by Lauren Hawekotte, CFP®
My story begins at the end. It is a story of grace. A story of forgiveness. A story of learning to love. The story of learning to love myself enough to do hard things, to make difficult choices, and to show my children what true love looks like.
I’m the oldest of four children. I was always the one blazing the trail, leading the way, and setting the example. I was confident in many ways, but I also had an extreme need for perfection.
I was raised Catholic and had very high moral standards. I really idealized my mom and the life she helped shape for my siblings and me. We had the very “traditional” family – my mom stayed at home and took care of the four of us, and my dad was the breadwinner. It seemed ideal and, recognizing the value in having had a stay-at-home mom, I decided that’s what I wanted for my future family.
This particular story starts just after high school. I had graduated at the top of my class and was slated to attend UC San Diego. During the summer, I met a guy I really liked while working at my first job. I liked him so much, in fact, that it weighed heavily on my decision to forgo going away to school (where I had already attended orientation and registered for classes!).
As it turns out, 19-year-olds don’t always make the best decisions (even the ones who graduated at the top of their class!). Two months later, things ended with the guy I was so enamored with, and I was left living at home and attending the local community college. Naturally, I felt like an old-maid and was certain that I would never meet any one ever again!
At this point, I resolved to marry the next person I seriously dated (19-year-old me, what were you thinking?!). I did not want to go through another break-up and thought there was no way I could (gasp!) actually be alone! In hindsight, I can see that I was very co-dependent. My identity had always been wrapped up in who I was in relation to the person I was dating. I didn’t see that I was a whole (valuable!) person all on my own.
As fate would have it, I met another guy I worked with who I really liked. He was aloof and brooding – just the kind of challenge I was looking for. My cheerful self was convinced that I could get him to be happy. I was a hostess and he was a bus boy in the restaurant we both worked in. Each time I would pass him, I would say “smile!” and he would look at me with a scowl. The perfect start to an amazing relationship, right?!
As it turns out, he was raised with very similar family values. He was also the oldest of four, his mom stayed at home (and actually home-schooled them, God bless her!), and his dad was the provider for the family financially. We connected over the fact that this was the kind of family we both wanted.
We started spending a lot of time together and quickly decided that we were “meant to be”. We had a tumultuous first year of dating. I was immature and insecure, and he was immature and insecure. We fought and had fun and both thrived on the intensity of it.
I got tired of fighting and quickly found my role in the relationship of being the one to give in just to end the argument. I didn’t realize at the time, but this was the beginning of the slow, steady path to the demise of what would ultimately be our nearly 20 year relationship.
I had committed to be with him and never looked back. I didn’t reevaluate, didn’t step back and look at things objectively. I didn’t see the red-flags…or, more precisely, I didn’t WANT to see the red-flags. I simply checked all the boxes of perfection and kept moving forward – Have the same values? Check. Want the same kind of family life? Check. He’s cute? Check. He wants me to be a stay-at-home mom? Check. He lets me control the parts of the relationship that I want to? Check.
While I was looking at the things I was getting that I wanted, I did not look at the things I was getting that I DIDN’T want.
We dated for four years. He proposed. I said yes. Because that’s what you do. I so badly wanted the life we talked about creating together that I didn’t stop to think about whether or not he was the one I wanted that life with.
We decided that we wanted to wait to have children, after-all, we were only 23 and 21…there was no rush! I finished school and continued working in restaurants. Since our plan was for me to stay at home once we had children, it only made sense – why go get an “office job” that paid less and had less flexibility for a few years?
Those few years are now a blur. I think we worked because we actually worked opposite schedules. He worked during the day, and I worked at night. We were like ships passing in the night for the most part. We had our good times and bad times, like any married couple, but I became increasingly aware that I tended to downplay situations.
This was my normal MO – don’t over react, don’t upset anyone with your emotions or porblems. My car was once stolen from a parking lot after someone found my keys that had been dropped on my way into the movie theater. The police officer who responded to my call about my stolen car questioned whether or not I was telling the truth, because he didn’t think I was “upset enough” about the situation. For years I had gallstone attacks that doctors wrote off as “acid reflux”, because I didn’t act like I was in enough pain when describing the situation.
I did the same thing with my relationship. No big deal. This is normal. Everyone deals with this stuff. I felt the need to protect my image of “perfection”. I had a list of what my life was supposed to look like, and I just kept checking things off – Married. Check. Kids. Check. House. Check. Check. Check. Check.
There was a distinct moment before we had children where we should have seriously reevaluated our relationship. We’d had a huge fight (about what, I truly can not recall), and I was going for a walk by myself. By myself. This was not something I did often. At this point in our relationship, I deferred to him on most things and spent most of my free time with him, which is what I wanted at the time. All I wanted was for him, for us, to be happy. “Smile!”
On this walk, I clearly remember thinking, I’m 28, I’ve been married for four years at this point. It would be a mortifying failure to get divorced. I just couldn’t even fathom withstanding the mortification. So I doubled down. The “great recession” hit, he lost his job, and we decided that would be a great time to just go ahead and have a baby. I remember saying “we’ve been waiting for a good time to do this, but the reality is that there never will be a good time. Let’s just do it.”
So we did. I had baby fever. I didn’t care if I had to keep working. The timeline dictated that we move forward to the next appropriate phase of life. I got pregnant right away, and we were over-the-moon excited. The newness of the situation was exciting, and (aside from one night where I recall sobbing about what I was beginning to recognize was an unhealthy situation) things were good – we were creating the family we both wanted.
Our daughter was born. He was an amazing dad. I remember sobbing just before I had to return to work. I didn’t want to leave her. My dream of being a mom had been realized, but the stay-at-home part wasn’t exactly a reality.
We were fortunate that I was actually able to stay at home with her during the day, and he took care of her at night when I went to work. This was the happiest time of our marriage. I was exhausted, and so was he, but we actually made a really good team – we may not have been great romantic partners, but we had the parenting thing down. So, we decided to do it again.
This time around, things were different. He wasn’t as excited as the first time. The newness of pregnancy and parenthood had worn off. We hit a definite rough patch right before our son was born, but we pushed through.
As the kids got older, I realized two things – 1. I actually liked working and 2. Working at night was not going to work as they got older. I knew at that point that I wanted a career, not a job. I considered law school and/or getting a master’s degree in accounting and becoming a CPA. I ended up settling on becoming a financial advisor and partnering with my father in growing his financial planning practice.
Several things happened over the next few years. I discovered something I was passionate about. I loved my work. As I became more confident and independent, things got worse at home. My motivation and drive were in stark contrast to his attitude.
I started realizing that our relationship was still unhealthy, and I was at the point where I was acknowledging that I was unhappy. Not to the outside world, but to myself. And, as the kids were getting older, it was becoming more difficult to minimize and rationalize. It wasn’t just me who was being affected. It was them too. It took me seeing our dynamic begin play out in his relationship with them that snapped me out of my state of denial.
I knew that there was nothing I could do to change him, but there were things I could do to change myself and the unhealthy ways I contributed to our dynamic. I went to therapy, I worked on getting healthy – both mentally and physically. I started loving myself instead of relying on others to love me.
I recognized my co-dependency and took steps to change that. I hoped the outcome would be one of positive change for our whole family. Ultimately, it has been. Not in the way I had hoped, but positive change none-the-less.
I forgave myself. I forgave him. I gave myself grace and permission to leave. I found that sometimes truly loving someone means letting them go. And I wasn’t capable of loving anyone else until I loved myself wholly and completely.
Prior to making the final decision, my ex and I separated for a time – I knew I needed time away to gain clarity and be able to make a final decision.
After telling my ex that I needed time apart, we presented a united front to convey this information to the kids. We let them know that we were each working on things separately and together to try to make things better for our family (truth be told, they probably didn’t have a conscious awareness that there was anything really wrong, as we didn’t really fight much…it was just a generally unhealthy relationship that had been that way for as long as we had been their parents…for them, it was “normal” which was part of my motivation in the first place — this was not the “normal” I wanted them to experience.)
We did something called “nesting”. It was important to both of us that the kids stay in the house, and he and I took turns staying and going for half of each week. In hindsight, this was probably one of the best things we could have done to gradually ease our children into the reality of the situation.
We did this for about four months while my ex started therapy, and then we went to therapy together. It became very apparent to me that there were ultimately issues that could not be fixed or changed no matter how hard either one of us tried.
For me, the most difficult part of my divorce was the lead up to the “official” decision. The internal struggle that took place over making the final decision was brutal – is this something that can be fixed? Are my kids better off with us together as is or apart? What are the long-term effects going to be for them? Are those worth the trade off of having a healthier, happier parent? Is that more important? Am I being selfish? Is it really that bad? What if I’m making the wrong decision? And the dreaded….what will people think? Will they understand?
Ultimately, I was able to set aside the last part – no one else is living my life but me. I’m ultimately accountable to myself and my children, but other people’s opinions don’t get to influence what’s right for me. A quote I like from Brene Brown is – “What’s the greater risk? Letting go of what people think – or letting go of how I feel, what I believe, and who I am?”
The biggest realization for me in this whole process was the fact that I had lost who I was. I had done everything to (try to) please my ex, to do what was best for our family unit, to live up to the expectations placed on me by those around me (or, more specifically, the expectations I thought were being placed on me.) This is a tightrope that can only be walked for so long before you come tumbling down. It was a gradual process for me, but I realized that I could no longer be the me everyone else wanted me to be – I have to be the me I am! The me I was created to be.
Giving myself permission to choose divorce was difficult. No one in my (very large) family had ever been divorced (aside from my aunt who had a brief first marriage when I was very young). Of my friends, again, no one I was close to had ever been through a divorce. I was entering uncharted territory, and I was unsure and afraid.
This was in spite of the fact that as a financial advisor, I had a very good grasp of the financial side of things. One of the biggest challenges was something I felt confident facing. But even that was something new…this was something I had never navigated with any of my clients either. It got me thinking about the fact that this must be how my clients feel when they’re faced with planning for retirement…and that’s something that’s a joyous, fun thing to plan for.
I always reassure clients that though they only face retiring once in a lifetime, I have the experience of navigating this process with people over and over again…I’m a bit of an expert you might say. All of the questions they have are questions that have been asked and answered over and over again.
The difference with divorce is that (though you hope it’s also something you only experience once in a lifetime) it is a process that has so many moving parts and pieces…attorneys, therapists, tax professionals, financial advisors, etc. You’re navigating dividing all of your assets, dividing up children!, navigating custody arrangements, managing the sadness and emotional pain….all while continuing to live a “normal” life.
All in all, despite the fact that I was prepared for things to turn ugly, the entire process was about as smooth as it possibly could have been. After trying therapy for several months, I made the decision that I was ready to leave. We agreed to utilize mediation rather than each hire attorneys. We worked together to settle on a custody arrangement that we both found acceptable.
In our case, we decided that at ages 8 and 10, our children were old enough to have a week with each of us at a time. We also both recognized their need for consistency, and found this to be a good arrangement for them.
I think this process went smoothly, one, because he made a choice to try to make it amicable for the kids (and himself…), a choice that I am very grateful for. And, two, I realized that there are tradeoffs for everything. Part of this decision means that I have to be okay with letting go of things that matter to me, but aren’t going to be the-end-of-the-world if I have to compromise my preference….and, frankly, there’s not much that falls into the category of something worth fighting over.
One of the ways I was able to get to this place was by connecting with people who had gone through this and could help me navigate these difficult negotiations by reminding me what was really important.
I realized how crucial having that support was. I found that as I was going through this and openly sharing what was going on, a community of women going through the same thing just naturally formed around me. Having this support made all of the difference…it’s one thing to have family and friends be supportive, but quite another to have other people going through the same thing that you can turn to, to ask for guidance, for referrals to local professionals, etc…
Kim and I realized that not everyone has the benefit of having this community. And, if we’re connecting all the dots and putting together resources for our friends going through the same thing (as she had done for me), why not find a way to share that information more broadly? To support as many people going through this as we can? There is purpose in the process if we can make it that much easier for someone else!