It had been almost three months since the divorce was final, and once again she was awake and restless in the small hours of the morning.
She dragged her laptop onto the bed. She Googled “age kids disconnect” and found neither comfort nor consensus. She Googled “single mom work-life balance” and realized she’d already clicked through the first 45 links that came up. She Googled “how long after divorce until life feels normal,” afraid to even look at the answer.
She Googled charter schools, day spas, therapists, and summer camps. Finally, after a long space of time in which she realized she was just zoning out and staring dully at the screen, she moved the cursor to the search bar and slowly typed, “Help.”
The Beatles didn’t have the answer to the real question that was keeping her up at night:
How could she make sure her kids were going to be okay?
Not so long ago, this was basically me. My ex and I had chosen to end our marriage because we were both spent, exhausted by trying to hold still and settle for a pale echo of what we’d once had. The tipping point, for us, was the realization of what we were modeling for our son: that this was what marriage was, sleeping in separate rooms, arguing late at night, avoiding each other during the day. We both wanted better, not just for ourselves, but also for him.
That belief in some undefined “better” sustained me as I leapt into the unknown. But even though I had both the hope and intention of building a happy new normal for me and my son, I was unprepared for my anxiety levels shooting off the charts. In that first year, I worried almost constantly about whether my son was struggling at school, if he was making friends, and about whether he’d be able to form lasting, positive relationships, let alone get married himself. Was he crying himself to sleep, or, worse, waking up and crying, alone, in the middle of the night? Was the divorce an emotional wound that would scar him for life?
I can’t tell you how many divorced moms I’ve worked with who tell me this is pretty much exactly what swirls through their heads when they can’t sleep. We are worry machines, stuck in the “on” position. Google is our go-to, our late-night frenemy. It never seems to have quite the answers we seek – but that doesn’t stop us from trying, night after restless night.
I staved off some of the initial anxiety after my ex moved out by staying in near-constant motion. I redecorated the master bedroom, gutted the master bath, repainted my son’s bedroom, and directed a crew of subcontractors to fix all the things my handy but overworked and distractible ex-husband had always meant to get around to fixing, but didn’t. You probably did some of this, too. Do you remember the first thing you bought that you knew your ex would have hated? (I found it weirdly exhilarating.)
But once my renovation budget and my enthusiasm for comparing paint chips ran out, there I was with the rest of my life – our life – yawning before me. And I realized I didn’t know what to do with it. The calls were now all mine to make, which was sort of exciting, but I felt hobbled by my anxiety over my son’s emotional equilibrium. I measured everything against whether it would make up for the way I perceived his dad and I had let him down. All the choices seemed too big; the potential consequences too huge. And so we hung in limbo, a post-divorce purgatory. Why couldn’t I find the clarity and confidence I’d brought to my decision to end my marriage now that I was a divorced, single mom?
Whatever clear-eyed, decisive mojo I’d found, it seemed like I’d misplaced it. You too?
I’d been clear and confident by nature at one time – back when my ex and I met as juniors in college. I’d wanted him and acted on it; we moved in together after only three months of dating. We were motivated in part by economics (why keep two apartments when we were really only using one?), but mostly by how beautifully we matched. We were both writers, worshiped movies, had amazing conversations, and were good at making each other and others laugh. We went on to start a company together, write together, and do virtually everything together. We didn’t even spend our first night apart until five years later, after we were married.
Then I got sick. After almost a year of baffling and increasingly severe symptoms that masqueraded as everything from rheumatoid arthritis to multiple sclerosis, I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome at age 29. We were still college sweethearts emotionally, and my sudden-onset illness sort of froze us there. While other couples were maturing and starting families and making five-year plans, we were learning to settle for sheer survival, just trying to get from one day to the next.
It was bad. My ex, who had a genetic tendency toward depression, sought therapy to cope and was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder. I was so sick I had to go back to bed after my morning shower and rest on the landing before I could make it all the way up the stairs. He struggled more or less alone on an increasingly dizzying cocktail of medications he didn’t need that were only making things worse. I cried and clamored and complained; he shut down, went cold, and withdrew. We both confessed years later, once we had each recovered and stabilized, that we would have left during this period if we’d thought the other strong enough to survive alone.
We loved each other; we muddled through. But when our son was born ten years later, it became clear that while we knew how to be companionate kids together (us against the world!), illness had prevented us from learning how to be cooperative adults in charge of a new human being. We adored our new boy, but we couldn’t seem to get into a routine. We became baton parents, handing the baby back and forth so the other could work (one of our son’s first full sentences was, “Take him!”). We slept in different rooms (I was co-sleeping; my ex had insomnia); we kept to different schedules. We didn’t watch movies, or play music, or even hang out together anymore. As we slowly came apart, it became easier to nurse grudges and harbor unresolved resentment. The fissures left over from our early years of health crises became bigger cracks, then chasms.
We tried therapy, but we came to it too late, after we’d sort of given up. We were exhausted and unable to find a way forward; there certainly wasn’t any way to go back. I think we were both surprised to find that love did not, in the end, prove to be enough. We agreed, as amicably as you can when your heart is broken, to divorce.
Your divorce experience is, of course, your own. And whatever took you from “as long as we both shall live” to “I want out” was uniquely painful. But we all have this in common: none of us go into marriage expecting it to end. None of us are really prepared for what happens after it does.
Even when we know for sure that we want a divorce, we can’t know in advance what it will be like to actually be divorced and parenting on our own. And it’s hard, isn’t it? Harder than you thought it would be. You hoped for a second chance at happiness, and for your kids to be happy, too. How come changing what feels like everything didn’t make everything better?
Worry is normal. It’s what we moms do. But in the emotional aftermath of divorce and all the second-guessing over whether we did the right thing for the kids, that worry can disconnect us from our inner warrior mom, the one who was determined to stop settling, willing to make hard choices, and resolute in modeling something better for her kids.
We lose touch with the very woman our kids most need us to be in order to know that everything is going to be okay.
Remember when your kids began taking their first steps and inevitably fell on their diapered behinds? They looked to you, didn’t they? They watched your face for their cue as to how they should respond. If you seemed upset, or cried out, or rushed over to them, they figured something terrible had happened and they wailed, hurt or not. If you were matter-of-fact and communicated that the fall was unfortunate, but recoverable, they probably got right back up and tried to walk again.
They looked to you then for how to move forward; they are looking to you still. Even though divorce is considerably more complicated and its effects more far-reaching than recovery from a simple fall-down-go-boom, you have the same choice before you: model fear and the belief that the world is an unsafe and unsatisfying place; or model confidence and the willingness to take good risks in order to create an amazing life.
Can it be that the very thing you fear will cause your kids lifelong pain – all the turmoil that comes with divorce – might also be their saving grace? Could the refusal to settle that led you to end your marriage be the very gift you’re meant to pass down?
If you’re struggling to believe that, know that I didn’t start out there, either. I was sure that if I worried hard enough and long enough, if I suffered a little, even, that I could make up for my son’s pain over something he didn’t sign up for. I worried, I suffered, I got sick, I got sicker – and none of it helped my son, not even a little bit. That’s when I realized I needed to come at life after divorce differently, and that’s ultimately why I wrote this book. I want to share with you all that I wish someone had told me, back when I was beating myself up and second-guessing my every move.
I found my power – and my son’s happiness – not in settling for a small, fretful, anxiety-filled life after divorce, but in Un-Settling: remembering the woman I’d grown to be and knowing in my soul that this refusal to settle for less-than would serve me and my son more than one more moment spent in anxiety or despair. Un-Settling was a game-changer; it knit new bonds between us and created more possibility than I had ever imagined. Un-Settling saved us, and it became the core of what I teach the divorced moms I coach.
Un-Settling is more than a single decision, though it starts with one. It’s a way of being. It’s about taking a look at who you are as a newly divorced mom and why you’re a great parent even when it doesn’t feel like it. It’s about how to create joy and abundance for you and your kids and leveraging the secrets of smart, successful, single moms. It’s about building the foundation for a great new relationship with your kids and even an effective co-parenting relationship with your ex, no matter what led to your divorce. It’s about making sure your kids are better than okay.
Nobody goes into marriage or parenthood believing they’re going to get divorced. But by choosing to stop settling, you open yourself up to the infinite possibilities of Un-Settling, and you take on the rest of your life and your kids’ lives in a powerful way. Divorce is an ending, but it’s also a beginning. Take heart, remember who you are and all that you’re capable of, and hold onto hope. Things are about to get a whole lot better.
Un-Settling How to Help Your Kids by Making & Modeling an Amazing Life After Divorce
“I want a divorce,” she’d said. And just like that, life as she’d known it was over.
It had been just about the hardest thing she’d ever done, but she hadn’t let that stop her. She’d grabbed her kids’ hands and jumped.
She knew there was something better out there for all of them.
So it was good news/bad news. They hadn’t crashed and burned, but neither had they yet triumphantly soared. She had hoped for some clear sign, some unequivocal success to prove that she hadn’t been completely selfish and that she hadn’t messed up her kids beyond repair. Instead, her kids were alternatively distant and crabby and the cat had started peeing on a corner of the rug.
She heard raised voices, coming from the direction of the kitchen. Why did all the fights seem to happen in front of an open refrigerator door?
My client Daria thought she had been married to a great guy. As it turned out, there were a few other women who thought so, too. By the time Daria got the full measure of her ex-husband’s infidelities, he had slept his way, she told me, through what seemed like a third of the PTA. Daria didn’t just feel betrayed, she also felt deeply humiliated. The whole school seemed to know what had taken her a couple of years to figure out.
She didn’t want to go back – she wasn’t going to settle for marriage to a liar and a philanderer – but neither was she clear on how to find her way forward. I met Daria about three months after her divorce was final, and about a year after she’d left the family home. “I moved out,” she told me, “because I just couldn’t stand being in that house, in that neighborhood, taking the kids to school and seeing all those moms who knew.”
Daria and the kids had moved into a modest condo closer to downtown. It was nice enough, she told me, but life felt small and muted. The kids had wanted to move – they were old enough to know what was going on, and they were embarrassed, too – but they were trying to make their way in a new school, and it seemed like they spent a lot of time in their new, tinier, bedrooms. She worried that they resented her even more than they resented their dad. And even though she understood that her prior happiness had been based on illusion, she missed both the expansiveness of her former life – they had lived in a lovely, oversize Colonial in one of the area’s more prestigious suburbs – as well as having a concrete vision of the future. “We had it all mapped out,” she said. “Where we’d move after the kids graduated from high school, where we’d travel, where we’d retire. I don’t know what I want now. I don’t know how to make my kids happy. I don’t know if I can travel or when I can retire on my own.”
Daria had done plenty of grieving over the loss of the life she’d thought she was going to lead and had worked with a therapist to get through the worst of it. But now that she had more or less let it all go, she felt unmoored. Without a clear vision of her new life, releasing the past had felt like sailing away from the only shore she’d ever known with no other destination in sight. The horizon was beautiful and seemed like it could hold promise. But it was also scary and surprisingly lonely.
Like me, like Daria, you chose to divorce your husband, maybe on your own initiative, maybe in response to an untenable situation, provocation, or circumstance. But having made that choice can feel like both blessing and curse. There’s true empowerment in having finally seized the reins of your life and taken action. There may also be gut-churning angst, sporadic fits of guilt, and more than a little second-guessing over what you chose.
No matter how clear you may be on your decision – you wouldn’t go back – you may not yet see a clear way forward like you expected. Isn’t it supposed to be easier than this? Instead of feeling your way into your new normal, you’re anxious, exhausted, overwhelmed, and watching your kids like a hawk for signs of emotional turbulence and damage. You left because you didn’t want to settle for the life you’d been living. But the life you exchanged it for is beginning to feel a little like settling for a different kind of hard.
The post-divorce world can initially seem like a blizzard of opportunity – you can do anything! But it’s also a little like Single Mom Prison, and your fear shapes the bars. You can’t move your kids out of state unless your ex says it’s okay. And there are school districts and friendships and not-rocking-the-boat-more-than-you-already-have conundrums. With only one income now, you feel that you have to make careful choices about what to spend your money on. Ugh, you probably need more life insurance.
Your kids aren’t a burden. You adore being a mom. But your single parenthood is a huge factor in every decision you’ll make going forward. Your kids’ emotional well-being – are they really okay, and how can you be sure? – is at the top of your list. Your responsibilities – to be your household’s sole breadwinner, to somehow make it all up to your kids, to keep all the trains running on time – don’t exactly feel conducive to problem-solving and self-exploration, let alone transformational adventure. You don’t even know who you are now, as a parent or a person. You love the idea of building the happy, balanced, new normal you thought awaited you on the other side of your divorce. You want to make everything okay for your kids. But you have no idea where to even start.
This is the point at which I meet most of my clients, that liminal space between their old lives and the still embryonic new ones. The adrenaline surge that comes with taking big and brave action has faded, and acute grief has begun to be replaced by chronic anxiety. What if you screw up your kids even more than the divorce probably already has? What if you let the fear of doing so paralyze you into living a small, desperate life?
No wonder we get stuck! With so much seemingly at risk, we hunker down because it doesn’t feel safe to stand tall. It took so much energy – so much energy – just to make that final call, get out and get through the legalities of ending a marriage. How do we muster the will, the courage, and the vision to move the ball forward from here without incurring more damage? How do we create a new life in which there’s one fewer setting at the table, one less toothbrush in the holder, without our kids falling into the hole our divorce created for them? We stopped settling for a marriage that was less-than. How do we stop settling for a less than life after divorce?
Some of us, like my client Sophie, hope that holding still will translate into our kids’ feeling safe and secure. Sophie fought hard to keep the family home. She didn’t want to move her son away from his friends and out of his school district. And after all she’d been through, she told me, she deserved to have that house. She was proud of keeping everything as much the same as she could for her boy.
Some things, however, were out of her control. Her son seemed … kind of okay. But he had started biting his nails again and bringing once-forbidden junk food into the family room while he watched TV, a practice she’d discouraged before the divorce. He was looking as pudgy as she sometimes felt.
And then there were her neighborhood friends. She thought everybody would rally around, and some did. Others talked a lot about how they’d be in touch but then drifted away. A couple of them treated her like she was suddenly going to go after their husbands, which was insulting as well as the furthest thing from her mind. She wasn’t sure she wanted to date again, ever. She certainly didn’t want to get involved with one of her friends’ husbands. She’d been listening to their wives complain about them for years.
Sometimes, she told me, she felt like she was living in a museum, a shrine to the life she used to lead. There were echoes of her marriage everywhere, from the family pictures she’d left out for her son’s sake to the marital bed she still slept in. Her son was on dog poop duty instead of her ex, and she now took out the garbage, but other than the empty side of the closet where suits used to hang, things didn’t feel all that different from when her ex was away on a business trip. She’d even continued Meatball Mondays – she didn’t like meatballs – because her son had cried the first time she’d suggested changing things up.
Sophie had struggled to figure out who she was and what she wanted back in college. Now she was trying to figure out the same things while juggling a career, single parenting, and some semblance of a social life. The potential consequences of making a wrong move and “screwing things up even more” for her and for her son weighed heavily on her. She’d already shaken things up enough, she felt, by getting a divorce. What if she made another leap and found she was suddenly Wile E. Coyote, plummeting off a cliff and desperately trying to cobble together some kind of soft landing with ACME tools and duct tape on her way down?
Both of these women had defined their new lives either by change or by the lack of it. On the one hand there was Daria, who had moved, not entirely happily, and who had a lot of fear that even if she could come up with a “what’s-next” wish list, she wouldn’t be able to fulfill it. Like more than a few of my divorced clients, she joked, with a little too much edge, about becoming a “crazy cat lady.” She wanted to be close to her kids; she worried that they were withdrawing, and didn’t know how to stop the drift. Even though she had primary custody, she often felt isolated, and she was afraid her relationship with her kids had taken a permanent hit from which it would never recover.
On the other hand, there was Sophie, who had changed things up as little as humanly possible and was second-guessing whether that had been the right choice. Maybe she and her son would be in a better place if she’d given them a fresh start. Maybe if she’d thrown out the pictures, or moved, or, hey, even changed Meatball Mondays to, say, Manicotti Mondays, she’d feel less stuck. Almost a year later, and she still kept expecting her ex to pull into the driveway (which of course he still did, but now only Tuesday nights and every other Friday when it was his turn to have their son).
Daria and Sophie didn’t see the ways in which they were still settling until I took each of them through the process of figuring out who they were post-divorce and then redefining and expanding upon their goals for themselves and their kids. Daria came to see that she had been settling for a smaller life than she’d led before because she was afraid she wasn’t “enough” as a single parent to claim bigger dreams; Sophie realized she’d been settling for the deceptive safety of familiarity because she was afraid her son couldn’t cope with yet another transition. They had lost the momentum and impact of the clear, decisive energy they had brought to their divorces, and post-divorce anxiety had become their driving force. But with fresh awareness of the ways in which they’d been unconsciously contributing to their own pain and keeping themselves small, both women were able to reclaim their second chances at happiness and take steps toward creating it for themselves and their kids. They remembered themselves and what they were capable of and were able to act from their power as Un-Settling Women.
Both women had looked outside themselves to define their lives post-divorce. I get it; I did that, too. After my ex left, I was determined to stay in the family home, and then, a year later, I was equally determined to leave it. I can see now that while this wasn’t meaningless – it was the only house my son had known – it wasn’t the make-or-break choice I thought it was back then. What was important was my relationship with myself and my relationship with my kid, not the setting in which those relationships took place. I am both proud and embarrassed to say that it took my own kid pointing this out to me for me to get it. “I don’t care where we live, Mom,” he said, “as long as we’re happy.”
External change is right in front of our faces and at the forefront of our consciousness, so of course, it seems like changing things out there is what will change things inside. And yet, focusing on externals without leading from within is just a different kind of settling. When we shift our perspective slightly, we can see that we’ve got it backward. It’s when we change – even if we change something as seemingly insignificant as a single thought – that everything out there begins to shift. What needs to happen starts to come into focus. The next steps appear, surprisingly obvious and gratifyingly doable. We move past paralysis and into clarity of vision. We begin to get on with our lives. Un-Settling becomes our come-from, our credo, our model for how to have the life we always dreamed of. Our kids follow our lead and learn how to build amazing lives of their own.
This is good news – the best news, really. We have control here, and we can do something. The change we want to see in the world, in our lives, and in our children, begins with us.
Divorce is awful. But its aftermath is one of the richest opportunities you’ll ever be given to redefine yourself, dream big dreams, and make bold, life-defining choices about who you are, how you want to parent, what you want to model for your kids, and what kind of experience and impact you want to have in the world. Divorce is the beginning of Un-Settling, and of claiming the absolute best of the only life you’ll ever lead as this particular human, in this space of time.
It sounds big, but the next steps are small. Know this: you already have everything you need to create and model the life you want for you and your kids.