A few days ago, I read that a mommy whom I have been following for a while now is newly separated, waiting for their divorce to come through. She has two small kids, and although she never said it, I could see the fear and uncertainty in her eyes in every photo she posted. Yes, even in the ones where she was laughing.
This was a bit triggering for me, for a few reasons.
Firstly, I remember those first few days and weeks and months when I was forced to go at it alone. I remember the overwhelm, the anxiety. Back then, my co-parent was living across the world from us, so when I say I was doing it alone I am not exaggerating.
Secondly, the pang of loneliness hit me. In those first stages of breaking up, you feel acutely alone. Even when surrounded by people who care for you. The breakup of a marriage is much more than just the end of a relationship. You lose a bit of yourself, in some cases, you lose your entire identity. Trying to find the pieces to put back together can be a daunting task, especially when you are already exhausted trying to stay upright for your kids.
Thirdly, I remember feeling severely misunderstood. Although some statistics and stories were similar to mine, I did not care to be generalised, and neither did I like it if my marriage and the subsequent split were generalised. We were people, with unique needs and dreams and desires. From the comments to her post where she broke the news of their pending divorce, I could tell that most people only know how to offer these general, shallow platitudes, and I could practically hear her scream that that was not what she wanted to hear.
But more than anything, I realised that I have gone through these waters and survived. Not only survived but in so many aspects thrived. And I have the experience and knowledge to help newly single mamas like her to get through their own storm quicker, with less damage. To get through it and out the other side, and to start to heal on the way.
Today, I can confidently say that I am over my ex, have figured out my life as best I can, and I am happy. I am rebuilding my life the way I want it. Overwhelm? Sure, at times. But nothing compared to the beginning. What has changed? The natural flow of time definitely helped, but there were a few other things I did that helped me put the pieces back together, in the shape that I wanted them to go.
Things you can start to help you feel more in control and to make the healing process a bit easier:
Write it down.
I am not a journaler, I don’t have the discipline nor the lifestyle to sit down daily and write down how I feel. What I did was document every time I had a big feeling, whether positive or negative. I would keep track of it in my day planner, never going into too much detail. Just what I felt and quickly what happened that triggered the feeling. Most days had little to no severe ups or downs, so documenting these feelings made me recognise patterns and definite triggers, making it easier to steer clear of situations or people that had a negative effect on me, or seeking out those ones that made me feel good. Writing things down also helped me make sense of my situation and how I felt in it. I highly recommend that you put pen to paper and get those feelings out, how often or in whichever way you feel comfortable.
Another point I wish to add here: if you do seek professional help, you can take your writings with you as a point of reference. So often when we are asked to name specific incidents or feelings we draw a blank – this is your cheat card out of that.
Communicate and share.
The first thing I did was gather my people. I had lost so many deep friendships over the course of my marriage that it took wilful determination to get these relationships back on track. That looked like me being vulnerable and fragile in front of people who, I think, at first were a bit confused. After time, they started to share back and now I can say I have more than a handful of very close friends. But these relationships took work. I encourage you to seek out your tribe and share with them even when it hurts to say the words out loud. These people are the ones who will invite you over on the first weekend that your kids go to their dad, or listen to you vent when the lawyers make your life difficult. They are also the people who will keep you from doing something stupid like drunk dialling your ex, or jumping into a relationship just because you don’t want to be alone.
Surrender and search.
Just give in. Feel the grief. Mourn the loss. Cry, weep, sob. Then when you have laid everything bare, look up at God and see His loving kindness. Fall into His arms and allow Him to comfort you. Look for Him and you will find Him. My best tip? Prayer. All. The. Time. The. Whole. Day.
Finding a new normal is difficult, and frankly – it hurts. Going from the known to the unknown takes work and a lot of suppressed tears, so my best advice would be to do it quickly. Much like plucking off a Band-Aid – do it without pause. The moment you walk out and find yourself on your own, stop doing the things the way you always used to do them. Explain to the kids that this is a new adventure, and you get to write the story. Design your day according to your needs and your abilities, create routines that work for you and your new life. Then stick to them. By creating and sticking to routines you bring structure into a world that was turned upside down, creating calm amidst all the chaos. You give the kids, and yourself, a framework so that they, and you, know what to expect and when. This gives them certainty and will make your life a lot easier.
Be still and wait.
So often our way of dealing with hurt is to get a crutch. The best advice I got was that I had a free pass to be a mess for a year. During that year, I was allowed to wallow and not wash my hair and feel sorry for myself at times. But this free pass expired 365 days after day 0, and then I had to have my life in order. Being a mess does not mean relying on crutches to get through it, so if you are turning to alcohol (or drugs), new relationships or any other obsessive behaviour YOU NEED TO STOP. You are not doing yourself or your kids any good. And while you are in this season, don’t wish it away. Do the work, sort out your feelings, find your identity and work out what you want in life. Then when your free pass has expired you will be ready to face life, head-on, and stronger than before.
Reflect and question.
Question everything. Leave no stone unturned – ask why your relationship didn’t work. What went wrong. What went right. Why did things happen the way they did. Question your own childhood, deal with any traumas that might have happened. Heal old wounds. Make sure you will not repeat the same mistakes – life is too short to do that. By reflecting on the past you can help shape a healthier future. A wise man once told me the way you leave a previous relationship is the way you will enter into a new one. Make sure any possibility of future happiness is guaranteed by dealing with the past.
Get out there and try new things.
Notice how I said new things and not new people 😉 Find new hobbies. That thing you always wanted to try but were too scared, or could not find the time, or whatever the reason/excuse was – now is the time. Try it, if you don’t like it you can ditch it. If you do like it? Well, hello new you, welcome! Put yourself out there and meet new people. Be interesting and fun-loving. But a word of caution: be careful of opening yourself up to dating too soon. You first need to get over your heartbreak and anger before you can allow yourself to find love again. Don’t fool yourself by thinking you are only doing it for fun – often relationships start on a foundation of trauma or hurt, and then we are surprised later on when they fall apart. Be whole, and then start to date.
The tip? When it feels good, not forced or uncomfortable or you feel shame, then you are ready to get back into the dating pool. Until then, try your hand at crocheting or rock climbing.
Look after yourself.
Self-care is a drum that has been beaten to death, but that does not make it less true or less important. You need to look after yourself in order to be the most and best you can be for your kids and to get through those first few months sane and intact. Remember, you get that free pass for the year to be a mess, to not shave or not wash your hair. Luckily self-care isn’t solely based on physical appearance. Focus on getting to know YOU, the real you, the one that was buried in a marriage, in being mom, in being a wife. Spend time with that person, eat ice cream in bed and drink champagne in the bath with that person. Go for walks. Introduce that person to your kids and your friends and your dog. Do what you need to do to look after the whole you.
Value your time and boundaries.
This is something I still struggle with, although a lot less than I did initially. I am a pleaser, and I am betting my hat that you are too. Now, you have one less person to please, but you are feeling fragile and alone so instead of saying no to things you don’t want to do, you say yes out of a feeling of guilt (usually your family or tribe – how can you say no when they are doing so much for you?) or shame (if I say no they will read more into it than they should, or they will think I am weak) or even because you still don’t understand that you are more than enough. Let me tell you this, I wish someone had told me this at the beginning: your kids will not suffer if you say no to things you don’t want to do. Even if those things involve them. You are not adding to their burden or making their trauma worse. And secondly – if people are nice and supportive to you because they want it to be paid back, they are not the right people to have in your life. Refer to point 2 as well as point 7 – find a new tribe.
Boundaries are a good way of protecting yourself and your new family unit. Building your no’s into these boundaries will quickly get you to a point where you no longer feel guilty for using that small yet powerful word. Remember, this is your new life, and you are in control.
Seek professional help.
Lastly, realise that asking for help doesn’t make you weak. It reveals a strength far greater than you will ever be able to grasp. Going through a divorce can be likened to facing death. Death of your marriage, death of the person you were before the relationship, death of the person you were in the relationship, death of all the hopes and dreams you had. Grieving this can be debilitating, and again – the way you leave your previous relationship is the way you enter into any new ones. Find someone you can talk to and who can objectively give you insights and advice. Friends are great for listening, but often we need a bit more. There are many cost-effective ways of seeing a therapist, including virtual sessions, seeing someone at your local church, going to support groups or even finding a virtual group. Reach out.
Time is a great healer, but only if you commit to doing the work. Following an ostrich-approach will not get you anywhere – you cannot ignore the problem with the hopes that it will disappear. You need to face the fact that you are now a single mama, deal with the grief, and rebuild your life (using some if not all of the tips above). You owe being happy to yourself as much as to your kids, so go be happy.
To the mama who is facing the death of a marriage, I know it hurts. Even if it was your choice. I can tell you it won’t be easy, but it is possible. Get up. Make the choice. Just start. You have got this.