The Next Right Thing

Introduction from Jen, founder of Stories from the Trenches:

I met Heather sitting across from me in a preschool fundraiser meeting. She was loud, opinionated, and just plain awesome—the kind of woman who speaks her mind without caring about the consequences. I was immediately in love. We didn't become friends then; that happened a year later as we stood in the hallway of our kids second year of preschool. She uttered the words, "Didn’t know if I told you, but I’m getting divorced." This strong, opinionated woman looked broken and determined. The survivor in me immediately connected with the survivor in her, and we have been great friends ever since.

Heather is a single mom of two kids from two different marriages. Her two marriages were more than a decade apart. I hope you will be encouraged by her journey through this trench, which we put into words via an interview. This is her story, in her words—I’m just the writing vessel.


Rebellion and Retaliation

I had my first child when I was nineteen years old, and not long after my daughter was born, her father and I were married. There was a lot of pressure to do so—and I would call myself a people-pleaser. My father also had a terminal illness, and I really wanted him to walk me down the aisle. I married despite knowing it was not the right choice, despite my mom telling me I didn't have to.

There was a little bit of rebellion in doing it anyway. I knew there were red flags. I don’t think I even went into that marriage thinking of "the future" or "forever," mostly “I’m just going to do this." I was trying to be a grown-up.

We were married for barely over a year, making me a single mom before the age of twenty-one. I stayed single, raising my daughter alone until I was thirty years old. In the beginning, my ex visited our daughter reluctantly, and I had to almost force her on him. As our daughter got older, her father couldn’t keep a job and couldn’t pay child support. If he couldn’t pay child support, then he couldn’t see her. I wouldn’t recommend this. (You learn a lot when you are young, naïve, and stupid.) At that time, I was not thinking about what was in the best interest of my child. I was thinking of retaliation. You are hurting me, so how can I hurt you back?

Putting the Pieces Together

So for most of my daughter’s childhood, she didn’t have a relationship with her father. He couldn’t keep a job. He didn't have a driver’s license. Any visitation required arranging transportation with his mom or with me. But when our daughter was around seven years old, she started going to his home more often. He became the "Disneyland Dad." I was working full-time and serving as the full-time provider. I had to take her to school, pick her up, feed her dinner, and do all of the parenting things—then she could go to his house and have the fun.

For several years, he was the fun parent, and she wanted to be with him all of the time. My one rule, though, was to never speak ill of her dad. (Coming from a divorced family, you learn that is one thing you hate.) I knew that some day she would figure it out and make sense of everything on her own. She would realize, "My mom wasn’t this awful person who didn’t want to have fun; my dad is not the person I thought he was." That happened when she was thirteen years old—she started to put the pieces together and started to ask questions. I set her up with a counselor to help her process her daddy issues. I didn't want her to fall into the trap of young girls who don't have relationships with their fathers and who seek attention elsewhere—wherever they can get it. She is now nineteen years old, and I do feel like I failed with that.

But looking back over the years from her childhood to adolescence, she would tell you I’m her hero. I don’t feel like I deserve that. At some point, your kids look back and can see clearly. She can see that I tried to make it work and do it all myself. I feel very fortunate because even with all of the hard things of being a single parent, my daughter can clearly see how much I loved her and wanted to protect her.

Trying Again

My first marriage was so short-lived, but the years I spent as a single mom were where I learned so much about how to do things differently the second time. When my daughter was eleven years old, I remarried to someone I had known since high school. The idea I was sold on was that he was ready to settle down and have a family. By the time I figured out that was not accurate, I was pregnant with our son. Once our son was born, he really tried to be a husband and a father, but that did not last very long. It was just not something his personality is capable of. By the time our son was four years old, it came to light that my husband was having an affair—and that he had many affairs in the six years of our marriage.

I believe in the sanctity of marriage before my family, friends, and God, so I kept trying. I felt my efforts fell on deaf ears. I became a recluse. After you talk and talk and feel ignored, you eventually just stop. Stop trying, stop listening, stop caring. Even after it came out he had an affair, I didn’t know what to do. I knew it wouldn’t work, but I looked at my kids—especially my daughter, who had already been through so much. I thought of how this was going to wreck them. If I didn’t have kids, I would have walked away immediately.

But I had a foundation of my faith, my family, and my friends who surrounded me with love, and I moved forward to divorce. I remember being terrified. Where am I going to live? What am I going to drive? How can I support my kids on a part-time job? I had just reentered the work force part-time a few months prior. An old coworker had asked me to lunch, and we started talking about her office. She asked if I would be interested in training someone for her. It was a short assignment, but in the end, the trainee didn't work out and I was offered the position. This eventually became a full-time job that allowed me to support my children, all because I said yes to a lunch with an old friend.

A Fresh Start

Since I had already been divorced, I knew that I wanted this time to be different. I wanted to be different. I wanted to parent differently. I decided immediately that I would walk through this divorce with grace and come out with my dignity still intact. I wanted it to be okay for my kids to see my sadness, my emotions—and not just anger. I was careful not to go into intense details with them, since my son was four years old, but my daughter was old enough to put the pieces together.

I did a few things in the very beginning that were definitely in retaliation mode, but I recognized very quickly: that was not how to do things. Retaliation was not in my son's best interest. So I laid down my sword and allowed myself to be humble. I had to remind myself that a lot of what my ex was doing was not to be harmful to me; they were his own harmful decisions. It took a lot of phone calls—and a chain of friends and family to vent to—to keep those harmful frustrations away from my children. I tried really hard to keep my head on straight, do normal things, and keep things as routine for my kids as possible—goals that, at times, seemed impossible.

I wanted to make life easier for everyone. which sometimes required having a conversation I didn’t want to have or taking into consideration other people’s feelings—those of my kids, their fathers, their grandparents, etc. That's not easy to do when you are still going through all of the "firsts." The first holiday apart, I wasn’t grieving the loss of time with my husband but the time I didn’t get with my son. After the first year of doing things separately—the first Christmas, the first Easter, the first birthday—you start to accept that you will be okay. And your kids are going to be okay.

Choosing Peace

The important thing is that if you want your kids to be okay, then you have to be okay. If you force the details, force control, it only makes it difficult for your children. So I became more agreeable. For instance, if it wasn't my ex's scheduled day to have my son but there was a special occasion, I became more agreeable to letting them spend time together. It makes my son happy to see his dad more, and that makes me happy. I know I am his home and his home base.

It has been two and a half years since my divorce, and there are still difficulties. You never want to spend holidays without your kids; when they are sick, you don’t want to send them to the other parent. (This past Christmas we had to switch things up a bit, and it worked out fine.) I feel strongly about keeping the peace, and that is the most important for my children's sake.

In the end, I just keep doing the next right thing. As a person, regardless of what others are doing or what your ex is doing, just do the next right thing—everything tends to work out.  

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