By the time I separated in October 2012, I was a couple of years into the grand mid-life transformation that brought a dramatically different version of myself than anyone had every really known. The heart of who I was—loud, brash, smart, funny, caring, independent, dogged—had always been there, but I worked to integrate those traits into a thriving, viable version of the Me who’d always seemed to be trapped inside the fat, unhappy girl I’d been for far too long.
Toward the end of my marriage, I’d already started to live parts of my life outside of that relationship. I traveled a bit. I was writing again. I’d lost 115 pounds.
Ending a twenty-year relationship was difficult. We were unraveling a lifetime of togetherness while trying to co-parent two fantastic children. Wife and Mother was now Divorced Mom. More importantly, Stephanie and DH was now just Stephanie. The lessons that had come before my separation, the hard work to learn who I was and what I wanted from myself and the people who could impact my life, were finally going to be tested.
Going into the separation with so much already accomplished, I was confident that I could embrace my new life and precisely define who I was in the midst of all the upheaval. While my children were at visitation with their father, I spent a lot of time trying out the world around me. If I wanted to do it, or see it, or experience it, I did. I had a crazy-story, laugh-until-you-can’t-breathe, giddy-at-the-memory adventures with a lot of firsts for me.
No matter the specifics of my Bucket List, no one was more surprised than I was to realize how very little I was prepared to handle. There were lessons I learned that should apply to every woman, especially as you’re learning to rebuild yourself and your life as a single woman:
1. Learn that you are beautiful:
It doesn’t matter if your nose is too small or your ass too big or if your thighs are so cellulitically-dimpled that they resembled tree bark: you care more about your perceived physical imperfections than anyone else does.
Maybe there’s a grown-up mean girl or an office stunner who makes your inner 15-year-old feel like hiding in the bathroom until you can slink home under cover of darkness. Screw that. There is at least one thing about you, and probably far more, that is incomparably beautiful: your eyes, your smile, your songbird voice, your easy laugh, the warmth of your guardedly-open heart. Find those things about yourself and embrace them fully. Soon you’ll find that they are just small indicators of the inherent exquisiteness that is You.
2. Learn to say “Thank you:”
When a man (or a woman) says to you on the street or in the store or in a bar, “You are beautiful,” all you have to do is smile and say, “Thank you.” Women are often try to justify or deny it—Oh, you’re sweet, but my nose is too small and my ass is too big—especially if we’re the tiniest bit self-conscious or insecure, as even the mean girls and office stunners are. Accept the compliment and move on.
3. Learn to say “No, thank you:”
Just because a man (or a woman) shows interest in you, you don’t have to do a damn thing about it. Their buying you coffee or a drink or dinner doesn’t mean you have to sleep with them. You don’t even have to accept the drink; it’s no ruder to refuse than it is to make an offer. You are You and only accountable to yourself. You get to make those choices, and No is a perfectly acceptable choice.
4. Learn that sex doesn’t have to mean love:
My first time after the separation was with a 23-year-old semi-pro baseball player. I could’ve done a lot worse, as a 40-year-old mother who’s self-conscious about her ass and thighs. I wasn’t ready to fall in love again, and I didn’t have to, to enjoy sex. It’s okay to have sex with someone other than yourself and to say, “No, thank you,” when they ask if you want to stay or if they should. You don’t have to plan your future wedding while basking in the afterglow.
5. Learn to sleep comfortably in your own bed:
It took a long time before I stopped feeling for DH in the middle of the night. The bed often felt darker and colder than I thought I could stand, especially at 3 a.m. Sometimes I didn’t say, “No, thank you,” just to avoid that empty space. Eventually I learned that I could be not only comfortable but content in the middle of my bed, where I didn’t have to fight anyone for blankets or feel like I needed to hide my cellulitically-dimpled thighs on my way to the bathroom at dawn. It’s your space, and you should feel safest nowhere else.
6. Learn to do things by yourself:
Concerts, movies, bars, solo travel, everything you never got around to doing with your ex. Do them all by yourself. There are times I do these things with my friends, but it is freeing to sit at the bar by myself for dinner and a drink. (It turns out good bartenders are great conversationalists and will help steer annoying asshats away from you.) The first six-hour road trip by myself meant I could stop at the stupid roadside attraction DH would’ve hated, and I could finally listen to all of my favorite music, singing loudly and off-key the entire time.
7. Learn to stand on your own two feet:
After so many years of being a stay-at-home mom, my financial options were limited. I still struggle at times, but it’s getting better. Life will still be expensive after child support and alimony end. For me, this means going back to school full time to finish my degree while working part-time and raising two kids. Sometimes I have to ask for help, but it’s a stepping stone to my independence. It may not come quickly, but find the place where you can stand unsupported, knowing you really can rely on yourself.
8. Learn to love yourself again:
Single women get so caught up with falling in love again. I did. But if I never learned to care for the core of who I was, I would never be prepared for what would come later. Having an updated, revised, intimate appreciation for who I gave me a new sense of expectation when I finally started a new relationship. Even though I’ve had a couple of endings since my new beginning, I have a newfound respect for myself that I couldn’t feel when I was defined as a part of someone else.
I married for love and vowed it would last the rest of my life. It didn’t, and I didn’t die.
A year-and-a-half into my new life, I am happier and more wholly Me than I’ve ever been. It’s sometimes much harder than I expected when I filed for divorce. But I know, without a doubt, that I have learned the skills necessary to make the absolute, unequivocal best of this life.
And I wouldn’t change it for anything.