I've never thought of myself as a trailblazer for anything (see Late Bloomer Club) but lately my small group of friends has me feeling like a pseudo-expert on divorce and co-parenting. With four friends in various stages of marriage collapse, I find myself serving as a circumstantial beacon of inspiration; an unelected trendsetter in marriage disillusionment.
I was married in 2001 and separated in April 2005; my son had just turned three years old. At 30 years old, I was the first among my group to get divorced. I had a dozen friends who hadn't even gotten married yet, but I was dissolving mine. In those early conversations, where I would break the news about our split, friends feigned superhero powers, donning imaginary marriage-saving cloaks, offering up counselor recommendations or babysitting services so we can have a date night.
I'm now over eleven years into my post-divorce relationship, and recounting the idiosyncrasies of my divorce has gotten easier. I find myself sitting opposite too many friends fidgeting in their chair, twirling their wedding bands, begging me to bestow upon them a secret nugget of wisdom which will magically eradicate their mess, but I have no such secrets; only experiences.
My friends are starving for these divorce details which were superfluous chatter a decade ago. Did I use a mediator or a lawyer? (Mediator.) How many sessions did it take? (10 and then I still had to file my own paperwork.) How much did it cost? (Too much. Always too much.) How long did it take? (Too long. Always too long.) How did you split custody? (Exactly 50/50.) Who gets Christmas? (He does, I'm Jewish). Do you get alimony or child support? (Neither.) Who is responsible for buying the kids' clothes or providing the health insurance? What happens if you both die - who gets the kid now? It's an endless list of hypotheticals.
Occasionally I am on the receiving end of jealousy with comments like, "how lucky for you to have found love a second time" or "you're a success story. I want what you have."
I didn't wake up brave one morning; the courage snowballed over time until I felt empowered to take control of my happiness and began honestly valuing what I wanted. I had become disgusted by my reflection in the mirror; the daily tears seemed to tattoo my eyes red and deposited permanent dark circles under them.
Divorce wasn't my default solution. It was high up on my list of "I'll never's" that I've crossed off one by one through life. I didn't want to be a failure in my marriage; I swore I would "make it work." Until I couldn't, I wouldn't, I didn't want to anymore. I had squeezed as much juice out of my heart as I possibly could and it was drained. I was no longer in love with my husband and I didn't like myself very much either. I wanted another chance at love, but more importantly, I wanted to get away from him. Away from his control, away from his misery, away from his condescension, away from his trap. I yearned for freedom to become myself again and grow comfortable in my new skin.
My friends tell me I make it seem easy, and I remind them 12 years will do that; time dulls the edges of pain. At first, I drowned in it, splitting up my son's toy cars, one by one, separating half for my house, half of his and buying identical children's furniture and bedding so my son felt comfortable in his duplicated room. I bawled a dozen times a day. I cried when I saw his name on my caller ID, when I had to pick up my son from his house, or when he picked him up from mine. I cried on my son's birthday or whenever I found myself folding clothing I didn't recognize. I cried at holidays and at school functions and at the bathroom at work after a mediation session.
After I was divorced, I didn't flaunt it as an accomplishment like a master's thesis (although it took years longer), but I felt a pride similar to a recovering addict. I landed in a dark place and I was slowly able to climb out and find the light. I reconstructed my life to be one brimming with the love and companionship for which I so desperately longed.
One friend confessed she was scared to leave her husband for years; her husband threatened he would take the kids. I encouraged her with words I remembered from my mediator: "Don't be scared. He will try to scare you. In a divorce situation usually, it is 80% one person wants it more. This is a rough road but millions of people do it and get over the hurdle. You are still plenty young to find love and have a whole second chance at life and love 2.0. Your happiness is important."
I told her woman-to-woman: "You are worth adoring; you are not his sex slave. You deserve to feel loved and beautiful. Don't linger in a state of regret about why not sooner; it's not too late. 99% of the battle is knowing you are doing the right thing."
It's strange to be in a position where I find myself encouraging my friends to break apart the life they've worked so hard to build. They've just completed building their ten-thousand-piece Millennium Falcon out of Legos and I come along as the cheerleader with sledgehammer pom-poms.