It was the beginning of pre-k and my son, Jake, who was five at the time, was having a rocky transition.
The two boys he sat with deemed his jokes unfunny, and the treacherous tire swing that I had forbidden him to play on was in constant motion. The other cause of some anxiety was around making new friends. Not for Jake, who had no problem chasing any old group of children, but for me. To make matters more complicated, a new class of kids meant a new class of parents I had to introduce myself to, and while I’m not the only woman on earth who kept her maiden name, my introduction came with another set of circumstances. My son has a different last name than me because I am divorced from his father.
While the US Census Bureau suggests that least 40 percent of the population is part of a blended family, and a new study from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research shows one in five of all American moms have children with different fathers my own research revealed a different story. I examined Jake’s class list. There was one child with two dads. There was another child with a hyphenated name. There were no children whose parents lived in separate houses.
Prime example. During a visit to the school secretary earlier that day, I bumbled over an explanation that fliers also needed to be sent to my son’s father who lived at a different address and that this is the second time we’ve asked, and could she please also send separate emails to him as well, because while I don’t mind forwarding emails, we don’t live in the same house…
We really tried!
I walked out of the office humming Darth Vader’s Imperial March—Dun-dun-dun-dun-DA-dun-dun-DA-dun—my cloak of divorce darkness swinging behind me as the red school door shut.
Sunday’s New York Times article, “How Divorce Lost Its Groove,” makes my shame plight a little clearer. Not only am I not the only one to get a divorce, but I’m not the only one experiencing shame around it.
Times author Pamela Paul writes:
“The experience of being a divorced woman has changed, along with the statistics. “The No. 1 reaction I get from people when I tell them I’m getting divorced is, ‘You’re so brave,’ ” said Stephanie Dolgoff, a 44-year-old mother of two elementary-school daughters who was separated last year. “In the 1970s, when a woman got divorced, she was seen as taking back her life in that Me Decade way. Nowadays, it’s not seen as liberating to divorce. It’s scary.”
Like any other stigma, I thought embracing it would make it better. Sort of like embracing the word slut. Or waving a multi-colored flag. I’d love to hang an I’ve-got-two-baby-daddies-flag on my front porch so the neighborhood would know to refer to us as the blended family and just be done with it.
Instead, I chose the oversharing path. It sounded something like this: “Oh your daughter takes piano lessons? Jake’s father lives in the next town over. He plays the piano,” I’d say. And then, “My husband Andy wishes he could play.” I delved into our family history. I sold us like the schoolyard Avon sales person with a new lipstick for blended families.
And the Moms got it. At best, their eyes teetered between sympathy and maybe fear that their own marriages would end like my first. Not surprising. A study on social contagions which came out just last year showed that you have a 75 percent chance of divorcing if you merely know someone else who has been divorced.
It’s entirely possible that a certain vibe might have oozed from parents who unconsiously wished I could have stuck it out for my son. Stacy Morrison, author of “Falling Apart in One Piece,” states in the Times article:
“One of the hardest things about divorce today is that you feel like you have to explain or apologize for it.”
But since I come from a let-them-say-what-they-want ilk, I’d have to surmise that the main problem was me. I was still living the dream I promised my innocent Cabbage Patch Doll as a seven-year-old struggling through my own parents’ divorce that I would never do this to my own kids. Cue the music. Dun-dun-dun.
So I did what any sane person on the fringe does. I searched out other divorcees. A friend enmeshed early in divorce hell inched up to me at Jake’s t-ball game. “Guy with the blue baseball cap,” she said, pointing across the field. “Divorce. He and the wife living in the house together because neither can afford to move out.” I traded a story about a couple around the corner. “The wife moved to another town with the children. Who knows how they’ll split custody,” I said. We conspired, swapping stories of broken families and soon I dreamt up all sorts of scenarios wishing I could find other divorced parents like me.
I turned to self-help books. “My House, Your House.” “The Good Divorce.” “Stepcoupling.” And my personal favorite, “Mommy, There’s a Man in Your Kitchen—With Your Bathrobe On.” Then I poured over countless blogs written by divorced mothers. Some hated their ex-husbands and a few were still fond of their former spouse. One blogger was the child of divorce. Another was a stepmother in a battle with her stepdaughter’s biological mom. One breakup tale after another should have made me feel sad for the state of our children—all these divorced families struggling to find normalcy. Instead, I found comfort. A community.
So I introduced myself on a few blogs. Typed some blog entries of my own. Came out of the closet, so to speak. And through it all, I found many bloggers to be refreshingly void of shame. Through all the heart wrenching breakup woes, families embraced a matter-of-fact approach. They made a tricky situation work. The mantra: we’re divorced, we’re moving on.
Psychologists will tell you that shame is a useless emotion. They’ll tell you it’s connected to a combination of negative self-perception and public scrutiny. But I wonder if shame is also an emotional purgatory, a place you need to simmer. Two years–a remarriage and a second child–later with my new husband, I see this now. There was no shame in the divorce, in fact, divorce came with a good lesson for both of my children: Mommy took ownership of her life. And then I reminded myself what I tell Jake. In our family, there are two loving, full-of-life dads. Two men who love their children. You can’t be ashamed of that.