Letting go of the guilt
I did it. After many hard years of faking it in my marriage, I couldn’t do it anymore. I tipped over the first domino. I struggled with the divorce decision for so many years; that struggle defined my relationship more than anything else. I stood by Bob as he became a recovering alcoholic and when he started his business. I tried to be the perfect homemaker, keeping home fires burning with homemade meals. Shrinking, becoming invisible. Not being seen, heard, or understood, morphing my true self to whatever fit his expectations. I had to break out of the box of “wife” that I didn’t design. I was dying, bit by bit, day by day. I couldn’t be me. I was being erased. I didn’t like what my children were learning about love or for them to see me compromise who I was for someone else. Finally, one day, the pain of staying became bigger than the fear of leaving.
I didn’t see it coming. Blindsided by his disappearance. Poof! Just like that—here one day, gone the next. No trace. Just a missing husband and a shotgun. I couldn’t shake the overwhelming guilt that I did this. I put my needs first for once, and this is what I got, what my kids got. My trying to finally be my best, to be whole, threw us all under the bus. We had no idea where he was, if he was. I felt like I had created the defining moment in all our lives. I didn’t mean to. I just wanted to be me. I wanted a divorce—not disappearance and certainly not death.
Exactly five months later, the call came from the police that they found what was left of him.
I couldn’t fix this. From the moment he left, it was way too big. I worked so hard my whole married life to make everything OK for our family. But this? I was powerless to make it better for my kids. Wasn’t the definition of a good mom one who kept her children safe, who worked to make their life easier, to make it shiny and wonderful and magical? I had to figure out a new way.
I had to learn to sit with them in their grief and pain without any solution, let them try to make sense of something senseless, and to design their new reality—one without a dad and with a mom who was very different from what they had grown used to. It wasn’t my fault.
I felt selfish. I feel selfish. I pray that someday my children will understand that I couldn’t stay that same mom. That they will remember me as the mom who kept getting up, no matter how many times life knocked her down. That I did the best I could and never, ever meant to hurt them. It wasn’t my fault.
Guilt keeps me small. His losing the battle with mental illness did this, not me. Most days I believe this, and I am in awe of how far we’ve come and all we’ve learned. Some days I go backwards to those first days, to the guilt. But we keep going, this new family. We are all real now and learning to love all the parts of ourselves in our new realness. It’s messy and hard even six years later. And it’s powerful and beautiful and honest. It wasn’t my fault.
When we struggle with this evolution, I question what are “normal” bumps of teenage/young-adult years and what bumps were created by Bob’s suicide. It all blurs together, and I can’t fix it. I feel powerless. Guilt ruled me for so many years and kept me from asking anything of my kids, and that’s made it so much harder to ask them now. But I’m learning that it’s OK to ask, even require, that they contribute to our home. It wasn’t my fault.
As Solo Moms, our job is to become jobless, to be downsized by our children. If we do our job well, they become worthwhile, productive adults. It happens eventually. It has to or else they live with us forever. It keeps them small and dependent instead of spreading their wings and finding their own mission in life. But it’s hard and sometimes I have to be a hard-ass. Parenting is not a popularity contest because it isn’t a contest at all. No one wins and yet everyone does—eventually. It wasn’t my fault.
They sputter and fight and cry and scream and push every button they can find to stay in their little protected world. They lash out and hit us in our Achilles’ heel: guilt. But it isn’t our fault. The more we repeat this, we eventually believe it, and it becomes our truth. It isn’t our fault.
As I reach this new place I’ve never been before, what keeps me sane is staying present in this exact moment so I don’t get pulled into guilt land. I know in my gut that I am doing the best I can, working on forgiving, Bob, myself, everyone. It wasn’t my fault.
My tribe of friends keeps me sane with validation; advice; and permission to be real, scared, frustrated, and tired. I need their support, strength, and love. And they don’t feel they have to fix things for me but can just sit with me and understand how hard and relentless my life can be sometimes: for a son, the absence of a father in the crucial years of discovering what being a man is and, for a daughter, what having a dad means. It’s like learning how to go through life with a missing limb or sense—you can do the same things everyone does, but the extra effort needed to do them takes more stamina, creativity, and guts that sometimes you just don’t have. So it takes longer or looks different. It wasn’t my fault.
But we do the best we can. We’re still here. And that is my fault.
Image by Jared Roberts posted with permission via www.waveillusion.com
A certified professional life coach and professional singer, Nancy Jo Nelson lives in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Her nest is emptying, as her daughter, Jillian, lives in the city and attends North Park University. Her son, Sam, still lives at home, along with Winnie the Wonder Mutt and Bolt the Mighty Chihuahua. Her first book, Lessons from the Ledge, is available on Amazon.
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