I didn’t plan to get divorced. I certainly didn’t plan to end up a stepmother. Let’s face it, neither of those gigs are anyone’s first choice.
I had planned to follow a traditional path — love, marriage, baby carriage. I had planned to live my life as Billy’s wife (#freepoem). We got married young, built our careers and raised our babies. We were right on track, except that it turned out that where I was wasn’t where I belonged.
Let’s agree, right here at the beginning, that good marriages don’t end in divorce. My marriage to Billy ended because it didn’t serve us any longer, and we were better apart than we were together. Our divorce was the right choice for our family, and I have no regrets. That said, the end of my marriage hit me hard.
Billy and I were best friends, and our separation was terribly sad. The grief was palpable, and the loneliness overwhelming. It felt surreal to go through something this big and not share it with Billy, as I had every other significant milestone up to that point. Losing Billy felt like losing chapters from my own story, like part of me died.
On the days when the loneliness didn’t cripple me, the feeling of failure did. I’d chosen Billy at 23 and he was my lobster (90’s Friends shout out, except not really). I’d made a vow. Rules are important to me — I’m a firstborn. I put shopping carts neatly away in corrals, dutifully detail my charitable donations, and show up the way I said I would. Loving Billy was a choice I made daily for years.
I’d watched this happen to other people in my life before and quickly determined that their marriages ended because they weren’t serious about their vows, didn’t try hard enough, weren’t strong enough, didn’t love enough. It took walking this path myself to realize how wrong I was. It turns out that when standing at the altar, almost everyone believes the vows she’s reciting. Divorce happens because that marriage isn’t the right place for those two people — it is simply not where those two people belong. And I now understand that they come to that conclusion with every ounce of pain and sadness that Billy and I endured.
The third horseman in this marriage-ending feeling apocalypse was guilt. Guilt for putting my feelings first, for robbing my children of an intact, traditional family. Guilt about giving up on Billy. Guilt about asking our extended families to shift and adjust and transition to a new normal. The guilt was so heavy I sometimes couldn’t breathe under its weight.
Some days, I am still surprised that the grief and failure and guilt didn’t make me turn back, denying what I knew to be true and taking a less painful path. I wanted so much for the plan I made with Billy to be the life I lived. I desperately wanted my first choice to work.
My current partner, Gabe, and this life we live together were my second choice. A second choice that isn’t the stuff of Christmas coffee commercials and story books. A second choice that involves a huge extended tribe and is sometimes overwhelming, both in terms of laundry and emotional baggage. A second choice that doesn’t fit neatly onto a kid’s emergency contact form or future wedding invitation.
Nevertheless, I have learned to love this second choice. I made this second choice carefully, remembering my scars and honoring the lessons of my first marriage. I made it thoughtfully, because this marriage nurtures my spirit and supports the best version of me, allowing me to be the best mother, wife, friend I can be. But mostly, I made it joyfully, because despite the complexities and stigma of divorce and stepfamily life, I would not trade this noisy life-in-progress for any other. This second choice is where I belong.
Kate is a blogger at ThisLifeInProgress.com.