Three years ago, when I was considering ending my marriage, I looked out my kitchen window and saw my husband mowing our lawn. I wasn’t sure yet if I would be able to cope on my own, living in suburban New Jersey as a divorced mother of two. Yes, I had spent years alone when I was younger. As a journalist, I even moved to Myanmar and India on my own. But it was different. Can I manage a house on my own? Can I mow the lawn?
That summer I started experimenting by taking on some of the tasks he had always done.
First step: mow the grass.
Fortunately, my husband years earlier had bought us an old fashioned mower that you push yourself. There was no way I was approaching a motor vehicle. But a push? It seemed unlikely to hurt me.
One day I went to the garage, grabbed the mower and gave it a try. I first pushed him the wrong way; it didn’t do anything. But after a lap or two on the lawn, I flipped it over and it worked. The grass has become shorter. Surely that was a sign: if I needed it, I could get a divorce.
As the months passed and our marital problems intensified, I continued to test my abilities. And when I couldn’t do something on my own, I made a plan to deal with it. One evening as I was making dinner, I looked at a bottle of pasta sauce and wondered what I would do if I had no one around to open a particularly leak-proof bottle. I decided to buy a lot of bottles in order to always have a backup available.
It made no sense why our marital roles had been so gendered. We both worked full time and we lived in an ultra-progressive city. But at home my husband was responsible for the maintenance of the car and the house. When we bought the house, I didn’t even follow what the inspector said. I had no interest in learning this stuff, mainly because I assumed I would never understand it. I was happy to divide and conquer, with me focused on our babies.
Then came the divorce. Suddenly I had no one to hassle me to get the air conditioners out of the windows. My retirement account? Torn tire on the car? Taxes? My husband was so much better at it, but he was gone.
Divorce is miserable; I do not recommend it. But I have to say that it forced me to do all kinds of things that I never imagined I could.
The summer after we split up, I drove for five hours with the boys, then ages 5 and 3, to a cabin on a lake in the Adirondacks. I packed our car with what appeared to be all the toys, snacks, and clothes we had. I was terrified of going alone with them, and extra Lego sets were my safety blanket. There were times on this trip when I imagined the other guests looking at me with pity, wondering why I didn’t have a partner to help me. I wondered that too.
I kept this vacation sweet. Rather than taking the boys up a mountain on their own, we grabbed our bug collection gear and walked around the lake. Instead of going out on the water, we got on and off boats at the dock. But we did. I did it.
The boys and I spent the first two years after the split having only Netflix and Amazon Prime on our TV. Discovering all the streaming services seemed too overwhelming to me. Initially, I assumed that I would wait for my oldest son, Isaac, to find out for me. But Isaac was still only a freshman, and with a pandemic upon us, we needed Disney +. I ordered a Fire TV stick online and followed the instructions. It worked! We too could watch “Soul”.
Then the real challenge came. Our divorce proceedings were finally over and I found myself with the marital home. And by “house” I mean a renovator.
Many of my married friends had told me that I had to keep renting. A house was a lot of work for everyone, not to mention a single mom with a busy job and, normally, a commute to town. But I wanted a place that was mine. A place where I could buy a sofa of the right size for my living room because it would probably be my living room for a long time.
I knew that just because I was single didn’t mean I shouldn’t become a homeowner as well. But I was scared.
The day I got the house back, it was the 2021 blizzard. We had so much snow that I couldn’t even get out of my rental to see my new home. Suddenly I was responsible for shoveling the driveway and sidewalk of a house that I couldn’t access. And I had my job to do. I was a mess. Then a friend put me in touch with a new neighbor, and she put me in touch with a student who was shoveling houses in the neighborhood. Again, it miraculously worked.
I moved in (back) and that’s been a lot. I got to work to rehabilitate the house. Along the way, a handyman showed me how to operate my steam radiators and turn off the boiler. I hired someone to fix the downspouts. (Yes, I now know about downspouts.)
On the fourth day, I went to collect some of my pandemic toilet paper and heard a spray of water coming from the basement. The basement. When I was married and lived there, I never went to the basement. This time I had no choice. The sump pump spat out a volcano of water. My heart raced. I called a plumber who explained to me how to turn off the pump and what to do about the water. Flooding my basement was my biggest fear of owning a home on my own, but I did.
Later my family told me how proud they were of me for not panicking. (But I panicked, I say.) I wasn’t proud then. I was exhausted, overwhelmed and sad that I had no one to help me. And I still had to put the kids to bed.
Other times were better. A friend recommended a product that restores grout, and the boys and I spent a few evenings fixing my kitchen floor. (As we huddled against the tiles, I told them, “Isn’t there a great sense of accomplishment in doing it yourself?” Aarav, now 5, replied: ” No. “)
They helped me fill bags with garden waste, plant flowers and sow grass. Technically, Isaac, now 7, planted the grass and the sidewalk – but I’ll take it.
One afternoon I grabbed my lawn mower and started mowing the grass. It was the same mower that I had seen my then husband use years earlier. The same that I had tested before taking the plunge. This time the mower cut almost nothing. I was grateful he left it for me. (We, too, were making progress.) But I was worried that it was now too old and that I would have to buy a new one.
I looked a little closer. Maybe if I loosened the screws and moved the piece that ran along the grass, I could get a more precise cut. I have tried it. I readjusted the left part, then I worked on the right. I prayed that the blades did not suddenly cut my fingers. They did not do it. I aligned the right side and tested the mower. He cut the grass, even better than before.
Showing myself that I can do these things seemed amazing to me. But it is not enough that I know it. I want to get on my roof and tell all about New Jersey. (Don’t worry, I’m still not crazy enough to use a ladder.)
I have always considered myself to be a strong and independent woman. But getting divorced made me realize all the things I hadn’t done and counted on my husband for. I wish it hadn’t been our way, and I look forward to the day when I won’t do it on my own. Yet I must admit that I am very proud of the woman that divorce forces me to become.
I took the boys back to the Adirondacks this summer. This time we did not have a smooth trip. We got out on boats and climbed a steep mountain. As we neared the top, we got lost in the woods, alone. I immediately imagined that we were lost forever. But after some flashing back, we spotted the markers and together found our way to the top. The difficult climb made the view even more beautiful.
New York Times editor-in-chief Hanna Ingber writes essays that delve into the mess of parenting (single parenting).