Standing on the corner of our street, my kids jumped and squealed as they played basketball at a neighbor’s house. We had lived two doors apart from each other for 18 months, and this was the first time the kids were all playing together outside. As I walked down to check on the kids and say hello to the mom who was outside supervising the chaos, I saw her scan my left hand and received a curt hello. Greetings were exchanged, and I was asked how long I lived in my home as we both acknowledged how crazy it was that we lived so close and our kids went to school and the sitter together, yet had never played outside our own homes.
The air felt thick. She was uncomfortable talking with me. She scanned my hand again and inquired about where we moved in from and issued an “ahh” as she realized it was a neighborhood of much larger homes nearby. The kids ran up and asked if they could set up a play date or sleepover and she ushered them inside as my son asked, “Why didn’t you give her your number so you can text to set something up for us?”
I was used to this by now . . . the scanning of my hand, the pity when it seemed that I was a single parent who had downsized her home, the palpable discomfort and lack of surety in what to say to me, the utter reluctance to intermingle with a broken family from those who were still considered safely and wholly intact.
It was always upsetting to me, and I hoped my kids didn’t notice, but I certainly did.
From our old neighbors who suddenly did not want to associate with us anymore, to the new neighbors who were unsure of how to address our family situation and were reluctant to have their kids play with ours, the shame of the failure of divorce stuck with me much longer than the divorce itself seemed to. I felt like a leper, carrying germs other people around me wanted nothing to do with.
It’s as if everyone believed divorce was contagious, if they continued to associate with me or the kids, they would catch it, too.
Shame is a funny thing. You feel it in the deepest parts of yourself and it impacts how you see yourself, and in how you believe others see you. You feel unworthy, less-than, responsible for failure, and undeserving of the good that comes your way. With a divorce, it is amplified by what can feel like the constant commentary from others on the coulds, shoulds, and woulds. Everyone has an opinion on what your life should look like, your choices, and what is in your best interest and that of your kids.
But—no matter the opinions of others or your personal feelings—divorce is not contagious.
I wonder about this fear and stigma tied to divorce and people who have gone through it. It feels like guilt by association. Perhaps people fear there is an implicit endorsement of my own choices if they spend time with the new version of my family. Maybe they don’t have words to explain to their own children what our family arrangement is and why there is only one parent, or a step-parent, or a schedule in place that has them spending time at two homes. Or perhaps they project their own fears about their relationships onto me and believe if they are too close, too integrated into my circle, that they will decide to make the same choice in their own life.
The truth is, the failure of my marriage occurred over a period of years with issues big and small between my ex and me, behind closed doors, with details the world is not, should not, and will not be privy to for the sake of our kids. It has no bearing on my other relationships or those of my kids’. They should not be punished for their parents’ choices.
Talking with me, playing with them . . . these things will not impact the state of your own union. It will not change your views on your own relationship.
I am not out to entice you to hate the opposite gender, hate your spouse, or join a regiment of single parents. I may even encourage you to do the opposite to avoid my fate.
Frankly, what I would like is a sense of normalcy. I would like to get back to normal life—play dates, basketball practice, band concerts, and sleepovers. Contrary to what you may believe, my divorce is the last thing I want to discuss with anyone. I have other identities as a parent, mother, working parent, and so much more that I am happy to connect on.
I want my kids to have friends and not feel embarrassed or ashamed when they talk about their family. I want them to be included like any other kiddo and be free to live their lives away from the stigma of grown-up choices. They shouldn’t have to justify their family, their parents’ choices, or their worth. Neither should I.
So please, the next time you’re tempted to draw conclusions about my family or whether our kids should play together, please don’t base it on the existence of a ring on my left finger. We are still human. We are still a family. And we are not contagious.
Originally published on the author’s blog