If you are going through a divorce, you are probably receiving a lot of advice from well-meaning family and friends, which probably includes some of my favorite words of wisdom: “You need to take care of yourself.” I bet sometimes that platitude even comes with a sympathetic pat on the back or arm. Am I right?
Following my separation, every time I heard those words I thought, “Yeah, right.” I mean, seriously, where would I have found the time? I was already busy worrying about my three young kids and how they were faring, what my ex-husband was doing after he left me, and the nitty-gritty details of the divorce agreement we were in the process of negotiating. Sitting on the couch eating bonbons, or whatever else I equated self-care with at the time, was the furthest thing from my mind.
So I took another route instead. Without even trying, I lost 20 pounds in less than a month (hello, divorce diet), most of which resulted from the uncontrollable episodes of vomiting I experienced every afternoon around four o’clock. It didn’t take long for my hair to start falling out, too. Fortunately, I still had a lot of it, and only those sharing a bathroom with me noticed as I shed all over the sink and floor. I had no energy and bruised easily. I often cried, which left dark circles under my eyes, a look helped along by my newfound inability to sleep through the night. Still, I did little to help myself.
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My wake up call finally came from the friend of one of my children who, after leaving my house one day, asked his mother if I had cancer. No, it wasn’t cancer. What it was was despair. But like cancer, it was quickly eating away at me. Something had to change. My kids needed me. I needed me.
For most of the year, I parent my children alone. My ex-husband lives in Asia, and although he speaks to our children nightly over FaceTime and sees them every month or so for a few days, most major school holidays, and a few weeks over the summer, I do not get the downtime many parents who share physical custody do. Especially when they were small, my custody schedule (or lack of) was incredibly stressful. I had almost no time to myself, little opportunity to rest even when I was sick, and hardly any occasion to sit in silence and work through the life change I was experiencing.
Due to limited funds (hello, divorce financial diet), hiring childcare wasn’t an option. And despite my mother and stepfather helping out with some babysitting, living almost an hour away they could only do so much. That meant I had to find time amid all my other obligations to focus on me. I had to start making myself a priority in my life or else pretty soon I wasn’t going to have one.
I had to start making myself a priority in my life or else pretty soon I wasn’t going to have one.
Apart from the logistics of how and when caring for myself would happen, I first faced the challenge of convincing myself that I deserved to be treated well, that I deserved to feel good. I had already taken ownership for my part in the dissolution of my marriage and had been punishing myself for it ever since. A lot of good that was going to do for me and my kids both at the time and in the future, particularly if I made myself sick enough that I couldn’t parent them the way I wanted to. I aspired to be a mom who was mentally present in her children’s lives, not one who was going through the motions and vacantly driving through the carpool line, throwing dinner together in a hurry, and constantly looking at her phone. During my divorce, that is the mom I had become.
I sought support and began seeing a therapist regularly who helped show me that, yes, I matter, too, and that the first step toward addressing my health and needs was to learn to say no. No, I cannot be there. No, my child cannot be there. No, I cannot afford this. No, I cannot talk to you right now. No, you cannot speak to me that way. Then I set time and money aside for myself – to take a long, hot bath every night, read for pleasure, vacation, exercise, start a business, and date.
In today’s social climate there is a lot of pressure to “do the right thing” as dictated by those who are the most vocal. Go green. Eat clean. Meditate. Be happy! In pursuit of my happiness during the five years after my separation, what I eventually discovered was that pursuing happiness is the quickest way to unhappiness. After a while, I stopped trying.
On most days, I am content. My life is pretty okay now. On the days it isn’t, I remember back to “that time” and will myself to feel good. Yes, the power of positive thinking is real. I have no single ritual to point at which I can say pulled me out of my rut. No diet, exercise class, or one person. Instead, I did whatever worked for me. I spent time with the people I wanted to. I went where I wanted to go. Sometimes that is all we can do. And more often than not, it is enough.
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