This Is What No One Tells You About Leaving Your Marriage When You Have Kids

I’ve been separated for about a year. There are challenges, but sleeping alone isn’t one of them.
The author and one of her kids.
The author and one of her kids.
Sarah Bregel

Pulling the covers around my neck, I snuggle into bed and feel my whole body melt. After working, plodding on the treadmill, picking up the kids, fixing dinner, giving baths and reading books, I’m spent. In the lightning-fast pace of the day, this might be the first time I’ve taken a deep breath. Still, I feel content. I stretch out and take up space. I don’t mind being alone in my bed. In fact, I prefer it that way.

I’ve been separated for about a year. There are challenges, but sleeping alone isn’t one of them. I always desired more space in my marriage ― which is, in part, why I decided to leave it. For a long time, I wondered if I’d ever have the strength. I wondered if it would be too devastating for my kids, who are now 4 and 9. I worried about whether I’d be able to support myself financially. Friends gave me phone numbers for couples therapists, and we saw them. Three, in fact.

Still, for the longest time, I felt that something needed to change.

At first, I thought it was something in me that needed shifting. So I committed to my health. I ate well and exercised. I cut back on drinking. I got yoga-certified and attacked my sleep issues from all angles. I was working my dream job of being a freelance writer, and with one child in school and the other in part-time childcare, I finally had the time to commit to it. I was finding success in most areas of my life. But I still wasn’t happy. I felt pent-up, irritable and borderline depressed. At times, I thought, “Maybe this is just what married life with two kids is. Maybe this is how everyone feels.”

“I couldn’t imagine being the person who tore our family in half, all for my own comfort. For years, the guilt I knew I would feel if decided I couldn’t be married anymore kept me planted.”

I started to take a hard look at my life. I couldn’t ignore that the main thing driving my discontent was that I felt unsatisfied in my marriage. Deep-diving into what was wrong meant I stopped holding back when I spoke to my husband. I railed against him about all kinds of things, like coming home late or being distracted by his phone. I was always on him for being unreliable. I let my anger come to the surface, and we had the same arguments over and over because I was no longer hiding my feelings about what I needed.

But the truth is, none of it really mattered. Deep down, I knew I wasn’t happy in my marriage and probably never would be, regardless of what my husband did. But admitting the truth to myself, let alone to family, was painful. I couldn’t imagine being the person who tore our family in half, all for my own comfort. For months, for years, the guilt I knew I would feel if I decided I couldn’t be married anymore kept me planted. I was an unhappy mother, but one whose kids had a home with two parents. My kids didn’t have to shuffle back and forth or divide holidays between two homes. And even though my husband and I were fighting more than ever, each of us suffering as a result, going our own ways felt impossible.

Finally, I hit a breaking point. It happened just after my husband returned home from a week-long work trip. I had realized while he was gone that I didn’t feel so angry all the time. I slept better, too. I knew I couldn’t sacrifice my mental health any longer. I needed to make a change.

“What if I didn’t try hard enough? What if we could’ve made it work? What if my own happiness wasn’t worth the emotional strain I put on my husband and my two kids?”

A few months later, after rehearsing the conversation with myself over and over, I told my husband I didn’t want to be married anymore. We moved forward, slowly and painfully. Telling the kids was crushing. My daughter ran into her room and sobbed, then hid her head under a pillow while continuing to cry and asking questions about what would happen next ― her biggest concern was whether each of us would get married again and if she’d have to share us with someone new.

We tried to make the transition as easy for the kids as possible. We rented an apartment for six months to swap in and out of. And when the lease ended, my husband moved out of our home and into a new house a few miles away. I was ready for the change, and after all the time spent preparing, it seemed like the kids were ready, too. They were even excited to decorate their new rooms. And as the months have gone by, they haven’t complained about our new living arrangement. They’ve been more resilient than I could’ve possibly imagined. And yet, so much has changed. And each one of us has had to be brave in our own ways.

I know it’s all been for the best, but I still think about the what-ifs: What if I didn’t try hard enough? What if we could’ve made it work? What if my own happiness wasn’t worth the emotional strain I put on my husband and my two kids?

On quiet nights, before I drift off to sleep, that familiar feeling hits me. It’s one I have to work hard to distract myself from; in the moment, I can’t. I’m not lonely or struggling with my daily tasks. I’m not more overwhelmed by my life than I was when I was still in my marriage. Certain stresses have even been alleviated. But guilt still plagues me. I think about how I drove my family apart. I picture my husband alone in his home. I wonder if he’s OK.

Most single moms complain about the challenges of finding time to date, and about the shitshow that is modern dating if they do manage to find the time. They talk about being lonely, or about how much falls on them. They talk about financial burdens, affordable childcare, not having anyone to call to grab groceries. These are all realities of single parenthood, and they are hard ― it’s true for me, too. But by far, the biggest hurdle I’ve had to face is how it makes me feel to know I was the one who left my marriage, the one who gave up, who called it quits, who knew I was ready to move on.

“The truth is that I would be more gentle, more forgiving, with just about anyone else.”

I believe we’re all better off in the long run, but I often can’t get through the day without feeling bad that what broke my family was me needing something different. If I’d kept my mouth shut, found a way to be content in my life as it was, no one else would have suffered. My husband wouldn’t have gone through all of the struggles he has dealt with over the past year. My kids wouldn’t have to go back and forth between houses.

Knowing that the end of my marriage was my choice feels like a weight so heavy that I might never know how to put it down.

The tug of guilt makes it tough to move on with my life in an intentional way. Every time I feel like I’m doing fine, it sucks me back in. It makes seeking joy hard because wondering if I deserve to be happy haunts me. I have to dig deeper just about all the time to get to the truth, even though it is so immensely hard to see.

And the truth is that I would be more gentle, more forgiving, with just about anyone else. If another mother came to me and told me of her longstanding unhappiness in her marriage ― the feeling that she already knows what to do but can’t find the strength to do it ― I would tell her to get out, that her happiness matters as much a everyone else’s. I would never tell someone to stay for their partner, or even for their kids. When one person is deeply unhappy, the whole family suffers. I know all of this, but reminding myself of it is easier said than done.

When I wake up the next morning, I’m not under the cloud of guilt anymore. And I know that the more I do it, the more natural it will become to allow myself to simply feel my feelings, good or bad, then let them go to make space for something new. After all, that’s why I moved my life in a new direction to begin with ― to make space.

I snuggle my kids, who are happy and content. I make my coffee, pack lunches and get everyone out the door. Then, I settle into my favorite coffee shop and a new feeling arises. I’m met with relief that I had the awareness, the strength, the commitment to change my life because it wasn’t easy, but it was right. I know the guilt isn’t over. I know it will bubble up again and I’ll have to talk sense into myself, the same as I would my closest friend. I know I’ll have to give myself compassion.

I might always feel some guilt at changing the shape of my family, but I also know that I’ll be a happier, healthier person ― and thus, a better mother ― because I did just that. That’s what I come back to each time the guilt takes hold. And I know that the more firmly I ground myself in this new life, the more that waves of confidence in that will come.

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