In my freshman year of high school, I was in a community play called They Left Out The Instructions (affectionately referred to by the acronym TLOTI). The play focused on the concerns and angsts of adolescents and dealt with topics such as teen pregnancy, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, and–ooh la la!–sex. I got to play a fresh-faced kid running for student government and out to change the world who ends up getting stabbed while trying to help break up a fight. I had a death scene and a postmortem monologue (“And I was cold… so cold…”). Oscar-worthy, I tell you.
The titular musical number has been stuck in my head lately:
They left out the instructions;
nobody shows us what to do.
They left out the instructions–
everyone leaves it up to you.
How do we know where to go?
How do we know what to do?
What songs to sing, what bells to ring,
what ladders to climb, what lights to shine?
How do we know? How do we know?
The song goes on to ponder the teens’ success at finally leaving behind the pain of “junior high” (even when I was in this play, nobody called it that anymore; it was middle school). But wtf are they supposed to do now? They’re older and supposed to be more responsible, but having never been adults before, they must navigate their choices through trial and error. Everything is steeped in meaning with a haze of unknowing and a veneer of confidence that can turn into cockiness. And inside, the characters have far more questions than answers.
What I’m going through now with my divorce and adjusting to my new life is not unlike adolescent angst. Everything in my new life is similar to what I’ve had until now, yet critically different. I’m still an adult in charge of my home, but now I’m the only adult in charge. I decide when it’s bedtime. I decide who gets to eat a pack of fruit snacks, and then another. I pay my bills. I buy the groceries. If I don’t feel like cooking, we eat pizza or fast food, and there’s no one to judge, protest, or offer to cook in my stead. My home is a much-smaller apartment fitted with secondhand furniture and decor I bought when I left Lou. My home is at once unfamiliar in its newness to me, and uniquely personal in every selected detail.
I kind of love just looking around my apartment. It’s all mine, and it’s all me. But sometimes I glance up and feel a jolt of unfamiliarity and wonder for a second, how did I get here? And perhaps more terrifying, what happens next?
How do I answer Poppy and Ace’s questions? How do I structure my parenting style alone? How do I navigate co-parenting in two households? How do I make sure I get it all right? What’s going to happen, and is everyone going to be ok?
Unlike in 1994 when I did TLOTI, now there are many sets of instructions you can easily find, within seconds and for free, for how to navigate your life. For the soon-to-be divorcee, the Internet is brimming with articles about pitfalls to avoid in your divorce agreement, tips for selecting your attorney, ways to break the news to your kids, and then how to deal with their emotional fallout. There are uplifting meme-style images reminding you that you’re a special snowflake, that you’re worth it, that springtime comes after winter, and that you’re a badass bitch who can do anything she puts her mind to, and do it alone, and do it better than any man, and do it with a really sweet divorce tattoo. There are communities where people share their horror stories about difficult exes, deadbeat babydaddies, unfair judges, barracuda lawyers, child support deficiencies, and mental illness. And of course there is ample information about re-entering the dating scene, dating when you have children, and–ooh la la!–sex after divorce.
I’ve spent a lot of time poring over these offerings on Huffington Post’s divorce section, Divorce 360, Trash the Dress Online, and whatever Google came up with when I asked it, like a crystal ball, how to expect things to play out.
But in the end, the usefulness of all this “research” is extremely limited. The instructions the Internet tries to provide, though meted out with the authority of an alphabet soup of credentials including PhD, PsyD, LMHC, and the all-important BTDT, are not a crystal ball.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve benefited from some of the tidbits I’ve read, if only because it was a relief to be reminded I wasn’t the first person ever to feel what I’m feeling. And these resources certainly make the unfamiliar territory of divorce less opaque. But in the end, no matter how much divorce material I consume, I still find myself complaining, “Nobody shows us what to do!” Everyone leaves it up to you. You have to put on your big girl panties and figure it out.
To borrow from an adolescent icon, the immortal Ms. Britney Spears, the answer when you question, “What am I to do with my life?” should always be sung back response-style, “You will find it out. Don’t worry.” When you ask yourself, “How am I supposed to know what’s right?” your own voice should reply, with shimmies and spangles, “You’ve just got to do it your way.”
Because, c’mon. Don’t nobody know you like you. Don’t nobody know your babies like their mama. You’ll figure it out. You just have to keep at it. Don’t stop. Keep going.
What’s really important is what you do. Your divorce, or your parents’ divorce, or any other circumstance in your life doesn’t define you by what it does TO you. You are defined by what you do in response.
Let’s keep this adolescent thing going, because there is wisdom in wrestling with the angel, and there are few angels who tackle us harder than the angel of growing up.
In the Dawson’s Creek episode “Promicide” (stay with me, now, people), Pacey and Joey have an epic fight at prom as they bring their relationship to an explosive end. Pacey says he has to break up with Joey because he can’t stop being an asshole to her, and he knows as long as they are together, he will continue to be an asshole. Joey says, “Well I’ve got news for you, Pacey–how you treat me is actually totally in your power.”
Truth! How we treat anyone is totally in our power. How we behave, how we work, how we love, how we give–all totally in our own power.
I should be deliberate. I should be mindful. It’s a cop-out to blame my shortcomings on my impending divorce. Yeah, my current state of upheaval affects my mental state and my motivation to vacuum up Pop Tart crumbs when I really just feel like playing Pet Rescue Saga. But acknowledging that doesn’t mean that indulging it isn’t a choice. It is. Everything I do is mine–things done and left undone. Totally in my power.
And I will make mistakes. I do make mistakes! But if I make a good-faith effort to make my choices deliberately and with grace, then there is no reason to feel guilty about them. And there is no reason to feel powerless.
To borrow from the (arguably?) more respectable but (unfortunately) less adolescent Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
And they will.