On December 17th Scary Mommy posted perhaps my most widely read article to date. It was about co-parenting with an ex who hates me and was titled “When the Father of Your Children is Your Enemy”.
Something extraordinary happened that day. I was headed to Kansas City to spend Christmas with my family. I had my two children (six and four) in tow for a 3+ hour flight from SEA>MCI. This is not an unusual thing. I have traveled with my children lots and this day did not fill me with dread… that is, until my six year old woke up at 3am the night before puking. And puking. And puking well into the time we were to leave for the airport at 8am. I’m not sure I slept at all. She begged me not to go. “Please mama, please?!” She was scared of what was to come and my heart broke every time I had to tell her we HAD to go. Changing flights would be much too expensive at this point and I hadn’t been home for Christmas in over a decade.
She was motionless. I carried her to the car. I carried her to the shuttle. I put her in a wheel chair to get through the airport. She looked so horrible they almost denied us on the plane. My poor, poor child. I felt so, so guilty
All the while, my phone was blowing up with messages. One after another after another. On a different day, at a different time, I might have been able to answer all of you. But not this day. I could not. My child needed me.
We got to Kansas City fine and by the next day, she was well again. Something she ate, probably, considering the quick turnaround.
And still, the messages came. One heartbreaking story after another. One message of gratitude followed by another asking for help. I wanted to respond to each and every one of you. I HEAR YOU! I SEE YOU! I KNOW. I KNOW.
I did respond to a few, but not all. And for that I am sorry. So I wanted to respond here; the best I know how with some advice with dealing with someone who tries to use your own heart to hurt you. Because this situation is a unique kind of misery.
The guilt. You feel it. I know you do. Guilt will eat you alive. You should have known, right? You should have done x y and z differently. It’s all on you. You’re the “sanest” one now; you’re the only one who can save the kids.
There’s a part of me which feels like I deserve to suffer. I feel I made a horrible mistake by going so far down a road my gut told me to stay away from years ago and that mistake has damaged so many lives. People, who are the most important people on earth to me, will never be the same because of the mistakes I made.
Hindsight is a horribly lovely thing. It can teach us so much and yet, changes nothing. Looking back over my marriage I can see the places where I should have made different choices. Whether it was who I was at the time, or what I would have had to sacrifice back then… whatever the reason, I made the wrong choice. No denying that fact now. And there’s a part of me that feels like this current pain, this sorrow, this angst is my payment for those bad choices. That I don’t deserve the happiness in my life because of all the suffering I’ve caused due to my poor life choices. When I should have known better. This is guilt. And I am wracked with it from time to time.
I’ll say it again, because it bears repeating, guilt will eat you alive. I know this. I’ve been chewed up a few times and spit out by guilt’s teeth on my psyche.
Brene Brown (y’all know Brene, I’m sure) says that guilt is holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.
And guilt is also tied to shame. Shame is believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. That something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.
“Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” ~ Halocaust survivor, psychologist, Victor Frankl
Divorcing with young children you can’t hide from them how you really feel. They are walking intuitive beings picking up emotions more accurately than you and I. I can tell my kids that zombies and vampires are real on Halloween and they will believe me without question but I can’t fake the emotions I get from this guilt and shame and I can’t fake my feelings toward their father. They don’t understand facts, but feelings, they often know better than I.
I decided I couldn’t pass on my guilt and shame onto them, and I couldn’t taint their relationship with their father with my complicated feelings toward him. Their life and perceptions aren’t mine. And so I knew I had to change my mind. I had to find a way to transform my guilt and shame into meaning.
And this is it. Writing. Not always about divorce, not always about pain, but always about life and how to live it by what I call “camp ground rules” which is to leave it a little better than I found it. To be more aware of my surroundings.
This is also what is behind the culture’s “fail forward” mantras as of late. “Rise above! Find meaning! Turn lemons into lemonade!” And all that crap that sometimes means absolutely nothing when you’re in the middle of a dark, dark tunnel. This mentality that I should be failing well has brought me large doses of anxiety. I’m always so anxious to find the light at the end of the tunnel; to muscle my way through to the bright side, dammit!
But I have come to learn that the tunnel exists for a reason. You cannot unearth anything precious without first searching, and it is in the PROCESS of searching that we create the moment of true and lasting joy that comes upon discovery.
There’s this short film I saw in IMAX with my children called “The Flight of the Monarch.” While it is a documentary about the discovery and mystery behind the migration of monarch butterflies across North America, it’s also about the life and love of Dr. Fred Urquhart. Fred and his wife, Norah, spent 40 years trying to uncover the secrets of monarch butterflies. The measures he took in this endeavor were extraordinary. Before the digital age he tracked individual butterflies with tags on their wings. It took years to develop the glue which could stick the tags to the delicate wings and then many more years before people would find those tags and report back.
Fred was fueled by a love and curiosity to know the truth. I know that love. I know that curiosity. I feel it every time I look at my children and wonder who they are and what they might become.
It wasn’t until Fred was 65 that he found the truth. After 40 years of searching he walked into the a remote jungle in Mexico to see a billion butterflies clinging to the trees. Within five minutes, he picked up a tag which told him the truth of their migration. A tag which clung to the wing of a butterfly with a glue he developed and after it flew 2000 miles to land at his feet.
If easy answers fell into our hands like mana from heaven the moment we needed them… our lives would have been wasted. We could never understand the precise amount of preciousness in life’s truths had we not searched and searched in darkness and felt the overwhelming frustrations and tinges of hopelessness at soul crushing dead ends leaving us breathless. Without these things, we would not understand the preciousness which lies before us, often, in the tiniest things.
The searching. The tunnels. The dead ends. The dark nights of the soul have purpose. They are not pointless, fruitless, hopeless things. They are teaching us – in all their horrible brutality – what the opposite of them feels like so that when we see it, we know.
These dark times are definers and boundary expanders of joy. Everything negative is always defined and made more clear by the positive. I always say, there is no definition of the dark that does not include the light.
So maybe we don’t “rush” through the tunnels to run head-long into meaning. Sometimes, we just need to sit down for a while. Pay attention. Take in the loneliness and feel the cold hand of hopelessness creep up our spines. Let the guilt and the shame be our teachers, not our executioners. This takes a iron-clad strength for which I had help.
I read books. I went to yoga. I recited poetry. I floundered. I wrote. I yelled and drank and confessed too much. I tried not to hurt people. I held on to whatever small light I could, for as long as it would stay. None of this brought a lasting light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, but it taught me that I could see in the dark.
When you can calibrate to the darkness, you learn to love the light even more. And now I do.
So while my daughter was throwing up cherry flavored, red medicine into my hands at the terminal that day, I literally felt your messages as they buzzed in my pocket. And they got me through. It was your gratitude – the knowledge that my pain, my darkness, brought some light that day – was enough to manage that sad day I felt like I was breaking her heart again. And it continues to help me through.
And I could only see life through these eyes because I have calibrated my sight. I can see in the dark, now. There is no one who appreciates light more than I. And I love all of it.
So don’t rush through your tunnel. It’s there for a reason. Teach yourself to see in the dark. Spend 40 years if you have to looking for the truth so that when it comes, the joy can carry you for the rest of your life. There is no greater purpose than finding meaning. So go find it.
“When you know better, you do better.”
“When you learn, teach.”
(This was written rather quickly and from notes I took in early November. Please forgive typos, I did not edit much 🙂 )