Three years ago, when I was considering ending my marriage, I looked out my kitchen window and saw my husband mowing our lawn. As a divorced mother of two in the suburbs of New Jersey, I wasn’t sure I could make it on my own. Yes, I had spent years alone when I was younger. As a journalist, I had even moved to Myanmar and India on my own. But this was different. Can I manage a house alone? Can I mow the grass?
That summer I started experimenting with taking over some of the tasks he had always done.
First of all, mow the lawn.
Luckily my husband had bought us an old-school mower that you push yourself years earlier. There was no way I would get near a motorized one. But a push? It seemed unlikely that it would hurt me.
One day I went to the garage, picked up the mower and tried it out. I pushed the wrong way first; it did nothing. But after a few laps around the lawn I turned it over and it worked. The grass grew shorter. This was certainly a sign: if I needed to, I could get a divorce.
As the months went on and our marital problems grew, I continued to test my skills. And when I couldn’t do something myself, I came up with a plan how I would do it. One night while 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 tight bottle. I decided to buy a lot of bottles so that I always had a backup available.
It made no sense why our married roles were so gender specific. We both worked full time and we lived in a super 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 noticed. I had no interest in learning those things, mainly because I assumed I would never understand. I was happy to divide and rule, with me focused on our babies.
Then came the divorce. Suddenly I had no one to whine about removing the AC units from the windows. My retirement account? Torn tire on the car? Taxes? My husband was so much better at those things, but he was gone.
Divorce is miserable; I don’t recommend it. But I have to say, it’s forced me to do all kinds of things I never thought I could do.
The summer after we broke up, I drove the boys for five hours, then aged five and three, to a cabin on a lake in the Adirondacks. I packed our car with what seemed like every toy and snack and every piece of clothing we owned. I was terrified of going out with them alone, and extra Lego sets were my safety blanket. There were times during that trip when I imagined the other guests looking at me with pity and wondering why I didn’t have a partner to help me. I wondered that too.
I kept that holiday mild. Instead of going up a mountain with the boys alone, we packed up our insect collecting equipment and went for a walk around the lake. Instead of getting out on the water, we climbed in and out of boats on the dock. But we made it. I did it.
The boys and I spent the first two years after the divorce with only Netflix and Amazon Prime on our TV. Figuring out all the streaming services felt too overwhelming for me. At first, I assumed I would wait for my oldest son, Isaac, to figure it out for me. But Isaac was only in first grade and with a pandemic coming up, we needed Disney+. I ordered a Fire TV Stick online and followed the directions. It worked! We could also watch ‘Soul’.
Then came the real challenge. Our divorce process finally came to an end and I ended up at the matrimonial home. And by “house,” I mean a fixer-upper.
Many of my married friends had told me to keep renting. A house was a lot of work for anyone, let alone a single mother with a busy job and a commute to the city in normal times. But I wanted a place that was mine. A place where I could buy a sofa that would be just the right size for my living room as it would probably be my living room for a long time.
I knew that just being a single woman didn’t mean I shouldn’t take home ownership either. But I was scared.
The day I got the house back was the blizzard of 2021. We had so much snow that I couldn’t even get out of my rent to go and see my new house. Suddenly I was in charge of shoveling the driveway and sidewalk of a house that I didn’t have access to. And I had my job to do. I was a mess. Then a friend introduced me to a new neighbor, and she introduced me to a student who was clearing houses nearby. Again, it worked out amazingly well.
I’ve moved in (again), and it’s been a lot. I set to work getting the house in shape. 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 know about downspouts now.)
On day four, I went to get some of my pandemic toilet paper and heard a stream of water coming from the basement. The basement. When I was married there, I never went to the basement. This time I had no choice. The sump pump spewed a volcano of water. My heart was racing. I called a plumber who explained to me how to turn off the pump and what to do about the water. My basement flood was my biggest fear of owning a house alone, but I managed.
Later, my family told me how proud they were of me for not panicking. (But I did panic, I said.) I wasn’t proud at the time. I was exhausted and 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 grout repair product, and the boys and I spent a few evenings redecorating my kitchen floor. (As we huddled over the tiles, I said to them, “Isn’t there a great sense of satisfaction in doing it yourself?” Aarav, now 5, replied, “No.”)
They have helped me fill bags with garden waste, plant flowers and sow the grass. Technically, Isaac, now 7, has seeded the grass and sidewalk – but I’ll take it.
One afternoon I picked up my lawnmower and started mowing the grass. It was the same mower I had seen my then-husband use years before. The same one I had tried before making the jump. This time the mower barely cut anything. I was grateful he left it for me. (We, too, made progress.) But I was afraid that it was now too old and that I would have to buy a new one.
I looked a little closer. Maybe if I just unscrewed the screws and slid up the piece that ran along the grass I could get a better cut. I’ve tried it. I modified the left part and then worked on the right. I prayed that the blades wouldn’t suddenly cut off my fingers. They didn’t. I aligned the right side and tested the mower. He mowed the grass, even better than before.
Showing myself that I can do these things felt incredible. But it’s not enough that I know. I want to climb on my roof and tell all of New Jersey. (Don’t worry, I’m still not crazy enough to use a ladder.)
I have always seen myself as a strong, independent woman. But when I got divorced, I realized all the things I wasn’t doing and had relied on my husband for. I wish this hadn’t been our path, and I look forward to the day when I don’t do everything alone. Still, I have to admit that I’m super proud of the woman the divorce is forcing me to become.
I took the boys to the Adirondacks this summer. This time we didn’t make it a mild trip. We went on boats and hiked up a steep mountain. As we approached the top, we only got lost in the woods. I immediately imagined that we were lost forever. But after walking back a bit, we saw the trail markers and found our way to the top together. The steep climb made the view all the more beautiful.
Hanna Ingber, editor at NewsMadura, writes essays that explore the messiness of (single) parenthood.