the smell of my desperation has become a stench

The two of us, grappling

Marlo is having a difficult time adjusting to camp and the relatively rigorous schedule of nonstop activities. The recent heat wave added another hurdle, and when I picked her up last Tuesday the counselors said they’d had to pull her inside during playtime because she was getting sluggish, sluggish enough for them to worry. I was like, yeah. You might want to raise an eyebrow if Marlo is exhibiting anything other than FULL BORE BINGEING ON LIFE WHERE IS THE KETCHUP SO I CAN SQUIRT IT IN MY PANTS.

For the last two weeks she’s been all over the place, joyous and consuming life in huge bites only to suddenly crawl onto the couch and fall limp. She’s obviously exhausted and struggling with not wanting to feel that way. And that’s almost too much of an adult condition for her to have to grapple with.

One day I picked her up from camp and when she saw me she wrinkled up her face in disappointment. “Ugh!” she shouted. “I’m building a fort! Come back later!”

I turned to one of the counselors and said, “I see that I am not needed here.”

She winked and I nodded, the two of us well-versed in dealing with the rapid-fire tactlessness of someone whose every need and want is attended to by another human being.

The following day I walked in and this time a concerned counselor was actively trying to comfort her. When Marlo saw me she started bawling, giant tears flooding her face and hair. As she ran to me her voice trembled with panic, “You were sthupposed to come pick me up! You were sthupposed to come pick me up!”

Several days before, their grandmother on their father’s side had died, and when Marlo jumped up and wrapped her arms around me, when she gripped me so hard the desperation shot through my neck, I couldn’t hold back my emotion any longer. I bit my upper lip as hard as I could but it didn’t stop my own sadness from drowning my cheeks. We stood there, the two of us, Marlo sobbing on my shoulder as I silently fought my own tears from reaching her face. I stroked her hair and back and made no noise other than assuring her, “I am here to pick you up. I am here to pick you up.”

marlo and me

The last two weeks have been rough. I’m a bit raw. It’s like I’ve suddenly enrolled in a camp whose rigorous schedule is more than my body can handle.

I’ve chosen not to write a lot about my divorce here for several reasons, the main one being my desire to respect the father of my children. They are so very lucky to have him, and the legacy I want to leave them of my relationship with him is that we love them and actively work together to provide them safety and happiness and love, we are a team here to navigate their upbringing.

In this narrative, however, exists a profound sadness that would inform anything I tried to write at this time. A sadness of leaving and saying goodbye, a sadness of giving up an extended family that I have for years come to adore and appreciate. So many stories and memories I shared with those people, memories that we will now no longer create.

The process of moving forward sadly requires this aching farewell, another step in what has already been a journey lined with sorrow and pain and heartbreaking turns. But it is a step forward, and I have always tried to wring as much knowledge and wisdom as I can out of pain, out of mile seventeen. One more stride.

The day after Marlo’s inconsolable breakdown, I showed up to pick her up at camp at the usual time. I braced myself for another emotional encounter, but when I entered the room I looked around for her worn out expression only to find her… there. Sitting happily on a toilet. Pants around her ankles. Out in the wide open preschooler bathroom.

Of course.

“I’M GOING POTTY, MOM!” she screamed triumphantly, loud enough so that those of you on the east coast who were worried about it could rest easy.

“I can see that,” I responded. I smiled as wide as I could as I walked over to help her finish up. And so we did, the two of us. We finished up and drove home, walked in the door and fell limp on the couch.

  • Cassandra Marie

    2013/07/01 at 2:01 pm

    I’ll just say the one thing that is my mantra lately….Storms Never Last.

  • Megan

    2013/07/01 at 2:08 pm

    My mom remarried very shortly after her divorce from my dad. I was 9. When I was 20, she and my step-father separated. I’ve still never really found a place to put all the things I feel about my (former) step-dad and his family. Connections like that run deep. I hope we can figure all that out.

  • Kat

    2013/07/01 at 2:08 pm

    Wow, that’s moving and profound. I wish you and yours the best.

  • Jordan

    2013/07/01 at 2:12 pm

    Oh Heather, I have been reading your blog for so many years now (since 2004) that I feel as if I know you when in fact I know that I know such a small part. As a child from divorce I can say that there is light ahead but always a part of it that is hard, without questions painfully hard. But the approach you are taking of working with their dad to encourage happiness, love and support for them is absolutely the most important. I wish my parents had done that, I wish they had worked together for my brother and I to make it easier for us. I remember a few years back when you were going through another tough time and I wrote you an email saying this too shall pass. In phenomenally challenging times I keep that as my mantra, this too shall pass. And lately I have also added just breathing, just the simple in and out of a breathe can get you through so much. I have you and the girls and Jon all in my thoughts for peaceful times ahead. And a final parting word, I KNOW that as tough as it is, parents that are happier apart than together make better parents hands down. It takes time, but it happens.

  • angelamarie

    2013/07/01 at 2:15 pm

    I have known my ex-husband’s family since I was 18. I’m 45. We have been divorced for over 5 years and I have not seen them in that time. It is such an odd feeling. I get that.
    Today is my ex-mother-in-law’s birthday. I wish I could feel comfortable calling her, but I don’t. Happy Birthday Carol. You are our children’s grandma and I miss seeing you. Happy Birthday.

  • Marta

    2013/07/01 at 2:15 pm

    You never refer to Jon by his first name – why? I’m sorry if it is too personal to ask. I hope it will get easier for you and the girls – hang in there.

  • Julia Goff Trout

    2013/07/01 at 2:15 pm

    Hang in there sweet girls, keeping you all in my prayers.

  • Heather Armstrong

    2013/07/01 at 2:16 pm

    This. Thank you.

  • Katie Sutton

    2013/07/01 at 2:17 pm

    I love you and I love your family from afar. You seem to write the one thing that can get to me on any given day. Thank you. I know we are just faceless voices in the mist of life but we love you. <>

  • debra

    2013/07/01 at 2:17 pm

    You know that saying about how the powers that be never give you more than you can handle? Don’t you sometimes want to say eff off to that? Cuz really?
    Thanks for sharing Heather. As much as we can….we got your back…..

  • Rebecca

    2013/07/01 at 2:24 pm

    Your writing and honesty blow me away. I can’t even express how it makes me feel beyond deeply moved.

  • Tara

    2013/07/01 at 2:27 pm

    One of the most heartbreaking things for me in my divorce was watching as his family turned away from me, convinced that I had done something wrong, rather than recognizing that he and I weren’t meant to be married. They all live in this area and none of my family does. Several times a month they grit their teeth and tolerate me at a baseball game or piano recital. Once they were my family–now I’m simply garbage, with no value at all.

    I hope that your experience is better than mine.

  • rebecca

    2013/07/01 at 2:31 pm

    ,,,limp on the couch is honesty. i love your honest musings. stay there in the moment and let the tears come as they may,,,

  • tishmerritt

    2013/07/01 at 2:35 pm

    Sometimes you just have to let it out…I had to let it out today. Holding stuff in when you’re usually so carefree with your writing and sharing takes it’s toll. Glad you were able to write it out, but in a respectful way.

  • Teal

    2013/07/01 at 2:38 pm

    As someone who struggles with anxiety and depression every day, when I am having a rough time, I will now think of Marlo yelling “I’m going potty, mom!” And think to myself, “Well, if Marlo can pick herself up and get through the rough patches, so can I!” Plus, that visual is just REALLY funny.

  • shaunTH

    2013/07/01 at 2:46 pm

    I have had these moments with my daughter (who is almost 8) -times when emotions are inside of her and she just can’t grasp *why* she feels a certain way, and of course this begets further confusion. The only thing I could ever do was to simplify things for her at that time. Just as you did.

    The connections that children make are fascinating as well. They can sometimes see the forest through the trees so much better than we can and it’s both wonderful and saddening. You never want children to have to “deal” with grownup things but in the years since my divorce and having full custody and being the mom and the dad for her, she has shown that she too feels the weight of our situation. And her little shoulders are so much stronger than they seem.

    If only we could manifest the strength and that childlike quality to bounce back as they do. We could all learn a bit of something from them and be the better for it.

  • sweetdaisy8

    2013/07/01 at 2:50 pm

    Divorce is like a weird death where nobody dies. You still mourn the loss of the ex-spouse and the loss of the extended family. If you’ve never been through it, it’s so hard to understand the complete feeling of loss of people you grew to love as your own family. My ex husbands family had been apart of my life for 8 years, helped support me in college, were there for me when my grandfather died, etc, but as soon as our divorce was final, they disappeared. Believe you are not alone in those feelings of loss.

  • Nancy B.

    2013/07/01 at 2:57 pm

    I’ve been there and trust me, it gets better.

    Both my ex’s parents have passed away. I was fond of and close to my ex MIL; she was how I met my ex (I worked for her). I miss her at times, and know that both my kids, especially my daughter, would have really loved her. And she would have loved both the kids.

    She’s been gone for over a decade now, and my kids are teens. I’ve been divorced for a long time. And we’re all fine.

    Trust me, please. You will make it through. All of you.

  • Britiney Dawson Slaughter

    2013/07/01 at 3:02 pm

    My mom always tells me, “This too shall pass. If it didn’t, the river would be full of mothers.”

  • Jennifer Myers

    2013/07/01 at 3:06 pm

    Big ole hug sweet Heather! Life can be SO tough and you are handling it with strength and grace and don’t for a second believe otherwise. Proud of you and my heart goes out to you and your girls during these tough times. I know all about ’em in my own little corner of the world.

  • Holly

    2013/07/01 at 3:11 pm

    Sending you love & prayers, support & hope, courage & patience. As a now-3.5-yrs-divorced-single-mom, I can totally identify. My marriage was supposed to be forever, and with 17 yrs under our belt together – our entire adult lives intertwined, the adjustment into our new normal has been excruciating at times. My ex, our daughter, and I are all TRULY much, much happier these days, but I still struggle with all the extended implications of our split. He is a police officer and recently a very close friend / coworker of his was killed in the line of duty. As in no longer “in the family” of his law enforcement circle, I had zero involvement in the grieving & supporting if his friend’s broken hearted family. And it was incredibly painful to be on the sidelines during this tragedy because I still 1000% identify with that family’s loss. I didn’t divorce the law enforcement community when my ex & I split but I clearly left that community too as a consequence. Our divorce was HIDEOUS — ridiculously traumatic & combative but after MUCH hard work on both our parts, we bridged some enormous & jagged canyons & somehow forged a new & different (and amazingly, it’s sincere!) friendship as a show of honor & respect for our daughter. Even still, the loss of his friend demonstrated to me that even though we’re very peaceful and friendly now, the whole world as I knew it since I we began our lives together – dating from the age of 18 – my new normal is completely separate from that life. His parents, whom were known to me as mom & dad, were very distant until my ex & I worked out the terms of our friendship, and only recently did they begin to be kind to me again. It’s a huge blessing. The other day my ex-MIL texted me happy birthday, closed her message with “I love you” and it touched my heart beyond words. I hope and pray that you, Heather, find that new normal that doesn’t exclude your world that you knew as “Jon’s wife,” because there are MANY things about that former life that will make your current and your future lives SO much more enriched. You CAN get there – I’m living proof that the worst-case scenario divorce that damn near destroys you (he lodged HORRIBLE & FALSE allegations about me in court to attempt to avoid child support & to gain full custody — he failed in every single area and I was awarded full custody instead!) can actually, TRULY end up okay in the end. It REALLY CAN. Ive battled anxiety & depression throughout all this (and prior, too) – that complicates things, sure. but it doesn’t eliminate your chance for resolving the hurt. And I know it’s possible to regain some of the elements if your former life that you absolutely did NOT wish to forfeit when you ended your marriage. God bless & good luck to you. You’re an amazing woman who deserves nothing but full happiness and joy. xo

  • Guest

    2013/07/01 at 3:22 pm

    Heather, I’d like to offer my story. My brother and sister-in-law divorced, and they have two sons. It has made no difference in our Family. Capital “F;” except that it has grown. My sister-in-law has since remarried (I was at the wedding, and boy howdy, were eyebrows raised) and had another wee one. While we don’t have a familial designation (in English) now, for Alice, her husband, Jack, and their holy terror, Trent, they are on speed dial, very much welcome in my parents home (all three boys are visiting Nana and Papa for the weekend!), and spend holidays with us when they can; and the same holds true in Alice’s family for me and my sister. We still visit them, her parents, and sister … and we are all Family. If you want to continue to make new and fabulous memories with your in-laws, try. And try, again? It may be complicated, but as you well know, family does not need to be defined by “blood” or legal contract. But lots of wine helps sometimes. Wishing you the very best.

  • Catherine

    2013/07/01 at 3:41 pm

    As someone who has been there when my son was two and a half thinking it would never work out and we’d just royally f-d up our only child, I am happy to report to you Miss Heather that his father and I had a BLAST over our now 18-year-old’s prom and graduation this year. I posted those photos to my Facebook Page as a reminder to everyone what’s possible after divorce. The love that created your special beings is reflected back at you both in these moments. And after 18 years of being the cook, I gave our son to his father for Father’s Day and he is now happily living with his dad over the summer before college. At first I thought it might freak me out, but I am actually having fun and enjoying getting to know myself again. I couldn’t be married to the man, but we make a great pair of co-parents and we have an amazing kid. I wish the same for you.

  • Carol

    2013/07/01 at 3:45 pm

    From day one, my in-laws told me, as the mother of their grandchildren, I would always be their daughter, and they have continued to treat me as such. It has not been without bumps, but we have made it work. I hope that time will heal. Wishing the best for you and your beautiful girls.

  • Kate

    2013/07/01 at 3:47 pm

    It really will get better, all of it. As long as you and Jon can make all decisions based on what is best for the girls, and remember the parts of him (and vise-versa) that you once loved, you can still be family. That’s not to say it will always be easy, but I hope that one day you have what I am blessed with: an ex-husband who is one of my dearest friends, and the best dad our kiddo could ask for. I am remarried to a man who is mature enough and self-less enough that my ex is always welcomed in our house and often sits down for a beer with us. Those are the moments that our daughter is the happiest, because ALL the people who love her most are there, together, supporting her and each other. Also, I recently spent 4 hours in the waiting room with ALL of my ex-in-laws, my ex husband and his girlfriend, all of us waiting for news of a niece with cancer. Family is what you make it; it can be made up of whomever you want. Just keep your heart and mind open, and always, always, take the high road.

  • lilah

    2013/07/01 at 4:06 pm

    I have a friend who married his high school sweetheart. After 15 years of marriage and three children they divorced. They always felt the need to do what was best for the family. When divorced she was always invited to family functions. People thought it was odd, the entire family’s feeling (extended as well) was a divorce does not mean an end to the family and friendship which formed over 20 years. When he remarried the exwife was at the wedding. When she remarried exhusband was at her wedding. Holidays are still, 10+ years later, celebrated with both sets of parents and step-parents and with the grandparents. Somewhere these people got things right. While the family has changed it did not end. Love is love. Whether by blood or not.

  • christine

    2013/07/01 at 4:13 pm

    Heather, I just want to say that I am sending out my love and good-vibes across this internet to you! Big Fat Internet Hugs. i am two years into my divorce with an almost 8 year old daughter and a 14 year old stepson (who i helped raise for all of his life til we split two years ago)…it is a weird, cold place sometimes. But in the end being the best you can be for your babies is all that matters. oh, and when you find someone new that knocks you off your feet and loves you like you’ve never been loved…that helps too. 🙂

  • Madge

    2013/07/01 at 4:16 pm

    I love this story and all the others like it in these comments. It makes me happy to know this is possible.

    I’ve been through a similar situation. The extended family (and many of the friends) aren’t coming back, but my ex and I got to a healthy place. We don’t exactly socialize but we can appreciate each other and have honest conversations. Mostly involving our son, but that’s what it’s all about.

  • kmpinkel

    2013/07/01 at 4:19 pm

    I spent yesterday at my ex-sister-in-laws. Her oldest child graduated high school. There I sat with my ex in-laws, 12 years after my divorce and was greeted with warm hugs and smiles. They were so happy to see me. It takes time for everyone to heal.

  • ChickWhitt

    2013/07/01 at 4:25 pm

    I spent yesterday in tears because my son was with his dad and all of my soon to be former in laws, headed to the drive in, and I wasn’t invited because he cheated and he left me. Divorce is a giant, sad bitch.

  • Lisa Gleeson

    2013/07/01 at 4:34 pm

    You almost made me cry. Don’t do that!!!!

  • Kara

    2013/07/01 at 4:53 pm

    Yes. My own parents are dead and my ex’s parents became mine in so many ways. It’s been over 5 years here, too, and I miss them just like that. I want to call and say “Happy Birthday” or “Merry Christmas” .. but it still feels weird. So very weird.

  • debra

    2013/07/01 at 5:49 pm

    I think that I had probably the friendliest divorce in the history of the planet. My ex husband and I had no kids and nothing much to fight about except for the fact I saw 11 Melissa Etheridge concerts in 9 months and decided I wanted to be with girls. What’s to fight about? But my nieces and nephews on that side of the family….his brothers and sisters….one of the reasons I was attracted to him in the first place was his family. The other day I saw one of his nieces on a TV cooking show and it was this weird sensation. I’m like, “My niece”, and since my sister has no children, no one understood. Like, you don’t divorce the kids. You don’t say ex-niece, do you? So it is weird.

    Because I don’t have kids, I can’t say I totally know what you are going thru, but I’ve had quite the year where, my dad died suddenly, my first day back to work after that I got fired. The day my mom went into the hospital for the final time I found out my employers were fighting my unemployment. Then my mom did die. Then on the two month anniversary of my mom’s death, my ex-boss fired my partner. So many things in there I don’t understand. It was hard and I’m working my way through it, but I swear to god I do not know what I would do if I had the responsibility of two little ones.

    You and Jon, by all appearances anyway, have been so classy in the way you are committed to your children. There are days you are my beacon for hope. And there are days like today when I wish I could come over and go kill some cave food for you, just to make up for the many, many days you made me laugh when I needed it most. Wish there was a way to reciprocate…….

  • CB

    2013/07/01 at 5:54 pm

    Heather, your post was very emotional for me. I married the man I began dating when I was 15 years old. We were high school sweethearts. We have a beautiful daughter together. Although we divorced almost 5 years ago, (I am now 38), his family is still very important to me. His parents raised me and I was with them more than my own while I was growing up.
    I didn’t leave the marriage in a way I am proud of AT ALL. My (now) ex husband has forgiven me and we are a united team as we raise our daughter. We are now very good friends. HIs family, however, never forgave me. HIs parents both passed away within the last 3 years. I couldn’t miss being there for the end with his mother, who had struggled through a very long illness. As I sat with her on her death bed, she held my hand and told me she had forgiven me, loves me and knows I am a good person. This finally allowed me to forgive myself.
    Both of my parents are still living, however, the loss of his parents was my greatest loss to date. I miss being a part of that amazing family and I completely understand where you are coming from in this post. I just wanted to tell you I hear you and thank you for this beautiful community of support you have created.

  • KMC2

    2013/07/01 at 6:17 pm

    Heather, Always keep your sense of humor, it will get you through trying times. With all the crazy and scary things that are in the news everyday, I just want to hug my son and never let go. He is now seventeen, he told me he is gay last year. He is such a wonderful. intelligent, handsome young man, and I am so proud of him. But I worry about what he will face in his lifetime due to hurtful things people may say or do to him, for something he did not choose to be. I wish everyone can be as accepting as you are. You were like a second mother to Dane, and how awesome of you to teach your girls tolerance :0)

  • dsybilj

    2013/07/01 at 7:04 pm

    Send Carol a card….I’d be willing to bet she misses you as much as you miss her.

  • angelabeth

    2013/07/01 at 7:20 pm

    Certain connections cannot be broken. One of my best friends’ parents are divorced and all her siblings grown and they still civilly get together for holidays or work parties. After breaking up with some ex-boyfriends I’ve realized that I’ve grown more attached to certain to their siblings and parents and maintain healthy relationships with those as well even if I have no desire to see said ex. If you want to see them, you should. It’s your life and you should feel it with people who truly know and love you.

  • Sad

    2013/07/01 at 7:34 pm

    Ya know, Doocie, when I first read about your separation, it hit me with dread. And I’d heard about a couple other situations around the same time and those hit me with dread too. And I’ve since wondered if people who are in marriages that are doing just fine are phased by hearing about divorce and if only those who know deep down that something is terribly wrong with their own marriages kind of freak out internally when they hear of somebody splitting. It’s kind of like losing one more example that marriage can work out and be happy and we tend to need all the examples we can get. It took me another year before I was able to learn specifically WHAT was wrong with my marriage, and what was wrong with my marriage was so much worse than I had fathomed. At the same time, even though it was god awful and unthinkable, it at least gave me some fucking validation for once. Validation for all the fear and depression and insecurity. I have spent the last six months of my life waking up to an unthinkable nightmare and going back and forth wondering which of two unthinkable scenarios would be the least miserable for my children. And despite all of this, I still have an overwhelming urge to protect my husband, not because he deserves it nearly as much as because my children do. My children deserve to think fondly of their father and know only the best parts of him and his best decisions. I can’t decide now and probably won’t be able to decide for another year at least. Maybe several years. That’s hard. Uncertainty is hard. But I do hope that once I do decide, I’ll be left with some sense of peace or confirmation. This post just reaffirms to me that there’s always tremendous loss and there’s no escaping it. I wish it weren’t so.

  • D J H

    2013/07/01 at 7:46 pm

    I want some one to come pick me up. So bad.

  • MaryKC

    2013/07/01 at 8:27 pm

    My divorce was final less than a month ago, and I am struggling so much with the idea of this not being my family anymore. I feel like I never got to say goodbye to them or tell them how much I enjoyed being part of their family (my family is relatively small, and their family is big and busy and close and kind of wonderful) and how I still love them, even if I am no longer related to them. My ex-husband and I do not have children together, so there isn’t reason for us to see each other now that the business of getting divorced is over with, and I hate that there is no closure on my end or on their end. However, I want to respect that they are HIS family, and he probably doesn’t care that I feel this way, and I should not expect him to. So I hear you. It’s really hard. Thanks for putting words to it.

  • JustCallMeSJ

    2013/07/01 at 8:36 pm

    I’m in the process of losing my in-laws to separation / divorce and it’s the one thing that I’m having that hardest time with. My mother-in-law tells me often that I’m the daughter she never had, and well, it’s hard. She’s more of a mother to me than my own mother has ever been, and I feel sorrow. I feel empty. Reading this stung. I will surely miss everything there ever was about my created family, and my extended family when I’m starting my new life. Like another person said, it’s like a death but no one dies….

  • KC

    2013/07/01 at 9:23 pm

    But Mr Tuff helps to ease the pain of all this moving forward, no?

  • Dee

    2013/07/01 at 9:30 pm

    Wide open pre-schooler bathroom? Huh?

  • Mistyk

    2013/07/01 at 10:38 pm

    I love you Heather Armstrong for your realness. No I don’t know you, no are lives aren’t even remotely similiar, but you don’t hide. You mommy blogged when it wasn’t cool, you love your kids, and you love to write and I mean this entirely when I say never let haters get to you, you write what you want. because there are always people who want to read it.

  • Mistyk

    2013/07/01 at 10:39 pm

    please excuse the typos it is late and I work early…kids…work…stuff. you get the gist

  • Janice K

    2013/07/01 at 10:42 pm

    Just 2 or 3 more days now.

  • Carolyn

    2013/07/01 at 10:53 pm

    omg i feel as though i could have written this nearly word for word describing the last 9 1/2 months of my life. i wish you courage and strength. {{{hugs}}}


  • chuck

    2013/07/02 at 12:24 am

    you are a good person

  • Carol Ann

    2013/07/02 at 1:41 am

    Jon (because yes, that is his name and I also wonder why you don’t refer to him as such?) has also lost HIS extended family. Nobody’s said anything about that?

  • Debra

    2013/07/02 at 4:46 am

    Oh bright spot in the day. That would be Jon’s place to share that in the mediums in which he deems fit, would it not? Me thinks yes.

Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

read more