It's been 10 years since my divorce, and here's what I've learned

It's been 10 years since my divorce, and here's what I've learned

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It's been 10 years since my divorce, and here's what I've learned

I forgot the wedding anniversary of one my best friends the other day.

Not that anniversaries are celebrated like birthdays between friends, but this one I should have remembered because:

  • She is one of the most thoughtful people on the planet and goes all out for special occasions.
  • My kids were in their wedding in San Francisco.
  • She was planning a night out with her husband on a Friday, a night she prefers to lay low.

And it was a milestone anniversary: her 10th. “I SUCK SUCK SUCK” I said via instant message, followed by “Happy Anniversary” (also) in all caps.

And then, sitting at my kitchen table, I had a little cry. If she’s been married 10 years, I’ve been separated/divorced for 10 years. My separation began that same summer after 18 years of marriage.

I divorced the following year.

A fractured family

Her wedding was the first event my kids (then 7 and 10) and I attended without my husband. They didn’t know about the divorce at the time; we told them about it a couple of weeks later before school started.

Kendall, Dawn and Jack Gilbertson in an ice bar on a cruise in 2010.

It was a summer filled with fear, anger, intense sadness and not a little shame that my marriage failed and my young kids would have to forever split their time between two homes.

I irrationally flashed forward to college drop-offs and weddings and wondered how we’d handle it as a “fractured” family.

I remember buying a stack of divorce self-help and parenting books at Barnes & Noble in Los Angeles with my sister (my favorite was “Crazy Time’’). I wanted them stashed as quickly as possible into the brown shopping bag as if they were porn.

I vividly remember the day we told the kids in our sunken living room.

The over-researcher in me had scoured the divorce books and internet for the best way to tell them — what to say and especially what not to say. I wrote up sample scripts for the two of us, lest we scar them forever with the wrong approach. Some of the books I read warned over and over that this moment will never leave your kids’ memories, so I didn’t want us to screw up an already devastating event.

The conversation didn’t last very long; I don’t remember much of what was said beyond the basics.

What will stick with me forever, however, is this scene: my 7-year-old son running, sobbing, into his stoic sister’s lap. She hugged him until we were done talking.

And then we all checked into the Westin Kierland Resort for a night, with another family. The divorce books recommended doing something you had always done as a family right after you tell them about the breakup. We had stayed at a lot of resorts as a family, here and around the country, and cheap summer rates made it the perfect option for us.

Dawn, Kendall and Jack Gilberston in Greece in 2015

The other day I asked my daughter, now 20, what she remembers about the day we told her and her brother we were getting divorced.

“I remember we got a staycation out of the deal,’’ she said in a text that ended with a sunglasses emoji.

Divorces and divorce anniversaries aren’t something to celebrate in my book, but 10 years is the perfect time to look back at lessons learned. They are my lessons learned, which may or may not apply in other situations. For background, we shared custody of our kids and they split their time with us 50/50, week on, week off. Neither of us has remarried.

1. Smooth co-parenting is a priceless gift to your children.

As recently as this year, parents who don’t know us assume we’re still married because we often sit together at our son’s baseball games and other big events, like prom pictures.

The kids alternate between Minnesota and Connecticut for Christmas, and we celebrate together with them before the other leaves on the trip to their parents. We spent last Labor Day together helping our daughter move into her apartment. I go to his house for dinner when his mother is visiting, and he came to a family funeral in Connecticut last summer. We all went to San Diego with my parents after my daughter’s high school graduation.

I still learn things about parenting from him and would like to think it works both ways.

It’s not the norm, of course. It’s simply what has worked for us and has come naturally. Since I didn’t initiate the divorce, I won’t say it hasn’t been difficult at times, especially early on, doing family things when we are no longer a traditional family. But I wouldn’t want it any other way for the kids or, in retrospect, for me.

Are we on the same page about everything related to the kids? Absolutely not. But we work through most of the sticky issues behind the scenes, largely through e-mail.

2. You’re never fully divorced when you have kids together.

Accept that and move forward with grace, in good times and challenging times.

3. There is no single definition of family.

Dawn and her son, Jack, in London in July 2017.

I’m still sad my marriage failed and my kids didn’t grow up in a “traditional’’ family setting, a feeling that hits especially hard when when I see families together on vacation, in holiday photos or even out to dinner.

But from our new start, my kids and I have been a family, branding ourselves the 3 Gs. We’ve continued many of my favorite pre-divorce family traditions, especially travel.

I wrote about our cathartic first post-divorce trip to Sedona. My son and I just returned from a two-week trip to Europe.

4. The kids will take advantage of the situation whenever possible, and that’s (mostly) OK.

They will play you off each other thinking you don’t share that stuff, and will come to love double gifts on their birthdays and Christmas. (We have tried to coordinate the latter so it doesn’t get out of control but haven’t always succeeded.)

5. Playing the ‘this wouldn’t be an issue if we were still married’ game is useless.

I’m still learning this one. It’s easy to blame the divorce when the kids make a bad decision or something goes wrong at school or in their lives or when you and your ex disagree on something involving the kids. When I brought up one instance involving college plans recently, my friend reminded me: “My husband and I don’t agree on that either.’’

6. Embrace your ‘do over’ is a mantra worth repeating.

Kendall Gilbertson cheers on her mom during the New York City marathon.

The passages I highlighted most in the divorce self-help books had to do with life after divorce, with and without the kids. More than a couple of authors called it a do over.

My do over song was “Unwritten’’ by Natasha Bedingfield and remains a favorite running song. I have more screenshots of inspirational quotes in my iPhone than a teenage girl.

In the past 10 years, I have worked on things about myself I know I could have done better in my marriage (go with the flow, compromise more, be less quick to judge, don’t try to change people). I have pursued new interests, including marathon training, fitness classes and photography.

My kids cheering me on in the New York City marathon two years ago is a post-divorce highlight that still brings chills.

7. Lean on friends and family, no matter how strong you think you are.

I remember my mom cupping my then 42-year-old face in her hands at the airport telling me it was going to be OK.

Kendall, Dawn and Jack on Mother’s Day, 2017.

I remember my mom and sisters organizing a Las Vegas getaway a couple of months after my separation because it’s our fun, forget-about-life-for-a-moment place.

I still have the sweet letter my mother-in-law sent after she found out about the divorce, and a sympathy card of sorts another friend sent soon after. And I cannot even count all the acts of kindness over the years, from my friend keeping me busy the day my former husband moved his clothes out of our house to my friend, the one getting married 10 years ago, who arranged a birthday getaway that summer with another good friend in her absence. And I’ll forever cherish my “Bus Stop Mom’’ friends, a group of neighbors who were or are single moms.

8. Divorce is painful but you and the kids will survive.

I started a new journal the summer my marriage ended and wrote in it regularly for a few years, mostly when I was sad or angry or, when the kids were with their dad, lonely. I re-read them from cover to cover a couple of years ago, when I was packing for a move and was struck by how far I’d come in accepting and adapting to my single-mom life. And then I tossed them with other stuff I was getting rid of in the move.

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