It’s a scene played out in so many of my favorite childhood movies – Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride, Notting Hill (I had a slight obsession with Julia Roberts in the 90s, OK? Don’t judge me).
Girl likes guy.
Guy likes girl.
Sometimes it works out and they live happily ever after. Sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, girl is fabulous and free and happy. She figures it out. In the movies.
It took me all of 36 years to figure out I, too, am a runner. In every sense of the word. But my life is definitely not a movie.
It started in junior high, to exercise and blow off steam. I dabbled in running throughout high school and college, then logged a few miles here and there in my 20s.
After popping out a third kid in 2015, I RAMPED. IT. UP. – training for and completing a few dozen 5K, 10K and half-marathon races. Shit, I even did a half Ironman two years ago. I told myself all those miles kept me in decent physical shape while saving my sanity.
In 2017, when I broke the news of my divorce to my parents, My dad said, "You know, all this time I've kind of wondered who or what you were running away from." At the time, I shrugged, because I hadn’t really thought about it that way and didn’t have an answer for him.
Fast forward to pandemic. When my gym closed in March, I resolved to run 50 miles a month. No races. No training plans. And that’s how I coped with the unknown… I ran. For 14 months straight.
I kept telling myself I was moving forward, even if the rest of the world was on pause in lockdown.
Somewhere along the way though, I discovered I was pretty OK at running on pavement and a damn pro at running away from what’s uncomfortable and hard.
It was my M.O. in friendships, in dating and yes, in my marriage.
A friendship gets weird? I’d prefer to ghost that person rather than spend time and energy trying to save it.
A conflict or argument with a guy I’m dating reveals flaws a few months in? NEXT!
Let me be clear. I don’t shy away from the actual conflict or confrontation. I can almost always face that stuff head-on and acknowledge why I’m upset. But when it comes to fixing a struggle with another person, I tend to light shit on fire and head for the hills. It’s just… easier.
Fun fact: I am one heck of an “and another thing” girl in arguments. Upset me about one thing and I will absolutely rattle off five more reasons why I’m mad.
I am also the worst at goodbyes.
When colleagues leave for a new job, when friends move away, at funerals, when my kids and I leave my parent’s house at Christmas and just about anything else in life that involves saying ‘See ya!’, I struggle hard. So I avoid it. I dodge the negative emotions and I run.
Irish Goodbyes happen to be my specialty.
Let’s just say I’m a work in progress in the relationship department.
I could hypothesize my instinct to bolt is a product my perception of how my parents fought from time to time when I was growing up.
I could blame my tendency to peace out at the first sign of trouble on the fact that movies romanticize it.
But the truth?
No one ever taught me how to stay.
When I got married, I thought a fight was silent treatment and passive aggressive comments.
No one had shown me the value of sitting down and talking through a tough situation with empathy and compassion.
I did not know working through uncomfortable feelings was also a path for growth… both as an individual and in relationships.
No one told me disappointment, hurt and anger are normal; and it is possible to forge a deeper relationship with another person when we communicate openly about those difficult feelings.
No one explained to me it would be impossible to outrun my own mistakes until I owned them and faced my demons head-on.
So I spent the past 36 years building strong, high walls to protect my heart. I broke off relationships and shut people out before they could do it to me first. I made it impossible for anyone to hurt me. Yes, part of those actions was me refusing to settle for anything less than what I felt I deserved. Another part was simply a bad cycle I didn’t know how to break.
And guess what?
It still hurt.
But ready or not, it is truly amazing the way time works its magic… often in unexpected ways and through the most unexpected people.
All I've ever needed is someone to truly understand me. All I've ever wanted is a reason to stop running.
I saw this quote the other day and read it over and over as the words sank into my soul:
And after everything, I’m finally figuring out how to stay.
THIS is our happy place. Like every other 30-something mom I know, that sign is hanging in a prominent spot in my home. Except, I’ve come to realize “happy” is not a specific place at all (more on that in a second).
You see, I dove into 2018 thinking I needed to find someone to replace the void in my heart after divorce. Someone to tell me I'm not damaged and that I will be OK. Someone to tell me I'm doing a good job juggling life. Someone to tell me I'm a good mom. Someone to give me a big hug at the end of a really hard day and promise tomorrow will be better. Someone to stop this terrifying free fall feeling of, Who am I and what in the actual hell just happened to my life? Someone to be my happy place.
So to find Mr. Someone, I tried filling my free time with dates and meeting new people. I bravely ventured into the scary world of online dating. I also went out on a couple dates with guys I've known a long time.
As it turns out though, my Mr. Someone was not at a shitty dive bar on a Sunday afternoon (the scene of a horrific first date). He wasn't at a cute little brewery in St. Joe (the scene of a different first date that never turned into anything more because... well, yeah). He also was not at Hacienda during one horrifically hilarious lunch hour (more on that and other lovely little dating disasters in a future post).
Turns out… those “someones” were right in front of me the whole time. In my home and my heart.
Since I do have time away from my kids when they're with their dad, I've had more quiet moments than I'd like to reflect on my relationship with them. You guys, they’re so little. SO. LITTLE. And yet, they’ll probably never know how much they kept me afloat and forced me to keep going over the past 18 months. In the very best way possible, they gave me no choice but to get out of bed in the morning and plaster a smile on my face.
Especially when life got really hard.
Yes... they fight.
Lyla bites. (Yeah, for real.)
Sawyer wakes me up at 3:30 in the morning with a massive bloody nose or in a frantic search for his pillow that is inevitably hidden somewhere in his bed.
Then I find Lyla – chillin' on the couch like it’s her job – at 3:30 in the G.D. morning… watching Disney Jr. Or at 6:30 a.m. (this has been going on for a few weeks now), passed out cold with the TV blaring in the background. I thought only old men fell asleep like that?
No wonder she’s so crabby and tired all the time…
But in the middle of all that chaos and an already full plate as “Kelli the working mom,” I didn’t realize how much I really just need my kids. And they really need me.
At some point, my focus shifted from trying to find him… to rediscovering them.
I stopped to breathe this summer for what felt like the first time in forever.
We take early morning bike rides (sorry neighbors, for the fire truck and police car siren noises as we zip by at 7:15 on a Saturday morning), trips to the blueberry ranch and then use those blueberries to bake muffins. We spend 95 degree Sunday afternoons slurping down icees at Four Winds Field, have Friday night picnics in the back yard, take Saturday trips to the beach, explore the Farmer’s Market, snuggle up for popcorn and a movie at home, take in a matinee at the theatre, play games on the deck, catch fireflies, feed the fish at the zoo. We make every second count.
At night when we wind down and read books together in my bed, we often talk about the best part of our day and those parts of the day we might do a little differently if we could. Oftentimes, when I ask about the best part, one of the kids will reply, “Spending time with you.”
Holy. Melt. My. Heart.
I’ve realized my kiddos crave my attention and love our time together more than anything else. This is what carries me through the toughest, most emotional days – there have been a lot – THEY carry me. Yes, this is major progress. But I still have some work to do in the whole "working on me" department.
My close friends know I have demons, or at least one huge battle I just can’t seem to overcome right now. We’re talking about really hard stuff I'm not ready to share on my blog (not yet, anyway) or in a public forum. It’s my biggest, most painful vulnerability that – for whatever reason – has a tight grip on me and won’t go away.
It's crazy though how the more I share those dark parts of my life with people I trust, the more I learn they too have deep, haunting struggles. Marriages in trouble. Infidelities. Debt. Eating disorders. Quiet battles with addiction. Nagging bouts of depression. Someone very close to me recently disclosed she has terrible anxiety about getting in a car and driving anywhere further than the grocery store, so she often has to stay home and miss out.
We all have that something…
But we also have a choice to let the bad stuff consume us or to keep fighting through it.
A year ago, I bought one of those silver mantra bands that simply said “Choose Happy.” I wore it all the time as a constant reminder that I needed to push through the hard and the hurt to do what’s best for me.
Then earlier this month in the chaos of a typical Tuesday evening with the kids, I lost that bracelet. I got home and realized it wasn’t on my wrist when I knew I’d had it earlier in the day. At first I was really bummed. Then I thought about where we’d been – the county fair, making more memories together.
First I had to find my happy. And I’m finally learning how to choose it.
I tried so hard. It had to be perfect. I would start with one outfit – a dress for my daughter, a button down for one of the boys – and then take so much care to build all the other outfits around it. Putting them together was like a puzzle. I would make 17 trips to Kohl’s or Old Navy, only to realize the shirt I really needed for their dad was at Target all along. But once I had those outfits finalized? I felt good. Accomplished. I knew we would look good. That was important to me… the perception.
Then came picture day. A date marked on the calendar with my favorite photographer months in advance, the timing perfectly coordinated between naptime, meal time and snack time so the kids would be happy.
They had to look happy.
We had to look happy.
We were happy… right?
The Christmas card would prove it.
Never mind the fact that I turned into a picture posing Nazi every. Single. Time. Never mind the fact that I made a shot sheet for our photographer, specifying the poses I wanted him to capture before we ever started, Pinterest examples included.
“Smile!” I would bark at the kids.
“Come on… You can have candy or ice cream or any damn thing you want if you just stop crying and take the picture…”
“What!? You stepped in the grass and got your shoes wet? Come on, buddy!”
“The baby fell and scraped her lip on the road? She’ll be OK. Let’s keep shooting. Third kid… right?”
And then a week or so later I’d get the disc.
They somehow always turned out exactly how I wanted… even though it was our little secret that the kids were in the middle of the meltdown of the century when he snapped the winning pose.
Next it was time to choose the card design that fit the picture or pictures we liked best. Keep the messaging simple. Let the love in our pictures shine through. That’s the perfect Christmas card.
I remember our first card attempt, four months after the wedding. We must have taken 75 different shots of our Chocolate Lab – with a Santa hat on, by the presents, in front of the tree, me holding her down, me enticing her with a treat. We finally settled on one of her leaping through the air with her tongue in the air, choosing the words “Merry and Bright” to go with the funny image. That’s happy, right?
Year two. I’d recently learned I was pregnant and we were SO excited. I would be roughly 10 weeks by the time we mailed out the cards – what better way than the perfect Christmas card to announce it to everyone? Except then I started spotting. And cramping. Then bleeding. With a glimmer of hope, I held back tears and forced a smile while the photographer snapped pictures of us in the snow, holding the sign with our “announcement.” Good thing we shot a few back-ups without that sign… just in case. Two days later, an ultrasound showed no heartbeat. Ugh. The worst emotional pain I’d ever felt in my 25 years on earth. But that year’s perfect card didn’t show it. Instead, it showed happiness because we had to celebrate what was right in our lives rather than focus on the hard stuff. Right?
Year three. Our 2011 card announced the birth of our first baby – with a picture of a sweet, 8 pound, 6 ounce boy sleeping perfectly on his daddy’s forearm. We were over the moon happy with that healthy little guy in our lives.
Year four. Our toothy one-year-old, our beautiful dog and us, on the bed. Smiling so big, announcing baby boy number two’s expected April arrival. That year was a happy one. Right?
Year five. A dirt road in Michigan. Us and our two boys.
Year six. The dog even seemed to pose for that shot in front of an old warehouse. I loved that card.
Year seven. We made it quick. Find a couple pine trees in the neighborhood. Work with the time of day we’ve got because, let’s face it, with a 3-year-old, 2-year-old and 6-month-old, you kind of have to take what you can get and move on. We settled on a pose that showed us close and happy. The perfect family.
Year eight. Mustard yellows. Navy. Greys. The boys really tried to play along, but their sister wasn’t having an ounce of it. She wouldn’t hold their hands. Wouldn’t pose. Refused to look at the camera. Fell and scraped her lip on the road. Wanted to eat. But somehow we cranked it out – and the pictures turned out stunning. Even the ones of the six of us playing in our bed, a bubble machine in full effect at stage right.
That was also the year our 125 Christmas cards almost didn’t get sent. Our marriage was in trouble. And we both knew it had been for a couple months. Why send a card when we weren’t sure if we would stay together? Why continue to present this false image that everything was OK when, in fact, that picture perfect union was quickly turning into dysfunction junction?
For whatever reason (I honestly don’t remember), we stuck those perfect Christmas cards in the mail and let everyone continue to believe we were a perfect, happy family. That’s just what you do, right?
Year nine. This is a rough one. By now most of our friends and family know there will be no card from our six member squad. In fact, I can’t even bring myself to send one from just me and the kids. This was the year our marriage fell apart beyond repair.
The weeks following our divorce drove me into an isolation and brokenness I never imagined I would face or feel. I avoided acquaintances at Target with a quick wave and a “gotta run!” when their body language said they clearly wanted to stop and chat. Friends told me to ‘be strong’ or ‘give it time’ but holy shit – I was a wreck. Genuine inquiries into how I was holding up almost automatically led to tears. Then I found myself apologizing all over the place and crying. Often in a professional setting. It was humiliating to not have control over my emotions.
As I unpacked boxes in my new home, one of our old Christmas cards – Year Three – fell to the floor. I stared at it, almost afraid touching that perfect little card with the tiny human being pictured on the front would cause me to shatter even worse than I already had.
Divorced friends assured me I was normal and my feelings were normal. My therapist told me part of my identity as a wife and partner was stripped away by the divorce, which is a big reason why I struggled. I’ll be better, she said, as I discovered and settled into my new identity.
After sorting through a ton of unexpected thoughts and emotions, I’ve somehow emerged from that weird abyss and am getting back to happy. Back to me.
Still, I wonder if we were really, truly happy or if it was all just pretend? A cute little façade while other couples commented they wished they could be a “power couple” like us… and they were so jealous because we “had everything.”
Those perfect Christmas cards of years past will never go in the trash. They’re boxed up in the basement, along with family pictures and other memories for the kids to revisit when they’re ready. Those memories belong to them just as much as their dad and me. They deserve to have those memories – cards included – regardless of the perception I was so desperately trying to convey.
As for perfection and the perception of “perfect?” I’ve finally realized it doesn’t exist. Relationships aren’t perfect. I’m not perfect. Life isn’t perfect. And pretending as though everything is eventually leads to a confusing black hole that swirls like a slow-moving cyclone.
So for me, moving forward means embracing moments that truly matter. It means setting reasonable expectations… for myself and other people in my life. It means slowing down and breathing – I recently spent 5 hours glued to my couch on a Saturday and didn’t regret a second of it. Moving forward means taking a step back from superficial friendships and reevaluating who I want in my life, in what capacity and why. It means putting more effort into being a mom and spending real, uninterrupted time with my kids. And right now – all of those things are exactly what I’m doing. One perfectly imperfect day at a time.
I sit down to write and the words won’t form. That’s foreign to me. I can always write. About my life. About someone else’s. About work. My kids. Anything. It’s my escape and coping mechanism. But for the past few months, I get a few sentences or paragraphs in and I go blank. I can’t finish what I so desperately need to get out.
It’s been a similar situation at work. I stare at my to-do list and find I’m unable to do anything for longer than a few minutes or, if I’m lucky, a whole hour before I crack. Before I close my office door and cry. Because facing anyone or trying to explain the situation isn’t worth their awkward reaction. It’s not worth making them feel bad because they don’t know what to say. And, quite frankly, it’s none of their business.
So then I try to run it out. As if I could outrun the reality that’s chased and haunted me for the past year and a half of my life. The night I broke the news to my parents, my Dad said, ‘You know, all this time I kind of wondered what or who you were running away from.’
Wait, what? You mean it’s not normal to suddenly take up running and – in the span of 18 months – complete four half marathons, four 10K races and three 5Ks, all while logging dozens of miles in training runs each month? But even that caught up with me. Call it burnout. Lack of energy. Emotional and physical drain. Whatever it is, I reached a point where I barely have the motivation to run at all these days. So I lace up my shoes, put in my headphones and then halfway through what should be six or eight miles, I stop. I give up. Because all I have the energy to do right now is walk. And I’m strangely OK with that.
I don’t return texts or phone calls or Facebook messages from friends in a timely fashion. If at all.
I don’t have the brain power to read through all the paperwork my 5-year-old brings home from school.
I do the basics and hope my kids won’t ever realize or remember how much of a mess I am right now.
Numb from pain and exhaustion. Paralyzed by emotions I finally forced myself to face. Scared by the silence of my new reality.
33 years old.
3 perfect, beautiful kids.
Chew on that for a second.
Divorce. I could stare at that word for hours and still not grasp what it’s done to my soul or how it turned my world into a tornado of feelings I struggle to comprehend.
When they find out, so many of our friends and family members want to know why. What happened? Who did what? Who’s to blame? Do I think I gave it all I had? The answers to all those questions are deeply personal and, for the most part, off limits. At least for me.
The man who was my husband for 8 years, 1 month and 5 days will tell you I’m “a tough case to crack,” because I don’t easily open up about what’s deep inside my heart. Sure, I’ll talk. I’ll give the surface rundown and keep repeating the same superficial, couched response that gets the point across.
It’s a long story, I’ll tell you when you’re older.
No, we don’t hate each other.
Yes, we’re on decent terms.
The kids are actually doing well. That’s what’s most important.
The most common reaction from people when they find out? “I’m sorry.”
And that one kills me. I’ve already heard it so many times. I know they don’t know what to say and sorry is the natural, awkward response. But I just want to look at them and ask, “Could you not be?”
Toward the beginning of the process, a close friend told me this would show who my real friends are. At first, I didn’t know what that meant. But now? If that ain’t the damn truth, I’m not sure what is.
I knew certain people had heard about what’s going on, and when they didn’t come to me – even with a Facebook message or an invitation to meet for coffee – it stung.
I guess I never really knew how much of an impact a simple text, email or phone call could have on someone going through this situation. I do now, though.
I know the value in having a friend ask, ‘Can I take your kids for a couple hours today? I know you need a little space to think and get things done.’
Or, ‘Can I bring you guys dinner tomorrow?’
Or, ‘I’m here. Whatever. Whenever. Wherever.’
Or, ‘Look, you don’t even need to respond, but I heard this was going on, I don’t know what to say other than you’re incredibly strong and loved more than you even know.’
We had a few (I can count them on one hand) neighbors and friends who did that. I’ll never be able to articulate a proper thank you to those people who just seemed to know what I needed on a particular day or time. Even if I never responded to their outreach.
As I sit in the quiet of the beginning of my new life – in transition between where I’ve been and where I’m going – I noticed the other night that I’m finally able to exhale. It sounds strange but for me, that’s progress.
During one of THREE mandatory parenting classes we attended during the divorce process, the instructor told us all to go home and find a box. She told us to fill that box with our anger, resentment, bad memories and any other negative thoughts or feelings about the person we were divorcing.
“Now I want you to find the most beautiful ribbon you’ve ever seen and tie up that box into the most gorgeous bow you’ve ever tied,” she continued, her voice growing soft. “And then, I want you to give that box back to the person you were married to. Give them back everything you’ve been holding onto for so long. Because you don’t need it. And if you’re ever going to move forward, you have to let all of that go.”
I felt my face grow hot as tears filled my eyes and ultimately spilled down my cheeks. That was the moment I realized I needed one Big. Ass. Box. And here’s the thing – filling it up is still a work in progress. Some days I throw in a bunch of shit just to drag it all out again. I never imagined how difficult it would be to truly let go of the negativity.
But I know l’ll get there. I’ll make peace with the past and be open to a future of happiness for my kids, myself and yes – the father of my children. They deserve it. I deserve it. And we’re all going to be OK.
I can’t be the only one.
In fact, I know I’m not.
I recently had an impromptu conversation with a coworker (it began inside the women’s restroom because that’s where all thought-provoking conversations happen at work, right?) about how strange our lives are right now. How we both have everything we ever thought we wanted – a beautiful marriage (more on that later), beautiful home, beautiful and healthy children, successful careers – literally everything. But this is not at all how we pictured it would go down.
It’s almost like I woke up one day overwhelmed by all the responsibility that comes with being a grown up.
Take last week, for example, when I discovered my 4-year-old somehow got out of JoAnn Fabric with a spinning, light-up Elsa toy that I didn’t buy. I didn’t even notice he had it until I’d already buckled in the other two kids. The baby was crying – it was past her bedtime – and we had to get home. So I made the split-second decision: locked them all in the car, ran inside, threw the flashlight at the cashier while yelling that my son accidentally stole it and I was sorry, then ran back out. Who does that?
Or there was the cookout with friends last Saturday when the 4-year-old stole the nightlight remote control belonging to my friend’s son. It was the first time our kids had met and we really thought they hit it off great until we got home and found the remote in his pocket. Are you freaking kidding me? I made him go back the next day and apologize to the other little boy face-to-face
Then there’s the 3-year-old who can’t stay in bed at night to save his life. His belly hurts. He’s thirsty. He has to go potty. Again. His finger hurts. His toe hurts. His TOE!!! WHAT?!?! Is it too much to ask to have all my kids asleep for the night by 9 p.m.? Especially when I’m putting them to bed by myself 12 nights a month.
There’s also the big “oops” that happened in April. Oops as in I screwed up some dates and accidentally got pregnant. Yep, the one pregnancy test hiding under my bathroom counter that somehow hadn’t been thrown away gave me an undeniable positive that Friday morning. I know, I know… insert your eye rolls here, call me stupid, do whatever. But it happened. And both my husband and I freaked out. FREAKED.
Another kid in daycare? We can’t afford that!
Where will it sleep?
This is going to destroy our marriage.
How did this happen? (I’ll spare you those details…)
But couple that little surprise with some other stressful situations going on behind the scenes, and I ended up miscarrying at 6 ½ weeks. The irony has been tough to wrap my head around. I’ve been pregnant 8 times in the past 5 years… and once again, it wasn’t meant to be. Is it wrong that I felt relieved? What a strange shift in thoughts and emotions from where I was just two years ago. And TRUST ME when I write there will be no more date mess ups. Even if it means Mr. Frisky sleeps on the couch.
Speaking of the Mister… people tried telling us marriage was hard work. You hear it all the time when you’re about to get married. But when you’re 23 and blinded by the thought of the rest of a blissful forever with someone you love, you don’t really listen. You don’t get it. You don’t know to ask questions like, “How did you survive parenting toddlers when you both worked full time?” or “How did you manage to put money into savings and retirement AND stay out of debt while still taking awesome family vacations each year?”
Right now, I get a bit frustrated when friends with no children post things on social media like #marriageiseasy and We’ve only been married 6 months but it feels like 60 years and I’m still so in love.
Give it some time, honey. A few doses of real life and real bills. Real stress. Because right now you have no children. You work. You go to the gym (at a decent hour). You go out on fun date nights on a whim. You get 10 freaking hours of uninterrupted sleep if you want it. You don’t have stretch marks and stretched out skin. You don’t hand over massive chunks of your paycheck to daycare. You pee and shower alone. ALONE. That is everything.
Please don’t misunderstand where I’m coming from. I’m not jealous of young (or more mature) married couples without kids. I don’t want their lives or their problems. But sometimes I do want a break from my own. I want to sleep in past 6 a.m. on the weekends and be able to stay awake at night to watch normal TV shows and movies. I want to spend money we don’t have… to buy cute workout clothes so I don’t have to wash the same 2 pairs of running pants every other day. I want to finish our basement we’re slooooowwwwlly working on because we’ve paid cash every step of the way. I want to take a damn vacation somewhere warm and beautiful.
I’m not sure when I grew up or how I got here. 31 is everything I pictured and everything I didn’t at the same time. But I also know two facts about this super weird phase of life we’re in: it doesn’t last forever and I’m not alone.
I feel so relieved when I see and hear other moms open up about their struggles because it gives me a sense of normalcy. I know their kids steal crap from stores and get in fights at school too (my 4-year-old punched a kid last month because of a disagreement over a puzzle). I know their marriages are a lot more work than they ever expected.
So to the moms (and my friends) keeping it real in social media land and at work and the gym… THANK YOU. Thanks for your honesty about the strangeness in your lives. How your kid didn’t sleep last night and you completely lost your shit because of it. How you ripped your husband’s head off for no reason and now you need to go home and apologize. How you just really want to curl up and hide somewhere the kids will never find you. Thank you for understanding when I tell you I just need a flipping piece (or five) of chocolate.
There’s a quote out there I love… “I wish you could see yourself through my eyes. Then you would know just how amazing you are.”
Except for that one mom who always acts like she has it all together. We all know she’s faking it anyway.
I'm a mom to 3 beautiful, spirited, elementary school-aged humans, I'm addicted to running + strength training, I have no filter & I work full time in the corporate world. But behind the scenes of all that is where it really gets interesting...