Downsizing after Divorce: The True Story That Begins Long Before You Move Out of Your Dream House

divorce downsizing Jan 17, 2019

My current obsession with downsizing is at its peak now, but this story started years ago.

When we moved into the two story house in the far reaches of the Austin suburbs 19 years ago, I told everyone, “I’m never leaving. Someday someone will have to clean out these closets and sell this place, because I’m going to die in this house.”

I loved my house and just knew it was our forever home.

In 2000 my husband and I decided to leave the San Francisco Bay area with our two-year-old toddler and settle in Austin. Tired of the frantic San Jose pace, the lack of elbow room, the high prices, taxes, and intense commutes; Austin was to be our new home base for the high tech research and development department my husband ran for a Silicon Valley company.

We sold our 1549 square foot starter home in San Jose and bought a 4000 square foot dream home on nearly 3 acres in Spicewood, Texas, close enough to Austin to enjoy its “weirdness” and culture, but far enough in the country to feel like rancher barons.

The space sprawled with possibility, and the Hill Country views were priceless.

Fast forward 19 years. As I write this, I am squeezing in some hours between various projects: patching holes in walls, touching up paint, going through bids for a large concrete driveway repair, and preparing for my realtor to visit for the first time tomorrow.

At the same time, real life is striding along through the transition. This means I’m also finishing up a large marketing package for a client’s product launch, ordering text books for massage school (a bucket list thing of mine which starts next week), texting my son (in his room upstairs, far from my office) to find out when he’s free to practice driving under his new learner’s permit, and moving money around so I can pay my property taxes due next week.

Developers just started paving a new road across the winding country road, connecting our sprawling settlement to a planned community with tiny lots and a shocking lack of trees. The pasture where the longhorns used to graze is chewed up by the ravages of new construction and dust.

 
The cows and trees are gone.
For almost two years after the divorce was finalized, the kids and I have lived here in the house I thought I loved.
Yet, for two years this house felt less and less like home, if it ever was.

Just as the landscape around us is rapidly changing, this big limestone house, though lovely, is no longer the place of my dreams as a new mother all those years ago.

My heart and mind have moved on. My plate is full. This house and property are too large for us, and I have just enough physical and mental stamina to get this place listed and sold this spring.


Divorce is the catalyst for good things.

Over the past two years, much has changed. I’ve learned more about myself than the previous two decades put together. We were practically divorced anyway; we just made it official in spring of 2017.

When men go through a big transition, you usually hear how they never knew how strong they were; how their mettle was tested and they came out the other side with steely resolve, how they walked through fire and found they could emerge whole.

Well, that’s not the case with women. We know we’re strong. Most of us are born that way, or realize it soon enough.

Having single-handedly managed this house, run a small business, and tackled the garden variety of family crises over the years — while keeping fit and generally happy — I knew I was a force. That’s never been an issue because I’ve been functioning as a single mom for so many years, even when my ex was living under the same roof with us years ago. (Single moms are tough, y’all. Don’t mess with one.)

Truth is, I also feel lucky. We’re blessed with health, good friends, and (usually) meaningful work. My children are taller, smarter and better looking than me, which is every mother’s dream. I know that most of this embarrassment of riches is due to God or Providence, whichever you believe; but I also know I helped.

We muscled through some crazy years fraught with addictions, overwork, separation, insecurity and a lifeless (though not pronounced dead) marriage. My ex and I stayed the course, each in our own way and in separate houses, with as much humor and grace as possible.

I wasn’t a perfect mother through the years, but I considered the role of “Mom” my first job, while his was “Provider.” He was good at his job, and brought in money, and I’m grateful for that, if not his presence in the house and his hands on deck.

Me, I figure at the very least, I was here. My kids got me a silver “#1Mom” charm for my bracelet one recent Mother’s Day, when they were old enough to pool their money and shop. So there you go.

For the family and the house, I stayed right here. I “kept the house from becoming a shithole,” is how my teenage daughter put it during a family counseling session. (Thank you very much.)

Strong? No question.

What I didn’t know, because it had never been tested, was that 50-cent word vulnerability. Only the divorce could pull me in that direction.

Showing up with nothing to show for decades is a long slog, but it’s not vulnerability. Vulnerability has no essence when it’s not acknowledged by the ones you pour into.

I once heard it said that being a mother to young children is like trying to tape jelly to the walls. The very nature of the job is the undoing of the job. And there’s no quitting, no matter how mushy, pointless and soul-crushing it seems some days.

The kids are older now, and for these two years on my own (really on my own, i.e. no “provider”) I kept trying to keep this whole thing together while charting a sensible course for the future. Same jelly, different flavor. Because their childhood bedrooms, the kitchen where they grew up, all the Christmases, our neighbors, and on and on.

And then the best thing happened…

The weight of all this responsibility to the house, the work, and everything else, finally broke me just enough to let the light in. It took awhile, but somewhere between Marie Kondo and the Tiny House Expo last summer, I started to imagine living on a smaller scale. Really imagine. Like, which sofa would I keep, could I share a bathroom with two teenaged boys, etc. I know where the scales tipped in favor of downsizing and now I have no doubt it’s the right move right now. (I’ll share that in a later chapter.)

It’s clear that living here in this large house is neither financially, physically nor emotionally possible, so now that the decision’s made, I’m on the move. And fast.

The genuine surprise — an idea that’s becoming truer every day — is that IF a house is the ultimate expression of shelter and protection, then deciding to sell it and move on represents a shift toward true comfort.

For the first time, I’m looking for a safe place, somewhere to be truly vulnerable… Somewhere to do that thing I could never do: take control of this life, by relaxing into it.

This time spent packing and patching up this house, and moving into wherever it is we land, feels like pure joy. It’s been maybe ten years since I’ve been able to cry. It was like a lake welling up inside to drown me. Now in these past few weeks, I’ve cried maybe three times! I call that a step forward.

Even the kids are taking this step into the unknown remarkably well. Though my youngest says he’s not “moving with me to the projects,” he’s showing resilience and courage by considering staying with his dad during the transition (which I secretly think might be a good thing).

For the first time in years, I can breathe. Now that that door is cracked, I’m going for it.

I’m thinking the the title of the book I should write is “Moving UP” because I view downsizing due to divorce as an opportunity to release the emotional, physical and spiritual baggage accumulated throughout the years you were married.

Downsizing is a leveling up.

It’s a delicious chance to stretch yourself to a place where your definition of self care, fulfillment, comfort and joy can be fully expressed… for yourself, your children, your family and friends, and all the beloved people you choose to enfold in your new digs.

Downsizing is also a story of boundaries because you get to decide, in a tangible way, what stays and what goes.

You even get to choose new parameters for living, the literal boundaries of the space you’ll call home for the next station in life. Your stuff and your space is nothing but a representation of what you allow in your life.

 
Making piles of stuff to donate.

There’s not a corner of a closet, nor a nicknack in a hutch, nor a bottle in your medicine cabinet that doesn’t represent energy at work in your life. Learning to say “No” to some of those things and a big “Hell yes” to others is one of the the magical criteria for creating the life you deserve now.

The story of downsizing after divorce begins far before the actual process of sorting, packing and selling the house.

It starts somewhere in the expectations you had when you moved into your home all those years ago, and it’s just the beginning of the adventure that awaits your full participation.

Do you find yourself in a house that doesn’t fit you anymore — physically, mentally, and spiritually?

You may not feel sure that you are ready to move up to another level and begin your new life. I know I debated the issue for years.

The process and timeframe are as unique as each and every woman. Wherever you are in the downsizing continuum, whether you’re in the full swing of your move or merely considering what life would be like in smaller place, I’m writing this for you.

No one can tell you when the time is right to downsize, but if you’re flirting with the possibility right now, these chapters will step you through the process as I experience it. I’m writing as I go.

My hope is that it helps you make your decision with grace and plenty of style.


One last story. My ex texted me yesterday to see if, in the process of cleaning, I had run across his three college diplomas and his dissertation. Sure enough, I located them on the bookshelves in the library.

 
Sorting the library.

[Note: where I’m going won’t have a library, but a cozy corner where my favorite books are stored and stacked on a simple book shelf, the rest on my efficient Kindle. A comfortable chair near a window, and my favorite floor lamp complete the vision.]

When I opened his dissertation, there on the dedication page written 25 years ago, was my maiden name. He thanked me, his fiance at the time, for my “support and patience.”

I had to smile at that; support and patience are still my best gifts to him, after all we’ve been through.

In the divorce, we settled up amicably and brought our best game of teamwork to the table. We actually had to advise our lawyers to wrap things up. I never felt angry or sad, just a state of limbo, like the car parked at the side of the road that you don’t even notice anymore. People asked if we were going to get back together.

It’s only been through these beginning stages of downsizing that I’ve felt moments of frustration (ok, anger), uncovered sweet and hard-edged memories I’d forgotten, and tasted the the occasional, visceral tang of regret.

“Support and patience” are not the stuff of a blissful marriage.

Something new is brewing at last. There is a lightness and tenderness that is beginning to flutter again in my gut.

I realize now that “support and patience” for myself are the qualities which brought me this far, but like small stones edging the path, they are not the whole story.

They are certainly not my whole future, which feels more expansive and free than support and patience could ever contain. Still, they are the feminine traits that put this story in motion, like many women who find themselves divorced and on the brink of something new.

Sharing both the dark and light sides exposed during the downsizing process provides the main content for this book. In doing so, I hope to provide glimmerings of joy, grace, and potential for loving your new home (wherever it is) and the people you’ll share it with.

Most of all I hope you take a few moments to savor yourself and the woman you’re becoming. My sincere intention is that any pain you feel leaves less and less impression on your heart as you embrace the task of downsizing and upleveling into your beautiful, soaring new life.

There is so much more in store. The best part of the story is just beginning…

Time to start.

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