Less than a year ago, I could scarcely remember what going on a first date felt like. It had been over a decade since I’d been on one. But I was about to find out. My husband and I had separated after eight years of marriage, which meant that suddenly, for the first time in my life as a parent, I had two free nights a week to do as I pleased.
At first, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’d sit around, maybe go for a run, probably cry, then microwave a frozen burrito for dinner and spend the night watching Netflix. The sad burrito routine got old pretty quick, though. I started going out with friends and having fun instead. Before I knew it, I felt ready to put myself out there — out into whatever the modern dating world looked like for single moms.
All I knew was that it would involve apps and set-ups and divorced men. And that I might want to buy a new razor. Aside from that, I was clueless. I didn’t waste a lot of time imagining. For the first time in a long time, I felt ballsy. Intrigued. Excited. I wanted to embrace this new freedom. In fact, the freedom aspect felt like the only perk of going through a difficult separation. Truthfully, it was a pretty big perk. I’d felt lonely for most of my marriage. Though I still care about my ex-husband as a friend and co-parent, we weren’t a good match for the long haul. But I’d felt starved for love, sex, romance and maybe even a compatible partner. So, even though I didn’t know what I was looking for, I went looking anyway.
I got on Bumble and told friends to set me up. “I think my mortgage lender just got divorced?” My bestie was grasping at straws. I was only 33 at the time. I’d been the first one to get married and likewise the first one to call it quits. I found that I had to make dating a priority if I wanted to meet people, so that’s what I did. After all, I wanted to make connections and have new experiences. I said yes to blind dates, to set-ups and went to town swiping. When I started going on first dates, I was surprised by how quickly I became interested in some of the men I met. It was likely because I was at a point in my life where I was open to whatever kind of chemistry might come my way. It was chemistry I didn’t know if I would find at all, but there it was.
For the first time in a long time, I felt ballsy. Intrigued. Excited. I wanted to embrace this new freedom.
I met a man I had an instant connection with. We had passion, and that felt like life being breathed back into my fireless soul. Without giving thought to how quickly it all had happened, I fell crazy in love. Practically as soon as we met, we started spending all our spare time together. It was like being lit up and finally being able to rest all at the same time. I was joyful and comforted and genuinely happy ― I couldn’t remember the last time I felt those things.
But being wrapped up in a new love wasn’t all fun like I imagined it would be, or how it had felt in a past life. Because, as a mother and an ex-wife, I felt like I was constantly bearing the weight of everyone else’s emotions while trying to manage my own. From whatever my kids were struggling with to how difficult it was for my ex-husband to know that I was in a serious relationship, I felt constantly torn and conflicted in ways I had never really experienced. At times, it was like playing tug of war with my old and new selves, trying to figure out how to balance love and practicality.
Either way, before I knew it I was in deep. And even though I never would’ve imagined falling so hard, so fast, it had undeniably happened. I thought I’d be far less impulsive than I once was, 10 or 15 years ago. Now, here I was, a separated mother of two, acting like a teenager (and feeling like one!) when it came to being lost in my affection for someone new. I couldn’t slow it down, or maybe I just didn’t want to. Maybe that’s what happens when you’ve spent so long feeling more or less alone. When connection comes, operating from your head instead of your heart becomes a near impossible feat. I’d been in the safe cocoon of my marriage for so long, I didn’t even pause to think about the fact that I might get hurt.
I got hurt. That is not an accurate way to describe how I truly felt in the aftermath of my first post-marriage breakup. Even “pummeled, blown apart, gutted” fall short. Because the truth is, when we hit a hard place and ultimately broke up, I was beyond devastated. I cried so hard behind the closed door of my bedroom each time my kids went to sleep that I had to drag myself out of bed early and hold an ice-pack to my face each morning. Nothing about this loss felt familiar. And the shock of it all was very real, mostly because I thought I had been so prepared. I’d left my marriage and felt grounded and healthy after doing so, and that made me believe that I’d be ready for anything.
Post-marriage me was supposed to have known better. I wasn’t supposed to have let this happen. I was the mother to two children who needed me and, though I found ways to get through the days, I was guilt-ridden at being this weaker version of myself. I’d been through so many things since the last time I’d been out in the world dating. And I told myself that because of it, I should’ve been better, smarter, stronger.
Here I was, a separated mother of two, acting like a teenager (and feeling like one!) when it came to being lost in my affection for someone new.
I didn’t know how to feel grounded again. I didn’t even know where to plant my feet. I’d gone right from my marriage to a few months of casual dating to the person I thought was my next great love. I had had this amazing support system ― this person that I told everything to. Suddenly, while I hadn’t really known what I’d been missing for so long until it swooped into my life, now all I could do was miss it. Because it had made even the hard things feel easy. I hadn’t even remembered what it was like to feel so connected to someone. In a way, post-marriage love was almost like falling in love for the first time. Hard, fast and nearly impossible to let go of.
Never did I imagine that less than a year after my separation, I’d be struggling to heal from the worst heartbreak of my life. I’d been blindsided. I’d moved too quickly, fallen too hard and completely forgotten how to bounce back.
On my off-duty nights, when my kids were with their dad, I stayed on my couch. I didn’t know if I was healing or just feeling sorry for myself. But either way, I needed time to get to know who I was in the walk of life and what I needed from another person. I needed time alone, and I certainly took it. But when it came to dating, I realized I would likely need more trial and error. More love and loss. And all of that meant eventually making myself vulnerable again. I didn’t know if I had it in me. My post-marriage dating experience had been amazing at first, yes. But then it had been brutal. The irony is that I couldn’t have fallen in love without my vulnerability, but my vulnerability was the thing that left me shattered. Somehow, I had found that bravery once, though. Deep down, I knew it was still there. After a few months of grieving that first heartbreak, I decided to get brave again.
Never did I imagine that less than a year after my separation, I’d be struggling to heal from the worst heartbreak of my life.
While before I had been so hopeful, overly hopeful perhaps, now I understood why other single moms around me didn’t date at all: It was all so emotional. It wasn’t just fun and games like I thought when I first excitedly ventured out on my first dates. It required time and energy and getting your hopes up. And not only that, if you did develop a relationship, that meant you could wind up wounded ― every bit as wounded (if not more) as you were when you were young and naive because love, as they say, is blind. That doesn’t really change after a marriage. In fact, if you’re feeling things you haven’t felt in eons, it might even be truer now. And then, if things crumble, you still have to get up every day and be a parent. There just isn’t as much time to cater to yourself, to cry, to vent to friends, to mend your broken heart.
It would’ve been easy to settle back into my sad-burrito and Netflix routine for good. But I wasn’t ready to resign myself to that completely. The truth was, I was still hopeful. On my first few dates back, I started to take notice of little things about myself. I noticed what made dates comfortable or uncomfortable. I saw my habits and ingrained patterns more clearly. This time, I didn’t just feel like I was meeting someone new and getting to know them. I also felt like I was becoming an expert on myself, on learning who I was now and what that meant for me in terms of building new relationships, too. That felt like a huge awakening ― that dating could be about more than just meeting someone I liked, or could even love, but also about learning so much about myself.
The further I got from marriage and the heartbreak that followed it, the more I understood that I was already happy to stand on my own two feet.
When those good connections came again, and they did come, I let them. But I also made efforts to stay planted in my own life. I kept seeing my friends and made dating just something to do on the side. I wasn’t ready to fall in love again anyway, so I intentionally kept my feet on the ground. I found that I was learning to do that slow dance of staying vulnerable without letting go of myself completely that I’d never quite learned before. None of it meant that I wouldn’t ever get hurt again. I knew I might. But the further I got from marriage and the heartbreak that followed it, the more I understood that I was already happy to stand on my own two feet. Knowing I was truly fine on my own meant that anyone who came along would be just a bonus.
In the end, I realized that dating, post-marriage, could be more amazing than I hoped and more painful than I imagined. And that it doesn’t always get magically better with age, like you might expect. It takes work, it takes knowing yourself, it takes patience and readiness, and maybe a few earth-shattering breakups. The funny thing is that, even after the most jarring heartbreak of my life, I didn’t want to give up. Maybe that resilience is the blessing that comes with dating after a marriage, with loving and losing. Because I have been utterly broken, yet I am still so full of hope at what might be out there for me. Now I know that after you crumble, it’s a perfect time to rebuild yourself ― better, stronger, smarter, after all. I am all three, and growing all the time.