I walked down the aisle over 11 years ago toward a young man who had been my friend and lover for seven years. The conventionalism of college to career to marriage then children was fed to me as the recipe for success for as long as I can remember.
I look at our wedding photos now and see two naive, hopeful kids who had not even begun to discover themselves -- nevermind had any business legally tying themselves to one another before they knew who they were or what they truly wanted.
He and I shared so many firsts together. First apartment, first puppy, first house, first road trip, first child, then another arriving less than two years later. We thought we were doing everything right. Everything that we were supposed to do. Which, in the end, became our undoing.
I was raised to be a good girl. To be liked, to follow the rules and smile safely behind the white picket fence dream. Ever since I can remember I loved mischief. I loved all the things I knew I wasn't supposed to.
"We thought we were doing everything right. Everything that we were supposed to do. Which, in the end, became our undoing."
I had dark thoughts, dreams of adventure, sexual fantasies that would have made my mother faint and ideas that would not blend into this recipe of success I was being taught. I caged most of it for as long as I could. I believed I had to be that good girl to deserve love.
The months, then years, following the birth of my second child were my unraveling. As I look back on that time now, I realize it was the beginning of my revealing. Sleepless nights, a colicky baby turned difficult toddler, arguing, financial stress, loss of intimacy, months trapped in the crippling coffin of depression, years of going through the motions, then a tumultuous and toxic affair all swirled into the hurricane that would not allow us to keep our heads in the sand any longer.
That good girl was gone.
I was split wide open with pain and devastated that all of my good intentions had left me shattered in a heap at rock bottom. What could I do? Apologize profusely, spin a tale of regret, fall back in line and surrender to the present? Cloak myself in the cold reality that this was my bed and I had to forever lie in it?
No. Hell no.
I was gifted a wild heart, and it was about time I started letting it lead the way. To be brutally honest is terrifying, but I faced it. My husband deserved a partner who adored him, who was content in a nice house in the suburbs with a 30-year mortgage and who couldn't wait to crawl into his lap and snuggle against his neck. That wasn't me anymore. I wanted freedom, city lights and intimate alone time with the one person who I had never taken the time to know: myself.
My ex-husband is a rock, for me and our boys. When hard times press true colors bleed and our colors together began to paint our most beautiful story, yet. We never lost sight of wanting to be the best parents we could for our children. He knew the parameters of his happiness and dreams were like barbed wire to me so he loved me enough to let me fly.
"I wanted freedom, city lights and intimate alone time with the one person who I had never taken the time to know: myself."
To discover who I am, to explore where I needed to and to be true to the me that sent fire through my veins and sparked a love again for life. That girl in love with mischief, adventure, the unknown, whose demons raged and who could throw different emotions all over her day like a Jackson Pollock. She deserved love, too.
These days we have dinner together all the time with our boys at his house in suburbia or my apartment in the city. We still go on family hikes, spend holidays together and are planning our first family road trip for this summer. Both of us feel we are gifting our boys evolution.
Love and family is not defined by a marriage certificate or by guidelines set by anyone else.
Love is acceptance and nurturing of each other's happiness.
Love is when your heart feels like it could burst right from your chest and dance around the room when you see someone you care for wearing a genuine smile or tipping their head back in pure joyful laughter.
Love is holding onto one another when life gets difficult and messy.
Love doesn't hold you back or expect you to be something you're not.
Most importantly, what we hope we gift our children is the knowledge that anyone who truly loves them, will want them to be happy. Divorce does not automatically go hand-in-hand with detriment. I love my ex-husband. He is still one of my best-friends and the best co-parent I could have ever hoped for. We have hurt each other badly, but we have forgiven each other deeply.
We are such very different people from those two kids who stood at the end of the aisle together years ago. Though our hearts still beat with love, true love for whoever the other wants to be -- even if that is not a husband or a wife.
A version of this post originally appeared on Elephant Journal.