I wake up in my new apartment to unfamiliar sensations. Instead of hearing my children emerging from their rooms, slamming open my bedroom door and breathing their hot morning breath straight into my face, I hear the footsteps and sneezes of a family who lives above me. And when I look around, I don't see a black-and-white photo of my daughter's infant toes inside a silver frame on the bedside table, or stacks of books and mounting piles of laundry in the corner, but bare walls and a bare floor.
My husband and I are in the beginning of navigating our separation. It's an enormously stressful time, from trying to manage our own emotional needs, worrying about our children's mental health and finding a new rhythm of life. But on top of splitting our life in two is another massive pressure: paying for all the stuff we need. In addition to maintaining our family home, I'm trying to furnish a small, one-bedroom basement apartment. It's where we will each go on our nights as the off-duty parent. Aside from a bed and a couch we snagged on Craigslist, it's empty. It needs throw pillows, a stocked kitchen and, more than likely, a hefty stack of self-help books. Oh, and liquor. Definitely liquor.
We're adding items to the apartment, piece by piece. On my nights there, when my soon-to-be-ex arrives home from work, I take forks from my own kitchen, a roll of paper towels, toiletries and bath towels - the items that can be spared. But I still need a table and chairs, a toaster oven, blankets, a million mundane things I use daily without a thought, until I don't have them. It's too expensive to purchase all at once. And between work and raising two young kids, there isn't enough time in a day or a week to do it anyway. I've never needed more stuff or been less able to procure it.
It's a stark contrast to other transitional times, when friends and family showered us with items: engagement, marriage, babies. The death of your family, as you know, is not exactly something to be celebrated. It's a transition, but a cruel, harsh one.
These occasions - engagements, wedding showers, weddings, baby showers, graduations - call for gift giving. We're accustomed to sharing in joy with our hearts as well as our wallets. During the happy times, everyone wants to partake. So we don't mind letting them or even asking them to, with carefully curated registries to direct their generosity.
Of course, I wasn't expecting money or presents once I got separated. But the irony of it strikes me now, as I'm piecing together this new life, dragging someone's old dirty futon into my apartment and buying dollar store plates because after the rent check cleared, I didn't have the money to go to Bed, Bath and Beyond, let alone the grocery store. While I can barely pay for my own double-life, next week I'm headed to a wedding shower and the following week, a baby shower. And I'll gladly smother my friends with prizes from their registries. After all, it's what we do. It's what was done for me, too. But at this stage in my life, as I celebrate in my friends' joy, I know in the back of my mind that there may one day be a time of much greater need.
In the raw, early stages of the ending of my marriage, I'll take emotional support over material items any day. And I'm astounded by my good fortune: Women have been showering me with kind, encouraging words from every possible direction, the same way they showered me with gifts when I got married. I've been hugged and told that I am brave, even when I feel anything but. I've gotten emails and social media messages of love and offers of company on my lonely nights. And I am grateful for this collective strength of both women who have been where I am and survived, and for the women who have no idea what it feels like and still show up.
For now, I'll continue searching yard sales and online marketplaces for a microwave oven, a bookshelf, a stand for the TV that has been sitting on the floor for three weeks. In some ways, I am happy to do it. It feels good to lay the groundwork for my new life. But the next time I hear about a woman going through a separation, I'm sending her a bottle of booze and a bedside lamp. You know, something practical. Because I know firsthand just how much is needed.
The Washington Post