About 14 months ago, a few weeks before our divorce was final, Justin and I sat down on our bed to talk. The kids were asleep and the house was quiet. Too quiet. At some point during that conversation, he calmly launched into an analogy about our marriage. It spoke to me. And it devastated me.
When we first got married, Kelli, I felt like we got into a car, fastened our seat belts and started out on a journey, he began. At first, it was awesome. I really felt like we were on this long journey together. But then I came up behind another car and had to slow down. What do you always tell me to do when that happens? he asked.
Pass it, I said softly, intrigued by where he was going with this.
Pass it, he repeated. Hurry up. Go faster. Pass the next car, you aren’t going fast enough.
I stared at him.
Kelli, you always had to go faster and do more. You wanted the perfect job, you got it. And you were so good at it. Then you wanted a better job, a nicer car, kids, a bigger house… you wanted it all and we got it all. But it wasn’t enough. You kept speeding up. For a while, I thought I could keep up with you and for a while, I really wanted to. But then I got tired, he continued.
I was quietly crying by this point, processing his words.
Kelli, all I wanted was to slow down. I wanted to stop and enjoy the ride. I wanted to sightsee with you. But you never would.
He went on to tell me he was worried I would never slow down. He said he had genuine concerns about how that would affect my relationships with our kids and other people in the future.
That conversation haunts me because, in many ways, he was dead-on. It was also one of the deepest, most sincere talks we’d had during our entire marriage. And it happened much later than it should have.
You see, I have a knack for doing life aggressively. I excel at filling my plate with so much stress, work, stuff and super high expectations that I slip into autopilot. When I’m in “go mode,” I know one speed… running toward everything that keeps my walls high and away from what’s important.
Over the past year, I’ve worked on pumping the brakes and slowing down. But that’s a challenge because when it gets quiet, I’m forced to sit and deal with feelings and emotions I’ve never faced. So then I speed back up, piling on work and stress because there’s comfort in forging ahead. I’ve learned it’s such a dirty little cycle. Can anyone else out there relate?
Exhibit A: Hudson’s birthday party. I’ll preface this by saying the past twelve weeks almost murdered me. Crazy projects at work. Running kids. Trying to get to the gym. Calls (yes, more than one) from the principal’s office. Halloween costume shopping. Delivering dessert to the PTO teacher appreciation luncheon (I caved… the boys are in a new school and we all love it). Saying yes to the occasional date. Forgetting to pay bills (my mortgage in October… whoops). This, my friends, is all things Mom Life.
So for Hudson’s Lego-themed party, I ordered invites, gave Justin a handful then never sent out the rest. Friends and family on my side all got invited via text message. Ugh. (Do I at least get points for it not being a group text?)
But that’s not the worst part.
Our kids live for custom birthday cakes. Over the years, we’ve done fire trucks, garbage trucks, unicorns, baseballs, beach scenes and all sorts of 3-D cakes the kids pick out on Pinterest. It’s our thing and it makes them feel really special.
You’re high, by the way, if you think I made any of those cakes. I’d screw that shit up in the first 30 seconds. We trust and pay the experts. It’s money well spent. For real.
I booked the baker in August. Then closer to the party date, emailed a picture of the cake Hudson wanted… the number 6 with a Lego construction theme all around it. She asked me what number cake pan she should order and I confirmed a 6. Justin offered to get and assemble the Legos, because, well… I suck at that building and engineering business.
But the night before the party, we had a problem.
The baker had emailed a picture to show us how the cake turned out. And it was PERFECT. Except… the bright colored fondant Lego blocks were wrapped around the number 6.
And Hudson was definitely about to turn 7.
Since it was too late to bake a 7, she offered to turn it into a circle. Justin made a few tweaks to the construction site plan and SUCCESS! Hudson never noticed anything was weird. He was enthralled by the Legos and asked if he could keep the giant crane. He loved it. Phew.
That’s the story of my epic cake wreck.
But two days later, the cake wasn’t even a blip on the radar.
Disoriented and in pain, I was walking to an ambulance.
It felt like a dream.
I had my purse. My phone.
Why was my car against a tree? Why were people staring?
As I sat in the ambulance, a paramedic asked if it was OK for him to take my driver’s license out of my wallet.
“Wait, what happened?” I asked, wincing as I sat my hand down on the top of my thigh and felt pain shoot through my leg.
“You were in an accident. We’re headed to the hospital to get you checked out,” he said.
No. It was a great Monday morning. I’d prepped dinner for that evening so I could quickly feed the kids before putting them in the gym daycare and squeezing in a quick workout. I got the boys on the bus, dropped off Lyla, knocked a couple things off my work to-do list for the day and this was all before 8am.
There was no time for an accident.
I still have no memory of what led up to the crash or anything immediately after it. According to the police report though, we both had yellow lights and I turned in front of another car that was going 45 – 50 mph. The impact sent hot coffee flying through my Honda Pilot, deployed airbags down the entire passenger side and totaled both vehicles.
I don’t remember calling Justin from the front seat of my car and asking him to tell the medics not to take me to the hospital. I don’t recall telling them I just needed to sign the paperwork to refuse medical treatment because I had so much to do at work.
I don’t remember refusing to get on the cot when they asked me to… even though I had airbag burns on my hands, a painful bruise on my thigh and a concussion from hitting my head. As my SUV was loaded onto a tow truck, I texted someone from work to come pick me up so I could go home and change clothes before knocking out the rest of my work day.
Not realizing how out of it I was, I pounded on until about 1:30 that afternoon when Justin and I met up to buy new car seats (they’re supposed to be replaced after a significant crash). As we walked into Target, he looked at me and said, “I don’t think you’re OK. If you’re not going to be checked out, I think you should at least consider taking the rest of the day off.”
He was only about the 20th person to say that to me since the crash happened. But I could hear the concern in his voice, saying slow down without using those words at all.
“OK,” I replied, shrugging my shoulders as I took out my phone to email my boss and my team.
That was two weeks ago. And here I am… removed from the cake and car wrecks.
So grateful my babies weren’t with me when the crash happened.
Up to my ears in insurance claims (a first for me).
Navigating the process of buying a new car (also something I’ve never had to do by myself).
Trying to learn from how I once again allowed myself to become so intoxicated and distracted by the chaos of life.
Forcing myself to take a step back.
Finding perspective in a place somewhat foreign to me, as I lean into a strong dose of GRACE… something that was once missing from my life. It’s a word I only ever heard as a little girl in church, or the song Amazing Grace… until someone on my team at work used it about two years ago during a difficult conversation.
“Kelli, please understand what’s happening in my life and why it’s hard,” she’d said. “I don’t handle situations the same way you do and it’s OK that I don’t. It’s OK that we’re different. But I need some grace from you. And I think you should give yourself some too.”
That was a turning point in my relationship with that person, in such a good way. I’ve re-played her words in my head a lot and – in that time – worked to figure out how to find the grace she suggested for me. It’s been a process.
Here’s how my sweet friend (and incredible writer) Mandy recently described it in a Facebook post:
Grace. For myself, for my family, for my friends, for our country. It’s a new concept to my little brain and it’s been life changing. It looks like forgiveness to myself when I’ve said something wrong. Love in the toughest moment. Breathing out instead of yelling. Napping instead of laundry. It’s knowing that people are good and may not feel so good right then. It’s grace. I’m here for it.
I recently bought a little porcelain sign at Hobby Lobby with that word on it. I put it in the giant greenhouse window in my kitchen, where I see it when I walk in to make the kids breakfast each morning and when I flip on the light after coming home from a long day at work.
Grace reminds me I’m human. Grace reminds me I’m never going to be perfect. Grace reminds me to slow down. Grace reminds me I can’t go back and change any of the proverbial “wrecks” in my life (there have been so many), but I can move forward and forgive myself for those mishaps and mistakes.
And you know what? It’s time.
Disclaimer: Everything I’m about to share with you is true. But names have been changed to protect the guilty.
Let’s be clear. The advice from been there done that friends was there from the beginning.
Don’t even try to date for the first year after your divorce. You won’t be ready.
Take time to figure out who you are and what you really want. Then you’ll know what you need in a partner.
Have fun. Focus on your kids. The rest will come when the time is right.
Yes, it was all very well-intended. But I’ve always been the kind of girl who has to figure things out on my own, in my own time. Deciding when and how to start dating again was no exception.
Then one day last fall, I found myself in the IT department at work… chatting with the nerdiest guys in the building about their dating lives. We talked about swiping left and right, they showed me the different apps on their phone – Tinder, Match, Hinge, e-Harmony – and talked about a couple recent dates.
“Don’t worry, you’ll be on one of these soon enough,” one of them teased.
I told them I would move on when I was ready, which was going to be a long. Ass. Time.
Then I explained when I AM ready, I want to meet someone organically. Like, you know, he sees me. I see him. He tells me I’m beautiful and asks for my number….
One of the guys asked if I meant ‘organically’ as in the produce aisle at the grocery store.
What a mental picture: My three kids poking holes in meat packages and ripping open bags of cookies. Me pretending they’re being angels. Someone always crying. Now THAT is sexy.
But then another IT guy suggested Bumble would be the perfect dating app for me.
“You would hate all the others. Trust me,” he said.
Uhhh… Bum What?
Turns out Bumble – like Bumble Bee – is similar to other dating apps, except women are in control. A guy can’t even message you unless you’ve already swiped right on him.
I once again explained I wasn’t ready or even in a place to think about dating.
But then damn it. There I was. Three days later. Without my kids. Alllll alone in my new house. With my phone. I downloaded the damn app, OK? I knew I wasn’t ready. I knew I would just look.
And at first? It was kinda fun.
Oh wow, he is only 8.4 miles away? He’s so cute! And has a job. Swipe right!
Look at that one’s jaw line – and his eyes seem so sincere! Swipe right!
Yikes – that one’s not my type. Swipe left!
Yeah, a definite no. Swipe left! Damn it. I said left, but my finger went right. Ugh.
Suddenly though, my screen turned black and the app notified me I matched with one of those earlier swipes, meaning he’d also swiped right on me.
“Well hello there,” I typed.
“Hello yourself,” he replied.
“U married?’ he asked.
“What?” I responded.
“Your pictures – you’re wearing a ring in one and with a dude and three kids in another,” he explained.
OMG. I didn’t realize the app pulled my most recent Facebook profile pictures as the pictures my potential suitors would see. And I hadn’t completely scrubbed my Facebook after the divorce.
A bit later, he messaged to ask if he was the only person I was chatting with. I explained my best friend was also going through a divorce and I’d been on the phone with her.
And this is where the 180 happened. I don’t know how. I don’t know what I did. But it was so bad.
After asking if my best friend was hot and if I would “do her” while he watched, there it was. And it was awful. I screamed. I threw my phone across the couch, as if it was suddenly contaminated.
He sent me a dick pic! Seriously. Like can’t even make it up. I screamed. A penis. On my phone. THAT’S SO GROSS! Why would you do that? Why would you think a woman would find that attractive? It’s not ok. It’s never ok to send a woman a picture of your manhood. It's disgusting. And just really – why would you EVER think that’s OK?
I hadn’t really thought about my online dating boundaries until that moment. But I learned real quick – a pic like that is an instant block. Like, byeee! (But without actually saying goodbye.) I never talked to that dude again and for what it’s worth, I don’t even remember his name. Probably better that way.
Unfortunately, guys like him are out there. And Mr. Penis Pic Dude isn’t the only one who likes to send pictures that would cause his own mother to slap him where the sun don’t shine.
Over the next couple days, I figured out how the app worked, swiped right a few times and left a LOT more… deciding I could probably handle anyone within a 35-mile radius, mid-30s to mid-40s. Again, not ready to get into a serious relationship, just kind of dipping my toe in.
I think it’s fair to say I quickly identified 10 basic categories of men in the online dating world… including the guy I just told you about – The Playboy Sex Toy. Then there’s Effed Up Freddie, The Ghost with the Most, Soulmate Steve, Aggressive Andy, Gross Gary, Cat Man Curtis, Dive Bar Doug, Lights out Larry and Normal Nate.
Let’s start with Normal Nate. Because that’s who I started chatting with next. This 38-year-old divorced salesman had two kids and was very nice. We texted back and forth for a few days, but he ultimately let me know he couldn’t meet in person because he was set to meet another woman and wasn’t comfortable dating two at the same time. I appreciated him being up front and wished him luck.
Next? Effed Up Freddie. A beautiful, 41-year-old engineer. Holy shit he was so pretty. And I could tell he took care of himself. He had a job. A house. An SUV. 2 dogs. A sense of humor. And a love for country music. I swiped right, he swiped right, screen turned black – WE MATCHED!
After a week or so of chatting, we figured out we had mutual friends. I should have run for hills when I learned he’d once been engaged to one of them. She’s stunningly gorgeous. Even nicer than she is beautiful. He told me he broke off the engagement because he was young and not ready. It’s not like I was going to call her and say, “Hey girrrrl, I’m divorced now. What’s the lowdown on your ex fiancé from 20 years ago?”
I so should have called.
We went on a date. He opened doors. He held my hand. He bought me a beer at this cute little brewery. He was a complete gentleman, telling me he couldn’t remember having a connection like this on a first date.
We saw each other again the following day and everything went so well. He offered to fix a few things I mentioned were broken around my house. Asked if I wanted to run a 5K race with him in a few weeks. OK, so it was a little weird that he never called or wanted to talk on the phone, but some guys just aren’t into that. And I get it. Did I mention he was freaking gorgeous?
He also told me I was beautiful. And we made plans for a third date. But then that third date never happened. And we rescheduled 3 times. When I gently called him out on it in a text, he gave me some bullshit answer about his ex-wife playing games and then in a separate text at 3am said, “You deserve better.”
Annnnd that’s the last I ever heard from Effed Up Freddie.
Except for a random Instagram or Facebook “like” he’ll give me here or there. Gee… thanks. I think?
And let’s not forget Aggressive Andy. This guy – also super cute – was a 30-something-year-old divorced car salesman. “Andy” seemed nice. I felt like he really understood me, and we had a lot in common. Our phone conversations and a few Face Time sessions were great. So we met for a date. He brought me chocolate truffles from a really nice chocolate shop in his town. But after the initial introductions, things went downhill. Fast.
While we waited for our table, he kept doing the one arm hug thing and trying to kiss my forehead. Picture me non-chalantly ducking away from those forehead pecks, trying to make sure I didn’t know anyone in the restaurant when he suddenly smacked my butt so hard, I swear it left a mark. I was so embarrassed! I should have left immediately, but I thought maybe he was nervous and figured we were in a public place, so as long as I sat on the other side of the dinner table, I would be safe.
We had decent conversation while we ate, and I racked my brain to try and figure out how to politely get out of the date ASAP. Less than an hour later, on our way out the door, I explained I was really tired and needed to go. So what does Aggressive Andy do? Pulls out his phone and insists we take a selfie…”for next year’s Christmas card.”
Who does that?
Before he could smack my booty a second time, I peaced out with a hand shake and practically sprinted through the icy parking lot to my car.
And with that, approximately 24 days after joining Bumble, I decided I’d had enough. I truly was not ready to date. I deleted the app from my phone and swore off dating forever. That was December.
Then on Valentine’s Day, my best gal pal and I went to the Bahamas for a much needed “divorce vacation.” While we were there, she was on a different dating app – swiping right and chatting with cute, single men – and I felt myself getting the itch again.
So once I got home and settled back in, I was back in the game. Back on Bumble, swiping away.
I found myself matched with a man who would later become the Ghost with the Most. A 33-year-old Army Veteran earning his MBA at Notre Dame. He was attractive, intelligent and seemed very polite. We texted several times a day for a week or so before meeting for lunch at a local Mexican restaurant. That first date went really well and we saw each other one other time after that. And then? He disappeared into thin air.
Even sadder? There’s actually a word for what he did to me. Seriously… look it up. It’s called ghosting. As in… one day things are humming right along with someone – either online, via text message, on the phone or in person – and the next, they disappear. Fall off the face of the earth and stop all communication without an explanation. Like a ghost. Cool.
Moving on to Gross Gary. We met for lunch one day at Hacienda because after asking me out, the 37-year-old divorced dad who claimed to be in the boating and RV industry insisted he “needed chips & ranch.” Even after I suggested a nicer establishment just down the street. I wanted to ask if he was on his period, but I showed restraint.
As soon as I walked through the door, I knew I’d made a mistake. Because at a table in the mostly empty bar area sat a man in a hoodie with an untrimmed beard and crazy hair. Oh, and can I at least mention the fact that he was like 40 pounds heavier than the pictures on his profile? That’s called false advertising.
It’s fine, I told myself. He seemed nice when we were chatting. Focus on that.
But then every other word out of his mouth was eff-this and effin’ that… and I’d just met the guy for the first time! He proceeded to talk about his effin’ cell phone sparking when he went to plug it in that morning, so he had to go to effin’ AT&T to have them look at it. And he has a Blackberry because… well, yeah. THEN, he took a personal phone call. At the table. With someone I presume was a buddy. For like 15 minutes! That’s so rude.
But the worst part (or funniest, depending how you look at it) was the end of what I won’t even call a date. When Gross Gary and I stood up to leave, I noticed he was wearing SWEATPANTS! You guys… cargo pocket sweatpants. As we walked out, he even had the balls to tell me I looked like a jack-o-lantern in my orange dress and black tights.
I got in my car, drove back to work and laughed until tears streamed down my face. Then I texted my best friend to fill her in on another shitty Bumble date. She’s the one who came up with the name Gross Gary, by the way.
And now, Soulmate Steve. A super sweet, 36-year-old twice divorced realtor. He practically begged to meet me, explaining he’d read every single blog post I’d ever written. He also told me we were soulmates and even though I kept saying I wasn’t ready for something serious, Steve told me he would wait until I was ready to have him in my life.
He was very kind and genuine so I continued to communicate with him, all the while making it clear I did not want to date him. But then, Soulmate Steve showed up at my work on a Friday with a dozen pink roses. And me – a fan of grand gestures – finally agreed to go on a date with him. As I suspected, no fireworks. And we saw each other a second time.
Then out of nowhere on the Friday before Mother’s Day, he had FIFTY gorgeous roses – imported from Columbia – delivered to my work. Fifty. I was so mortified, I told everyone they were from my parents.
Honestly though, this ain’t some Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks You’ve Got Mail thing, dude. You’re not my soul mate. I promise. I love flowers. I love getting flowers at work. But not like this.
There’s also Cat Man Curtis – who casually asked during our second date if I allow my kids to sleep in my bed with me. I explained I never even let my dog sleep in the same room because she snores so loudly and kids have never been allowed in my bed.
“What, do you let your cat sleep in your bed?” I asked, laughing and remembering his profile said he had a cat.
“I do,” he revealed. “Every night. No exceptions. She’s so snuggly!”
He wasn’t joking. I'm pretty sure my eyes got really big at the same time I started to pretend to cough so I wouldn't laugh hysterically. The look on my face had to be awesome. I made it through dinner, gave him a quick hug in the parking lot and deleted his number from my phone.
Ohhhhh I can’t forget Dive Bar Doug. This guy. Just wow. He suggested we meet at a place in Union, Michigan called Zimmy’s. So I show up to a tiny little dive bar on a lake at 5:30 on a Sunday evening in April. Super loud band. Almost nowhere to sit. And I text him to let him know I’m there.
“Be there in 10,” he replied.
Strike one. We said 5:30. He was late and didn’t bother to let me know. I almost left… and should have. But then he walks in – cradling a vape in his hands as if it was his child or something, gives me the one-armed hug, the kind a brother gives his sister, and I know this date is going to be TERRIBLE.
As we shouted (he mumbled) over the band and he snapchatted and texted – RUDE – his vape sat in the center of the table like a nice little prized possession. He asked how many kids I had and said something along the lines of, “You know how those dating apps are… you talk to so many different people and can’t keep them all straight.” Strike two.
Then he asked what I do for a living – which I had also previously told him. When I nicely reminded him, he followed up by asking how much money I make. Are you freaking kidding me? Strike three.
Thankfully, that was around the time he excused himself to use the restroom. I frantically messaged my ex-husband on Facebook, asking him to text me and tell me something was wrong with one of the kids.
He did. I left. With my pizza. And I ate that whole damn thing on my 25-minute drive home while calling a close guy friend to dish the lowdown on Dive Bar Doug.
Finally, I need to tell you about Lights Out Larry. I met this guy online and quickly realized he works in an office very close to mine. We had a couple really fun dates. He’s super successful, has good manners and is really cute. But I’m still trying to get past the fact that he turns off all screens at 8:45 on weeknights - including his cell phone (something about the blue in the screens affecting melatonin?). But he’s militant about it. He also rubs lavender oil on his feet to promote better sleep hygiene and asked me a couple different times if I would read him the same bedtime stories I read to my kids at night. And “do the voices.” He’s 33. I think he has #mommyissues.
It’s important to point out not every guy online falls into a category, and some can be a hybrid – like 50-percent Soulmate Steve, 20-percent Gross Gary and 10-percent Effed up Fred.
Can we also talk about what happened when I swiped right and developed a true connection with a decent human being? He was hard working, kind, intelligent, witty, well read, attentive, a fantastic father and incredibly dreamy. Took me on real dates. Made me laugh. Helped me get started on a massive project at my house. Gently put his hand on the small of my back when we walked together. Uncovered more about me in than anyone else has ever been able to find out in the past in a very short amount of time.
After about six weeks, he told me he’d been attracted to me since the first time we met and said I was the smartest, most ambitious girl he’d ever dated. But… he couldn’t date someone who lives an hour and a half away (I swiped right when he was in South Bend for work) because he was falling behind at work and had to put any extra energy he had into being a good dad. Ugh. How could I argue with any of that?
I think he might have been a unicorn.
Dating so soon after divorce left me with an odd sense of awareness and not quite knowing what to do with all of that. Run toward it? Run away? Am I really ready? Commitment? YIKES!
You might find it even more intriguing that I HAVE been asked out organically a few times – by strangers and men I’ve known for years. Almost exactly the way I thought I wanted it to happen. And all but once, I’ve said no. Except for that one time I said yes and then had to reschedule because of food poisoning and then changed my mind and backed out at the last minute. Ouch.
Or there’s the local business owner I met at a work event in the spring. After a couple weeks of flirtatious texting back and forth, HE GOT MARRIED! I found out the Monday after the wedding from a friend of mine who lives in the same town. Don’t worry though, I took the high road – simply sending him a text that Monday to say, “I hear congratulations are in order.” He never responded.
So here I am… off Bumble and not dating anyone at the moment. Is dating apathy a thing? If so, I’m there. Look, I’m not upset or sad that I jumped back in when I did. I’ve actually learned a lot from the creeps, the ghosts and yes – even the unicorn.
I’ve realized I’m bold enough to pursue a man if he catches my eye or my attention, but I have far too much dignity to chase anyone or sit by the phone and wait for a text. Also, I’m worthy of every ounce of kindness and respect I give someone else. That's not up for debate or compromise.
Best of all? I’ve learned I’m really not ready to “find” anyone right now.
And if one more person tells me love will “just happen” when I’m least expecting it, I just might punch them in the face and send Gross Gary their way… with chips and ranch, of course.
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.
“What did you run?” asked a man with kind eyes and a lilt in his voice that sounded either Irish or Scottish.
“The 10K,” I said as a cool breeze drifted across the sweat drying on my skin and my still soaked tank. We’d just stepped off the shuttle that took us from Notre Dame Stadium back to our cars after an annual 5K, 10K and half marathon race in South Bend.
“So how did you do?” asked the man, who I gauged to be in his late 40s to early 50s.
“Eh, pretty much my worst race yet. I was ill prepared. It’s been a really rough year for me.” I replied, my voice cracking as tears filled my eyes. “This is way more than you need to know, but I went through a divorce and it’s been so hard. I have no family in the area and really, very few people I can count on. I’ve gained 12 pounds since last fall. I’m slow. I’m somehow trying to figure out how to be the best me again in all aspects of my life. And I’m really struggling.”
The man took in my response as we walked several more yards toward our cars in silence.
“That’s a lot to go through,” he finally said, with sincere empathy in his eyes and voice. “But the fact that you came out here and did it, that says a lot. You’re not a quitter. And you’re going to be OK. I know it.”
“Thanks for that,” I responded, as the tears finally flooded over my lower eyelids and down my already salty cheeks. “My car is right over here. Thank you so much. Good luck to you.”
“No,” he countered. “Thank you. Thank you for your honesty and for knowing it’s OK to be a little broken and actually admit it. Oh, and keep running. Don’t ever stop running.”
I managed the best smile I could force my lips to form and continued to cry as I bent down and fumbled to unlace my car key from my tennis shoe. Holy shit, I thought. That man didn’t even know me.
He didn’t know about the wave of sadness and disappointment I allowed to creep into my soul as I crossed the finish line that day with the realization that, for the first time since I started running in races two years ago, there was no one waiting or cheering for me on the other side.
He didn’t know how alone I’d felt as I made my way through the stadium concourse, congratulating a friend on her massive half marathon PR and then avoiding eye contact with other people I knew.
He didn’t know I’d spent the 10-minute shuttle ride back to the start line wondering why I’m so good at pushing people away.
But that man. His words. His kindness. His compassion. People like him are one of the many reasons why I keep running. I’ll never see him again, but we connected for a brief moment through camaraderie of accomplishing the same feat on the same day.
And he’s not the first stranger to help me through a race. I’ll never forget that big dude with music blaring from his phone trotting up beside me on Lakeshore Drive in Chicago (it was shut down to traffic for the race) at my first half marathon in 2016.
“Are we gonna do this or what?” he asked.
I gave him a blank, exhausted stare. My legs had started to cramp around mile 8 and I’d stopped to walk. Then somewhere in mile 10, the United States Army soldier was suddenly there with a plan to help me to finish strong.
“Here’s what we’re gonna do,” he’d said, pointing ahead. “We’re running the next three light posts and then we’ll stop and walk two. We’re doing that all the way to the finish. Got it?”
Somewhat in shock, the thought of disagreeing with him never crossed my mind. So at the next light post, we ran. And we continued our run/walk method for the next two-and-a-half miles toward the finish line, talking about what we did for work, our families and running. But then in the final tenth of a mile, he found someone else struggling and told me to go ahead.
“Go!” he yelled, stopping to help a woman who was walking and clearly in pain. “Finish strong!”
After I crossed the finish line that day, I looked for him so I could say thank you but it was too crowded. I also couldn’t remember his name at the time. But when the professional race pictures were released, I scoured through them and eventually found the muscular man who had helped me. Using his bib number to look up his name, and then using his name to search and friend request him on Facebook, we finally connected a few days later.
I sent my new friend Kenneth a message, thanking him for what he’d done and telling him how grateful I was that we crossed paths that day. He told me he was glad to do it, saying we all need a little help sometimes.
And then just a couple months ago, there was Donna Brayfield. I randomly ended up running beside her on mile 9 during a half marathon in my home town this past April – tapping her arm and saying, “You taught me science but I don’t remember your name.” (Who says and does shit like that by the way?)
“Donna Brayfield,” she replied. “Freshman year, Sacred Heart Griffin High School biology.”
Mrs. Brayfield asked where I am living now, if I have kids and what I do for work. For nearly two miles we talked about life and love – and she reminded me I can do hard things. And I admitted to her I actually hated biology.
When I could tell she was picking up her pace, I wished her well and urged her to finish strong.
But then it happened again. A man I’d kept pace with the whole race noticed me slowing down around mile 11 (see a pattern there?) and coached me through the last 2 miles.
He also asked about me – to keep my mind off the hard stuff – and how many races I’d done and my family.
“I’m so close to a PR today,” I said, glancing down at my GPS watch. “It’s going to be really close. Those hills murdered me.”
“Then let’s go,” he said. “Just keep going. Keep moving your arms, And breathe. You’ve got this. We’re gonna turn left at that stoplight and then it’s the home stretch. And if you want me to shut up and stop talking, I can do that too.”
Thanks to him, I finished strong and gave him a big hug afterward. Of course, Mrs. Brayfield was there waiting and cheering for me… a few yards from my family. I still don’t know that man’s name, but I’m positive I’ll never forget what he did for me that day. I missed my PR by 2 minutes but it didn’t even matter. I knew I gave it everything I had.
I’ve also crossed two finish lines with good friends by my side. My pal Olivia refused to leave me during my very first race three years ago (a 10K).
Then there’s my best friend Jodie. She literally yelled at me – boot camp style – when I tried to give up and walk off the course at the Chicago Half Marathon last September. That was the race I stopped running at mile 4, simultaneously throwing myself a lovely little pity party. I’d never walked that early. But it was a hot day. My divorce was scheduled to be final in two weeks. I was a mess. Literally falling apart on the course because the weight of it all was too much.
“You are a badass!” Jodie yelled. “One foot in front of the other. Don’t you dare quit, Kelli Stopczynski. I won’t let you give up.”
Jodie and I did a run/walk combo to the finish. Together. Even though there were moments during that race when I wanted to kill her, she gave me strength when I couldn’t find it within myself.
I’ve found (and heard) so many stories about how incredible the running community is all around the world. Incredible people who set crazy goals for themselves. Sometimes we smash the shit out of those goals, and other times? Well, other times we fall way short.
It’s weird how running often mirrors life.
We go through moments in life that force us to slow down and reassess where we are and what we’re doing. But then we pick ourselves up and we ramp it up again.
Somehow the crash and burn make us better.
Pain and experience make us stronger.
But healing takes time. And not the amount of time an impatient Millennial (me) wants… I’m talking about the time that passes after you’ve found the strength to finally pick yourself up off the bathroom floor and wash the mascara stains from your face for good. When you can finally come to terms with the fact that you’ve hit bottom. When you can look back and realize you’ve gone a day, a week, five weeks without breaking from the weight of the hurt.
Through it all though, we persevere… and learn a part of the race that is equally important as finishing is the people running in front of, next to and behind us. We don’t always get to choose who those people are or how big of a mark they’ll leave on our hearts, but we do get to learn from each of those relationships as they come and go.
And it's strange how some of our strongest moments seem to simply appear when we feel so weak..
Last Christmas, my mom gave a book to my kids called, After the Fall. It talks about what happened to Humpty Dumpty after he fell off the wall. For a while, he was scared to climb it again and stayed on the ground. But one day he launched a paper airplane a little too high and it got stuck on top of the wall, forcing him to climb once again. Then at that moment when he reaches the top, he cracks and hatches into what he was always meant to be - a beautiful bird who no longer has to worry about falling... because now he can fly.
I cry every time I read that one and then wonder if my mom really bought it for the kids or for me.
Right now I’m not fast. I’m much slower than I was a year ago. I’m not shattering any PRs or burning up the pavement. But I’ve learned speed and time aren’t important when it comes to moving forward.
Just one foot in front of the other.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
And keep going.
If that isn’t a beautiful mantra for life and the road to healing, I’m not sure what is.
WANTED: Full-time Kindergarten Parent Specialist. Must have experience dealing with massive amounts of administrative work on top of a full-time career + parenting schedule.
Responsibilities include: packing daily snacks (fruits and veggies only… school won’t allow anything else due to allergies), signing the damn planner every night, recording the number of minutes I read to my kid each day, checking for teacher emails, keeping tabs on the school Facebook page and dodging the sweet PTO moms. Must keep your cool at all times. Must not let anyone see you lose your shit. Serious inquiries only.
May the odds be ever in your favor.
It really felt like Kindergarten bliss. Kissing that big kid goodbye and watching him climb up those giant school bus steps last fall. I blinked back a couple tears that first day but was otherwise emotionally OK with the transition. Aside from a few six-year-old boy issues – you know, following directions and keeping his hands to himself – he was (and still is) so happy. He LOVES school.
But me? I am so damn overwhelmed!
I should have taken my first clue last fall when the PTO started sending emails and Facebook pleas for treats for teachers during parent-teacher conference week.
Ummmmm excusemewhat? Isn’t that why we do teacher Christmas presents and gifts at the end of the school year?
If I know I’m going to have a long, hard day at work, I pack my lunch. And snacks. Nobody bakes shit and rewards or thanks me for doing the damn thing and being (mostly) nice to people. It’s my job… and I get a paycheck every two weeks to prove it.
Do you know what I get after a long, hard day at work? Three kids. Who are hangry, tired and need my full attention. While I run around to get them all dinner (just getting everyone to agree on the same thing every night is agony), I might get to hover over the sink for a second to shove in a few bites of whatever I managed to whip up for their dinner. Who doesn’t love freezer burnt corn dogs and fresh apple slices?
Real talk: I sincerely believe our educators and PTO have the very best intentions. But I struggle with the fact that being a kinder mom is literally a second job after I work all day, do dinner, baths, lay out tomorrow’s clothes, brush teeth, read books and give 5,000 goodnight hugs and kisses. I cringe each night as I open my boy’s backpack to new paperwork, a new form to fill out, an invitation to the weekly tea party with the PTO (shoot me now), a reminder about a pajama or spirit day (don’t forget to bring $1 for charity!) or a plea to help in the lunchroom. I also know from conversations with other working (and stay-at-home) moms with kids of all ages, I’m not the only one feeling certifiably insane because of it all.
And before you think I’m trying to crucify or attack his teacher, principal or the school he attends, please understand I am not. I know their job is tough. I wouldn’t survive 10 minutes in a classroom of emotional, jacked up 5 and 6-year-olds. You’d find me curled up in a ball in the corner. Sobbing. Ugly crying. Begging for a barre class, a Starbucks latte and my mommy. Seriously.
Back to the PTO for a second. Three things:
And to give you a little idea of why the parent element of kindergarten is so exhausting, let’s take a look at this week as an example.
SUNDAY: Email from the PTO about ANOTHER frigging fundraiser (this time at Skyzone. Later this week..), a plea for help in classrooms (here’s looking at you, stay at home moms), an ask for parents to help with the school yearbook, a solicitation for box tops to raise money for the school, an invitation to next month’s adults only fundraiser auction and a request for auction donation items. Can I also mention the email I just got from my kid’s teacher less than a week ago, asking all parents to send in something for the classroom’s gift basket being auctioned off at the same fundraiser?
MONDAY: Email from teacher letting us know we need to send in 20 valentines next week. No Candy or Sweet Treats allowed! Ok, it’s Valentine’s Day. I get it. And I’m on it… kind of.
TUESDAY: Email from teacher about a biography due later this month. We need to work with our kindergartener to learn about an important African American either in the library or on the computer at home. He needs to draw a picture of that person and write a biography. So does his teacher realize I also have a 2 and 4-year-old? And it’s pretty much impossible to be on a computer with a bossy toddler in my face at all times? Just thought I’d throw that out there.
TUESDAY: Second email from teacher about supporting a fellow teacher (who I happen to know and adore) in her “Dancing with the Stars” fundraising mission for the local homeless shelter. All students are invited to “dress up like a star” TOMORROW. Freaking tomorrow. As in, this email jumped into my inbox at 4:12 in the frigging afternoon and I’m supposed to figure something out by 7 tomorrow morning. Oh yeah, and he needs to bring a dollar if he wants to participate. And... the class that raises the most money gets a special surprise. You’re killing me, smalls!!!!!
WEDNESDAY: Snow Day! Except… while my kid chills at daycare all day, I’m at work. Getting emails from his teacher about the eLearning assignments he has to do. Yes. Online homework during snow days. In Kindergarten. (I’m also fielding similar emails for my preschooler, for what it’s worth.) One line in the kinder email encourages parents to “get in some extra snuggle time” on the snow day. That part may have sent me into a brief rage while I was, you know, WORKING!!!! And I cried a little because I felt guilty for not being home snuggling my babies. But seriously. What in the actual?
WEDNESDAY: Facebook post saying today’s Dress Like a Star day is now moved to tomorrow. Cool. Except I’m drowning in eLearning and #momlife, so my kid is going to school in whatever mismatched sweatpants and ratty t-shirt he picks out for himself. “Don’t worry honey, you’re a star every day!” I told him as I ushered him onto the school bus Thursday morning. Thank God he’s six and still buys it when I say shit like that…
THURSDAY: No emails from teacher. Something must be wrong. What’s happening? But before you go getting all judgy-mcjudgerson on me, I’m not a total bitch. I did put together a gift basket from my work for the school auction today for my PTO mom friend to pick up.
THURSDAY: Wait for it… 9:57pm. A phone call, text and email from the school corporation (yes, I'm signed up for all 3). Apparently a snowpocalypse is imminent and tomorrow is another snow day. Yippee. And another eLearning assignment we get to do this weekend. Awesome.
FRIDAY: Today I expect an eLearning email from his teacher with instructions for the weekend. And then probably the weekly newsletter she sends most Fridays.
That’s no less than SEVEN emails in a week. On top of the school Facebook page and any other correspondence that comes home in his folder or planner.
I think someone omitted the kindergarten mom chapter from What to Expect When You’re Expecting. For real!
No one is holding a gun to my head, demanding I get involved. No one is making me feel guilty about the fact that I do nothing extra to help. While I sometimes feel bad that I can’t do more or help more, I seriously can’t. And last time I checked, I pay taxes to support the public schools my kids attend. So why are you asking me to collect box tops and come to the auction?
Look, my close friends already know I’m an absolute train wreck who puts up a good front. A guy friend recently told me, ‘You’re not a complete wreck… you just kind of careen real far to one side when the track takes a sharp curve and then you have to lean back really far to right yourself again.’
Ok, back to work now (aka prepping for my weekend of eLearning fun).
If you need me, I’ll be in deep hiding from all the ticked off teachers and PTO moms who read my blog. Come at me, bro!
I may also be writing. I just might go for that Kindergarten Mom How-To book. I swear that shit could be a best seller…
I'm a mom to 3 beautiful, spirited, tiny humans, I'm addicted to running + barre, 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...