Shiny Happy No Thanks


There’s this weird phenomena I’ve observed. It’s unclear where its nexus lies— It may be influenced by the rise of the Pinterest quote culture, or the focus on and elevation of lifestyle blogs. Are wall-quotes in living-areas a symptom or a cause? I’m not sure. What I see in my own community, on social media, and online in general, is an elevation of happiness being considered a virtue, a morally superior position. Being happy is great, of course, but the converse side of expecting happiness (or cheerfulness) as a marker of faith is that those who are somehow not “happy” or who struggle in any way, are somehow perilously close to morally failing.

What a horrible expectation to place on anyone walking through the normal emotions that come with the trials of a lived life.

As Mormons, we’re particularly guilty. We talk of the Gospel as though it should be a magic band-aid that will insulate us from human reality. It’s not. Just because I have faith in God and in Jesus doesn’t somehow make it incumbent on me to be “too strong for fear” or “too happy to permit the presence of trouble.” I call BS. Sometimes life is hard. Sometimes things are scary. Sometimes trouble finds us, and it sucks. The idea that I (or anyone) is somehow responsible and should exercise control over the human condition is actually contra to Gospel principles.

This is evident in how Mormons treat death and funerals. It may be my convert sensibilities, but turning a funeral into a missionary experience leaves little room for real grief or for the bereaved to openly and honestly experience their loss with the support of their community. Naked, raw grief gets pushed to the side, while we congratulate ourselves on our beliefs. Instead of talking of our missed loved-one, we talk of the plan of happiness, of the plan of salvation, of how great it is that the departed is in reunion with their family. While that may be true, there is also a living family still present; a family who is missing and aching for that same loved one, and their feelings should also be honored and given space. What a burden we place on the surviving family when we expect a focus on happiness in the face of tremendous and sometimes terrible loss.

I see similar inertia in others going through hard times- be it divorce, unemployment, mental health challenges, wayward children, or anything you can dream up that somehow doesn’t fit the ideal. The idea that we must always face towards “happiness” creates little space for people to be human. I see women who are deeply hurt, but who lack the vocabulary to even admit it. I see people who are afraid of feeling anger, people who believe the outward appearance must always be cheerful, and who are then swallowed by shame and fear that their facade will crack. This isn’t healthy, and frankly, is a lived denial of the salvic power of the atonement.

Grief is real. Sadness is real. Depression, anger, sorrow, frustration and weariness are all real. We are not moral failures if we feel these things. We needn’t plaster over our feelings with peel-off wall quotes and pretend everything is awesome. When you set a shiny-happy example of what your life is like to your friends and family, where are they to turn when their own life doesn’t match up with you shiny-face? How can they know that you also struggle, that you also grieve and are angry sometimes? Pretending and presenting further alienates us from one another. Pretending has never, ever, built a bridge to another person.

I’m not suggesting we wallow in our sorrows, or carry them around held high- I’m suggesting a healthy balance is… healthy. A person exiting a painful (they all are) divorce shouldn’t be expected to only praise their ex-spouse. A person who lost someone to a violent cancer or who is left to raise young children alone should not have to experience their loss as a missionary moment. Let people be angry, sad, grieve, mourn, and be with them, hold space for them, as they move through the real emotions of a lived life. When we shove feelings we deem less favorite down, they can germinate in the dark, and can grow and cripple us. If we allow our feelings room to be, to run their course, their energy is then dissipated and carried by our support structures and our own processes, and they become faded memories.

We also model for our friends and family what it looks like to actually walk in faith. Walking in faith through hard things, while acknowledging they’re hard, is beautiful. There is a vulnerability in taking off the mask of positivity, and allowing yourself to feel what you feel. The irony is, God knows anyway. We’re only fooling ourselves and each other.

Next time you’re tempted to attach morality to a feeling, or to shove away part of yourself,  take a moment to stop. Ask if this is healthy, or if perhaps, it might be better to model a more fully fleshed-out version of what it means to be alive. Life is not always pretty, nor fit for the cover page of a lifestyle blog. And that’s okay. As a matter of fact, that’s what makes it beautiful. (originally published for By Common Consent)

Divorce: Being a Grown-Up

I’m just going to republish this again. Only this time, imagine it’s IN ALL CAPS, and I am yelling it from the rooftops, okay? Good then? Good.

Divorce sucks. The unraveling and separating of lives is painful and messy, no matter how mature or well-intentioned the parties. My own divorce experience is now five-plus years in the rearview mirror, but I have friends at various stages in the process right now; it’s got me thinking on what I wish I could share with people in the midst.

Last year, I wrote an essay about my ex-husband, with his permission, at BCC. Reading it will give some context and gravity to my experience, and to what I took away from the process, not just as a woman and a mother, but as a Latter-day Saint.

While divorce is devastating for anyone, as Mormons we have the added pressure of what we were taught to believe was forever. Our marriages, we learn from Sunbeams on up, from our parents’ knees for Family Night, and in every YM and YW lesson, are for Eternity. That pressure, and platitudes about righteousness and presumed sin, are an extra layer and burden to a Latter-day Saint marriage that fails. It also sets up a powerful social impetus to cast blame, and to look for pat answers to what are always complicated questions. The answers to those questions are not easy, and not found in a platitude. When we insist on there being a Sinner and a Victim, when we wage wars of social collateral and gossip, when we assign blame instead of looking at our own hearts, when we pick sides and cast dispersions, we fail not only as Latter-day Saints and Christians, but as human beings.

In my own divorce, it would have been seductively simple to assign blame entirely at my ex-husband’s feet. The narrative is acceptable— even encouraged, sadly— and I could easily wrap the mantle of “Wronged One” around my shoulders. Only it would be a cop out. It would be dishonest, and it would stunt any hope I had to grow from what was the single most painful experience of my life. I knew that I could not shortchange myself or my kids that way. I resolved to learn, and to do as I believed my faith demanded of me- to show compassion and love.

I spent nearly 20 years with my ex-husband. We met when I was barely more than a girl, and divorced when I was on the dark side of my 30′s and holding three children afloat. He was my friend before he was my husband, and that friendship and genuine respect for his humanity is what I hold now. With that in mind, here is what I learned, and what I wish I could share with my friends and with anyone going through a divorce…

Grieve. Acknowledge the loss of something that once held great promise and hope. The temptation to burry feelings, to mask sorrow with anger and rage is strong- it’s easier to be mad than it is to hurt. Give yourself permission to feel sorrow, and allow it to roll over you. Like the waves of the ocean, it won’t be forever, and what feels like overwhelming crushing weight will crash around you, and then it will ebb. It will probably happen over and over, but the more you allow the process to take place, the more certain you will be of your ability to withstand the pain, and not shrink from it, and the more confident and sure you will be of the flux and flow being part of the healing.

Be Honest. Taking a long hard look at ourselves can be frightening. In a divorce, no matter how it may seem at one point or another, the truth is, it took two people. A relationship is built on thousands of days, and millions of moments, where each partner is present, and contributes. It’s a dangerous fallacy to wrap oneself as a victim and it disallows the opportunity to grow and learn. The lessons we need in life will repeat until we understand, and figuring out my own character flaws and acknowledging them and the part they played in my divorce was integral to any hope for a healthy future relationship. Pride, the need for control and the desire to be right in a marriage can be just as corrosive as any addiction.

Rise Above Pettiness and Cruelty. No one knows where to strike to inflict the most harm like a spouse. If you’re being honest with yourself, you will be able to see where you might be contributing to a poisonous environment- it’s possible to tell yourself that you are justified, because s/he did this or that, but the truth is, you’re the one you have to live with. There is more than enough hurt in the separating without either partner manufacturing more. This isn’t junior high, and gathering folks for “your side” is petty and cruel. If you need people to be unkind to your ex in order to feel good about yourself, about your social position or about your friends, that says more about your character than you’re probably aware. And it’s not flattering. Be a grown up.

Don’t be Afraid. Life changes. Yes, change can be really hard- especially if you didn’t want it. But if you’re open to learning about yourself, there are things that might be in store for you that you never imagined. The shape and matrix of your life is changing, but who you are still belongs to you. This is part of why not allowing bitterness and cruelty to define you is so important. When you are no longer part of a pair, you have the sudden ability to figure out again who you want to be, what matters to you. That’s a powerful choice, and one that can take you in directions you hadn’t previously imagined. Not being afraid requires you to dust yourself off and find your place on the horizon.

Be Kind to Yourself. It takes time to heal- don’t walk faster than you are able. Some days, the best you can do is just make it through. Each step you take toward healing is a success. Have good friends who you can confide in, and who help you deal with your emotions in a healthy way- or who can occasionally just let you vent. Take time for yourself. Use the time your kids are with the other parent to do small things you may have neglected when you had less time alone.

Blame is a Waste of Time. Period. If you’re devoting time and energy to blame-placing, you are not healing and you are not moving forward. Blame is toxic, and it turns one into a victim. It’s also a narcotic, and is very seductive— it’s a hard pit to avoid, but avoiding it is necessary. You are responsible for you, and the only actions that are under your control are yours. Blame is giving yourself away. Own up to what you can about your own role, and allow other people to do that in their own time and their own way. Avoiding blame allows you to respect yourself and allows other people the room to do the same.
That brings me to children.

I have a powerful cadre of feelings about children in a divorce.

Bite Your Tongue This seems like a no-brainer, but so many people screw this one up. No matter how much you want to, no matter how justified you might feel, no matter how strong the urge- never. ever. speak ill of your children’s other parent. I mean it. NEVER. Whether you like it or not, the children are half of your ex. They know it. When you malign the other parent, you are maligning half of your children. If you have to literally chomp on your tongue, do it. If the best you can do is to say nothing, then do that. You needn’t offer praise if you feel none is deserved, but let your silence be your comment. Passive-aggressive comments are transparent to kids, especially teenagers. You hurt them, and you make yourself look petty and small. No matter how you feel, the children will love their other parent, and honestly, they should. Fracturing them, placing blame, teaching them to harbor anger is damaging and unfitting a mature parent.

Let Your Children Be Children If you need your children “on your side”, you need to sit down and have a long, hard look at yourself. Allowing children room to continue to have a loving relationship with both parents is one of the best things you can do during a divorce. If you need to vent about what s/he did, do so to a private confident, out of hearing of the children. Give the kids room to express themselves without having to be careful about hurting your feelings- children are not equipped to be the emotional support of their parents during a divorce, but they can and do feel this responsibility if parents are behaving immaturely. It’s the job of the parent to be the parent. Use your support structure, not your kids.

Divorce is Survivable I’m in the camp of belief that divorce doesn’t have to be crippling to children. Yes, you read that right. If we give our children the ability to write their own narrative, to express themselves, give them the freedom to continue to love both parents without emotional guilt or manipulation, and the support they need, they can grow up happy and healthy, even if the ideal family didn’t work. There are truly times where divorce is a healthier option than staying married.

Encourage Interaction Make it easy for your children to interact with their other parent. Provide guilt-free ways for your kids to speak of, interact with, and include their other parent in their daily lives Do not eavesdrop or attempt to micromanage the children’s time with their other parent. Don’t mope or let the children see resentment when they enjoy their other parent. You are the adult, and your happiness and emotional well-being is not (and should NEVER be) the responsibility of your children.

Finally, I would add:

It will get better. This will not always be a gaping wound. Time will move forward, and if you keep the bitterness from your heart, you will heal, and you will be happy again.


A New Leaf

This week our eldest daughter celebrated a birthday. (I just typed that simple sentence several times. Figuring out how to honor step-kids is fraught; I don’t always want to differentiate them from the children I birthed myself, but I also don’t want to take anything from the mother who did birth them. Jon’s daughter is my daughter, but she is also not my daughter. Jon thinks simply calling them all our children is solid ground. But I’m ever aware these kids all— including my three— are loved by three parents. Not easy ground if you’re trying to be mindful of the feelings of others.)

Anyway. Birthday. Daughter. Wonderful, kind, thoughtful, bright, adorable daughter:


We had a celebration at our house the day before her actual birthday. She’s a devoted user of Pinterest, and sends me pins constantly of things she loves, so it’s really easy to be on top of her happiness. This cake was one such attempt; while it’s probably not as perfect at the pin she sent me, she didn’t seem to notice and totally loved it. It was a very good night.

Then, something unexpected and miraculous occurred: Her mother invited us to meet for dinner the next night, to celebrate her actual birthday. We weren’t sure we would even get to see her on her birthday- it fell on a day that isn’t usually ours, and the invitation was…a departure from previous experience and very much a pleasant surprise.

We met at a restaurant halfway between our homes. While my three kids are comfortable and used to joint ventures with all of their parents together and cooperating, this was a first for Jon and his kids.

Divorce is hard. Learning to step-parent, to blend families, and come to terms with the new parameters of a new life can be hard. It can also be a place to find unexpected opportunity and even happiness. I don’t imagine Jon’s ex will ever wish to be my friend, and that’s fine, but the fact we were all able to set aside our differences and celebrate our daughter?  Absolutely a positive step in the right direction.

I’ve said it many times: kids can not only survive but thrive in reformed families. There will be many occasions to celebrate in our children’s combined furture— graduations, proms, awards, recitals, mission calls, college and eventually even weddings. Last night demonstrated to all of us that making happy memories is possible.