Badass Mamas | Cheryl Eaton
There is no one face of single motherhood.
Some women have a lot of support — or at least equal contribution — from their ex’s; others have none. Some women have a large tribe of family and friends to prop them up until they regain their strength; others have none. Some women are single by choice; others are not. The spectrum of experience is vast. Yet every single mama can find something that resonates with her in another woman’s story.
I find solace in sharing my story, but I find just as much, or more strength when a woman in a similar situation grants me the gift of hearing her story. We’re taught to “keep your personal life personal.” But in so doing, we deny ourselves the chance to connect and heal, the opportunity to give and receive support, and to stand in solidarity during a moment of need.
Thus the birth of Badass Mamas on Phoenix Mom Rising, a new series of stories that will share the experiences of fellow females; the tales of brave women who have been similarly tasked to rise from the ashes of life’s not-so-little challenges.
It is especially powerful for me to launch this series with Cheryl. As my former boss and mentor, then later my friend, Cheryl has always been a badass to me. She possesses a quiet strength that simultaneously says, “Don’t f*ck with me” and “How can I help you?” An unlikely combination, perhaps, but a strong one upon which I modeled myself. I always admired how Cheryl balanced work and motherhood, and to me, she excelled at everything. I never expected ten years ago that Cheryl and I would share this particular experience of single motherhood. But here we are.
Cheryl's story made me tear up. It made me shake my head. It made me clench my fists. And it made me hold my breath at points in disbelief that my story was her story, and her story was my story. Of course, our stories differ, but I relate even in our differences, those parts that show me that there is no better or worse when it comes to heartbreak.
Meet Cheryl, a Badass Mama, in her own words.
I have always felt a taboo against sharing my breakup story.
My story is mixed up with his story. There are two sides to every story. How dare I share his story? Especially to mutual friends.
Stories twist into gossip. When I have shared, the story has taken on a new shape, leaving me to tamp it down – often feeling like I must defend my ex, when I really don’t want to.
But here I go, with a big breath...
The sad center of my breakup plot was my EX having relationships with two women for the last three years of our relationship.
My centered, diplomatic self usually pops up here. “Blah, blah… symptom of a deeper issue… blah, blah… could have worked through it… blah, blah….” Okay, Ms. PhD. But, come on! In one non-diplomatic moment, can we just agree that this is a foul on the field?!
To be “fair,” he assured me (well… stated after the fact, rather than assured) they were “just” emotional relationships. In other words they didn’t f*ck. News flash to all you guys out there: it doesn’t matter. There’s no way I will ever know it wasn’t physical. But either way: it doesn’t matter. When you are emotionally investing in others, you are emotionally absent to me.
And that was our last three years. Emotionally absent. Physically absent. And angry.
Why angry? Honestly, I’m not sure. But I do know we were in the thick of two careers, two children, grad-school and homeownership. When you have a real life together — not a disembodied, rosy, text-based relationship — there are lots of stresses. Unfortunately, he was constantly complaining to his other women about me, sure to get complete understanding and resounding emotional support and reinforcement.
Example: how I folded the towels was an issue. No joke. Couldn’t I see the towel pattern in the closet?
I knew something was up. Not only because of the emotional and physical absence (we spent no time together), but also thanks to quick phone hiding and last minute event cancelations. We no longer had any interactions that weren’t laced with ice and the threat of explosion. And I learned the true definition of passive aggressive.
I will no longer throw that term around in response to a snippy phrase. Passivity can be brutally AGGRESSIVE when purposely wielded. I tried to talk; he wouldn’t open his mouth. I wrote heartfelt, pleading letters; he didn’t respond. I asked for — and then demanded — counseling; he refused. I tried using hugs and kisses to breakdown barriers; he stiffened.
When I force myself to remember the crux of those dark days, the real issue was that I was not appreciated — I wasn’t even liked — for who I was at my core. I was constantly criticized for who I was and what I did. Though I wouldn’t change, I did often hide myself in an attempt to keep the peace. The hiding and criticism, the lack of appreciation for me, was soul sucking.
Three years of this. I was dying. I felt my spirit being crushed, my fire being extinguished. I was swallowing my needs, sucking it up, compromising, compensating, avoiding conflict and generally sacrificing my own person to try to make it work. I didn’t like the person I was becoming.
Our kids were young — four and six — when we split. I didn’t care at all about marriage (a topic for another post), but I felt strongly that when you look each other in the eye and decide to have children together, you make a commitment that had better last. I was constantly doing the math of how much I could sacrifice and bear, for how long, to keep the family together for the kids.
I can’t remember the final straw for me. But I do remember the day. It was the Monday of President’s Weekend. A few weeks prior we had a fight. He lost it over something and — this was unusual for him — raged at me. I actually sat there and took it. I took it because I knew he was raging out of defensiveness; his indignation was a great smokescreen for his own shenanigans. And I took it, diplomatically, thinking it was for the “greater good.” But I asked him to take one definitive step because I was running on empty: find us a couple’s counselor and make an appointment.
He did not, and that was looming in my mind as a sign. Then there was another fight. Canceled participation in a family event. A broken collarbone. A long evening in the emergency room. And by the time I got home to finish the fight from the morning, I was done.
I made the call. But I will always believe it was his call to make. I will always know — and I sincerely hope he knows, too — that he should’ve manned up long ago and done the hard work of breaking up the family. He should have opened his mouth, he should have talked through his needs and desires, and he should have packed up his stuff. Or at least participated in a mature Gwyneth “decoupling.”
But instead, I had to be the one who broke up the family. Who “left my kids,” as the gossips said. Who “probably had a man on the side,” as his pot-stirring friends offered. Who had to pack up my sleeping bag, box of spinach and package of fake sausages (because that’s all he let me take), and drive away from my boys and my home one afternoon with nowhere to live.
It was hell. It was the hardest thing I have ever done or ever will do. Emotionally brutal. Guilt inducing. Constantly questioning whether or not I did the right thing. What if I just sucked it up a little longer?
And then there was sleeping in my car, in hotels, in friends’ homes when they were on vacation (all as happy families, mind you), in RVs, and on floors of short-term rentals. All when trying to be a mother to my children, and help them feel safe and settled when their mama didn’t.
Oh – and did I mention this: I left my job at roughly the same time. Note to self: not smart. Five months before I called it quits at home, I called it quits at work, leaving what had become a dysfunctional relationship with my employer to try to forge my own thing. I thought I was doing this in the bosom of what I assumed would be a stable family situation. In hindsight that was naïve.
There are so many bad stories. Negotiating the split up of a family and property with so much resentment and anger. The baring of true character. The difficulty of buying a home when you’re a single, self-employed woman. I found depths of stress, frustration, and overwhelm that I didn’t know were possible for me – this strong. capable, independent woman. I compromised and even gave up in so many ways just to untangle, move on, and retain my sense of independence.
I’m sure others mistook me for my generally strong self. In truth, I was unhinged.
Yet, the shake up lead to some crazy sweetness. My boys and I ended up spending almost a year and a half in a one-bedroom apartment. I had (and still have) the boys half the time. I would give the bed up for them when they were with me, preferring the couch so I could actually sleep. But they preferred me in the bed with them, a jumble of flying elbows and legs. I would go to sleep with them, and wake up in a puppy pile.
How humbling: from a sweet three-bedroom home on ten acres, to a run-down one-bedroom apartment with one king bed. To say it was not easy is an understatement. But there was sweetness to the closeness, and a raw relationship was left when all else was stripped away.
It was all a surprise to family and friends, thanks to the life-curating nature of Facebook. Recently, someone said to me they remember my EX and I as the happiest couple they ever knew. The funny thing was, we were happy. I miss those times. But looking back, I see the seeds that grew into weeds and took over. All of which I believe we could have grappled with, and recovered from with care and desire, communication and the attitude of perseverance. But “we” lacked those things. “We” took the easy way out.
Crazily, it’s been four years since I called it quits. But it’s only been a year and a half since things have been finalized, and we’re all in our more stable homes. Money is tight, and my business suffered. I still feel guilty every day for breaking up my boys’ family. But, I am no longer dead or dying. I have my spirit and fire back.
I’m not going to lie to you: there are soooooo many things that are hard about being a single mother. First and foremost it’s LONELY without an adult counterpart here with me. Also, my kids lack continuity always moving from one place to another. I have lost control over things a MOTHER should not have to. We’re a logistical nightmare. I miss them when they are not with me. But even so, it is hard switching back and forth between being a single person without their kids and a single mother. And sometimes I need a quick break that just can’t come.
But, I have a secret: I also love being a single mama. I don’t need to compromise or share in the moment. A mama and her boys – I love it.
As an optimist and a closet romantic, I know it’s possible — and probably preferable — to find someone who blends well as a family, and as a partner. But for right now, I like things just the way they are. (Except I need a handy man, and a household helper – both free.)
They say you’re not doing your kids any good by staying in an unhappy relationship. I don’t know. I wonder if couples just have unhealthy periods, and after maybe five years we would have righted our little ship. But I know my boys can see their mother more clearly now. My hope is that they are proud of their mama some day, and learn something about how to be strong and happy in the world.
I’m embarrassed by how long it took. I see now that I should have been less diplomatic and more fierce, just to try to shake us into action. But in the end I’m proud of myself for tearing away. I saw myself as pathetic much of the time I was in transition, losing all that I worked for, starting out again from scratch. But I realize now that it proved the depth of my strength.
I learned one lesson too late that I would love to share with other newly single mamas: ask for help. Gather around as many allies as you can, open up, and keep asking for help.
Though I have had some friends who have helped me along, mostly I have kept quiet and alone, often feeling like I’m hiding my hurt, suffering, and self in a corner. I’m good now – mostly. I’m proud that my own grit saw me through (I knew it would). And yet for some reason there is a lingering hermit quality to my life. I’m still a step away from thriving, by my own doing. New single mamas – don’t do that to yourself.
And there’s a little something I would like to share with people still in relationships: don’t toy with the emotional fabric of your relationship.
It may seem cool to disrespect your partner. Don’t do it. Words are powerful and can reframe a relationship for good or ill. It may seem attractive to talk about what isn’t working with your partner. Does it imply a door that is cracked open for someone else? Danger! Don’t do it. These days it is so easy and enticing to get distracted by flirty or deeper “emotional” relationships. DO NOT DO IT. You might think it’s innocent or easy, but I guarantee you are doing damage. Even if it’s “just” from making those precious emotional deposits elsewhere. Take it from me, your better-half will know.
If you are still in a relationship, there must be some good there. Focus on it. Be proud of it. Fan those flames. If there is no good, get out. Your friends and family will help you. But do not take it lightly. Don’t play with its importance. Don’t get distracted. Having gone through the real hell, I don’t appreciate it.
And, if you’re a mama appropriately on the other side, well done, Sister. Phew. You are a strong woman, and a badass mama. Deep happiness to you.