04/03/2012 05:28 pm ET Updated Jun 03, 2012

Divorce Expos Reflect Modern Rite of Passage

I remember my peculiar reaction the first time I heard someone was divorced. It's a moment burned into my now middle-aged mind, like my first funeral (I nervously laughed as I stood by the coffin), first communion (I practiced in front of my bedroom mirror with Necco wafers for weeks), and first kiss (a slobbery exchange with Kevin Rix by my front door).

I was in fifth grade, in the late 1960s, and to relive that spring day and my reaction is to be slapped with a lesson about the wisdom of mapping out one's life. If you want to make God laugh, the saying goes, tell him your plans. (My plan was to marry Ron the Good Humor man.)

That day, after school, four of us girls huddled on the periphery of the playground of Parkview Elementary School, 30 minutes northwest of downtown Chicago. We had gathered with great curiosity to look at a magazine Debbie Foster had stolen from under one of her brother's beds. When she opened the magazine, called "Playboy", I saw them for my first time: breasts gone berserk. We gaped at full-color page after full-color page of gigantic boobs, enormous boobs, scary boobs, boobs attached to women sprawled in unnatural poses. What demon had possessed their bodies? I wondered. And what, exactly, were their expressions? Not ones of happiness...not excitement...not anger...not hope. Were they in pain?

No one spoke for minutes.

Finally, Margerie Costella broke the silence.

The other fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Markmann, was divorced, Margerie said. Divorced!

We looked up from the disturbing sea of flesh. Divorced!

Our own fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Kuwolski, was obese. And looking forward to the sixth grade, Mrs. Feyman was rumored to be an alcoholic who snuck drinks from the armoire in her classroom, located directly across the hall from the principal's office. And Mr. Gleason was a man, which meant something weird, though we didn't know what.

But divorced!

The women in our hands, breasts popping out like jack-in-the-boxes, held nothing to that grim fact. Being divorced was worse than posing nude, being a male elementary school teacher, being an alcoholic, or being obese. The fact that dead silence followed Margerie Costella's announcement spoke volumes.

None of us knew what divorce meant.

Today, divorce is ho-hum common. My neighbor's grade-school daughter, living in a non-divorced family, asked her mom why they can't have two homes like everyone else. Upon the announcement that his parents were divorcing, another neighbor's son, an 11-year old, said that finally he felt like everyone else at school.

There are even divorce expos being held in the same vein as the wedding expo and the college expo. And why not? They are all life-changing events in which doors close and others can open.

Which doesn't mean divorcing has become any less painful for us adults.

On a spring morning 30 years after first hearing Mrs. Markmann was divorced, I woke up and dry heaved into the second-floor toilet of our Milwaukee bungalow. I then left the bathroom and walked past my 3-year-old son's room, where I watched him sleep in his big-boy bed. Today will be the worst day of my life, I thought. I will need to tell him Daddy is moving out. I will need to decide if, financially, I can keep the house. I will need to find a more lucrative career than freelance writing.

These will prove difficult, but linear, hurdles. More complicated will be answering the two questions I'll circle in the coming years, in the interstices between my old and new lives: Why do I feel inferior for being a divorced mother? Will just the two of us -- my son and me -- ever be a legitimate family?

As I got dressed, I heard my son getting out of bed in the adjacent bedroom. I'll let him have breakfast, I said to myself. Then I'll tell him what has happened.

Looking in my rearview mirror I can say this: Divorce was a rite of passage, like a walkabout taken by an Aboriginal teen in the Australian desert. It can lead you somewhere new, even somewhere better. I was initially severed from my current life and status. Next, I wandered alone in muddy uncertainty (which I now know is where the real work gets done). And finally, my journey changed me: New strengths of character (I was forced to be the person totally in charge); new ideas about family (I'll never fit around a Norman Rockwell dining room table); the realization that life is full of muddy, imperfect people (and I'm one of them).

If you're just starting out on this journey, hang in there. You're not alone. And yes, you still might endure peculiar reactions. When people learned I was getting a divorce, I heard not only support, but judgment, fear and self-preservation.

Life changes, always. And when the change brings us to an unopened door, we stand for a moment at a threshold -- stuffing our new losses into our backpacks amid our old ones -- crack the door open and peek at the new life, unavoidable now, that awaits us. The moment reminds me of a grade-school chant:

Goin' on a lion hunt.
Goin' to catch a big one.
I'm not afraid.
Look, what's up ahead?

Can't go over it.
Can't go under it.
Can't go around it.
Gotta go through it.