Yesterday I dropped off my four kids in an airport hotel parking lot to spend two weeks with their dad, from whom I’ve been divorced almost six years. I helped load them and all their bags into his car service van on their way to their next destination. As their little hands waved out the tinted windows, their faces masked by the darkness, I tried to hold back the tears until they were out of sight, raising my hand high in the air, a smile on my face.
As the van turned the corner, I collapsed.
My legs grew as heavy as tree trunks, my head toppled forward, and I started wailing. I bent over as if my spine had been plucked through the top of my head, rendering me a rag doll. It was a wretched, guttural cry from a place deep inside me, the place filled with all my love for the kids, an untapped reservoir overflowing with feeling. And like the pain of a nerve being zinged, I howled. I hadn’t cried that hard since my mother-in-law passed away from Covid and I called my father screaming, “She died!”
It felt like that.
Inescapable. Loss. Pain.
Logically I knew it would be okay. The kids would be okay. I would be okay. But oh, the crushing pain of the actual separation.
Unlike the kids heading off to sleep-away camp or boarding school, which in the past has also made me cry, leaving kids with an ex feels far more upsetting. No matter how much good was in your marriage, there must have been some things that caused it to end. And those bad memories tend to percolate when they’re racing off into the sunset with your most precious assets.
Kyle, my second husband, had to lift me off the ground and lead me back to our car where I wailed with my head in my hands. We got lost leaving the unknown hotel, heading south instead of north. I didn’t care. I didn’t care where we went or how long it took to get home. I didn’t want to get home. I didn’t want to look around where we’d all just spent a fabulous two-week vacation filled with laughter and feel their absence as tangibly as I held onto the cool kitchen island.
The pain took on a physical form. It stretched from my neck down to my C-section scar, where all four of the kids escaped at one point or another. A shield of heartache. Usually after I say goodbye every other week, I cry for a bit and then can collect myself. But this time, I couldn’t. I eventually wiped my eyes enough to pop into an ice cream store for some frozen reinforcement. But once we got home and I saw the forgotten socks, the empty soccer nets in the backyard, the snacks still on the counter, I cracked.
The worst part about divorce pain is that it feels self-inflicted. Unlike a serious illness that comes on suddenly or a catastrophic accident, the emotional amputation of saying goodbye to kids due to shared custody does have a source. A cause. And in all cases, you, the parent, have played a role in this. That’s the hardest part. What if you’d been able to make your marriage work? Why couldn’t you? Is anything really that bad, bad enough for this excruciating pain?
“Why don’t you read, honey?” Kyle suggested.
There’s nothing I love more than reading. I opened up the reclaimed wood cabinet looking through the books I would feature soon on my podcast, Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books. Was there something funny that could take my mind off of everything? A thriller, perhaps? Something amazing? I grabbed the bestseller Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid which many of my trusted reader friends had said kept their interest. I climbed into bed and opened up the book, falling into the lives of the Riva family, surfing on my belly with them, my arms growing tired from carrying the board, hating their dad for all his flaws, loving their mom, wiping the sand from my feet, eating the sandwich at the roadside restaurant, prepping for a party.
Until I passed out.
I slept from 3 p.m. until after 7 p.m. when I looked outside to see the sky darkening, my dog Nya snuggled up beside me.
My phone dinged.
“I made us a dinner reservation!” Kyle called from the other room.
“Oh honey, I can’t,” I said. “I can’t eat. I can’t get out of bed.”
I didn’t want to open my eyes. If I opened my eyes, the pain came flooding back. And why would I? What was there to see? My work, which typically feels so important, pressing, and fun, faded away into the background. I couldn’t possibly email. I couldn’t even respond to helpful comments coming in from my Instagram post, a hail mary I’d thrown to see if anyone else “out there” felt like me. I was too wrecked to read or respond. I couldn’t move.
Kyle climbed beside me and we looked at all 800+ pictures from the previous two weeks with the kids as the sky blackened. And finally I was laughing, watching the kids’ funny videos, the selfies I didn’t know they’d taken. I ate a yogurt and slept all night.
This grief has been happening in one way or another for years. The feast or famine of shared custody. Time away from the kids stretches out like the snap of a towel at the beach, settling down on the sand for me to traverse one wobbly step at a time.
No one talks about this particular pain. And this pain is real. It dredges up loss and grief and preys on the worst fears.
Today I woke up feeling better and Facetimed the kids.
“Want to go in the pool?” Kyle asked.
I burst into tears imagining all the fun times, especially with my older son who would emerge from his room to play with all of us or swim laps.
But I decided to get dressed up and meet a friend for lunch and then told Kyle I wouldn’t be able to come home the rest of the day. I packed up my laptop and a few books and headed into the nearby town to revise my memoir and, apparently, write this.
As I sat writing, an old friend texted me.
Did I have a minute to chat?
I called her right away.
She was sobbing.
“I just left my kids with my ex and it hurts so badly! I don’t know anyone else who would understand except you. I feel so terrible because I chose this. Was it worth it?”
I said everything I wanted to hear myself. That it wasn’t an option. That they would all be okay. That it would get easier the next morning. That the pain was part of the happiness to come. That she was starting fresh and building new memories. And that the feelings were real and raw and justified.
And then I told her to put on her prettiest outfit, grab her laptop and get out of the house. Because, like me, I knew she could turn it on and pretend to be okay in public. And sometimes, just like studies that show if you smile you’ll actually feel happier, being out and chatting dulls the pain.
On Instagram, a woman I don’t know DM’ed saying she’d just gotten separated and didn’t know how excruciating this divorce pain could be and thanked me for writing about it.
This particular feeling may seem self-indulgent. But shared custody, literally losing control legally and physically of all your kids at once, is oppressively awful. And it is a loss. One that deserves space at the crowded dinner table of painful things that happen to others.
Let’s give it a seat next to the loss of a loved one and a difficult illness. Let’s name divorce pain and come up with greeting cards to address it.
“Sorry for your divorce pain. Shared custody is really hard. Thinking of you.”
Let’s drop off casseroles and send flowers.
Let’s send each other thoughtful texts at drop-off time.
Let’s make plans with friends during their custody time off.
Let’s leave space in our hearts knowing others are suffering.
Let’s be there for each other just as we would as if something bad was really happening.
Because it is.
Over and over again.
Worth it. But oh so very hard.
And just when you get over it, it happens again.
Divorce pain? Your table is waiting for you. Let me show you the way.
Originally published in Moms Don’t Have Time to Write.