What Divorce Taught Me About Parenting
After her marriage ended, writer Lyz Lenz stopped shielding her kids from reality and started preparing them for it.
When my children were born, I believed I would have done anything to protect them. And I did. There were moments of strength and instinct so maternal it would be wrong to call them Herculean. Hercules got his strength from the gods after all. But me, I got it from my mortal children. My bumbling and awkward body was transformed. Once famous for never being able to catch a baseball, I instinctively snatched one out of the air at a park, right before it hit my infant daughter in the face.
Another time, I faced off a growling, off-leash dog in a park that was menacing my kids and others. And still another: While holding my daughter, I slipped on an icy sidewalk. As I was falling, my body knew to turn itself to protect her, and her alone.
There were many more. Food dislodged from tiny throats. Chemicals snatched from prying curious hands. So often it felt like the only thing standing between them and mortal danger was my tense and maternal body.
Every parent believes in their soul that it is their job to protect their children from the dangers of this world. The hardest realization is that sometimes you are the thing they need protecting from.
When my children were 4 and 6, my husband and I decided to end our marriage. The reasons for that were so complicated and personal as they always are. There wasn’t just one thing, but many, many of them, which had built up over a decade of marriage until they suffocated us. Together with our couples counselor, we worked out a script of exactly what we would tell the children. How we would approach it. How we would be united. How we would make them feel safe in a sad time.
The night we told them was one of the worst nights of my life — despite our script. Despite our smiles and our best intentions, they clung to us and cried. The idea of a conscious uncoupling is a myth. There is no way a break in any life is ever easy or without pain, especially for the lives caught in the middle. And on this night, it was clear that the betrayal my children so clearly felt wasn’t directed at some cosmic injustice or cruel slight from a friend. It was from me. Me. The person who had tried to protect them from all of this.
Of course there were other reasons, some of them beyond my control. But some of them weren’t, and in the end, it was my choice to go. And it was a good one. One that I firmly believe in. But how do you tell that to your children when they are terrified and worried? How do you tell that to them as they watch the only world they know burn to the ground because you lit it on fire? You, who would self-immolate to protect them. You who thought you would do everything, but apparently not this, not this one thing of staying.
Since becoming a parent, I’ve walked with friends through the loss of their children, the loss of spouses, parents and marriages. I’ve seen that it’s very rare that the world spins in the direction we want, or that life lands us in the places we’ve always dreamed. We want to protect our children because we want to believe in the idea that we have control over our lives. And that in turn, they have control over theirs. But control is an illusion. And the world is often as arbitrary and cruel as it is beautiful and just.
You can create a world so safe and so pure for your children. You can grip the reins so tightly, but eventually, the construction will fall. Eventually, utopia ends. What matters more than shielding my kids from that reality, is preparing them for it.
It’s a philosophy that instead of saying, “No you can’t use that knife to help me cook,” says, “Here, let me teach you how to use it.” It’s a pivot from “My kid has to always win,” to “Let me teach you that if you fail, it will be okay. We love you. We always love you. And it’s never too late to try again.”
It’s been a year and a half since that night, and I’ve changed a lot as a parent. No longer do I believe that protecting my children from the world is my main goal. Instead, my job is to teach them how to face it. To stare it straight on. To come out a survivor of this weird, wild, worrisome and wondrous world.
Lyz’s writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Pacific Standard, and others. Her book God Land is out August 1, 2019, through Indiana University Press. Her book Belabored: Tales of Myth Medicine and Motherhood is out in Spring of 2020 through Bold Type Books. She lives in Iowa with her two kids and two cats and is a contributing writer to the Columbia Journalism Review.