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Drift Away From the Trusty Shores of Habit - Fresh Starts and New Beginnings

How many times do we all talk about, or even set about, making that proverbial ‘fresh start’ or ‘new beginning’ only to find ourselves drifting back to the trusty shores of habit? Sometimes we instigate change, or a change just occurs, bigger than our own sense of willpower and we have to handle it - we don’t have a choice.

Urban myth, pop culture or maybe even a bit of fact has it that the first legal business day of a new year is labelled by those ‘in-the-know’ as D-day, i.e. Divorce day. It’s the first day when married people who have decided things just can’t go on the way they are start to carve out a new path. So chances are, in Calgary alone, tens of couples, if not more, are striving to manage such a significant life change while also redefining their roles as parents and creating a new sense of family structure. No small task - especially when you throw in the everyday endless list of ‘to-dos’ that any parent deals with on a normal day.

My second son was just a year old when I separated from my first husband, but his older brother was almost five and at the time, happened to be busy studying ‘families’ at school. It was a wonderful preschool but quite traditional in terms of scope of social referencing. Thus, upon being told our lives were changing, he replied, “Okay.” Then he thought for a minute, his eyes grew wide and he gasped, “But we won’t be a family anymore!”

Apparently studies have shown that you can recall emotional pain in a way that you just can’t recall physical pain - it’s almost like you relive it. If I really allowed myself to sit and wallow in the memory of that moment, the dagger wound through my heart would start twinging. But looking back, it wasn’t the actual idea of family itself that caused him to go bug-eyed, it was fear - fear of change and a big change, of course.

Jodi Hope-Johnstone, a Calgary single mom of two, found that awareness of that fear of change helped her when she separated from her children’s father, “You have to face fear, don’t deny it and pretend it’s not there; lean into it and keep an open heart.” Because of that openness, Jodi feels she’s managed to experience a liberating new sense of self, “I’ve let go of so many preconceived notions of who I used to be - everything feels like a new beginning. I had bought into a story. I was attached to that story, but now I’m detached and creating a new story.”

Jodi found that role-modeling and creating a sense of change and new starts as being unthreatening also helped her children navigate their own new beginning, “Kids get caught up in that story too that, ‘We’re not a family anymore.’ We’re lucky that in this day and age, there is a wide variety of what a family is that children are exposed to. I point that out so that they don’t feel alone and different from their friends.”

Having had time to become comfortable and familiar with some of the new roles and routines she has decided to employ, Jodi has experienced a newfound sense of freedom resulting from this new beginning in her life. “For me, it really had to do with rediscovering myself again. I think everyone gets so caught up in labels like ‘mom,’ ‘stay-at-home mom,’ ‘wife’; dropping all those labels and just being me again was the best new beginning. There are so many positives. I’m not so hard on myself anymore.”

Joel Roos, MA, R. Psych. (PROV.), a staff counselor at Calgary Counselling Centre, agrees that as hard as separation or divorce can be for families, it can also be a time of new beginnings but that it depends on your perspective and approach: “Think of these things as a sequence and getting it right from the get-go; how are you going to start the process?”

In regard to sharing your decision with your kids, Roos advises that it’s best to start your new life by telling the kids about the change together, making sure to keep negativity in the guise of shame and blame out of the conversation. “Practice what you’re going to say and anticipate what the questions or response might be.”

Jodi found that the process of restructuring her family also provided instances of learning for her children, “It’s a great opportunity to teach that transition is not the end of something - it’s a transition into something else. It’s neither good nor bad, just something else and put it into terms they can understand. You have to be honest but not harsh; when my children ask, ‘Do you still love dad?’ I say, ‘Of course, in the same way I love Uncle Joe and Grandma.’” Roos similarly explains that one of the positive steps in navigating this change is that parents can explain what’s still going on, what will stay the same. “Positive steps at the beginning are good ways to step into growth.”

Of course, divorce and separation are hard and like any major change can bring about acute senses of overwhelm and doubt. Both Jodi and Roos believe that being kind and considerate to yourself are keys to both feeling positive and successful in regard to starting out and redefining this new path for yourself. Roos explains, “In any time of crisis, and divorce and separation is one, people tend to think they need to prioritize to get out of the crisis. Individuals might be thinking about moving out or the legal aspects and they can forget about self-care like diet, rest and activities that provide emotional support.” Roos believes that ensuring that you practice or maintain habits of self-care are central to maintaining a positive focus to this kind of life transition, “In crisis,  if people are more deliberate about their self-care - their diet, exercise and sleep - they will have more resources to draw on. By focusing only on the crisis, it makes it bigger and bad-der.”

Jodi also advises inclining toward compassion and kindness during the more challenging times of this process, “Be kind to yourself and allow room for the other person too. You’re both going through hard changes, and you have to remember that the person that maybe did something not so great last week is not the person your ex-partner is today. I try to think of every day as a new day. People react when they’re hurt and frustrated, you will too, and you have to forgive yourself for that.”

The Calgary Counselling Centre where Roos works facilitates a unique 10-week program, ‘Children of Divorce,’ in the city that works toward supporting both parents and children through separation and divorce. Running age-specific programs simultaneously, the Centre helps parents to transition into a new lifestyle for themselves and their family while children can take part in support programs with peers in another room at the same time. Roos ties the benefit of counseling to the scope of self-care sources we can draw on. “It’s a resource to help identify what needs changing and what are the steps to making those changes. There’s a point A and a point B, and point B can be whatever you could dream it to be.”

In his experience and perhaps as a rule, Roos has observed that it’s easy to identify problems, and that counseling can help us to look at the opportunities, to find solutions, to move toward point B and help us to develop skills to navigate challenges that might arise. “Counselors and programs help us to move in a positive direction strategically and deliberately.”

Jodi’s advice echoes this sentiment, affirming that being determined and committed to the new beginning is crucial to success: “Be clear that this is the only way, that this is the thing to do as the other person may try to sway you. If you know what you want, stay clear on that path. Know it will all work out and have faith.”

Looking back, I’m quite proud really of how I responded to my five-year-old son that night and it’s a memory I draw on if I start doubting my mom-ability due to, for example, always placing my shop-bought baked goods on the school party table next to the fancy Tupperware enthroned home-made creations. The experiences you have in becoming a parent, whether co-parenting or on your own, brings all kinds of life lessons and while change and certain experiences aren’t always pleasant, we do learn from them and grow as individuals. Surely being a little bit wiser, experienced or resilient isn’t a bad thing especially when that process might have resulted in many wonderful things - not least of all a whole other person or persons.

A very positive person by nature, Jodi makes a very valid point in relation to traversing this kind of new beginning either once, or more than once, in your life, “There is a lot of negativity around the ending of relationships, and it would be nice if we took time to be grateful and thank each other for the time together and how you’ve helped each other grow into what you’ve become.” And, of course, what you will be.

Victoria is a freelance writer living in Calgary. 

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