“So, what does your husband do?”: The schoolyard question loathed by newly separated mums
If your parents, family and friends, are close to your ex, or your families hang out socially, it’s even trickier. For most parents, as it was for me, telling the kids is the most gut-wrenching.
I’ve done a lot of research and healing since I had to go through the early stages of separation.
Rewind eight years …
I separated from my husband of nearly 13 years. I was sad, humiliated, fearful of the future, and very resentful. All pretty typical reactions I’ve since learnt.
After 17 years living overseas, mostly in South Africa, I came home with my kids when we separated. They started at a new school for the second time, in the second country, in under 18 months. It was a stressful time for all.
I struggled to embrace my new Single Mum identity. It wasn’t how I’d ever imagined myself. I felt like a bit of a failure. All the other mums were there with their happy kids, carefree laughter and ‘functional’ families. I now counsel women through these feelings of inadequacy. You are not a failure, and many around you are not as happy as they seem.
The women I was anxious about meeting had my old life. I had bags under my eyes, $147 to my name and once at early morning swim training, I looked down to see I was wearing odd shoes.
The perfect mums were friendly enough, but there were times I’d see a smiling, lipsticked face heading in my direction and I’d cringe knowing the crease-free clothes, matching shoes and perfectly glossed nails meant I’d be asked that question: ‘What does your husband do?’
I attended many school functions squirming with anxiety.
Humour is my fallback position in times of upheaval – actually, in life. So, my posse of newly single girlfriends would come over on a Friday night, cold SSBs in hand and we’d bemoan our respective predicaments, laugh and workshop responses to the smug marrieds. Thank the Gods for those gorgeous girls!
In my mind, my responses were hilarious. Unfortunately, they were so blunt the best of them was met with a pitying half-laugh. More often than not, the well-meaning school mum disappeared faster than a clean t-shirt on a two-year-old.
I shudder now as I recall some of what came out of my mouth.
My response was always honest, an acute version of exactly what he did. Regrettably, my answers, and more precisely the delivery, revealed more about me than about my ex-husband.
Eventually, the cricket season ended, and I moved on to a new audience on the rugby sidelines. I always considered them a far more robust bunch. Perhaps I’d just toned down and refined my technique. I’m too scared to ask!
One of those bewildered cricket mums phoned me out of the blue a couple of months ago. She knew I’d created Divorce Resource and wanted some advice.
We chatted about the challenges of redefining your identity as a divorcee and how to graciously manage acquaintances who unknowingly scratch the top off your fresh, tender wounds.
She still remembers my response and says she only fully ‘got it’ after her husband left her. Newly separated, sad and angry, she has some work to do, and she’s not likely to be enjoyable sidelines company until she does.
I believe, now, that the sooner you can refer to your ex-partner in a neutral way, the sooner you’ll be on the path to a happier new life.
Develop an elevator answer
It helps to prepare what I call an ‘elevator answer’ for when someone asks about your former partner; just a couple of short lines you could deliver in the time it takes to travel a few floors in a lift Practice saying it aloud. Stand in front of the mirror and recite your spiel until you can deliver it without sneers or tears.
Being prepared is especially useful when the question is asked in front of your children.
Try something along the lines of ‘We’ve recently separated, and I’m sure you’ll understand, it’s not something I feel comfortable talking about right now.’ Immediately follow up with a question changing the subject to something about them.
One direct sentence explains your situation without giving away any fuel for gossip – an important consideration for the newly separated mum on the sidelines!
Or, if you’re feeling more relaxed, let them know that it’s not a topic you want to avoid entirely but one you’d prefer not to dwell on. Go with, ‘His/her name is —–, but we’ve been separated for a while now. They are standing over there, or he/she lives close by/far away. We are both actively involved in raising the children (or not).’
Always present both yourself and your ex in a reasonable light (whether they deserve it or not). Don’t forget to deflect the conversation back to them. People love to talk about themselves.
Whoever coined the phrase ‘emotional rollercoaster’ was probably going through a divorce. If only the ride would end quickly and you could get off when you wanted to, instead of going around again and again!
In time, one day you will arrive at the point where you just choose to get off. The quicker you get there, the better off you and your children and perhaps even your relationship with your former partner, will be.
In the meantime, take control of the parts of your life that you can control right now by being prepared. Come up with a short script; positive if you can manage it, neutral if you can’t.
I promise this simple technique will help you transition more gracefully back to your natural rhythm and your whole self, where you start to not only survive but thrive in your new life.
And, as an early adopter, you’re guaranteed to spend much less time than I did avoiding eye contact at school functions with the people you met just after you separated.