I left my kids and husband to find myself

Parenting

Illustration: Holly Stapleton

When my two kids were little, I felt I had to inhale every moment with them. Every time they tasted something new, every time they fell off a swing—you don’t get those moments back, which meant everything else had to wait so I could be present for them. I resisted pursuing a career and having children at the same time. To me, it was an either-or thing—or maybe it was a now and then. Now I would be with my children, and then I could think about a career.

But I gave up a lot of myself. I quit my admin job and stopped writing fiction. Soon life outside the home didn’t really exist. My husband was adamant we do things as a family, so I never went anywhere by myself—not to see friends, not to see a movie. There was this expectation: If you’re the mother who stays home, then you stay home.


woman stands on dock holding baby and holding hand of little girl
How I built a family after my marriage imploded
I had been with this man since I was 16 years old, and he’d always been very paternal. Because I came from a troubled family—there was a lot of addiction and neglect over the years—my husband wanted to care for me, and I wanted to be cared for. But I grew reliant on him to make decisions. I’d ask to go to the store or go for a coffee—things any self-determining adult would do on their own.

Once my children were in school full-time, I started writing more, and I wanted to apply for an MFA. My husband flatly refused. He said writers can’t make a living; it’s not practical. My mother offered to take me on a vacation for my 40th birthday, and my husband told me I wasn’t allowed to go. I felt myself disappearing—who was I in this marriage? When my kids were born, I had promised myself I’d be a role model for them; I couldn’t let them keep witnessing me capitulate to their father.To end our toxic codependency, I had to get out of the house. It felt really weird to flip the script. All of my friends who were getting divorced had told their husbands to leave. I disagreed with doing that; my spouse shouldn’t give up his life because I didn’t want to be in the marriage anymore. So he got the house, and he got the kids—I fought for joint but got shared custody, at 40 percent—and I went out on my own.

I found a contract job and a rental down the street. My kids were 11 and eight when I left, and I suffered massively from separation anxiety. Every evening I wasn’t with them was bizarre and empty, so I used to walk to their house and stand on the sidewalk and watch them through the window, sitting and eating and talking. I felt like a ghost haunting my old life. It felt like desertion. And there was a kind of emotional desertion, too: I needed to find myself, and I couldn’t do it in the world I was living in.

Jennifer Venner.

My daughter became quiet and withdrawn, and my son had a lot of meltdowns. He kept asking when I was coming home. I wrote a novel in about eight months and then had a nervous breakdown. Every time I saw my kids, I saw reproach in their eyes: “You chose this over us.” I wasn’t reliable; my moods were up and down. I did a lot of reckless things; I drank too much. But at least I could own these mistakes. They belonged to me.

I found living alone difficult, so I stayed with my brother for a while and then with a roommate, who was a friend from high school. She helped me find a new, more moderate way to parent my kids, so that we could rebuild our trust and companionship. And my kids forgave me. I feel like we grew up together.

I’m finally living the life I’ve always wanted to live, doing the work I want to do. And I had to go through all of this to determine whether I had the resolve to manage my life on my own. My kids are 18 and almost 16 now, and they have respect for me. They know I’ll never give up on them.

I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t know the best way to do everything, but I do know I’ll always be there for them.

Read more:
My divorce helped me become a better person—and a better mom
7 ways I helped my daughter through my divorce

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