This article was originally published in January 2018.
Conventional wisdom says that it’s too stressful to make a lot of life changes at once. Get married, but don’t get married and buy a new house and get pregnant at the same time. Get divorced but don’t switch jobs, sell said house, and go back to school in the same six month period. But if life fit into neat little boxes – finish this task, then move onto the next – it would be like living in a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Simple, neat, but you could get eaten by a dinosaur.
In the midst of my divorce, I had to get a new job. My old company was about to declare bankruptcy for the third time. My therapist cautioned me that it might prove too stressful to handle but I pointed out that not having a job and the ability to pay legal bills in the middle of a nasty divorce would be more stressful. Then, three months into the new job, I had the opportunity to go back to school for my MBA. While it wasn’t a choice I had to make to survive (like being employed) I decided to go for it. Divorce, new job and going back to school, all in the space of three months. I broke all the rules.
Taking a risk and choosing change after divorce can feel like an almost insurmountable task. If the divorce wasn’t of your choosing you may have been blindsided and hurt. Struggling to deal with how another person’s choices can turn your entire world on its head. Even if you, like me, took the steps and made the decision yourself it can be overwhelming to make decisions after that big one.
And there are a lot of them to be made in the divorce process. From division of assets to a custody schedule, in the midst of a painful and emotionally draining time you’re asked to sign off on choices that will impact the rest of your life. Is it any wonder that I’d sometimes stand in the kitchen for an hour, paralyzed by indecision about what to eat that night?
A lot of the decisions you have to make during a divorce are inescapable. At some point you’re going to have to sign on the dotted line. That’s why I think it’s empowering to make changes that you do choose and control. Laws are inflexible and outdated, and I found them to be deeply sexist in many instances. As much as I railed against them, I couldn’t change them. If courage is a muscle, and taking small risks builds it up after divorce, choosing change is part of exercising that muscle.
For many post-divorce women the idea of more change may make us cringe. We had enough upheaval, thank-you-very-much. It can be the perfect time, however, to take stock of your life. Where you’re at, where you want to be, what you want to change. It’s a period of rediscovery and reinvention. Might as well embrace it, take charge, and shape your destiny.
But what if it doesn’t work out? you ask. Last summer I took a new job. I wanted a promotion, a raise and better opportunities. My company was about to announce a merger and I was going to be out of work shortly. The new place had fantastic benefits and was a top place to work in the Boston area…that was the problem. Boston. One of my hometowns but not where I lived currently. I’d been stuck in Minnesota, trapped there by my ex-husband’s grad school and then his job. He’d kept promising me we could leave when he graduated, when he’d had a few years under his belt in his new career…yeah, it never happened. And I found myself living in a place that, while not in any way inherently awful, wasn’t home. Wasn’t where I wanted to raise my child.
I took a risk, accepted the job and moved. Only to discover that, even if the place you’re living at the time of divorce isn’t ideal for your career, even if you could get a thirty thousand dollar raise living and working somewhere else, even if you have no family and no real roots in a place…you’re trapped there. Held prisoner by laws that tie you to an ex and use your child as a hostage. It’s assumed, the mediator told me, that you’ll live in Minnesota until your son is eighteen. If he’s born here, he should grow up here.
WHY? I asked, refraining from pointing out that never leaving your place of birth is the complete antithesis to our country’s founding ideals. None of us would have been sitting in that room if our ancestors hadn’t left their homes.
He shrugged. It just is.
In a month I must reverse the path I took less than six months ago. I’m not willing to settle for less custody of my son. My choice didn’t work out. And will end up having cost me a lot of money in legal and moving fees. Of course I’m struggling with feeling like I have no control or determination over my life just because I got a divorce. I’ll never understand a legal system that prioritizes an ex-husband’s career over mine, that refuses to acknowledge the realities of today’s workforce where portability is key to advancement, and that gives abusive men this much power over women’s lives.
But even though my choices didn’t lead to the life I’d wanted, I don’t regret making them. I don’t regret trying.
Because if it’s one thing divorced women learn it’s that we can’t control the outcome. I doubt many of us intended for our marriages to end when we first said, “I do.” But we’ve learned to adapt to life’s changes. To embrace uncertainty and to work within the confines of what we’ve been given. Have the courage to make choices. To choose change. And then release the outcome. Sometimes that’s the most important choice you can make.
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