It's a January morning in 2003 and I can't bring myself to take the kids to school. What will I say when someone asks me "How are you?" The answer, you see, is just not the stuff of polite conversation.
"W E L L... My partner of ten years has just dumped me. I was supposed to live with him into old age. I had no idea he wasn't happy. I loved the bastard. But that was only the half of it - he has dumped me with three kids under seven. With not enough savings to build a realist future.....
With no job.
With a house that was going to be sold to pay off debts.
With no pension.
With a fortieth birthday coming up that year..... Fucking hell."
Its now almost a year later. I've been in the bath, listening to Alanis Morissette and her passionate angry lyrics, and trying to cry. This is one of my latest self-help ventures, a continuation of productive attempts to turn a major emotional disaster into a life enhancing success. Getting to where I am now has been an interesting process.
Alanis is singing it all for me - "I recommend getting your heart trampled on to anyone" (in my case it felt more like a machete job); "waiting for deliverance" (the "oh God somebody please come and rescue me" stage); "I don't want to be a band-aid if the wound is not mine" (Jesus - how can he save me - he's got more emotional baggage than I have!); "The cross I bare that you gave to me" (No-one can do that victim-thing better than a woman scorned). Anger and pain that seemed to shred me from the inside out. A slow, crippling, crumbling of the core of my body that I didn't even know existed within me. For me, this was my first taste of bereavement.
Obviously, after all that had happened, my shattered sense of self worth was screaming for a shag - but fortunately, the offers on hand were by people who seemed even more lost and confused than I was. I managed to steer clear - more by luck than judgement - through that first clichéd hurdle. I went through the "oh, he's bound to realise what he's done and try to make another go of it" phase. But he didn't. Meanwhile, I was experiencing the early stages of panic attacks, and a weird sensation that time was moving far more slowly than it ever had before.
It finally dawned on me - I was in grief. I had never had any one truly close to me die before, but this was the closest thing. I had lost a whole life - past and future. Gone in an incomprehensible instant. Always thinking it might reappear around the next corner - but gradually realising that that part of me was gone forever. So I did what my many wise friends were encouraging me to do - I got real.
I had the blessing of so many fantastic friends - friends I didn't even know I had - who gave so much more than just emotional support and the time to listen. They were brave enough to be honest with me - comments like "God, what's happened to you is so awful I can't help laughing" were strangely helpful. I also loved the response from one dear friend, after the guilt I had been feeling of dumping such awful news on my family and friends. When I told her that I was now joining the club of single motherhood, she said with great passion and absolutely no tact - "FANTASTIC!" But my friends also prevented my tackling of the mundane realities - possible financial holocaust; children torn out of school - from leaving me devoid of hope, and they helped me to believe that the world still had some good stuff waiting for me up ahead.
I was fighting. I moved out, got a place to rent, started panicking about my future. But I was still the victim fighting against the odds - and the trouble with that is you just never get your act together, because it's always someone else's fault. It's only when you face up to the horrifying reality of a situation that you can truly take it in hand - and own it. You make it your own. It's no-one else's fault or responsibility if you don't make things work out. I looked the worse case scenarios of every aspect of my life right in the face - and made whatever provisions I could. And somehow, by making that appointment with the loan parent advisor with my youngest child screaming throughout most of the interview (no toys provided or changing room), applying for State Benefits and enrolling the kids in schools I hadn't previously wanted them to go to - took the fear away. It didn't mean "that was it" - it just meant I was taking back some control. And you know the amazing thing? Even though it took a real leap of faith, and a good helping of black humour, to really start taking control of my life, the more I did it, the more I believed it was going to work out somehow. And the most amazing thing for me was, that other people seemed to be drawn in and they began to believe it too.
Strange as it may sound, but it was the children who helped the most, because they forced me to take back control of the present. I didn't have the luxury of descending into total emotional freefall. There were these very strong brave little people who needed me to make things work out for them. They kept me sane in other ways too. When your partner has acted as if the past ten years was merely a passing of time without any emotional consequence, you really begin to question whether you have imagined the whole thing. But the children lie as physical evidence of something beautiful that no mid-life crisis can obliterate.
A good friend sent me off on an excellent motivational course. Boy was I ready for that. It was like someone had handed me a load of really useful tools to continue turning my life around even more dramatically than I already had done - and getting rid of all those stupid self-limiting beliefs that I didn't know I had. Now that I wasn't a `mother of three in a stable relationship with a house and two cars", I had the opportunity to become anything I wanted. Of course, I could have done all that before, but oh, the children are so exhausting and the house has to be finished and the list of excuses for not thinking about my own personal growth were endless. People would ask me "how do you cope on your own". But strangely, having one less adult to care for actually made my life easier. Also, not having to bear the burden of someone else's unhappiness that neither of us had really been able to acknowledge - well that was like a massif weight lifted from my shoulders. I got rid of all my excuses and allowed myself to dream of what I wanted with ambition instead of frustrated regret. I had become free. I had become myself again.
I did have one tricky problem for a while. No one tells you what to do with your ex-partner. You're supposed to hate and despise them - they are the reason behind every sorrow in your life. It was all so horribly negative, and somehow, the children took me from the bitterness of the usual break-up mentality and gave me every reason to fight for something better. When you have a living reminder of unconditional love each day, it makes you question the quality of the love that you think has now broken your heart. And that was yet another revelation - it's not `love' that causes the pain. Love is a good thing. What causes the pain - and so many problems within relationships of all kinds - is being `needy'. That was not a person I wanted to be any longer.
After ten years of learning to live with someone in love, in seemed so crazy just to give it all up because I now wanted to find a new way to live with them - albeit separately. I finally realised that posing 'unanswerable questions' and re-examining the past ad nauseum were clearly not getting me anywhere. I decided to let the love that had kept us together for ten years be the guiding factor with keeping us healthily and positively apart. The children were a constant reminder that anger and self-pity and doubt and fear - in other words, parenthood - can all be balanced with, well, love.
I was lucky enough to be able to put down a deposit on a house and get out of the Benefit trap - thank god for interest-only mortgages. I make the house `work' for me by taking in lodgers, though some of my friends are keeping a book out on how long each one will last. I enrolled on a training course that takes up almost every Saturday for the next two years and THEN organised the childcare, knowing that was the only way I would make it happen. I am home schooling one of my kids and loving it.
I would not change anything in my life. I never realised that being single was such a natural state, and the more I enjoy it, the more I know that I will end up eventually with someone who is happy and motivated and probably want to hang around for a while, because they will be with me because they want to be and not because they are afraid to be alone. Meanwhile, I am enjoying a social life I would have felt was positively indulgent during my previous life as happy housewife. Of course I do sometimes miss man-cuddles, and I definitely miss sex. But God, if there wasn't anything to miss everyone would stay single forever.
The kids and I had a drink at the pub today with their dad. And I played him at pool - and lost (but not badly). It was good. I still get those deep unremitting pains sometimes - especially when the first Christmas and New Year struck - but the pain starts to take on a familiarity that makes it somehow less debilitating. I don't know what the future might bring, but I know that at least the past is not going to fuck it up for me.
I've been lucky to have an ex-partner who has been financially supportive and taken on the role of fatherhood with an ever-increasing confidence and enthusiasm. Things could have been a lot worse for me and for some people they are. I have learnt that being with three young children, either in or out of a relationship, is not a chore or a burden. Even though it is hard sometimes, it does not stop you from living your life to the full. Parenthood, in any form, is a gift.
So I'm sitting in the bath and I've finally managed to blubber a bit, and I'm wondering how to describe that odd feeling I have when I'm all alone in the house and the kids are quiet in their beds. A kind of familiar feeling that seems to be growing stronger all the time - that precious time that I have for myself. I think I can only describe it as - "Freedom"...
(1st Published Juno Magazine 2006)
Suzy Miller is the creator of Divorce in a Box