After eight years of marriage and 10 years as a couple, last year, my husband and I separated and began the process of dividing our deeply intertwined lives. At first, we co-habitated, which meant staying in the same home and taking turns sleeping on the dog-hair covered couch (and, during our waking hours, arguing about every little thing, from why his beard hair has to be all over the sink to whose turn it was to take out the recycling). Then we rented a tiny, mildewy apartment and “bird-nested,” meaning the adults swapped locations every few days while the kids stayed put for six months. Finally, my ex rented a new house close to our home, and the kids began spending two nights a week there. Eventually, one full year after our first “it’s time to separate” talk, the process was complete.
Finally, I felt I could begin putting my life back together. With us living in different spaces, the physical part of separating was over. I found that while having my house to myself was kind of invigorating at times, it also filled me with an unsettled feeling that ran deep. It was sinking in that there was never anyone else to to grab a few groceries, to tuck the kids in. And getting used to being alone — like really, really alone when the kids were at their dad’s — was not easy. During this time, many people reminded me of the importance of “self-care,” and I always nodded but deep down I thought, “bubble baths aren’t going to fix me.” Still, I knew there was a nugget of truth there: I needed to spend time doing things for myself in a way I wasn’t exactly used to doing.
So I thought about what self-care needed to look like for me. I felt like I had a new opportunity to reconnect with my wants, needs, and yes, long lost desires, whatever those may be. And I realized that self-care could mean whatever I wanted it to mean.
Here are some of the acts of self-care that made a difference for me:
1) I purged. (And it was beautiful.)
Once my husband had moved all of his belongings out of the house (a tedious and mentally exhausting process), I felt an overwhelming urge to redefine my space so that it would feel more like “me,” rather than “us.” Already gone were my ex’s clothes from the closet, his art, the record player, and bar in the dining room, but there was still so much useless junk throughout the house. In the spirit of Marie Kondo, I opened drawers and asked myself if the contents brought me joy (spoiler alert: none of it did). I literally opened up one cabinet in my dining room, mumbled to myself “None of this s*** brings me joy,” and dumped it directly in the trash. No sorting whatsoever. I took stacks of old clothes to Goodwill, threw piles of old papers in the recycling bin, and deep-cleaned everything.
2) I redefined my living space.
Now that I’d de-cluttered, I was really excited to add new touches to the house. I didn’t have much money to spend, so I got inventive with ways to make spaces feel new. I flipped the living room furniture arrangement and bought a couple of plants that didn’t require a lot of attention but still added a lot of zen. Also, two words: THROW PILLOWS. And I bought some prints which happened to be empowering, female-centric ones that I framed and put on the walls to fill empty spaces. The new vibe of my home helped me to feel like my period of grieving was truly behind me and that I could begin to embrace a fresh, new start.
3) I got in the financial driver’s seat.
When I sat down at the bank one Friday morning and nervously took my name off our marital joint checking account and opened my own, I had very little to my name. The uncertainty of whether or not I was going to be financially stable after all was said and done was very real. I didn’t make as much money as my ex and even when we had pooled our incomes, we had lived paycheck to paycheck. Without another income, I’d need to be more on top of my money than ever.
So I took advice from a friend and worked with a financial planner with whom I created a budget and figured out how to pull in extra income. Don’t get me wrong, at first, it was painful. Dealing head on with financial stress doesn’t exactly feel like “self-care“ in the moment. But I found that digging through the wreckage ultimately helped me alleviate a huge source of anxiety. Eventually, I began to feel less stressed than when I was relying on someone else financially; I didn’t have to worry about someone else spending money from my account or being financially irresponsible or forgetting to pay bills. It was all on me, and once the fear around that softened, that itself felt like money in the bank.
4) I took steps to prioritize sleep.
For years, I’d struggled to get a good night’s sleep. But, interestingly, when my husband moved out, sleep started coming back to me in droves. I was rested for the first time in years and it made me more focused and all around a healthier version of myself.
I liked this development and wanted to keep the positive change going, so made a couple changes: Weekend mornings, I decided to be easier on myself and told my kids not to wake me; instead they were allowed to go downstairs and watch TV (sorry, Screentime Police). I got myself some fancy-ish sheets on Amazon, made sure my room was extra dark each night, and started using a white noise machine (or I’d leave the bathroom fan on, which seemed to help the kids sleep better, too). I drank chamomile tea before bed and took a magnesium supplement to promote restfulness.
Basically, I started to treat sleep like an absolute necessity because I’d been underestimating just how much sleep deficit affected my moods for years. These changes made me feel like I was getting my strength back, one REM cycle at a time.
5) I did something that scared me. (On purpose!)
Aerial yoga had been on my to-do list for years, but I’d never gotten around to it because family time always came first. Plus, trying something completely new was nerve-wracking and it was all too easy to bail. But after my separation, I found myself without the kids two days a week, and I decided I couldn’t let myself spend all that time watching Netflix and doing laundry (which would have been so easy to do!). Instead, I signed up for an aerial yoga class and paid in advance, so I wouldn’t back out. Soon, it became an amazing new hobby, not to mention a great, feel-good workout. I was also just in love with having a brand new, totally unique experience, which is good for both the brain and the soul.
6) I scheduled a family photo shoot.
I have thousands of photos from my decade-plus of parenting. Pictures of my kids in their high chairs with yogurt all over their precious faces, others of our family of four on Christmas morning eating sticky buns under the tree, trips to the beach and our neighborhood park. Photos weren’t lacking. But what I didn’t have were any pictures of just me and my kids in new family dynamic, after my husband and I split.
It didn’t occur to me that I should, until I started seeing other single moms doing photo shoots with their children as a way to document the beauty of the new shape of their families. It felt like such a symbolic way to celebrate the start of something new. So I’ve booked my own, and am looking forward to it. My hope is that both the experience of doing it and of the pictures themselves will serve as a reminder that while our changing dynamic can be challenging at times, there is also a lot to love about it.
The truth is, I feel more connected to my kids now that I’m the only parent in our home. I hope the shoot helps to capture that. Because yes, our family looks different now, but it is every bit as amazing. To me, that’s totally photo-worthy.
7) I revisited a long-lost dream.
After I got separated, I instinctively returned to things I loved but hadn’t done in a while. Some of them were obvious, like seeing old friends and sticking to my daily jogs or 30-minute yoga videos on YouTube. But I also dug into old projects that required a ton of motivation, motivation that I just hadn’t had in a while.
In particular, I threw myself full force back into a book proposal I’d been working on. And I realized that I suddenly had much more mental energy to dedicate to it now that I wasn’t mired in the back and forth of navigating my marriage and all its strains.
One might imagine that being a newly-single mother would be too overwhelming a time for big projects, but, truthfully, to me, it felt like the perfect time. I had desperately needed new thoughts, patterns, and ideas to really percolate. For me, post-marriage life meant a chance to refocus.
8) I had sex.
By the time I went through my separation, I hadn’t had sex in a very long time. Sad, I know. I felt fully ready (and excited!) to go on dates and explore that part of my identity that hadn’t been tapped into in eons. I had a handful of bad dates, of course. But there were also some genuine connections. I had a brief affair that was completely and totally about sex, and when that fizzled, I started seeing someone new. I’d tell you if that was just about sex or something more, but I have no idea yet. I’ll keep you posted…