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Thursday, August 7, 2014

single & stronger - Shelagh Braley

Part 3 of our Single & Stronger series about moms who have experienced divorce or separations in their relationships... this one is amazing! I am so grateful to Shelagh Braley for sharing her beautiful story of courage and determination to be the strongest, most secure and AWESOME mom she could be for her (gorgeous!) daughter. "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger," is surely the quote for this story. 

Shelagh's advice to moms who may be struggling is the best I've read, including how to co-parent after divorce and keep the child happy and healthy in the middle of it. 

Such an inspiring story of being your true self. Whether you've been divorced or in a difficult relationship, or if your marriage is perfectly fine right now, Shelagh offers wonderful advice about finding what makes YOU the woman happy. 

Thanks again, Shelagh. I know this will help moms find comfort.


1. When did you know that you needed to get a divorce?
When he told me no, he didn't love me, but thousands of people stay together for the kids. I had been seeing signs of infidelity, and finally it just slapped me in the face. It had been a long time of what I now realize was emotional abuse: no intimacy, no affection, no eye contact, just control and manipulation, which then started to become aggression and slightly physical. Once the yelling became the norm, I started seeing a therapist and pretty quickly realized I had to go. 

The final straw was a huge fight we had where I looked over and saw my baby plugging her ear with one finger and eating her cereal with the other hand. Enough.

2. How long ago did you get divorced, and how old were your kids?
I got divorced literally on my 10th anniversary, six years ago, when my little girl was 5 going on 6.

3. What were you hoping for when you decided to get divorced? What did you want for your kids in this process?
When I finally said enough, I hoped for myself that I would find some peace and quiet, and get back to who I was: someone who loved music and being social, seeing friends, being positive, everything I always was but somehow wasn't any more. 

I hoped my daughter would see me stand on my own and believe 100 percent that I deserved better. How could I expect her to have healthy self-esteem if I truly didn't have it myself? 

I could not ever look her in the face and explain how I would stand by someone who couldn't tell the truth, or say sorry, or be happy with the life he had -- the one we had chosen together. I had to be the one who broke the cycle to give her a real chance.

4. How did you tell the children? How did they react?
We told her together, after her first day of Kindergarten. We sat her down in the living room, in a totally surreal experience, and said, We love you, we just aren't going to all live together anymore. Mommy and Daddy are not getting along and we think it would be better if we lived in different houses. But it's not your fault, it's nothing you did or didn't do, and we both love you of course very, very much. 

She did not show much emotion, as I think she was just trying to grasp what we were saying. But she did feel the effects and it was hard on her the first few years. It's still hard on her in some respects.

5. What is your advice to other parents going through this in how they should work with their kids through it?
Be honest with your partner, and own up to the parts of the failure that are yours. Expect them to do the same. Work together to come up with a plan to keep the kids as stable as possible. Don't use them to keep tabs on each other, and stay positive about your ex so your child can still regard them with respect as a parent.

6. What is your advice to someone contemplating divorce?
Of course you want to try to make it work. But when someone does not love you the way you need to be loved, and they are proving it a million different ways, don't tolerate that. It sends a terrible message to your children, who need to see what a good relationship looks like so they re-create the right connections.

 7. What helped your kids get through this situation? What were some challenges for them?
I immediately got my girl into therapy. There was a great therapist at school who started with her almost right away. We still see her every two weeks now, all these years later. It validated my daughter's feelings, even when I was too fragile to always hear her or she was too afraid to share her negative emotions. She's still pretty reluctant to talk about her feelings, so we keep working on it. 

The other thing that helped was to get her involved with her friends, to say yes even when I wanted to say no, to focus on the positive and "find the awesome" as she put it then. She wanted to be happy -- and it was my job to help her find the way. We had a lot of adventures that we otherwise wouldn't have, because her father would've either said no or sucked the joy out of it.

8. What helped YOU get through this, and what were some challenges you experienced?
I started to open up to friends about how deeply unhappy I had been, and surprisingly every one of my dearest, oldest friends was like: What the hell were you ever doing with him?! They all saw what I didn't. I just thought opposites attracted in our case, until they didn't anymore, and there was no way to get it back.

One challenge, other than it all going down in the middle of me trying to scale my own business that had very little revenue at that point, was that after I left, he kept coming back asking to try again. I had to be really strong and say, sorry, I am better off without you. And that may have been the most painful part. I knew him well enough to know he wasn't ever going to change, and I had already gotten out, and had that six months of growth and freedom of being on my own, I couldn't go back. And I realized then how precious trust really is, and how impossible it is to get it back once it's taken from you.

The other thing that helped me was research. I looked up every fact I could find, every story about helping children through divorce. I even wrote a magazine piece of my own, where I contacted a top child therapist and grilled him for more than an hour about his experience. 

When was the best time to divorce for kids to really recover and not have it define their childhood? (Answer he gave: Between ages 3-6, age 3 because they've sufficiently bonded with both parents by then, and 6 because if it ends badly, they won't remember the details because memory starts to overwrite with all their new experiences).

The thing I did that 100 percent healed my soul was to learn to sail. It was something that had always been on my life list, and despite growing up on the ocean, had never set foot on a boat. The experience was empowering. I took lessons so it gave me something to look forward to each week and forced me to get out of bed, take a shower, go engage with people, and challenge my body. It was the best thing I've ever done. Then I taught my daughter. Boom. I felt like a superhero.

I started to do more things that I'd gotten away from that I loved. I tried out for a part in Annie in our community theater. I got the part of Grace, and my daughter got one, too, as Molly . I'll never forget when I opened my mouth to sing, and my voice filled the audition room, her face was like, whaaattt? That's my mother? She got to know the real me in so many ways out from under the shadow of my failed relationship. And just knowing that made her proud of me spurred me on to be even more. Realizing my dreams made me stronger, and that made her happier and more secure.

 9. How are things now currently - are you civil with your ex, do you have a routine, schedule, communication, etc.? If things aren't great, how do you wish it was?
Our relationship post-divorce started out contentious because he is a fighter, and I picked up the behaviors I needed to protect myself. It took me a year or so to get back to myself. 

It briefly got better, when he got a job, and had a girlfriend and got his own place. Things have become more difficult again, as girlfriend is out of the picture and he moved back in with his mother. My daughter at 11 has started to want freedom and time with her friends, and she's much more likely to challenge his controlling ways, too. I always struggle with this, because, here's the thing: I couldn't stay and tolerate the behaviors, why should she? She comes home upset about his negativity, because it's not something she's used to anymore. I empathize with her 99 percent of the time. I encourage her to live her life big, to protect her dreams and don't let anyone weigh in. She said she wants to go to Stanford, he said "Those smart kids are weird." She dances four nights a week, he said "Can you please do something athletic just once before you graduate high school?" It's a struggle for her to not be fresh. When it gets too much, I remind him his relationship with her is in his hands, and he should be more careful of her feelings. Sometimes it works.

10. If you find yourself in a relationship again, what will you be looking for in a partner and a helper to raise your children?
I began dating a year after my divorce, and met THE ONE. I didn't think that was a real thing before him. One of the first things he said was how much he'd always wanted to be a dad. And that was on our first date! He was so gentle with my girl, became her good friend and confidante from the beginning, and never tried to "parent" her in a traditional way. If she's ever acting out, he leaves it to me. The man has more self-control than I could muster in my whole life. He's fair, he says things to her like "What do you think of that? How could you have maybe done that differently?" He encourages her to do what she loves, to find passion, to travel and expand her world view. He's Canadian (I'm American), and he's lived in six different countries in his life, so he has great stories that expand her life. 

We are so lucky to have him. When her dad upsets her, she comes home and my husband hugs her. She invited him to her father-daughter dance this year. So he's the silver lining, if there is one. We also went on to have a child together, our son is now 5 months old. All my daughter ever wanted was a sibling, and she couldn't be happier with him. They have a special relationship, and my husband never makes distinctions between the two. When he talks about them, he says: my daughter, my son. The look on her face says that makes her very comfortable.

11. What do you hope your kids understand someday about why you chose to separate from their other parent?
I never want her to know the whole story. There are just some things that even adult children don't need to know about their parents. Let her have her own ideas about him, she doesn't need to throw what we messed up into that. 

But I do hope she understands not to accept less love than you want, to never make it OK for someone else to make you small, and to keep living the life that makes you happy. If your partner is really THE ONE, they are on the same journey -- not controlling you through yours. 

And never be afraid to admit you made a mistake, and say sorry, and move on. The best things we learn, I think, are through our mistakes.

12. What do you think people misunderstand about moms who are divorced? What do you wish others knew about your experience?
I did feel like such a loser at first. 

But life after divorce is everything you make it, and you have to go build the life you wanted, then see who wants to be part of it.

 13. Anything else you'd like to share?
Divorce is so common now. It's a shame, but it's the fact. I remember feeling really self-conscious at my daughter's school functions and other social situations at first. But as soon as word got out, other moms were approaching me, not only to tell their story, but to ask whether I thought they should get divorced! Don't be afraid to tell your story. It's unique, and you never know who will surprisingly relate or reach out to offer support to you or your child.

14. What have you learned about yourself in this process?
I learned that my whole life could not be defined by the decision I made at 23 years old. That I could break old patterns. That I could design my life and move forward to be completely happier than I ever thought I would be. That someone could love me and my daughter and my elderly dog, and give me a clean slate and celebrate all my accomplishments with pride, and love me the way I need to be loved. My divorce changed my life for the better, and the best thing I got out of it will never disappear. My daughter is one of a kind, and I wouldn't have had her if I'd taken a different path. Forgive and no regrets!

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