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A long, long time ago when this blog was still in its infancy, I had a column called, “Ask Dena.” I invited my readers to share their pressing life questions with me & I answered them with gentle guidance & love. One time, a reader asked me if she should stay with her husband for her children’s sake, despite the fact that she was miserable in her marriage. I responded with as much knowledge and compassion as I could. My heart broke for her, and all of those years ago, I never could have imagined that one day I would find myself in a similar position.

I never wrote here about my separation or divorce as I was going through it for more reasons than I can count. But mostly, I wasn’t ready to. Sometimes I felt that I was ready. I wanted to share, to vent, to release–but I also realized that at that point there was nothing helpful that I could offer anyone. I was surviving and when we are surviving, our job is to survive. After we have come through it–after we have done the work of healing and we come to the gold–then we can share.

In my case, because I have two children, there will not be “complete resolution” for a very long time. However, I have survived the processes of separation, divorce, and single motherhood, and about those things, I am ready to share the pain and the gold that came from it.

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Unlike the woman who asked me the question about leaving her husband, my problem wasn’t misery. It was safety. I will not share the details of the final years of my relationship because it is not entirely my story to tell. But what I will say is that in the end, my leaving was a matter of safety, more than it was a matter of misery or anything else. I left because I had to, not because I wanted to. Of that I am certain, and on that point, I will never compromise.

That was my experience, but each person who goes through the pain of divorce, does so for their own reasons. One reason is not more valid than another. In this post, I am only sharing my experience.

I used to see divorce as a failure. Marriage was something that I held so sacred that I did not believe in ending it, not for any reason. After living through what I lived through, my opinion changed. I still view marriage as a holy and sacred institution, a commitment and a covenant. But still, there are things holier than marriage–like safety, joy, self-love, self-respect, dignity, and motherhood. And therefore, for the sake of the preservation of any of those holy things, or any other holy things, I believe that divorce is necessary, important, and even commendable at times. Any person who cannot understand that line of thinking is a person who has not lived through what I have lived through, and therefore, their opinion on the matter is useless to me.

On the topic of “reasons for leaving,” I will say one more thing. The act of shaming a person for their decision or their reasons is hostile and abusive. Shame is a weapon that is used to hold people hostage in dangerous situations. Early in the process, shame was used against me in an effort to change my decision. Shame was used against me by others and I used it against myself too. Shame is as worthless as guilt and worry. All of these things are useless and the only worthwhile thing to do with them is to let them go. Of course that is easier said than done, but it can be done. Moreover, when it comes to surviving & healing from divorce as a mother, it must be done.

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Let me speak specifically about divorce and motherhood for a moment. I can only imagine that divorce is hellish for all people, whether they have children or not. But I cannot speak to that. I can only speak to my experience. Divorce as a mother has its own painstaking challenges that can tear a person apart.

No matter how prepared you are going into it, no matter how much of a support network that you have, no matter what, it is hell. The pain of watching your life fall part, piece by piece, is excruciating. Knowing that the life that you wanted to provide to your children is no longer a possibility, feels like having parts of your body torn off. It sounds extreme, but it’s accurate. Margaret Atwood wrote that a divorce is like an amputation, you survive, but there is less of you. And when you are a mother, the pain is amplified by the false belief that you are not only failing yourself, your family, your God, but–worst of all–you are failing your children.

Now, three and a half years after leaving, I realize that there is not, in fact, less of me. I am undoubtedly changed, yes, but I am not less. For all of the things that I lost, I gained that much more.

I grew and I transformed and I overcame. I had no choice but to. This experience will take everything from you at times, but when you come out on the other side of it, you will be so strong from the act of surviving the storm. Then, you will decide what you do with that strength. It will harden you or it will soften you. Or perhaps, it will do both if you are brave and unwavering.

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I have also learned, perhaps most importantly for me, that I did not fail my children. I saved my children. The “broken family” life was not the life that I would have chosen for us, but it was the life that we were meant to have. And in our case, it took breaking to allow us to heal.

Now, these years later, I can see it all clearly. Of course, while going through it, that was not the case. It was painful as hell. I went back and forth for what felt like an eternity. I tried endlessly to fix it. Cheryl Strayed writes, “Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go.” And in the end, I let go, because I had to.

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The thing that I am most proud of in all of this, is the stability that I provided to my children throughout. All told, we were separated for three years and one month before our divorce was finalized. That is a long time and so much happened in that time. There were countless waves of ups and downs that only those who have endured this process can comprehend. But despite all of that, I remained like a rock for my children. The only thing that they ever knew within all of that “change” was love and stability. Every day I tell them how loved they are. If only I had a dime for every time I’ve said, “Your mama and your papa love you very much.” That is what they know and that is what they hear from me. Whenever a question comes up, the answer always begins the same, “Your mama and your papa love you very much.” If they know anything, they will know that.

In addition to constantly reinforcing to my children that they are loved, I provide them with practical security too. We have a routine that most people find incredible and we’ve had it basically since they were born. My children go to bed every single night at 7:30 pm like clockwork. We moved three times through the separation process, but no matter where we were, they could always depend on their morning and bedtime routines. Some people have chastised me for being so strict with it, but only I knew what we needed. And I advise any woman going through this circumstance to hold that thought above all others. You know what your family needs, not anybody else, you. Having that space for grounding was so important to all of us. Of course children feel much more than we give them credit for, but I am confident that the impact of change on them was minimal because I kept their routine so stable and so grounded in love.

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In the end, I always come back to gratitude. There is no better lens through which to look at life than through the lens of gratitude. I am thankful for everything that I have come through. I am thankful that God gave me the strength and the grace to do what needed to be done. I am thankful for the ten thousand moving pieces and people that supported me through this process. I am thankful for the sheer joy and beauty of motherhood. I am thankful for the peace that I have found in letting go of what was not meant for me. I am thankful even for the pain and the trials because they have strengthened and shaped me. Mostly, I am thankful for that indomitable force called love–thankful for how it is the flame that never goes out and even when it is drawn down to nothing but the tiniest spark, a little wind will make it glow back up until that fire is roaring once again.

There is only love, there is nothing else.

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