How do you keep a family together after a divorce?
For years, I was under the impression that my husband and I had cultivated the near-perfect marriage, the two of us like His and Her Majesty, presiding over an enviable life.
I wasn't the only one who saw it so plainly. "You two are in your prime!" my uncle remarked last winter, echoing what many who knew us must have been thinking, too. I grinned back at him, but inside I quavered.
It was true, we were mostly happily wed and brewed, but not entirely infused. After 17 years, I felt our strengths had settled into dregs, thin deposits lying in the basin of a teacup.
We trudged through therapy sessions, unpacking anecdotes from our life together like worn travel clothes from a tattered suitcase. I stood with those rumpled articles at my feet, and it seemed to me that the entire structure of our lives had come undone. Near the end, although my husband said he would do anything to save us, I knew it was too late. Together, we chose his new apartment, one with enough space for our three children.
As he was preparing to move out, old fears and anxieties showed up on my doorstep to replace him, reminding me of all the pieces of myself I thought I had left behind in my 20s.
I didn't have time to attend to myself, though. Our children had been stewing amid the tension for months. It was time to bring them up to speed, so we held a family meeting. We explained that we never thought this would happen to us, but that we needed to separate so that, someday, we could be happy again. We didn't know yet that our separation would lead to a divorce. But what mattered was that we would still be a family, just configured differently. At the time, I could only imagine this to be true.
As we put our children to bed that night, my daughter turned her tear-stained face toward me. "Mama, everything is going to be OK, right?"
I wasn't sure, but I nodded anyway, kissing her wet cheeks before closing the door.
Then I followed the hallway to my own room, fell facedown onto my quilt and sobbed. Perhaps I could still take it all back, patch it up and start over. As if months of anguish and emotional processing could simply be rewound in an instant, the invisible line cast and then reeled back in regret.
The only choice, I knew, was to keep moving forward, together, as our newly fashioned family unit.
On a Saturday, we took a trip to Ikea, all five of us together. My husband needed kitchen items for his apartment. Each of us carried a colorful tarpaulin bag in which we placed new dishes, silverware and a set of melamine mixing bowls - like set doubles from our current life. I chose a throw pillow for my husband's new couch - black and white, the way I had seen many of our differences over the years.
When moving day came, we stacked my husband's things - new and old - carefully into his car and mine. The children piled into his back seat and I tapped his new address into my phone in case I got lost. I trailed behind my family on the interstate, our two cars linked together in a private funeral procession of sorts.
Once we arrived at the apartment, the children dragged boxes and bags down the hallway, relocating picture frames and books. With a box cutter and a pair of scissors, we unpacked. It was, I knew, both a dismantling and a reconstruction, though it felt surreal, like neither one nor the other exactly. I began by unrolling the children's new mattresses and making up their beds - I wanted them to tuck in and find space for themselves right away. As they did so, the cleft in my heart grew wider. Everyone looked to me, the Mom, for what to do. I knew we had come to the right place, but I didn't know what happened next. I had driven a garden hoe through my family, as though dividing a beloved hosta variety: I stood in my husband's new living room, theoretically with one part of our family in each hand, the gaps between my fingers yielding their severed roots.
After the move, when I was alone in my house with our children, I noticed that we began filling the endless space of our grief with connection. I contacted many old friends. Our eldest, most emotive child began writing letters; correspondence was her natural comfort. Our youngest followed suit, painting pictures to bring to his school. Our middle child, an introvert, hid under the couch until I lured him out with a slew of after-school playdates.
Divorce brings about the loneliest kind of grief, with the death of a marriage hovering somewhere between a thing lost and one broken but not entirely gone. Many of our friends and family scattered, fearful, perhaps, of our emotional bardo, which had been triggered by factors they could not possibly understand.
Still, support arrived anyway, creeping under the backyard fence, around the tulip poplars, and from least-expected places. People offered help mulching the garden, taking my kids after school. Neighbors brought dinner. Friends promised to show up on random Tuesday nights with salted caramels and jelly jars filled with wine.
I began to learn that, when you cast a net into unknown waters, the people who love you will swim out to you, offering everything you need but time.
Eventually, after the first excruciating months of our separation had passed, my husband and I were able to withstand being together around the children again. As each holiday, birthday and transition day passed, they became easier to manage. If the pain of separating our lives lingers for us, so does the joy our children still feel when all of us are together. Each of these moments is a temporary, important indulgence for them.
At first, I feared that when my marriage was over, life as I knew it would also end. Now, as we turn the corner toward the one-year mark, I can see the horizon more clearly.
Our family looks different than the others in our small town, but it is still ours. That hosta - the one I thought I had destroyed - was in fact transplanted. Part of it lies here and part of it there, and now both sections have more room to grow. Each of the tender shoots must find its own course, but in time, they will.
In this way, what once seemed like an end is actually a beginning - of what, we know not yet.
Shanley is a writer and editor who blogs about parenting at Simtasia and tweets @SimShanley.