Life changes dramatically when divorce happens.
And divorce does happen, like an affliction, a disease leaving scars that fade with time but never fully disappear. At least it felt that way for me. At the age of 31, with a two year old son, divorce left me scarred by the transformation it forced upon me. I was no longer a wife. I lived on my own for the first time, had my own mortgage, saw my child only 50 percent of the time, and learned how to fix hot water heaters, toilets, and broken sprinklers (because I had to). Dad showed me how to turn off the circuit breaker, shut off the water and a heap of other home-ownership things I never wanted to know. I was also financially dependent on myself since my ex and I opted not to pursue spousal or child support.
I was definitely overwhelmed and quickly learned there's very little easing-in to divorce.
What's more, "motherhood" and "dating" suddenly took residence in my life at the same exact time and were no longer mutually exclusive. Like so many newly single parents, I struggled to consider a new life where the focus wasn't solely on family and career but included new independence and a dating scene I hadn't considered for twelve years. The sweetness and purity of motherhood were sharply juxtaposed against the sexy dating scene. One day, I was changing diapers and rocking my child to sleep. The next, I was wearing a little black dress and heels while trying to rock-out a new life.
The paradox was unsettling.
Reconciling how HotWheels cars, pacifiers and baggies of crushed cheerios shared space in my purse with valet parking tickets and new tubes of red lipstick, was staggering. The world was off-kilter and I felt as if I was slipping over the edge with nothing to anchor me. I struggled (oh, how I struggled) as I laughed and cried at the cruel absurdity of it all. I often asked, "Is this really my life?" But I already knew the answer -- this was my life, a life filled with uncertainty and a barrage of constant change (and broken garbage disposals and roof leaks). And dating.
Like many newly single moms, I was compelled to join the dating scene to fill the void of my ex's absence and escape an empty house's silence. It seemed reasonable. Even well-intentioned family and friends suggested I "get out there" and "meet someone new" and "have fun."
So I did. Or, rather, I tried.
I got dressed-up on nights I didn't have my son, met dates at restaurants and shared edited versions of myself while I listened to theirs. You know, dating. I worried about everything from whether to split the bill, to whether he thought I was pretty enough, to whether he would drug my cocktail (all while worrying about what my ex was feeding our son.) When I returned to a too-quiet home, I called mom to tell her I was home safely from the dangerous dating scene where clawing serial killers were ready to kidnap me, the girl who was newly divorced from the second boy she'd ever kissed.
I was so naïve.
Dating as a divorced mom felt like an odd betrayal. Even though I dated on nights I didn't have my son, he was always on my mind. Taking attention away from him (even when he wasn't with me) felt wrong. What's more, finalized divorces have no correlation to emotional healing. My marriage ended before my heart fully caught-up to the finality of it all. And while I realize many divorced moms and dads are eager to date and invigorated by the prospect of meeting someone knew, I just wasn't one of them yet.
When it comes to life's more humbling experiences, dating as a divorced parent was second only to divorce itself. I felt the need to explain I was a mother, my most important role. Sure, I had a career and hobbies, but when I met a man the words, "I have a two year old," burst from my lips. I felt compelled to explain away my divorce and how I ended-up a young, single mom. I felt the need to downplay my divorce ("Oh, you know, it happens to so many people") or to apologize for it ("Well, I'm not proud of it but it happened to me, so...")
Looking back, I lacked the confidence and self-esteem necessary to date with dignity. No one should date when they're self-conscious of their past. I should have waited until I'd come to terms with my mistakes, learned from them, and moved forward wisely. I should have eased into dating by going out with friends in familiar environments. I should have spent time as an observer of the scene, not a participant. I should have adapted to my new life without the added pressure of finding someone else. Oh, the retrospective clarity of should have.
Parenthood and dating can co-exist but those who manage them well are not struggling to acclimate to newly single lives. Those ready to date are no longer mired in a post-divorce world but have adapted, grown and stretched into their new normal. They've come to terms with any guilt they may feel as parents and found ways to balance time with their children and time they're alone. They've progressed from being overwhelmed by divorce to reconciling its occurrence. And they've healed to where parenthood and dating no longer collide but can share space in their life so they can mindfully and healthfully meet someone new.