I left my husband in 2016. At the time, I had a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old – both boys – one of whom was still in nappies. I was the family breadwinner, working in my clinical role in palliative care with patients reaching the end of their lives. On reflection, I think it was this role, and exposure to these patients, that prompted me to make the changes I did.
I saw many people dying who had tolerated an unhappy life or an unhappy marriage, having never realised their full potential. Having never experienced true love or true happiness. And in contrast, I met other patients who had lived a life of pure joy, with a deeply loving, committed partner.
This work made me acutely aware of how fragile we are, how temporary our lives are, and how very important it is to live a life that is congruent with our dreams, desires and values.
My marriage was unhappy and dysfunctional. I knew I had to get out. For myself, for the children, and even for the sake of my husband. And so that is exactly what I did.
Here are some of the challenges I faced, the ways that my life changed, and the adjustments I made along the way:
Pain. There was a lot of pain. Mine. His. The children’s. Much more than I had ever expected there would be. I thought that things would get easier once I’d made the decision to leave, but they got much worse before they got better, as I now believe is often the case. And the pain manifested itself in an enormous variety of ways. My children swung between confusion and sadness. My ex-husband was angry. And I felt numb. Disorientated. And as if I was functioning on autopilot. I remember feeling as if there was another ‘force’ that was moving me through the motions of my daily existence. And I was like a puppet, performing the tasks required to keep the children and me afloat. It was several years before I could really cry. Several years before I could really engage with the pain. Probably, I think, because I focused those first years entirely on managing my children’s loss and deflecting their father’s anguish. There was very little space for me to feel my own pain.
Confidence. I lacked confidence. Years in an unhappy home had impacted enormously on my sense of self-worth. I didn’t know who I was anymore. Or what I could do. I doubted my own abilities. I needed to find some strength quickly to support us all through this change. I was at rock bottom, and I knew I had a long way to go in regaining my sense of self-efficacy. I felt stripped back, raw, naked. And I was starting all over again from the ground up.
Decision-making. There were lots of questions from the children, and from family and friends, and endless decisions to make. Suddenly, the decisions, and the answers to these questions, were all down to me. 100%.
Identity. My identity had become lost in my roles as a wife and a mother, and a clinician, and I had lost sight of my true self. What did I enjoy? How did I feel? Who was I? I wasn’t sure anymore. My marriage had been very much a continual process of ‘crisis management’, and as a result, had consumed my sense of self. I had no boundaries. I was vulnerable and open and completely unanchored. Drifting. Lost at sea. I needed to get to know myself, all over again. To familiarise myself with my own dreams and desires and values, instead of worrying about (and over focusing on) the welfare of my spouse, as I had done for many years.
Social group. The thing I had not expected, but I became quickly and very painfully aware of, was that my social groups would change and that some people would exit my life unexpectedly, rapidly and completely. There were friends I had been very close to over many years, who were unable to make peace with my decision to leave my husband. Friends who were uncomfortable around the new (and initially very painful) family set-up. As a struggling, traumatised and disorientated single parent, I did not fit in easily to my previous social networks. Perhaps I undermined people’s confidence in their own domestic situations. Perhaps I planted a seed of doubt in the resilience of their own relationships. Who knows? But I do know that I felt very abandoned by some.
Fear. Could I cope on my own? Financially, emotionally, physically? I was terrified about our future, but simultaneously excited and exhilarated. If only I could find the courage to keep moving forward and the faith in my ability to succeed. The children’s fear manifested in their behaviours: separation anxiety, disturbed sleep, lowered frustration tolerance and increased irritability. They feared that I would leave them, or not return. They feared that I would be hurt or that I would die. They feared being without me, in any way at all.
Guilt. Because it was my decision to end the marriage, I felt that this collective pain must be my fault, and so I probably overcompensated at first. I tried to be kind and accommodating, but this actually just caused greater ambiguity and confusion. I was consumed by guilt, and I worried about the impact on everyone. How will it affect the children? How will they remember this time? Will they resent me? I’ve caused so much pain. I think I overidentified with the pain of my ex-husband, and tried too hard to support everyone else.
Loss. I experienced much loss, on so many levels: family, friends, identity, confidence, orientation, the future. I had not anticipated this at all and it took me completely by surprise. I was bereaved.
Pain. I learned that emotional pain will come and then it will go, just like all other feelings. We just have to allow it. I learned that, for the most part, we can tolerate feeling painful things. I learned to lean into my pain. To feel it. To be with it. To not fear it – my pain or that of others. I learned to embrace all emotions and I hope I taught my children to do the same. We spoke openly and often about our feelings. We cried together. And we returned regularly to Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi’s ‘The Guest House’, to remind ourselves that our feelings are just visitors. As quickly as they arrive, they will most likely leave of their own accord. We just need to be patient. We nurtured an emotional vocabulary, and made time for daily sharing of our thoughts and feelings.
Confidence. I worked hard at regaining my confidence and developing faith in my own resources. I prioritised rebuilding my self-belief by surrounding myself with people I could trust. I sought support from specialist services: counselling, coaching, healing. I ate well, I slept well, and I worked hard at the job I loved. I focused my time and energies on succeeding as a mother, a clinician, and as an individual, and I made sure to love (my children, my friends, my family, and myself) with a full, open and grateful heart. I paid attention to the ways that I could be the very best version of ‘me’ and dedicated my mental energies to nurturing that.
Decision-making. There was no way around it; I just had to be brave. I made some of my boldest decisions at this time, and this bolstered my confidence simultaneously. Changing the children’s schools. Taking over the lease on our house. Progressing in my job. Challenging perceptions. Proceeding in the face of doubts. I proactively accessed support from community agencies – refuge, substance misuse services, school pastoral care – which reassured and reinforced things for me. But for the most part, it was my bold, gutsy, and intuitive decision-making that moved us forward.
Identity. This was one of the more exhilarating aspects of this period for me. I found it extremely pleasing how quickly I came back to ‘knowing myself’. I revisited old interests, and indulged in my favourite books, movies, pastimes. I chose clothes I liked and felt good in. I ate whatever food I desired. I went to bed early and woke late (when I could). I cared for myself. I bought gifts for myself. I was kind to myself. And, gradually, ‘old’ Cath found her way back home. A ‘new’ Cath also emerged: solo parent; survivor; strong, independent, adventurous, joy-seeking woman. And I liked her very much.
Social group. I gradually let go of the disappointment I felt about those who couldn’t ‘support’ me. I made peace with ‘losing’ friends, contacts and networks. I learned to accept that we outgrow relationships. And as I did this, I made new, more relevant and increasingly supportive networks. My social group has increased exponentially, both in size and in quality. I have far more close, supportive, loving friendships than I was ever able to have throughout my marriage. My relationships with others are now immeasurably more genuine and satisfying.
Fear. Fear became an agent of change for me. There was no stronger motivation for action than this. Fear of pain, fear of loss, fear of the future, fear of hurt. But I channelled this as positively as I could. For the children, I focused on security and safety. On reassurance and stability. I abated their fears with consistency, reminding them frequently that I was here and always would be. And that our home was a safe space in which they could play and express and feel everything they needed to. For myself, I faced fears head on. Whatever I was afraid of, I went towards. I leaned in. I did that thing that I feared so much: speaking up, reaching out, sharing my truth and exposing my vulnerability. I travelled with the children, as frequently as I could. Across the country. Into Europe. Hitchhiking. Backpacking. We went to festivals and wild camped and taught ourselves bushcrafts. I think I wanted to push myself as much as I could to gain strength, and confidence and independence as a single parent, in the most testing of circumstances. Because I knew that if I could cope in those, I could cope in any. And I did. And I have.
Guilt. I think this is an inevitable aspect of parenting. We feel guilty whatever we do. I tried to tackle the overwhelming guilt I felt by regularly checking in with my conscience and staying true to my moral compass. I reflected on decisions and actions to ensure they came from a place of compassion – not anger or hate, revenge or mistrust. I checked my motivations and tried to always do what I felt was ‘right’. This helped enormously, and still does to this day.
Loss. I was familiar with theories of bereavement, having worked in this field. But it is so much harder to understand when you are going through it yourself. When you are in the midst of all that pain and anguish. When every rush of emotion flows over you like a tidal wave, threatening to drown you in its cold, raw grief. When the pain feels too much to hold in one body. Focusing on the children was a blessing. Having tasks to complete, places to get them to, homework to keep up with, their loss to meet. Caring for them was distracting and consuming and, for most of the day, provided respite from my own grief. But, inevitably, it needed to be felt. And the only way out was through. I attended weekly counselling where I cried and shouted and processed, away from the children, which enabled me to fully commit to their process when with them.
Through the loss of my marriage, I gained such a lot. I gained a happier home, a new sense of direction, and a greater focus on and commitment to the life I wish to lead. I gained closer, more intimate and more authentic relationships. I gained a deeper connection with my children, my family and my friends. I reorientated myself to my values, dreams and desires. And I regained my sense of self and self-worth. The initial years as a single parent family are both the best and the worst of times. But the gains far outweigh the losses for me, time and time again.
Cath Darling is a single parent to two boys. She works as a specialist occupational therapist and clinical researcher. She also runs a small natural skincare company (inspired by her children). Cath is happiest on the beach or in the woods, spending time with her children and her loyal dog. barebodycare.co.uk
Illustration by Laura Page
First published in Issue 73 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.