Soon after my first husband and I separated, in 2003, I bought the book How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen. It was part of my library reconstruction project, after watching half of the books that had lined our rooms get packed into boxes and carried out the door.
It's funny, when I think about it now. I had read enough of Franzen's earlier essays to know I wasn't buying a practical, how-to guide that would actually give me strategies for being alone. But I was definitely drawn to the title--fearful of the very idea of being alone, and fascinated by the concept that you could do it well--or poorly.
In my case, I was pretty sure I was going to do it poorly. I'm a natural extrovert, energized by being around people, thinking out loud and sharing ideas. Plus, in my 33 years of life, prior to the day my husband moved out, I had essentially never lived alone. In fact, I had done almost nothing significant on my own--never taken a solo trip or made a big purchase like a car or a computer. I'm pretty sure I had never even been to a movie alone. I had a lot to learn.
The Difference Between "Alone" and "Lonely"
If I'm honest with myself, the two things I feared the most about divorce both revolved around being alone: I feared parenting my two young children alone, and I feared simply being alone (as in lonely).
As is often the case for me, my anticipation of the experience was much worse than the reality. One of the first things I learned after our separation was that "alone" and "lonely" are two very different things. I had envisioned long evenings after the kids were in bed, me sitting alone in a dim, silent living room, waiting for something to happen. Instead, I started a book club, picked up knitting, enjoyed long phone conversations with my mom, and savored time to do exactly as I wished. I quickly discovered that being with someone in a distant marriage is much lonelier than being alone.
Parenting alone is a different story. First of all, you aren't technically alone, you just can feel very alone. It's been a few years since I was a true single parent, but my new husband travels, throwing me right back to those days when aloneness reaches the tipping point, toppling me headlong into loneliness. Recently, the descent went like this: It was a typical Tuesday, but the girls and I were all more tired than usual. The after school hours stretched into winter dusk then darkness. The girls bickered with each other, and needed snacks and rides to lessons. They interrupted me repeatedly with questions about math homework and crocheting projects, while I tried to finish a blog post. They busied themselves with scissors and glue and paper and yarn, deftly transforming the once-serene living room into something quite the opposite.
Eventually they made it clear (through button-pushing and tears) that they were getting hungry. Then it hit me: I was alone. My husband wouldn't be home at any moment to rescue me, either by taking over in the kitchen or by taking over with the kids. Memories of my true single parenting days hit me like an unpleasant dousing with icy water. It's not so much that the situation required two adults, four hands, or two authoritative voices (although that never hurts). Technically, I could do everything that needed to be done on my own--that's what I had done for many months after my divorce, when the girls were much younger and needed so much more.
No, the kind of aloneness I felt comes from recognizing, all at once, what's undeniably lacking in an overwhelming moment: camaraderie. It's a realization that no one's on your side--no moral support, no one to roll your eyes and be sarcastic with, to commiserate and then forge ahead with. I was frustrated and annoyed, and suddenly I realized no one else in the room understood how I felt. That's when alone becomes lonely.
Reclaiming the Word "Empowered"
A married friend was recently working up the stamina to do a four-day stint at home with her young children, sans husband. When I hear about these solo parenting adventures, my first reaction is complete empathy. But then I transition into my second reaction: "That's nothing! I did the real single parenting gig all the time, for four years!" In the end, I land somewhere in between: "That really sucks, but you know what? We're far more capable and resilient than we think. I succeeded at something I didn't think I could do. You can, too."
Ultimately, looking back over the eight years since I forged out on my own, that's what I've learned: I'm capable of so much more than I ever thought, and that taking big, scary leaps usually turns out far more exhilarating and rewarding than painful and regrettable.
In the months after my divorce, I shopped for and bought a car, took road trips and weekend vacations with my girls, and supported myself on a freelance salary. I eventually bought a house, where I mowed the lawn, wielded a power drill, and assembled complicated IKEA furniture. It was exhilarating. I'm not a fan of the word "empowering," but there really isn't a better word for how doing all of those things alone made me feel. I realized I had missed so much by marrying young and letting that tiny but insistent internal voice tell me I probably wasn't capable, and there was certainly no reason to find out. Once that voice had been banished, I vowed to do lots of things alone, boldly and with pleasure.
Now, three years into my second marriage, I miss my husband a lot when we're apart, then I worry I'm becoming "soft" again, like I used to be. But maybe I'm not. Before my divorce, in my "other life," I didn't do anything alone because I really didn't think I could. I didn't have the confidence or the independence or even the desire. Now, I know I am capable of doing so much alone, I just choose not to, when I have the choice, because I'm better with others--with my husband, in particular, but I'm just better with others, in general. I'm finally starting to accept that being with others and accepting help doesn't make me weak and less myself, it makes me strong and more myself. That's just the kind of person I am.
And I'm glad to finally be able to say, "I don't want to do this alone," but also to know, without a doubt, that I can.