The “Now” page is like an “about” page but instead of telling you something about my background, it tells you what I’m focused on at this point in my life. Since I wrote about my separation in the post Wayfinding a lot of people have reached out to pray for me, lift me up, and offer their love and support. It made me so incredibly grateful for this community born of bits and bobs and seemingly random pieces of my mind.
Some of you have asked how you could support me and I don’t really know what to answer. I’m in that weird burned out place where everything is crap and nothing helps. So I thought I would write this “Now” page as a reflection on the past year and to take stock of this point in time.
This post is about me. I will write another one about the children and schools. The situation of school closures in Ontario is so dismal that it deserve its own post.
This is also a post about mental health. I feel strongly about describing my current state of burn out because (a) I want people to know that they are not alone; and (b) I can do so with impunity, meaning that it will not cost me my job or my meaningful relationships. In other words, I want to write about this because I can.
This story starts in April 2020
Paul and I decided to separate in April 2020. It was a mutual decision inasmuch as we both had reasons to want a separation. Our journeys were very different and getting there was two-person job. We both made a commitment to stay friends and protect our children from conflict and upheaval.
When the pandemic first closed down schools and workplaces, 8 of our 9 children plus a partner lived at home. It took us until June to have the broad lines of our separation agreement hammered out and to be able to talk to the children about it. We were renting a large 4+1 bedroom house in Stittsville and agreed on a nesting model whereby the children stayed in the family home while Paul and I took turns parenting on a week on/week off basis.
At first, we both stayed in the family home and I moved to a separate room in the home office. I had concerns about the week on/week off schedule which I found too extreme on either side: a week is too long not to see the children and too long to be parenting 6-9 children solo, especially in a school-lockdown-work-from-home situation, without the possibility of asking for in-house help from family and friends. Since we all stayed in the same house, there was a high level of integration of household chores and I could see the children every day. I agreed to give the weekly schedule a try. As much as I was in support of the separation and had no hope of reconciling, I couldn’t (still can’t) wrap my head around not seeing my children every day. The “drawing and quartering” of parenting time is a reality of divorce that I can’t accept as beneficial to my children, despite knowing how marital tension has affected their emotional development.
Soon after we separated, the chronic back pain I had been dealing with for over 3 years and for which I had consulted countless healthcare practitioners disappeared. My migraines went down from 6-10 a month to 1 or 2. My relationship with my children transformed. I was able to stop walking on eggshells and start showing up as myself. I read Untamed , started working through The Artist’s Way and journaled my way through the Summer of 2020. With the temporary relaxation of pandemic restrictions, I was able to spend time with my parents on weekends and exercise regularly. Our family adopted a new puppy in May and her early training forced me on a daily morning walk. I went on bike rides to a nearby meadow and napped underneath a willow tree almost every day before making supper. I took the kids on bicycle adventures on the Poole Creek pathway system and we came back muddy and exhausted. The forced focus on my children seemed to dovetail nicely with the transition into separated life and I looked to the future with cautious optimism.
Once the children went back to school in September I settled into a manageable work/life routine until I had to find a new job. A stroke of good luck landed me in a similar position for a different City Councillor. I found my place amongst a dynamic team who has shown amazing flexibility and generosity through school lockdowns and my haphazard work output. For those who follow me on social media and know how well I got along with my former boss Glen, yes we are still best friends. But working in politics for your best friend can get awkward, for instance when you are seen together in the community walking your dogs or having coffee outside work hours. We decided to part ways professionally while we could make the decision ourselves rather than have it made for us.
Living in the same house as your ex-spouse is not emotionally easy and by November our living arrangement was showing some strain. Spouses rarely get to the point of separating at the same time. I once read that the spouse who first brings up separation has usually been wrestling with the idea for 2 to 5 years. With the gift of hindsight, that feels accurate. From that perspective, the spouse who has been mulling over separation for some time moves forward with the momentum of someone tackling a long held ambition. That lurch towards the new self might be worth celebrating but when you are watching and wondering what just happened, it hardly puts a spring in your step. And from the perspective of the spouse moving on, doing it in the gloomy shadow of your ex-spouse is no carnival either.
We agreed that Paul would stay in the family home and continue supporting the family financially while I would look for a place of my own. I would still come to the family home on my weeks but it would allow Paul and I more time apart. In November I moved into a small house about 1 km away from the family home. I kept coming back to make the kids’ lunches every morning, often made the family suppers and stayed for bedtime routines. Getting the kids out the door and feeding a family of 11 remained a two-parent job. The routine of getting up every morning at 5am and walking over to the family home was relentless but it made for a smoother transition for the children and I. I had concerns that moving out of the family home first would give the children the impression that they lived with dad and that mom had left. Today, I see that the children are beholden to the idea that they live with dad and visit mom despite a change in circumstances that you will read about later.
The nesting agreement ran its course as the differences in values and expectations between Paul and I became increasingly difficult to navigate. Nesting requires a high level of consideration from each parent for the other and the willingness to walk a mile in the other’s shoes, which is antithetical to the idea of separation — or so I’m told. These differences in values and expectations, the growing gap between what I thought nesting would be and the reality, kept me in a constant state of emotional turmoil. Paul would probably tell you that my needs and expectations were not reasonable for a separated couple. And both of us might be right. Reflecting on this transition, I can I say that I had poor boundaries because I was still expecting Paul to care for me like he had done for so many years. And Paul was done caring. I kept putting myself in situations where I would relive the rejection of the separation over and over again, and I didn’t understand that it was my responsibility to get out of harm’s way.
I once heard that « boundaries are the distance between you and me in which I can love you and me simultaneously. » Boundaries are what you need to feel ok. What you need to do for yourself so that others — your children, your spouse — are not saddled with the burden of making you happy. The Christian ideal of selflessness might be good theology but it’s really bad psychology, and even worse parenting. It made me despondent and resentful. I didn’t understand that I couldn’t expect my family to care more about my well-being than I did myself. You don’t teach empathy by being selfless, you teach empathy by having a self and forcing your loved ones to navigate around it. You teach them to care about others by being an other.
I strongly believe in the nesting model as an arrangement that shifts the burden of instability from the children to the parents. This commitment to nesting led me to accept things I was not ok with. Instead of standing firm on my boundaries and principles, I tried to reason myself out of them. It didn’t work and I started sinking. As my mental health deteriorated, I tried setting loose boundaries, hoping that Paul would interpret them in a way that made me feel ok. By the time I understood that my boundaries and values were mine to define and enforce, I was already too far gone into despair to come back on my own. A dear friend told me “Don’t beat yourself up for taking so long to learn that lesson, celebrate the fact that you finally learned it!” I’m not there yet but I’m on my way. Writing about it helps.
I couldn’t continue with the nesting agreement as it was but the deadline was forced upon us by the death of our landlord in the Fall and the subsequent sale of the house. Our lease was expiring on April 30th and we decided that Paul would find his own place rather than another family home. Paul did not find a place in time and on May 1st the 6 younger children (19 and under) moved in with me. I have a housemate who moved-in last March to help with the rent, before this upheaval came about. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement when I was only here part time. Now that I’m here full time with half a dozen of my finest creations, I’m not sure to what extent the benefits are mutual but having a dear friend to rely on in this crazy time has been an incredible gift. Having someone to share the rent allows me to stay in Stittsville, close to the children’s schools, where I could not otherwise afford to live.
Paul will move into his own place on June 1st and we will share parenting time 50/50 on a 3-2-2 day pattern. The younger children will traipse back-and-forth between the two houses but David and Marie decided to stay with Paul full time and visit me. Paul still hopes to move back to the country as soon as possible. I expect that my house, with its closeness to schools, work, transit, and friends will gain in popularity at that time. The idea of any of my children “visiting” is stuck sideways in my gizzard but I decided to take a cautious approach and see it through instead of fighting it.
This unexpected move into my tiny little house is giving me a chance to establish some new family routines in a place where I feel safe, secure, and loved. I’m hoping that with the gift of time I can finally start settling into this new life I call my own, but still feels very much like someone else’s.
My mental health is what it is. No one is doing well, we are all burned out and struggling. Sometimes I can’t get out of bed in the morning: the dread about the day ahead looms so large. I once sat in my van with my keys in hand ready to drive away without the children. I didn’t. I’ve cried so much I’ve had to lie on the bathroom tile to cool my face down so I could breathe again (thank you Eat, Pray, Love for the tip). I end almost every single day in tears. This has opened the channels of communication with my younger children about crying, coping and caretaking. I have had the chance to explain how crying is a good way to release negative emotions and that they shouldn’t feel the need to fix it or make it stop. They have shown incredible open-mindedness about my ups and downs and they know that it is not their jobs to make me feel better. Still, I can see that they are concerned and sometimes worried about me. Yesterday I laughed during a light-hearted exchange with my housemate about laundry and David immediately came out of his room to see if I was crying. But sometimes they just see me struggle and ask: “Are you still crying because of the Ford government?” I say “Yes,” they shrug and walk away.
Some days I am productive and efficient but those days are fewer and farther between. Making a meal schedule for the family makes me weep from mental exhaustion. I keep wondering what it will take for the government to understand how badly parents are breaking right now. How much worse does this have to get before someone realizes that COVID is killing people who haven’t even caught the virus?
I feel like I’m carrying a boulder on my shoulders and wondering why I can’t run anymore. The weight of the past year has completely flattened me and I don’t know if I will ever be able to get up again. I’m seeing a therapist weekly, I have friends to talk to and I’ve made my house into a cozy spot that feels like me. I work for a great person amongst a great team. There is reason to hope for better days and my housemate is an optimist who reminds me of who I am. By all accounts, I’m in the best of spots to be going through this garbage. But I was surprised to realize that the best therapy, the best meds, and the best friends and family do not make the intense emotional pain of the separation go away. They just give it a container so that it doesn’t spill like a stricken oil tanker, killing all the beautiful living things around it. The pain is still yours to sit with.
This is where I am sitting now.