What It’s Like To Look In The Mirror And See The Woman I Never Planned To Be

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It’s the missing stuff that leads to the crying. Ordinary objects: running shoes, a set of keys, spare change in the bowl, the gold band. It happens at the most ordinary of times: while folding laundry, while turning out the light, while flossing teeth and tying shoelaces. When it happens I have to hold myself completely still, brace myself in the doorframe and wait for it to stop. It’s not pretty. Not the single, silent tear, but the ugly kind that sounds like choking or when food goes down the wrong pipe. Snot and saliva and the shock of looking in the mirror and seeing the woman I never planned to be: divorced.

In the early days I was a shadow. Moving through the house like I was stumbling through the dark, I put pots on the heated stove with nothing in them. I booked a flight for my mother and used her maiden name. I wore my wedding ring on a chain around my neck, hidden under a blouse. When I walked past a mirror, I would catch a glimpse of myself fifteen pounds lighter. My curves became sharp angles. My pants no longer fit. Everything in my closet had a smell, a memory, a story tied to the person I was. The life I no longer had.

It wasn’t just my appearance that changed. One day I found myself waiting in a long line at a coffee shop. When someone cut in front of me, I opened my mouth, but said nothing. At a bookstore someone stepped on my foot and I apologized. If two colleagues started arguing at work, I had to leave the room. Sometimes my hands started shaking. I found a spider in my kitchen and instead of squashing it, I managed to get it into a glass jar and took it outside.

When I started dating again, a guy described me as non-confrontational and indecisive. It was like taking a bullet.

I didn’t know who I was because I wasn’t myself anymore. Start looking, the therapist said. For what? I asked. For you, she replied. I had no idea what she was talking about.

When you are going through a divorce and you have barely crossed the corner into your 30s, people don’t know what to do with you. It doesn’t matter if they have known you since pre-school or just met you five minutes ago. It’s like you have a highly contagious disease that can be caught just by meeting eyes or being in the same room. How are you doing? I would love to help you. You are so brave. You go girl. Can I get you a drink? I know this really great guy…

Then there are the others. The people who are full of advice and sagely pat your shoulder and whisper, good thing you got out before you gained weight and went grey. I have this friend and her husband left her and she is fabulous now. Just fabulous. You don’t need a man to complete you. Everyone ends up divorced anyways.

Two days later I discovered my first grey hair.

There will be those who do exactly what you need. A friend called me every day for months. You haven’t burned all his clothes or cut off your hair yet, have you? Please tell me you ate something besides Captain Crunch and beef jerky today. I would give my right arm to sit next to you and eat way too much cheese. Here is an article about how being divorced young is the new black. I’m on the train and I’ll be there in three hours. So what the ticket was three hundred dollars. I’ll binge on Netflix and read tabloids. When I get there we can paint your room pink and buy an obnoxiously feminine bedspread with matching throw pillows. We’ll adopt a dog or plant our own vegetables.

We will bring you back to life.

You have been through trauma, the therapist tells me while I cry and ring out every Kleenex in the box like a washcloth. The floor is littered with bits of tissues. Be in the present, she says, handing me a photocopy of a guided meditation exercise. Step one: close your eyes. I close them. Immediately I see my son’s face. His hazel eyes, his dimples, the curve of his chin. It’s his father’s face. Step two: inhale for five seconds. I think, I was married for five years. Exhale for five seconds. You are holding your breath, the therapist interrupts. It isn’t working. When I meditate, I meditate on the loss of my marriage, the ghost of a man who still haunts me.

The stigma of being a single mother was at the forefront of my mind. I pushed the stroller with my right hand only. I kept my left hand in my pocket. There were so many times where I was asked by grocery clerks, pharmacists and ice cream scoopers if I was the nanny. What do you do when your entire identity slides off you like a sweater and you feel exposed? No one tells you that when you divorce and have children that you are no longer assumed to be the mother.

It is my first Christmas without my son. I am sitting in a car in a parking lot in New Hampshire about to go to the movies. The phone rings and it is my ex-husband letting me know that my son is in the hospital. He has a bad cough. I am here to take his temperature, says the nurse in the background. His oxygen levels are low. I hear my son’s voice in the background, momma, he says. I immediately open the door and step outside, as if the act of the leaving the car will somehow magically transport me exactly where I should be: a hospital in Connecticut five hours away. This is what it means to be a mother. You get up. You react immediately. You are wired to do whatever must be done. You are there.

I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there not because I chose to be, but because I wasn’t allowed to be.

The hardest part of the divorce was mothering. Going into my son’s room and putting on a smile like I was putting on my pearls was hard. Pretending like there was something in my eye when my son told me I was crying and I didn’t realize it was hard. Discovering that too many children’s books are about families with a mom and a dad and trying to explain to your three-year-old why daddy couldn’t come over and read the story with us was hard. In some ways my son regressed. In some ways I regressed. Sleep with me, mommy, he says. Laying down in the dark on his bed, we look up at the stars that I placed on the ceiling. He closes his eyes. What are you thinking about? I ask. When we whisper, we sound magical, he says. What are you thinking about? I ask him. Chocolate pudding and penguins and you and dad.

Step one: close your eyes. His face is so close to mine that it is almost touching. He is almost four, but still smells like a baby. Step two: inhale for five seconds. It’s the missing stuff that leads to the crying. Three pairs of shoes by the door. Two people in the bed. Getting lost in Venice. A positive pregnancy test. Yellow roses. A shared identity. An English class in college. A list. A black leather jacket. A family. So I try again. I remember what the therapist said: be in the present. In the present I am in bed with my son and I am sad but I am alive with the life that I created and when I close my eyes I think about chocolate pudding and penguins and that is enough.

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