for seeing you through.

Trying to Act Normal When Nothing is Normal

When he was not quite two, Teddy and I embarked on the very first foreshadowing of his independent life away from his parents: a weekly Mommy and Me class. I enrolled with the idea that we’d make some friends in the neighborhood who Teddy could play with in the next few years until his school days officially began. The first class met exactly one week after Pete moved out.

This was a Waldorf Mommy and Me, where the virtuous rhythms were highly proscribed, the toys were impeccable, and the kids were expected to do everything in order, as they were told. Every child in the class except my son was the second child in a family whose older kids were enrolled in the affiliated Waldorf preschool. So the mothers, all stay-at-home moms, were already friends who had time to do things like sew, knit, cook, and discuss these things earnestly and at length.

I, on the other hand, was self-employed and supporting an entire family, carving out a few tense hours between deadlines and calls to engage meaningfully with my child. The kids were already well socialized with each other and in the Waldorf experience. My child was well socialized with doing things exactly as he saw fit, which was what I assumed to be the case with all not-quite-two-year-olds.

It went like this: women 15 years my junior discussing their husbands, their sewing, their two-to-three children. And from there: My child, who was clearly 25 times as hungry as the other kids, wanted all the raisins intended for the bread and then, when it was finished baking, wanted to eat everyone else’s bread.

My child couldn’t understand why he had to sit at a table when what he really wanted was to look at the fish in the aquarium. He couldn’t understand why he had to sit in a circle and hold hands when he wanted to be outside shoveling sand. Then, the unspeakable: a wooden egg launched across the room by my Waldorf-impaired child.

There I was, trying to fit in a community where I would never come close to fitting, trying to fit into a life that had in a week lost all sense of reality. I was the wooden egg: numb and dumb, flying through the air. I was the two-year old whose entire being was organized around the impulse to simply make something happen for the pleasure of experiencing his own momentum. And I was the collective gasp as that egg flew, without malice, toward inevitable harm.

We never went back to that class.