I didn’t plan to get divorced. I certainly didn’t plan to end up a stepmother. Let’s face it, neither of those gigs come with a side of public adoration, or even a modicum of respect, frankly.
I had planned to follow a traditional path – love, marriage, baby carriage. I had planned to live my life as Billy’s wife (#freepoem). We got married young, built our careers and raised our babies. We were right on track, except that it turned out that where I was wasn’t where I belonged.
Let’s agree, right here at the beginning, that good marriages don’t end in divorce. My marriage to Billy ended because it didn’t serve us any longer, and we were better apart than we were together. Our divorce was the right choice for our family, and I have no regrets. The five Chapmans are far better in our tribe arrangement than we would have been if Billy and I stayed married all those years ago. That said, the end of my marriage hit me hard.
Billy and I were best friends, glued at the hip from the time we sat down at the same table in the college dining hall at 19. We had enormous history – inside jokes and stories we knew by heart and shared hopes and pain. Our separation was terribly sad. The grief was palpable, and the loneliness overwhelming. Losing Billy felt like losing chapters from my own story, like part of me died.
On the days when the loneliness didn’t cripple me, the feeling of failure did. Choosing to love each other daily and actively practicing love and committing to each other anew every morning are marriage mantras that surround us. For the decade-plus we’d been together, I’d bought into those messages wholeheartedly. I’d chosen Billy at 23 and he was my lobster (90’s Friends shout out, except not really). Come hell or high water, we were staying together. I’d made a vow. Rules are important to me – I’m a firstborn. I put shopping carts neatly away in corrals, dutifully detail my charitable donations, and show up the way I said I would. Loving Billy was a choice I made daily for years.
The feeling of failure was compounded by the fact that my middle name is Judgy McJudgersons. I’d watched this happen to other people in my life before and quickly determined that their marriages ended because they weren’t serious about their vows, didn’t try hard enough, weren’t strong enough, didn’t love enough. It took walking this path myself to realize how wrong I was. It turns out that when standing at the altar, almost everyone believes the vows she’s reciting. Divorce happens because that marriage isn’t the right place for those two people – even if those two people are enough. It doesn’t nurture them – even if they are working as hard as they can to stay together. The wrong marriage doesn’t allow each person to be the best version of themselves – it is simply not where those two people belong. And I now understand that they come to that conclusion with every ounce of pain and sadness that Billy and I endured.
When I was finally honest with myself about how I felt – depleted and resentful and overwhelmed, the sense of failure overtook me. Surely others felt this way too, and were pushing through. I’m no quitter. I was tempted to keep trying, keep working – regardless of my past efforts or outcomes. Listening to my deepest voice told me the truth: I couldn’t continue my life as it was. I needed a change, and the change we could agree on was to separate. And that’s how I got a big, fat F in relationships. You giggle, but that’s absolutely how it felt. Kate Chapman, marriage drop out.
The third horseman in this marriage-ending feeling apocalypse was guilt. Guilt for putting my feelings first, for robbing my children of an intact, traditional family. Guilt about giving up on Billy. Guilt about asking our extended families to shift and adjust and transition to a new normal. The guilt was so heavy I sometimes couldn’t breathe under its weight. My mother, watching me crumble, would softly tell me “put it down, Honey. Don’t carry it. It’s too heavy.” She was right – it was a physical burden.
Some days, I am still surprised that the grief and failure and guilt didn’t make me turn back, denying what I knew to be true and taking a less painful path. I wanted so much for the plan I made with Billy to be the life I lived. I desperately wanted my first choice to work.
Gabe and this life we live together were my second choice. A second choice that isn’t the stuff of Christmas coffee commercials and story books. A second choice that involves a huge extended tribe and is sometimes overwhelming, both in terms of laundry and emotional baggage. A second choice that doesn’t fit neatly onto a kid’s emergency contact form or future wedding invitation.
Nevertheless, I have learned to love this second choice. I made this second choice carefully, remembering my scars and honoring the lessons of my first marriage. I made it thoughtfully, because this marriage nurtures my spirit and supports the best version of me, allowing me to be the best mother, wife, friend I can be. But mostly, I made it joyfully, because despite the complexities and stigma of divorce and stepfamily life, I would not trade this noisy life in progress for any other. This second choice is where I belong.