Mom Taught Me How To Divorce

Nothing about our lives was the same, except for everything.

Woman's mother taught her how to divorce Наталья Хоменко, FG Trade Latin, andriano_cz | Canva

At forty-one, I moved home to the USA — broken and depressed from the ugliest break-up you ever did see. Mom was 64 and living a state north of me, in Yakima, Washington. She would comfort me and be in my corner — at least over the phone. But in reality, she was busy with her new husband and drinking again. That spelled unavailable. Her office light was turned off. She quit being the mom who listened and advised when she was drinking.


Yet, Mom had modeled “how to” leave a bad marriage, and I learned from her. I didn’t want to spend more years waiting for things to get better. My marriage to Ken wasn’t going to improve. 

As it was, the time I’d invested in Ken and I was so tremendous — like the Pacific Ocean, deep and blue, with no end in sight. Did I have more time to invest? No way, I thought. I needed to reach my destination fast. Time is precious: if the marriage is bad, get out. My marriage was broken beyond repair, and like Mom, I escaped. It took time though. I can’t claim I handled my divorce perfectly. Nor did Mom.


Our breakups weren’t the same. My parents were entertaining lovers in the ’70s, and the truth caught up with them. Who cheated first? Did it matter? To them, it did. Because the first cheater was to blame for everything. I heard it all. Over and over again — from Mom who blamed Dad.

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At fourteen, I was in the ring with gloves on too. When Mom divorced Dad in 1980, she made sure I was on her side. Note to readers: don’t do that to your kids. When I was fourteen, I defended Mom constantly. Granted, Dad was not an easy man to live with. He hated teenagers but had three under his roof: me, my sis, and my brother. Why did he hate us, his children? Hard to say. We were, like all teens, unpredictable and selfish. We ignored him and felt his coldness return tenfold. As an adult, I observed that Dad didn’t do well with any teenagers, ever. It wasn’t just us.

Mom was warm and empathetic and comforted me when I went through my teen heartaches and breakups. She let me steal her cigarettes, and fish around in her purse for half-pieces of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum. I could take some quarters for lunch money, and she wasn’t mad. But my dad wasn’t kind.


"Don’t you look pretty!" Dad said when Mom first crawled out of bed and sat at the kitchen counter, sipping coffee. I thought it was horrible and cruel, and the bite of his voice infuriated me. Never a silent teenager, I defended her. Part of the problem, I argued, was that women were expected to look like Venus emerging on the half-shell 24/7. I ranted about it! "Dad! Come on, now! Women, we’re just people, normal humans! How can a woman wake up from eight hours of sleep with shiny pink lips and a dewy complexion? The problem is all the advertising and nonsense, Dad!"

Of course, Dad wasn’t up for a feminist lecture from me — ever. Mom smiled though, under the hood of her bathrobe. My job was done. Ding ding! Round one goes to the mom and her support team.

Mom was 41 years old when the worst event of our lives happened. My brother died in a traumatic car accident. The clock stopped. She stopped living for a very long time. She filled her drink mug with ice and poured in vodka, half a fifth at a time. The mug was never empty. I watched and could do nothing. 

At nineteen, I was coping as well as I could. My grief was overwhelming, and I had no idea how to salvage my life. I looked to my Mom. But she disappeared. Her eyes were blurred. She smelled like a bottle of rubbing alcohol in the bathroom cabinet. She divorced Dad, and married another man fast — a short little guy who drank with her. 


She made poor decisions — but later she owned them. When she sobered up, she assessed her choices and fixed mistakes as best she could. She divorced the man she married when she rebounded from Dad and started making efforts to begin life fresh and new. I was so proud of her.

RELATED: 5 Ways To Get Your Life Together After Divorce (When It Feels Like Everything Is A Mess)

While she second-guessed leaving Dad, they were happier apart that’s one thing I learned from Mom: Trust yourself. If you leave a relationship, there’s a reason. Don’t second-guess, move on, rebuild your life, and stay as healthy as you can.

I was 41 when my marriage with Ken broke up. Our business was overseas, in Cambodia. We were both Americans and took off from Oregon six months after we got married. Ken and I planned to travel for six glorious months but it didn’t work out that way. We backpacked Southeast Asia for nine months and settled down in Cambodia, in 1994. Dad said later, “I knew he wouldn’t ever come back.” Dad was smarter about people than I was. He understood manipulation in a way I didn’t; I saw the best in people, and set those red flags aside.


Cambodia had to be one of the most unpredictable places for a newlywed couple from the US to settle down. It was like a different planet. Frangipani trees and purple orchids filled the markets, with silver elephant carvings and intricate mahogany doors for sale. The people were lovely, kind, and gracious.

Visible displays of poverty and corruption overwhelmed us. I was often in tenuous situations, grabbed by men who thought I was one of the call girls from Eastern Europe or urged onto the back of a motorcycle by a military police. Death surrounded us there; the Khmer Rouge remained active in parts of the country. It was a dangerous, heart-pounding lifestyle, but the people of Cambodia were the kindest people I’ve ever met.

There was such beauty in the country. The vast wide Tonle Sap River along the waterfront in Phnom Penh, which we watched from the Foreign Correspondents Club, the majesty of The Royal Palace, and Angkor Wat temples, in Siem Reap. All photos below are from Angkor Wat—Ta Prohm, the jungle temple with Bayon tree roots growing in the structure. The giant faces of Bayon Temple, along with mine.

author at the ta prohm temple in cambodia Photos by author


Ken and I built a business, a publishing company, and had three or four competitors keeping things interesting. Eventually, we were well-established and successful. So successful that Ken thought he could do anything he wanted, and I wouldn’t leave. I’ve never been as motivated by money as I am by love. I built our lives around his dreams and desires. I doted on him. 

Then, Ken stopped loving me. He was unengaged in “us.” He made decisions alone. We had money, lots of it. Why would I leave this life we’d built?

He grossly underestimated me. He also misjudged my independent streak. In Phnom Penh, I dressed up every day for work — including hair and makeup, because I sold advertising for our publishing company. Plenty of people knew me. I worked well with others, did honest business, and negotiated financial agreements every day. I was attractive, but I wasn’t an Asian woman. Men who moved to Cambodia — at least the expat guys from Europe and America — loved the petite women with long, glossy black hair. I wasn’t one of them.

I outweighed Ken’s secret girlfriend by about sixty pounds and towered over her by six or seven inches. I’m American-made, and will not apologize for my size. I was born this way.


My husband hadn’t slept in my bed with me for a long time. Think back to the Mesozoic era — you know, the dinosaur years. The last time we made love, a full year before I left him, I got pregnant and then miscarried. It was yet another disaster that put me in the hospital, having emergency surgeries. Sadly, I was good at tubal pregnancies, which are never viable. They are also the leading cause of first-trimester fatalities. I know this well, because I had two ectopic pregnancies — the first in 1997, and the second in 2000. Surgeons and doctors told me, “Do not attempt to get pregnant the ‘natural way’ again, as the results for you are not good.” IVF was the only option, but it was not to be.

When I went to Bangkok for a check-up on my miscarriage, my ex stared at me and said, “Can you buy me some black boxers? You know, the kind that are kind of like boxers, but stretchy?”

He wanted to look good in his underwear. I wanted to die. No exaggeration.

They say the Inuit people of Alaska have many words for snow. In the same vein, I knew all about crying. Sobbing. Weeping. Bawling. In addition to miscarrying and postnatal depression, I cried because my husband was running around like the Energizer Bunny on steroids. Or testosterone, at least. 


I finally quit crying and became furious, and beyond the pale done with Ken's nonsense/ No more sad girl. I was a woman warrior, and I wasn’t going to let “Peter Pan” ruin my life.

RELATED: The Guilt, Shame (And Eventual Courage) Of Leaving Your Spouse

Like Mom had done before me, I got out of my marriage.

My ex had finally driven me over the edge of a cliff. Our publishing company in Cambodia was booming; the money was unreal. We had an office, lots of computers, plenty of workers we were training. Ken found time for his girlfriend — whose apartment he financed — late at night after I went to bed. I heard the motorcycle start up and take off. After months of this, my depression subsided and I made plans to leave. I spoke with his girlfriend, a Vietnamese woman, and basically gave her the keys to the kingdom. It sounded a bit like, “he’s all yours,” but more colorful. 


In that exciting time of transition, I planned to rebuild my life from the foundation up. First step: get out of Cambodia. Next, find a nice boyfriend. To say I was lonely was an understatement. Yet, here I was, alive and planning for a future. Living with my dad and stepmom in rural Oregon was not going to be easy, but I’d pull my life together, get a job, and figure things out.

At 41, I left Cambodia. The writing on the wall was in bold font. I needed to divorce the man I used to love. He had turned and I needed to face the truth.

I watched the little electronic map on the back of the plane seat in front of me. North past Japan. Looping around Alaska and the Bering Strait. South past Seattle to Los Angeles, where I disembarked and flew north to my family home in Oregon. I made a list of all the positive changes I planned for my grieving, heartbroken self.


In time, I achieved every goal, completed a Master’s degree, and found a good man. Within two and a half years of leaving Cambodia, I was teaching high school for the State of Oregon, living in a funky old house I bought with my new guy, and breathing fresh Oregon air. I rebuilt every aspect of my broken life. I coached myself every day. “Be resilient. See beauty. Be positive. You are smart. You can do this.” It helped to negate the horrible things my sad self wanted to think.

Like Mom, I divorced my first husband, but unlike Mom, I set my sights on health. No drinking for me. I had a person to take care of: myself. With a compass set on optimism and hope, I steered my way.

While I’d like to think I got it right fast, I struggled. I overthought things. To counter my overthinking, I rode my bike for thirty or so miles every day — not the worst coping mechanism in the world! I got fit and healthy and went on to compete in a local triathlon.

Mom also taught me how to get through a divorce. I learned from her mistakes, and when she corrected her course, I applauded and learned from her success. There is no perfect way to navigate life’s misfortunes, including divorce, but resilience and optimism helped us get through — Mom and me. For that, I am grateful. I wish divorce and loss on no one, but if you must face a hardship, it can be a magical time of reimagining and rebuilding. Make it so.


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Debra G. Harman is a memoirist and author. A publisher on Medium, she enjoys working with a team of writers. She's a retired English teacher and a world traveler.