If anger is the root of divorce, guilt is its Oleander.
I’ve yet to meet a single parent, not a solitary one, who hasn’t at times found themselves sinking in a cesspool of guilt. Not prosaic guilt like an extra piece of pie or too many drinks. I’m referring to a guilt that hangs like vampires on your soul; a guilt that often weighs so heavily you think you’re going to die. Guilt is the one emotion common to all of us no matter how that title of ‘single parent’ was bestowed.
Guilt, as with everything, ebbs and flows like waves on the ocean. Sometimes it’s peaceful and laps so gently we almost forget it’s there, and then suddenly like a typhoon the tide swells and overtakes everyone and everything in its path.
Without warning or provocation the surge can be upon us. It may just be a song on the radio, a seemingly inconsequential remark by another, an old family photo, or the confused look on your child’s face that can send us careening off the cliff into an abyss of woe and misery. But it’s the dread of more torrents which keep us in a constant state of alert – waiting on a storm for which we can never entirely prepare.
I’m well acquainted with this adversary named guilt. On more occasions than I care to remember I’ve been afflicted with its familiar symptoms. Over time and against all hope I tried to spend it away though buying my children’s love, drink it off to drown the suffering, and even killing it with unhealthy relationships hoping they would make a difference. All of which seemed, in the end, only to make matters worse.
Interestingly enough my struggles didn’t start right away. Immediately after my divorce I didn’t feel any guilt at all because I didn’t believe I was to blame for the marriage ending. I hadn’t asked for it in the first place, and had convinced myself I had done nothing to deserve it while giving everything to reconcile it. In my mind I was an innocent bystander caught in the cross fire of an extra marital affair. And it was ultimately this feeling of victimization that served as justification for my belief that whatever guilt there should be rested with anyone but me.
On top of that, my children were very young when their mother and I split so I was spared living the emotional carnage that befalls most kids of divorce. They were too young to realize what had actually happened to them. In those early days as long as they remained fed, with dry diapers, and plenty of The Wiggles episodes the fact their childhood would never mirror what had been intended seemed paltry by comparison.
But as my children were getting older and our relationships were becoming more than just bottle feedings and potty training guilt was sharpening its sword and preparing for what was to come; and when it finally attacked I was emotionally, spiritually, and mentally caught off guard.
The assaults began back when I was dropping my kids off at their mothers on Sunday afternoons after weekends together. Following several days of ‘Daddy can you…??’, ‘Daddy tuck me in…!’, and watching The Barnyard for the seventeenth time, their kisses and waves goodbye released hurricanes of guilt that slowly tore my world in two. And after all of this time I still can’t adequately describe what it was like watching them climb from the truck and walk out of my world into another that I had no part of. It was like child actors playing dual roles and I was witnessing them move from one character to another. I can still remember how perfect the agony I felt that my children even have to play the part at all.
I can say with near certainty that guilt is the strongest and most fierce of the seven. Of all them it’s the easiest for single parents to spiral into and the most difficult for them to pull out of. The reasons why are all too common. Being divorced means being a failure; regardless of who was actually at fault each failed at the marriage, enough said. Divorce gives rise to paralyzing self-doubt. Every wrong, difficulty, and bad omen now becomes viewed as cosmic penance because the marriage ended. But my favorite reason is how every bad deed done by a child is underscored by how the kid came from a broken home, to the relief of married parents everywhere, so that next time my son pushes another kid down at recess I immediately fear he’s headed for the penitentiary because I’m not married to his mom anymore.
Through my own experience I’ve come to believe there are only two ways of moving beyond guilt and both require more of ourselves than we think we have.
I don’t know how a single parent can overcome this enemy without the utter conviction that it is all happening for good reason, though it may be hidden. That all the struggles, sorrow, loneliness, and self-doubt must ultimately lead to something far better than could have been imagined before. In other words, that someone above is pulling celestial strings that in the end will put things in our favor. To think for a moment that my children and I have suffered through all of this absent a better and larger purpose would make me want to kill myself.
The second is to recognize – but more importantly take advantage of – the opportunities this new life provides. Of this one thing I have no doubts, I would not and could not be the father and man I am today had it not been for my divorce eight years ago. As I look back over that time and recognize how far from center I had traveled and how different I had become, but then to see how I’ve made it to a higher better place today I can’t help but feel privileged, even blessed, to have gone through it all. It’s impossible to feel guilty and feel gratitude at the same time.
Guilt is an unavoidable part of our human condition, but as single parents that doesn’t mean we have to drown in it. Single parenthood provides an opportunity to impact our children in a way that other parents simply never will but in order for that to happen, in order to be the parents that our kids need us to be, we must win on this battlefield of guilt.
This is the 3rd in a series of posts by the same name, to read the others go to Seven Battles.