It took me years to accept that the only thing worse than my fear of my own emptiness was the emptiness of my bottomed-out relationship with my husband of nearly 20 years. We are good people, and we are good parents, but that doesn’t make two people a good couple. So I moved out of our house and into a condominium between Kmart and the post office. I had one dog, some art, my books, a radio and—half the time—I had our three children.
A year later, a thrum of panic still hits me under the ribs when the children’s father comes to pick them up every other Sunday. The divorced-parenting class that I attended focused—as they must—on how to best protect and nurture the children. But there were no classes on how parents should learn to be without children or a family. It took me a vulnerable, liminal year before I came up with a few breakable rules, most of them established with the help of books (which maybe is the unwritten first rule for any situation in life, Read Yourself Into the Place You Are):
1. Surrender to Forever
Girlfriends coming over to the condo—their eyes barely containing the dread of visualizing themselves in the same position—say something along these lines: “It’ll be okay. This isn’t forever.” Which is true in the huge, universal sense of the word; nothing is forever. But my living without my children half the time is my forever, a daily reality. We will never be a family again. Surrendering to the pain of that feels honest, at least, even if it’s more unbearable than I could have anticipated. This isn’t where I want to be in my mid-forties; it’s not what I wished for my children; it’s not what I would have wanted for my ex-husband, but here we are.
Quote That Got Me Through: “Surrendering does not involve preparing for a soft landing, it means just landing on hard, ordinary ground, on rocky wild countryside, once we open ourselves, then we land on what is.”
—Chogyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism
2. Don’t Join Any Group You Wouldn’t Belong to Anyway
I’ve never been fond of cocktail parties, charity events and obligatory dinners, so I automatically decline any invitations to the same. But with empty evenings stretching ahead of me—the weekends were the worst—I found myself scouring the paper for distractions from the dread silence of no-children. I considered showing up at church mornings, prayer circles, knitting classes, book clubs, AA meetings, environmental protests, community kitchens. Then I asked myself if I would have gone to a single one of these places if my children were home, and when the answer was no, no, no, no, no, no and no, I knew I had to find some other way to be alone. So I stayed home and felt the full force of loneliness.
Quote That Got Me Through: “Loneliness is the human condition. Cultivate it. The way it tunnels into you allows your soul room to grow. Never expect to outgrow loneliness. Never hope to find people who will understand you, someone to fill that space. An intelligent, sensitive person is the exception, the very great exception. If you expect to find people who will understand you, you will grow murderous with disappointment. The best you’ll ever do is to understand yourself, know what it is that you want, and not let the cattle stand in your way.”
—Janet Fitch, White Oleander
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