On a Monday afternoon in the spring of 2003, I suddenly became a single mother under some pretty unusual circumstances. My husband was arrested for an act I couldn’t even wrap my mind around -- soliciting a minor male over the internet. There were news teams parked in my front yard and it seemed like the whole world was slipping out from under my feet.
Prior to his arrest, my then-husband and I agreed I would take one year off from my job practicing law, and I began work as a special ed assistant in our neighborhood school (with a measly wage). Suddenly, without the man I thought would be my life-partner by my side, a whole host of impossible questions filled my mind:
How was I going to get a new job amid this grief? How would I pay the bills absent that new job? How could we continue my sons’ full schedules? How many nights in a row can people eat chicken tenders and carrot sticks before needing medical attention?
The weeks and months after my husband was arrested were some of the most challenging I have faced as a mother. Within the first week, I wasn’t sure I would make it. And then, unimaginably, things got worse.
I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, likely brought on by the stress of these events. I was in a day-to-day fight to get out of bed, survive and hold my kids up. The basics like laundry and arranging extracurriculars often felt impossible.
It did take a while for the initial shock of losing my husband and my health to wear off, and in this period I was surrounded by so many incredible members of my community who stepped in to support, all of whom are profiled in the memoir of my story, So Many Angels. Thankfully, I eventually began to feel my head clearing from the initial trauma and I was able to formulate a plan of attack. Here are the lessons I learned after regaining control:
Acclimating to new options can be a slow and painful process, even for moms. Be okay with that. My husband was arrested at the end of the school year and when fall came around again, I resumed my work as a special ed assistant. The principal pulled me aside in the middle of the year and suggested that I get my teaching license. When he first mentioned this I thought it was a ridiculous idea. I think I bit his head off when he first said it. I had already been in school for many years and the thought of returning to school for another advanced degree was almost comical. I was barely getting through the day. I wasn’t ready for this idea yet. But someday I would be.
Take the most practical routes, and focus on a healthy family life. Thankfully that principal’s words kept ringing in my head and I decided to enroll in a Master’s program to obtain my teaching license. My reasoning: instead of returning to law, I decided to change careers because I thought that my boys would not recover from the trauma we had suffered if I worked 12 hour days, had a long commute, and was not at home often. I realized I should get work that fit with their school schedule, but I couldn’t only have the income afforded to a special ed assistant. It wasn’t always easy to go to night class and get the schoolwork done, but I felt sure in my intuition that my kids needed me at home, and I had to support them. This was the most practical route!
Let yourself accept help, and learn how to delegate. As moms, there is a lot of pressure for us to do it all, and to keep ourselves and our families together totally on our own. But sometimes you just can’t. Accepting help, and asking for help can be difficult, but it becomes easier when you think about what your children need. If you can’t meet those needs and stay sane and healthy yourself, there’s no shame! All that means is that it’s time to move to the next step: planning out who else can help you meet your kids’ needs. Do you need help with babysitting while you take a training course? Can you trade off with a friend? Do you need assistance from a financial adviser to pay for the classes? Can you find resources in your community? Maybe the public library has a resume class or the local vocational school has computer night classes which are inexpensive?
On tough days, stay centered on your purpose by using a secret weapon. Okay, it’s not really a secret: mothers are the most powerful creatures on the planet, because we will do anything necessary to protect our children. We have all seen those great animal shows on TV where the mother cub takes care of her babies, or the owl mother fights off the prey and feeds her young. Human moms are also strong and I think that we have the power to do what our children need, even if we are unsure of ourselves. It is not going to be easy to reinvent yourself but you can do it because you are a momma bear and your kids need you to do it.
Diane Stelfox Cook lives in the Framingham area and is the author of So Many Angels. Stelfox Following a 15-year career as an attorney, she became a special ed teacher in the Massachusetts public schools for 11 years. Today, she runs her late husband’s construction company. She continues to practice law part-time.