Why Choosing Divorce was the Best Decision I Made
I not only got to know myself again, but my sense of self is stronger and more empowered than it ever was before.
Until I got married, it never made any sense to me why couples divorced. Why couldn’t they just compromise, I might have wondered, can’t they do the work? Marriage is work, I had often heard, imagining in my mind two people, heads bowed slightly, as they trudged up the side of a mountain, not smiling or holding hands but staying together.
This seemed especially critical for the couples who had children. Couldn’t they simply overlook their differences for the sake of the kids? I didn’t know many kids from divorced families growing up, but I did have one friend who spent every other weekend with her father in the city. It seemed very exotic and somehow gauche, and I can’t remember ever hearing my parents discuss her situation. Her mom always seemed so tired, and I never saw her smile much. Maybe if they had stayed married, she wouldn’t have been so tired.
Well, I get it now. As I come up on the one-year anniversary of my own divorce, there are many, many days when I’m feeling so tired.
I’m always tired now. But I was more tired then.
On a recent weekend with my kids, now nine and five, I nearly hit my limit of complete and total exhaustion. They had been crawling over the seats and bouncing around the inside of our parked car as we waited in front of a friend’s house. It had gotten a bit out of hand, and I had banished both of them to the back seat. I heard my voice rise in volume as I said something really original like “that’s enough” or “quiet down.” It was then that I looked over onto the passenger seat and saw something brown, perfectly round, about the size of a quarter but taller. I picked it up. It was a poop crumb.
A poop crumb, for the uninitiated, is what happens when someone has had poop squished in their underwear, undetected by my poop radar, long enough to form into a compact solid which then shakes loose, say when someone climbs over a seat. I picked up the object for closer inspection—it was definitely a poop crumb. I heard a long sigh, coming from me, as I opened the door to throw the poop crumb into the street. I was feeling a bit frazzled. And this one seemed like a particularly long day.
Most of my days are long days, filled with meal preparation, laundry, cleaning, negotiations will you please put your shoes on, conflict de-escalation you’re not allowed to hit your brother with that toy and it’s her turn to speak, chauffeur services, tutoring, cheering, consoling and protecting.
At any given point I am a maid, an au pair, a chef, a chauffeur, a coach, a teacher, a prison warden, or a deal closer. I’m all of these things and the CEO, CFO, and President of our house, along with my actual full-time job outside the home. I’m a solo mom—by choice. There is a lot of love mixed in between all of these epic highs and lows as I solo parent and do my best every day to advocate for and protect my two young children. You can see where the frazzled part comes in.
But just as I am tired now, I was tired then. My marriage at one point was at best exhausting and at worst stifling. I was tired and frazzled and eventually depressed. Things had deteriorated to a point where I felt like I had tried everything I could to make things better—and they weren’t better. We were simply surviving.
There’s a difference between a hard marriage and an unbearable one.
It may be hard to imagine how difficult it is to exist within a dysfunctional marriage. The sheer exhaustion, the physical and mental toll it takes. I was exhausted by the effort required to achieve a steady state of existence—managing the household, attending couples therapy, working full time, trying to give the attention that this relationship required to be stable—all the while trying to take care of my children. Being part of a relationship like this is an all-consuming task, and I had reached the limit of what I could contribute. And if I wavered in my efforts for even a moment, conflict ensued.
An alarming pattern had emerged which included discord, confrontations and intimidations, followed by an aggressive silence and avoidance. The household felt toxic. I was unhappy. My children seemed unhappy. My husband sure didn’t seem happy.
I found myself questioning the concept of work as it applies to a relationship. Sure, I get it that a relationship requires effort. But when it reaches the point where it’s straight-up work and drudgery, how is that helpful?
I felt myself disappearing slowly and then completely into my role as wife and mother and worker until I no longer could clearly define who I was. The experience was all-consuming and seemed to creep into every aspect of my life. I felt isolated and embarrassed as I looked around and saw all of these people enjoying their marriages, thriving (or at least pretending to). That’s the way it appeared, and they were keeping mum, even as I fished for hints of unrest.
Choosing divorce never seems like the best option—but what about when it is?
I felt apart from other families we would try and connect with: if we stay here long enough, they’re going to see right through us, they’ll know how difficult our situation is, and then we will never be invited back. How would I be judged, as a divorcee? What would people assume about me? After I announced my separation, I tearfully asked someone close to me, will you still be my friend? She was shocked that I would even ask. I was shocked by the unconditional support.
Admittedly, some of the pressure and expectations I felt were self-imposed, absorbed, incubated. My parents are still married and still hold roles pretty similar to what I remember from my childhood. My mother devoted her life to raising four children and running our household, and my father worked and has not yet retired. Their roles are fairly traditional, with my mother handling the children and household and my father working outside the home.
The divorces that happened in my extended family seemed to have shattered everything around them, and loomed like cautionary tales about the consequence of divorce. It was not until recently that I could look more honestly at those situations and realize that it was the underlying behaviors within the marriage—namely infidelity, alcohol abuse, and verbal abuse—that had caused trauma, not the divorce itself. There was the unspoken pressure of being part of a couple that looked good, with an exciting back story, and two beautiful and wonderful children. We were like characters in a show that everyone was rooting for in the fourth season.
Culturally, I believe we put unnecessary pressure upon women in particular to martyr themselves and sacrifice until the bitter end for our spouse and children. The children and spouse come first, and then maybe the job, and some community responsibility and commitments to friends and extended family. And when all of that has been satisfied, look after yourself.
While I think that there has been an upswing in self-care discussions, I think we’re still locking women into certain expectations about when it’s acceptable to put yourself first, and when it’s not. Especially when it comes to marriage. It seems that as a society, we’re not very accepting of people who walk away from a marriage, and we’re particularly judgmental of women who make that choice.
I waited for permission to leave and never found it. So, I had to give myself permission.
What I was told, on more than one occasion, is that unless there is infidelity, physical abuse, or active addiction, it’s in the best interest of the children to stay together. In some cases, women are pressured to make it work even after they are included in one of these categories. They might be pressured to think about the children when they try to get out of a marriage where one of the three criteria for divorce have been met. Some women don’t even have the choice and are financially trapped in desperate situations.
There is also abuse that’s not as obvious as a black eye or a hospitalization. There is lot of space in between, also, somewhere in the middle of the polar opposites of a tragic situation and an idyllic one. I think there are a lot of us living in that space, wondering where we fit in. When is it OK to leave? We wait for an unknown entity to give us permission.
I waited for a sign, a clear moment or action that would allow me to say to myself (and others who might inquire), see? That’s the horrible thing that happened, which now marks the moment when I may make this decision, and it’s clearly the right one. I waited for years. In the meantime I tried everything I could to do the work—the couples therapy, the date nights, the silence, the avoidance of conflict, the work, the work, the work. I worked my ass off. And I was exhausted. I saw my life stretching out before me, decade after decade, the unhappiness, the conflict, the bitterness.
I saw small changes in my children’s ability to handle emotional situations that worried me, tiny problems starting to develop at school. I felt my body physically starting to rebel with muscle stiffness and weakness. I wondered why I was supposed to keep waiting. For what? For someone to grow restless enough to have an affair? For someone to cross a line in anger?
For my kids, the choice was about modeling how to chose better relationships.
I thought not about one thing, but about all of the things that had gone wrong—the arguments, the constant battle to see who was sacrificing more, the loss of love and kindness and respect. I realized with a heaviness the example that my children were seeing. I thought deeply about the model they were absorbing of what marriage “should” look like. I wasn’t OK with it.
I imagined my daughter or son coming to me one day with the same situation. Would I tell them to keep waiting, to keep working? No, I wouldn’t. I would ask them how I might help and support them, and tell them they didn’t need anyone’s permission to take their lives back. And that’s exactly what I decided to do nearly one year ago.
Divorce is never easy, no matter what the situation is. Even as difficult as the process was, and how challenging it can be as a solo mom, I’m grateful every day for it. Over the last year, my life has expanded and filled up in ways that I had never imagined possible. I feel not only like I’ve gotten to know myself again, but that my sense of self is stronger and more empowered than it ever was before.
Yes, I’m tired, and frazzled, and there are a lot of aspects about my life that are messy and unorganized. Some days I feel stronger than others, and some days I reach out and ask for help. My children are bouncing back and adjusting to our new normal. And even on those long days, when I’m picking up poop crumbs (yes this happens often), I can put my head on the pillow and feel what it’s like to be me, first.
Meighan Merono is a solo mom and career gal raising two children in San Francisco. She is a contributing writer for Woman Born and has been featured on the podcast Big Little Choices.