02/20/2015 10:26 am ET Updated Apr 22, 2015

Scrape Off the Divorce Baggage Labels and Reclaim Who You Are

Most people like answers to question that fit neatly into little check boxes and drop down menus. Conversational essays in response aren't usually welcome.

When the cashier at the grocery store asks, "How are you today?" the expected answer is, "Fine, and you?" Somehow I seem to end up in line behind the person who interpreted that to mean the doctor is in--go ahead, share all of the personal details about your life. We'll wait.

When I fill out forms, my sarcastic side wants to grab the pen and give the unexpected answer. Race? Human. Who should be called in case of an emergency? 911. Duh!

And then there are labels clearly designed to soften the blow of what they really mean. I remember my first day of college orientation when everyone gathered in their dorms while I went off to search for my assigned "nontraditional student" comrades. I quickly discovered that was primarily code for old.

When I had my first child at 38, I discovered my pregnancy was considered geriatric. My old eggs and I were not pleased. But we soldiered on, handled that walker like a boss and marched onto the playground loud and proud.

For relationships, there is also a fondness for short answers and clear labels. She's single. That one is married. The one over there is divorced. Her? Oh, it's complicated. She's in a situationship.

After divorce, it feels like a page out of Alice in Wonderland for awhile.

Who are YOU?" said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, "I--I hardly know, sir, just at present-- at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.

I was someone's wife. I'm still someone's mother. But to the outside world, everything now had an EX in front of it. I detest hyphenated names, and now I had a bunch of them: ex-wife, ex-daughter-in-law, ex-stepmother? Our blended family was now unblended.

My children were assigned some new labels too. Pre-split, they just had parents. Now they had divorced parents. Before, they were children of a love story, a marriage, a family. Now they were classified as children of divorce; prime candidates for researchers hell-bent on handing them all sorts of risk factors and a life sentence in dysfunction junction.

As for me, I felt about as generic as a Costco Kirkland tank top sitting next to a vat of olives and 400 rolls of paper towels. I wasn't sure where I fit in.

It made other people uncomfortable too. Sentences that once confidently began with "Your husband" had become almost stammering whispers of "Er, I mean your ex-husband" or "The kids' Dad."

Then it was time to start dating. I felt too old to announce I have a boyfriend, too non-Parisian for a lover--definitely not a cougar thanks to my "If I'm old enough to have birthed it, I don't date it" rule.

The giant bumper sticker, the star magnet on the refrigerator however, was the big D label; the all-encompassing, live relationship status update. I almost expected people to spell it rather than say it (the way you would for a word you didn't want a young child to understand--she is D-I-V-O-R-C-E-D). Yep, I was consciously uncoupled, rapture ruptured, snarky in Splitsville, peacefully partitioned. Now what?

Thankfully the kids' friends continued to call me what they always had--the Maya's Mommy or Nicholas' Mommy. It"s a long story as to why my daughter refers to herself as the Maya, but at least for them my label had stayed the same too: Mommy (or in the Maya's case, THE Mommy).

Next up, labels for your friends who often feel pressure to choose a team--are you on team Mommy or team Daddy? Left or right side of the church? I felt like maybe we should hand out jerseys.

Then comes the realization that no one wants to invite the divorcees to the married couple's party. I do understand the struggle. I mean, how does that go? Do you invite one of us? Both? Neither? Where is the damn divorce etiquette handbook when you need it?

I can't think of another life situation where "ex-" becomes such a dominating, defining prefix other than ex-con. I don't feel the need to introduce myself as an ex-child or an ex-teenager. No one seems to care I'm an ex-lover of all things mauve or an ex-waitress.

As much as I hate being an ex-wife, "former spouse" is beyond awkward. I hate the word spouse and often wonder why spousal support isn't called ex-spousal support? I didn't ask for any, that's just how my mind works here in divorce wonderland.

It finally hit me that I was the one allowing others to define me after divorce. I remember someone asking why I didn't change my name--because I am still a Sirles. It was no longer his name, it was mine too and we share it with our children; same family team, home game or away. I'm keeping my jersey.

Perhaps I could have changed it to Theresa IKnowWhoIAmNoMatterWhatMyLastNameIs, but that would sound about as smooth as ex-Theresa Sirles.

Forget about the labels-- redesign your family blueprint, cherish the memories and reinvent yourself. My adult stepchildren are still family to me and nothing will ever change the love I have for them. They are my kids' brother and sisters and I love them like my own. So are my in-laws and the entire extended family. There were only two names listed on that divorce decree.

I like to follow my daughter's example. She defies convention and has labeled her dolls Maya Jr., Maya II, Maya III and Maya IV. I have a feeling her future husband will have a real battle on his hands if he refuses to change his last name to hers. I'm thinking she may even call him Mr. Maya--THE Mr. Maya if he's lucky.