Courtesy of Samantha Shanley

Separating From My Husband Brought Me Closer To My Kids

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When I separated from my husband after accepting that our marriage had come undone, all I could do was think of ways to start saving other things. Time, money, food, emotional energy — all of it. I used up pantry staples like rice and canned chili — items that had been lying still, stocked on my shelves for months, unused. I started asking my three children to do more chores around the house: unload the dishwasher, start the laundry, pick up the living room, unload backpacks, and lunch boxes. When I became a single mom, every day became my rainy day. But little did I know at the time that separating from my husband would bring me closer to my kids.

As I struggled to make sense of my new reality, I retreated from my role as a parent, perhaps saving myself for something else — though for what, I wasn’t sure. I didn’t mean to detach myself from my kids — it happened automatically. During those first few months of shouldering the most difficult emotions I'd ever felt in my life, I was only able to do the bare minimum for my kids. I gave them more screen time than usual so I could center myself with guided meditation. I no longer had the energy to cook interesting meals, so I resorted almost exclusively to things like quesadillas, pizza, and macaroni and cheese.

Around that time, someone mentioned to me that parenting through the end of a marriage was hard. Parenting through the end of a marriage, I thought, was hardly parenting at all.

Courtesy of Samantha Shanley

Then, things started changing. Little by little, I was able to endure the emotional processing necessary to start my rebuild. It began with treats of course, first for my kids: ice cream on a random Tuesday afternoon, and then for me: a new pair of designer sunglasses that I bought at a deep discount. I was luring my kids and myself out of despair. I went to see a massage therapist I loved, hoping she could knead the areas of my body, and my heart, that felt like they were jammed with some kind of cosmic glue.

Once I started getting used to our new living arrangement, I was better able to prioritize all of my life’s competing needs. My kids, of course, were at the top of the list. When I was mired in confusion about the direction my own life was taking, I could always resort to thinking about what more I could or ought to be doing for them. In that way, I knew, I couldn’t go wrong.

“Just think about how far you’ve come already,” my massage therapist advised when I told her how I still felt like I was standing in a deep well of grief.

Once I started to become stronger, I was better able to focus on my children. For years, I'd felt so tied to motherhood that all I had wanted to do was escape: climb out of the trunk into which I had jammed myself, and run far, far away. Now, every other weekend and on some weeknights, I had to pack a sleepover bag and drop my children at their father’s house, leaving them on his doorstep and watching, tears welling up in my eyes, as the three of them skipped into his apartment building without me. Our arrangement had been my choice, but letting my kids go like that was still agony.

Courtesy of Samantha Shanley

Perhaps part of it was that once I started getting used to our new living arrangement, I was better able to prioritize all of my life’s competing needs. My kids, of course, were at the top of the list. When I was mired in confusion about the direction my own life was taking, I could always resort to thinking about what more I could or ought to be doing for them. In that way, I knew, I couldn’t go wrong.

I started taking more time with each of my children before bed, allowing them to express fears and anger, apologizing for the ways I had not been the best parent each day. It was my way of clearing the air, not only for them but also for me. I wanted them to know that they were my priority, first and foremost.

So it was that I started asking myself what was more important, a nice dinner or a pre-dinner dance party? In my new reality, it was Taylor Swift and mac and cheese for the win, three nights a week. I started taking more time with each of my children before bed, allowing them to express fears and anger, apologizing for the ways I had not been the best parent each day. It was my way of clearing the air, not only for them but also for me. I wanted them to know that they were my priority, first and foremost.

Courtesy of Samantha Shanley

My house started getting messier, of course. I stopped worrying about cleaning my basement at the end of each day — toys were strewn about, but so were the imaginative storylines of my children’s creative play. I learned to spread the chores out among the whole family, rather than expecting that I could do it all myself. I recruited my kids for fall leaf cleanup and discovered that one of them loved using the leaf blower and another could bag leaves faster than I could. I asked for help making dinner and cleaning up — chores that before, my husband and I had reserved for ourselves. My 4 year old started chopping vegetables using a real knife. He learned to help me make my coffee. He started getting dressed by himself.

My children were emerging toward the forefront of the household, instead of remaining in the background, as though they were just accessories in an adult-dominated life. This meant that I was outnumbered, but I wasn’t out of control. It also meant that my emotional connection to my kids had actually deepened, especially at a time when I had originally feared it would merely float. Rather than constantly trying to get space from them and figure out who I was as a person, as I felt I had been doing for years, I was finally able to reconnect with them in meaningful ways. This was rewarding for all of us, and helped pull us through a difficult year together, stronger than ever.