(65) Pandemic Divorce with Tara

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There are lots of stats about pandemic divorce, but few personal stories because of the sensitivity of this topic. Lucky for us, fellow writer, Tara Mandarano, opens up about her story and how it went down, the agreements she had about romance and soulmates, her insecurities about being a single mom, what’s getting her through it, other people’s opinions about her choice to write through her wounds, and more. 

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Brandy:  Hello Adult Conversation Podcast listeners. On today’s show, I’m talking with a fellow writer whose marriage fell apart during the pandemic. As she tells me in the interview, there are lots of stats about pandemic divorce, but few personal stories because of the sensitivity of the topic. But lucky for us, my guest opens up about her story and how it went down, the agreement she had about romance and soulmates, her insecurities about being a divorcee, what’s getting her through it, other people’s unsolicited opinions about her choice to write through her wounds, and why cats are magic. On to the show.

Brandy:  Today on the podcast, I’m talking with someone whose writing always makes me pause. It’s raw, poetic, and real. Today’s guest is a published writer, editor, and poet. Her gorgeous words have appeared in The Washington Post and Huffpost, among numerous other publications. She is also a patient advocate in the chronic pain and mental health communities and is a newly minted member of the single mom club, which we will be discussing at length. So welcome to the podcast, Tara.

Tara:  Thank you so much. 

Brandy:  I’m so happy to have you here. We’ve never met in real life (IRL) and I can’t remember how we even connected online, but as a fellow writer I’ve followed your story on Facebook because (A) Your writing is so striking about it and (B) What you went through this last year was quite a lot, and I just found the way that you wrote about it—I was gripped by what was going on in your life. So we have connected and I’m just so excited for you to share some of that today, because I think it’s very relatable. But before we get to that, what is something that you think the listeners need to know about you?

Tara:  Well, I was thinking about that. I worked at a publishing company called Harlequin Enterprises Limited (which is basically romance books) for several years and that’s actually where I met my ex. I think as I’ve gone through our separation over the last eight months, working there, and kind of absorbing all the things about love and happy endings and romance, I think that I internalized that a lot during my life and then subsequent marriage and I think it’s sort of interesting how I’ve only realized that since my husband and I have split, but it definitely made an impression on how I viewed relationships and what I thought they should be like.

Brandy:  So if you had to think about it, what were some of the takeaways? I mean, there’s the general like idea of romanticization, but what were some of the maybe unknown agreements that you had about relationships or love that you—I mean, not to dive in real quick—but what are some of those that were coming up for you that you were like, “Oh, that’s actually maybe not true.”

Tara:  I guess the first one is that, even though I didn’t subscribe to the “happily ever after” cliche, in my mind, I had framed our marriage as “we lived.” We didn’t necessarily—we weren’t living happily ever after, but we lived and it was imperfect and that was fine, and that was good for us. I think that sort of blinded me to the fact that you also can’t change who someone is, they have to be able to do that for themselves. I sort of wrapped a lot of things in a romantic bubble as in maybe thinking this person is my ideal person in certain ways, and then being disappointed when that person is only human, and doesn’t live up to all the things in your head that you think from the get-go that your partner will be. Not that I expected him to be perfect at all. Even though we’re going through separation, it’s pretty much civil and amicable. But I think that I had in my head, still, this notion that soulmates existed, and he was the one, and there couldn’t be anyone else, and no matter what came up in our relationship, that it was destiny, and it was fate, and whatever happened, we would just get through it, and that would be the story for the rest of our lives.

Brandy:  Right. The “love conquers all” idea. Yeah, love doesn’t tend to logistics sometimes. So can you tell us your story? It seemed like from my point of view, as somebody hearing you tell the story, it seemed like you got blindsided. Is that right?

Tara:  Yeah, I used that word a lot at the beginning, when my husband came to me on that summer, August morning and said to me—sat down on the bed and said, “This is going to be something hard to hear. I want a separation.” I did feel blindsided because a couple of months previous to that, we had had a mutual conversation that things weren’t going well and there were specific things that we needed to work on and I thought we were doing that. I knew that everything wasn’t perfect and that we had a long way to go. But I was receiving positive feedback during that time. We were both making an extra effort. So when he came and said that, to me, it kind of broke my heart just a little bit more, because I thought that we were on the right track. I’d say that day is probably the worst of my entire life. When I look back on it now, it’s a blur of me standing in the driveway with my pajamas and trying to get ahold of my family and not being able to see my daughter that day. The whole thing was just a mess. I’m sure anyone who’s gone through it will know that it’s just a surreal, surreal feeling. And then what kind of made everything more surreal was the fact that this was happening during a pandemic. 

Brandy:  Yeah. 

Tara:  Since March of 2020, when everything basically shut down, at least in North America, in terms of schools and everything else, from March until August, that was a terrible, stressful time for everyone, including our family. My family—we have one daughter, so an only child—she was six at the time. Some of your listeners might know if they have an only child that once you keep them inside with the online learning, and they’re not seeing friends or cousins, or they don’t have a sibling to go off and play with and keep themselves occupied, that’s kind of just an added layer of stress through no fault of her own. Just the fact that there was the three of us, basically on top of each other in a townhouse and both my husband and I trying to do our work and trying to take turns monitoring the online learning and also keeping her occupied when she wasn’t doing it. So when he left that August morning, it was just awful because I couldn’t really avail of my village or get their support in the normal way that you would. 

Brandy:  Right! Right. 

Tara:  You know? You go stay with your parents for a week, or go out to have wine with your girlfriends, that type of thing. The restrictions weren’t bad as they are now and have gone back and forth since then, but it still felt like I couldn’t access the normal things that would be available to me to help me through it and that made it extra hard to go through.

Brandy:  So do you feel like the pandemic intensified—maybe this isn’t a great question, because you don’t want to speak for him—but I guess the question is, if there weren’t a pandemic, do you think he would have wanted to separate? Was that something that the pandemic brought clarity for? Do you think that was something that he sort of cracked and this is what came out of it? How do you think the pandemic affected his choice to want to separate?

Tara:  Like you said, I can’t speak for him, and I wouldn’t. But what I’ve said previously about it, and what I think he probably would agree to is all the issues, maybe, in our relationship that were sort of bubbling under the surface for the last few years. I think the pandemic and spending all that time together definitely brought them to the surface. What I will say is, the marriage may have ended or fallen apart as time went on, but I do believe the pandemic—like if my marriage was hanging over a cliff, it pushed it over the edge. Definitely. I don’t know if he would necessarily agree with that. He would have his own take on challenges or timing. But for me, 100%, I felt like it was a driving force and that’s also why I kind of resent it. I don’t blame the pandemic 100% for my marriage falling apart, because if the solid foundation was there, then it would have gone through a rough patch, like I’m sure, obviously, a lot of marriages did. 

Brandy:  Right. 

Tara:  But there were a lot of them that weren’t coming out of it, that weren’t making it. At the time when it happened to me, all I heard about that was that in China, they were lengthening the period where you couldn’t—you had to go through a certain time period before you could even file for separation or divorce. They were extending it by 30 days, and there was talk—were they going to do that in other countries? There were so many articles about statistics, and all of these things that people were going through, and yet I wasn’t hearing anything from actual people who were going through this situation that I was. It was just all of this non-personal stuff. I was approached by a friend of a friend who worked at a national news station, and she was working on the story about separation during the time of COVID. She said to me, “Do you think you would be willing to share your story? Because we can’t really get anyone to go on public record, or go on camera and talk about what it’s like.” I was feeling the same because I thought, “I can’t be the only one going through this.” 

Brandy:  Yes! Right. 

Tara:  People were telling me, “Oh, I know such and such, and my friend’s going through the same hard time.” I didn’t know these people well enough to call them up and talk to them about it. I also just felt like, that morning when he left, so much of my life became something that I felt very powerless in. I felt like already we were given so many rules about the pandemic, “don’t do this, don’t do that,” my husband decided he wanted the separation. It just left me feeling that I didn’t have any agency left in my life and I felt there were these other people out there, like I said. Women going through the same thing. On top of that stereotype of feeling shamed for going through a divorce or being separated, I felt now there was this extra shame layered on top of, “Yeah, you’re going through a separation or divorce but now it’s during COVID. Your marriage must have been really terrible for it just to kind of go by the wayside now.” And I thought, “Nobody’s talking to these women. I am one of those women. I need to get my voice back and just own my own story to feel like I’m just not letting this happen to me, that I can tell my own story and shape my own narrative about it. That will help me not only accept it, but get through it.”

Brandy:  Oh, gosh, yes. I would imagine that women going through it, because there’s the COVID layer to it, like you’re saying, it has this whole other thing where like, how do you make sense and meaning—making sense and meaning of a divorce or separation, I would imagine, is already hard. There’s so much to unpack and so many agreements and changes and things. But then in the pandemic, I would imagine there’s a question of, “Well, is this a quote, unquote “normal separation?” Is this just a pandemic one? Where do the two cross over?” I would imagine that some of the women that were in your shoes were having a hard time even articulating about it, even like I am here, because there’s a whole other layer on top of it. You’re in this other pressure cooker. It’s like, “How does that relate to other people I know who’ve gotten a divorce or been separated? That wasn’t in a pandemic.” So it’s almost like you’re part of that crew, or you’re going through that, but it’s got this whole other different feel to it.

Tara:  Yeah, definitely. And I remember calling up lawyers far too early in the process, like a week or two later, because once again, I was trying to get some sense of control back. I remember—even just recently talking to our accountant in terms of doing taxes and he said what a lot of people were thinking, including, I think, friends and family, which was, “Do you think maybe there’s still a chance that you’re going to get back together?” People separate all the time and I don’t know what the percentage rates are, but some of them do come back and say “I’ve had my space and time and I’ve realized that the relationship is the most important thing and I’m willing to work on it.” But from day one, from that day in August, I knew looking into my husband’s eyes and just knowing how he is and basically like feeling like I knew him best over the past 10 years that this was no short term, “let’s see how it goes” separation. This was it. And I struggled to explain that and convince people close to me because of like you said, this added layer of the pandemic, a lot of people just thought, “Well, you know, it must have been tough with all of you guys at home and with your daughter not being able to go to school and everybody—then their anxieties and their own issues kind of come to the surface.” And while all that did play a part, I just knew in my heart that there was no coming back from this in terms of reconciliation. This was going to be the way that it was going to be and that finality also added to my grief, because there wasn’t really any hope in me that this might change. So just the finality of it just felt like—It felt as if he’d died. That was it. It was a permanent end. Even though he hadn’t, I still had to see him every three or four days to hand off our daughter and whatever for half the week here, half the week there. Even now, it’s eight and a half months later, and it’s still really tough, because where we are, we’re in our third lockdown with the virus.

Brandy:  You’re in Canada, right?

Tara:  I am, yeah. I’m just outside Toronto and our numbers went from being pretty good to extremely awful now and it’s quite a desperate situation. So those early days of my separation, where I could go into my mum and dad’s house, and get their support, and my sister was there and I remember her making me a sandwich that day, the first day I went there, because I couldn’t eat. All of that has been stripped away. If I want to see them, I maybe have a driveway visit, that type of thing. But it’s not the same, you know? It’s not the same as going in and getting a hug from your mum or going to your sister’s place and seeing my niece and nephews and getting that little hit of endorphins, being around kids and that kind of thing. So it’s just been very complex. Being on my own half the week was really startling in terms of—you go from all of us here at once to being on your own. I will say my saving grace is the fact that I have two cats.

Brandy:  Yes, cats are magic. Cats are medicine.

Tara:  I’m so grateful that I got two of them when we did because not only do they keep each other company, but they will take turns coming up to me and hanging around or wanting attention or even just sitting with me. I honestly don’t think my mental health would be where it’s at today if I didn’t have them around, because I never realized what a comfort they could be. I never grew up with pets or animals or that kind of thing. It’s been an eye opener. Just to have another presence in the house is enough to make me feel like I’m not totally alone. 

Brandy:  That’s beautiful. Do you think too—when you’re talking about people who say, “Do you think there’s a chance that you guys would get back together?” Maybe the pandemic making people feel a little bit like that—I’m thinking about when you’re explaining that day and what you saw in your husband’s eyes, even if he, for whatever reason, came back at some point and said “I was wrong,” or whatever, I imagine part of the death that you felt was even if he changed his mind, how could you go back with somebody who delivered this blow to you in this way? I feel like maybe that’s what—I don’t know. I just think that that would be such a hard thing. When you said that that was the worst day, I feel like that piece is so tough because you know, even if he could wrap his head around it or come back around, ultimately—I mean, maybe in the moment or a week later you would have been like, “Yes, let’s get back together.” But ultimately, that’s a severing blow to know that when stuff gets hard and we are in one of the lowest points, that he was able to cut you away like that. I don’t mean to say that to make you feel bad. I mostly want to validate you on just how hard that would be to be in your position.

Tara:  Yeah, you’re right. Definitely if he had come back fairly soon after leaving and said, “You know what, I’ve had a chance to rethink things or I think I made a mistake.” I think I still would have been in the headspace and the sense of shock and just wanting things to be back to normal that it probably would have been easier to accept. As time has gone on and I’ve seen the roots that he’s putting down in terms of getting his own place, that kind of thing, just knowing that he’s built up a separate life, which a lot of it obviously has nothing anymore to do with me—it’s been cruel, but it’s also been an eye opener because like I said, next month (the way I refer to it) is going to be like a gestation period.

Brandy:  Yeah, yeah. 

Tara:  On day one, I wouldn’t have seen myself getting to nine months later and what everyone said to me about time and grief—they are right, but I think I’ve learned in my own experience that even now, so many months later, I will thankfully have a series of days or longer where I feel good, I feel capable, I feel like I can handle this, I can handle life. And those waves of grief that I experienced at the beginning, almost daily, or twice a day or whatever, they are coming less frequently now, but they are still coming. I remember my Nana, my mother’s mother, who was Irish, we would always go there every summer or so for vacations. We would go to this little seaside town and into the water, and she never called the waves “waves,” she always called them “breakers,” which I hadn’t really heard before, maybe that’s an Irish term for them. But when I was going through these waves of grief during the separation, I thought, “You know what? That is such an accurate word for this feeling.” Because it feels like something comes over you and it kind of breaks you apart the feelings rush in just like a wave would. And you kind of have to surrender to it. I felt like I was underwater with all these terrible feelings of insecurity and not being good enough, and then eventually it lifts or you know, kind of washes away. Like I said, the positive thing about time is that there are less of those, but it’s still amazing to me, at the drop of a hat, how something can set you off. I still live in the marital home so I’ve moved things around, I’ve made it my own space, but there are still times when I look at things or I’m reminded of things and it’s still really, really hard. I wanted to stay in this space because it’s so much—to me, it’s a comfort to still be around something that’s familiar. But at the same time, your old life is sort of still here, yet your new life is also here. So it’s kind of—it’s trying to go between those and root yourself firmly in the present.

Brandy:  Right, right. That reminds me I have a dear friend who just lost her husband recently. She was talking—and it was kind of a long, drawn out thing—she was talking about the Bardo, which is this place that’s in between that’s not where you were and who you were before, and it’s not quite where you’re going yet, it’s this middle ground place. So it sounds like you still feel like you’re in that middle ground place. Is that right?

Tara:  Yes. It’s like a sense of being in limbo, or what I’ve learned is a luminal space. I grew up raised Catholic, so it’s kind of also the way I envision purgatory. I feel like I’ve got a foot into the future. I can see the newer version of me coming through, I can feel it emerging. But it’s a process. There are days where I don’t want to be that newer version of myself, I just want to wallow in that in between stage where you have finally accepted that this is the reality, but at the same time, your heart is still railing against it. It’s not what you envisioned for yourself and it’s just completely different from the idea of your life story that it’s hard to wrap your head around.

Brandy:  Yeah, I bet. I saw that you posted something the other day that said, “Thank you for letting me go because I wouldn’t have walked away.” I was just struck by it, because watching your process and how you’re going through this, I was wondering, are you at a place where—and do you think you’ll ever be at a place where you start to see your marriage and go, “Yeah, maybe it wasn’t the best thing for us,” or like what the post said. Can you tell me more about what was behind that post or how you felt about it?

Tara:  When I saw that post, I felt like my higher self really resonated with it because that version of me could see the wisdom in those words, and could see the fact that my marriage was not what it should have been the last few years during the pandemic and that does not mean that that’s my husband’s fault, or it’s entirely my fault. The way I think of it is basically the circumstances of the situation that we were in during those years. Just to give you a glimpse, I suffered with chronic pain due to fibromyalgia and endometriosis and I also struggled with mental health issues, which included (and do include) anxiety and bipolar, too. So that was a very stressful environment for both of us to be in. When you’re in pain, obviously, whether physically or mentally, you’re not at your best self, you’re not able to contribute and participate. I wasn’t able to be the mother and wife that I wanted to be, and that’s sort of a vicious cycle. 

Brandy:  Yeah.

Tara:  You start feeling bad and you know that you can’t do everything and you need to rest, but you feel defensive. Then on the other side, having to be a caretaker, and go from a role of being an equal partner, to having to take on a lot more household duties and parenting, that can build up resentment, and you can run into a form of PTSD, which I didn’t even know existed, called “compassion fatigue.” So when you get a relationship that’s turned from something a bit more equal, and still maintaining that air of romance and spending time together and wanting to spend time together to a situation where one person is in pain, and the other person is frustrated because they can’t help that pain, and there’s more pressure on them to keep everything going, I can see. I can see why the marriage went downhill. Neither of us were being our best selves. We both had our moments where things became too much. It’s only being out of the marriage and as time goes on that you start to reflect back and sort of shove aside this natural self-blame that sets in from day one. “That, “Oh, my gosh, it was all my fault. If I hadn’t been sick, if I hadn’t had mental health issues, then we wouldn’t be here, this wouldn’t have happened.” 

Brandy:  Right. Right. 

Tara:  “I should have tried harder, I should have not rested so much, I should have made more of an effort to do things with my daughter, even though I wasn’t feeling up to it.” There’s a part of that that’s valid and I’ve learned to own that and say, “Yes, there are times that I didn’t do my best and maybe I did take advantage of things or took my husband for granted.” Definitely that was part of it, but it wasn’t all of it. It’s taken a long time to see that there is another side. I’ve grown up my whole life very insecure. Thinking I wasn’t extroverted enough, thinking I wasn’t attractive enough, just feeling sort of “less.” So when this happened, it kind of confirmed all of my worst fears, like “You are so bad as a person and as a wife that somebody actually had to leave you because you were that bad.” I clung on to that idea for a long time, which didn’t help. So when I saw that quote that you mentioned, I feel like I had enough time from the initial implosion of the marriage to say, “You know what? There were things about that relationship you didn’t feel good about, and it wasn’t really serving you and in some ways, it was making you feel even less about your self worth. So maybe—As I look back at it, maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that it happened. I mean, it’s terrible to go through, especially during a pandemic, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone at all. 

Brandy:  Yeah. 

Tara:  But I’ve had so many people like yourself that I know online and such a supportive community and so many women who have gone through this usually quite a long time ago, and they’re on the other side. They’ve seen that happiness can exist beyond that one relationship and their confidence can come back. So when I posted that I thought I just thought you know what, “You probably would not have walked away even though you were feeling not as loved and cherished as you thought you could or maybe that you deserve to be, you would have stayed in that situation and sort of just went along with it put up with it because you have that deep insecurity that maybe nobody else would want you. So you kind of just have to make the best of this.” Now I’m able to see that there are parts of this current reality of mine that may be better than they were before.

Brandy:  Yeah, I think that this is such a common, relatable thing. I think there’s a lot of women in marriages that feel the same way. And like something you said earlier, when you said that it was cruel, but it was an eye opener—sometimes that clarity that we need in order to really make some big life changes that lead to our freedom can feel so cruel. I’m with you, when you say you wouldn’t wish it on anybody. It sounds like it was traumatic for maybe lack of a better term. And I’m also happy that you have some clarity about this that you couldn’t have had if you were still in it.

Tara:  That’s right. The only way to get that clarity is, in my case, to sort of be forced into this situation. If I had gotten to the point where I had realized that the relationship was not a good thing for either of us, I think it would have taken me a long time to get there, if I ever got there. In a sense, I’m getting to the place where I can see that maybe he had to be cruel to be kind. He had to be the one to make that decision or take that step because he probably knew too, that I wouldn’t. That I would want to cling on to this idea (like I said at the beginning of the show) of not this fairy tale, but this still romantic outline of how we met at a romance company, we got married in a bookshop, all of these things were magical things to me. I built this narrative around it and thought that this was going to be the way it always was, and that conveniently ignored that things were going in the wrong direction and that “happily ever after” was very elusive at that point.

Brandy:  The thing that you said that just totally stopped me was this idea that maybe he had to be cruel to be kind. What a perspective. I’m sure there’s moments where you’re like, “Yeah, fuck him,” sometimes. That’s a really interesting way to think about maybe what his good intention was, or his positive intention behind it is maybe in some way he did you a favor, even though on the outside, it feels like he didn’t. That’s a pretty astute thing for you to be able to say.

Tara:  But you’re right, you kind of—in my case I vacillate between that and still that anger or that sadness. It’s not so much the anger anymore. I think that’s more of an emotion that I went through, or most women go through at the beginning of the process. But then as you go on, you start to maybe consider things from the other side and his point of view. He is a completely decent, loving, caring man and the most wonderful father to our daughter. I am so lucky that that’s who he is as a human being. I never expected him to be the vengeful, uncooperative sort of man when this happened and I’ve come to appreciate that more as time goes on. I remember that he did say, at the time, and since then, that, yes, he needed to do this for himself, to feel happier for his own mental health in his life. But he also mentioned the fact that he thought I would be happier. That things would improve in terms of my own self confidence or my own feelings of self worth if maybe we went our separate ways. There was a recognition there that we both weren’t treating each other the best that we could, and that if we let this fester, and go on for who knows how long—and I often think, now about what would happen. We’re still going through the pandemic. 

Brandy:  Yeah.

Tara:  There’s no end of it being gone. Especially here in Canada, a lot of people are not vaccinated. We would still be in this situation of being on top of each other, then there’d be a respite, my daughter going back to school, and they cancel the school. I wonder today, how would we have survived it to this point. We probably wouldn’t. So on a human level, I do appreciate the fact that I don’t think he made this decision wholly based 100% on, “This will make my life easier and happier and I need to get out of it.” I think there was real thought and consideration to how this would affect me in the short term, and in the long term and that’s not something that you can appreciate in month one, month two, month three.

Brandy:  Yeah. Of course.

Tara:  Even now, while I’m talking to you, I’m saying that but tonight I could have a moment where I’m watching something, or I’m reading something, or I look at the calendar, and I see our wedding anniversary coming up next month, and it just brings me to my knees. It’s trying to just balance those two emotional states where part of you is starting to see what your life could be like and find the positives of the situation, but also, still having one foot in the past and being like, “This is not what it should have been. This wasn’t supposed to happen.” I feel like so many people go through that, no matter what kind of trauma they have in their life. They just cannot wrap their head around, this was completely not what they envisioned their life to be. For me, especially with family and friends, it’s been trying to really battle these feelings of shame, and stigma, and being a single mother, and always having sort of this unconscious perception of what that meant, or what that said about a person and then becoming one and feeling like that was wrong. I didn’t take into consideration all the nuances of what goes into being a single mom or a single parent, and how you might unconsciously look at someone and their choices and wonder, “How did they get there?” And then feeling like people were looking at me, and maybe I was projecting it, like, “How did she get into this mess? What happened? What did she do wrong that her husband would actually leave her in a pandemic?” I’m still battling with that sense of being judged, even if no one is doing it overtly, or even thinks that way. I’m doing it to myself. So that’s something that I have to work on. I’ve written a lot of articles in the past eight months or so about my first Christmas as a single mom, my first Valentine’s as a single mom, and my first Mother’s Day as a single mom, just to try and write through these experiences and see the positives in terms of getting closer to my daughter and making our own traditions. Writing these essays, it helps me really give myself a positive pep talk and actually see that there are ways that we can be creative and do things together to strengthen our bond that maybe wouldn’t have happened if the three of us were still here, kind of walking on edge and being on tiptoes around each other. 

Brandy:  Right. Speaking of your daughter, how did you juggle being human in front of her with also being resilient? That had to be (and probably continues to be) such a hard thing that you feel your feelings, but then you’re probably trying to not display too many of those for your daughter, but then you want to show that you’re resilient, but you’re also real. How has that been to mother while you’re going through this big transition?

Tara:  I will honestly say that it is the single hardest thing that I have to do every day that I’m with her and that she’s here. Like you said, the balance between being resilient and also being real, that line is so fine. 

Brandy:  I bet.

Tara:  Such a narrow line, especially when you have an only child. Especially when you have—in my case, a daughter that is so perceptive, so intuitive, so in touch with the emotions in the environment, and particularly how I’m feeling. We’re both Scorpios. I don’t know what your readers are into or not. I don’t put a lot of stock in astrology and everything, but we are both very intense creatures. We’re emotional creatures. Because we are so alike, we’re so in tune, like I said with whether one of us is feeling upset or down or sad, it has been the biggest challenge to be on for her and try to be normal and fun and think of things to do, activities—

Brandy:  You’re pulling from a well that’s dry. You’re like, “I just want to go cry in the corner.”

Tara:  Yeah, sometimes. I’ll have those days where I can plan those things, and I found that that’s really helpful in our situation. I remember at the very beginning when this happened, my sister, who’s been such a rock—I remember her saying after the initial few days, “When you go back and you’re with her, you need to have a couple of things planned to keep your mind off things, obviously, and turn her mind towards something that’s kind of distracting because all you’re gonna want to do is just go into a corner and ball up and just cry your eyes out. But that’s not what she wants to see. She’s already kind of worried about her mom and all these changes.” That was really good advice and I did that. To this day, I will plan things like that. Just recently (last weekend) I went out and bought a bunch of things to bake or make little cakes, because she’s addicted to these YouTube channels where they show you how to make these cakes, and then everything kind of goes in fast forward motion, and you end up with these beautiful cakes, or whatever. She loves to watch them, she loves me to watch them with her, and I am not domestic at all. 

Brandy:  {Laughs}

Tara:  Which is, maybe another problem. I see these cakes, and I just panic. Yet I know it would be something that she would like to do. The first time I went out to the grocery store, I was really optimistic. I don’t know what I was thinking because I bought flour, I bought all these eggs, all these things as if I was going to do it from scratch. Then the day she came back, I thought, “What am I doing? This is going to be a disaster because I don’t know how to do this. I can’t really wing it. It’s gonna frustrate me and her and the whole thing is just going to backfire.” So I made a split decision, and I said, “That’s it.” I went back to the grocery store and I bought these little pieces of sliced vanilla bread and a little thing that looks like a little cake shape. And I thought, “You know what? We’re just going to get a bunch of different icings, and buttercream, and cheese cream, and sprinkles, and chocolate chips, and we’re just going to layer these little things that are already made with anything we want. It’s going to be totally decadent and it’s going to be giving us both a sugar high, but it’s going to be fun.”

Brandy:  Perfect. That is so brilliant! 

Tara:  As a mother, you have to know your strengths and you have to keep your own mental health in mind. If you’re going to do some sort of activity like this, make sure that you can do it. At least a version of it that is maybe not perfect, but it’s still the process is still fun. I feel like if I can have these things sort of lined up, at least some rough ideas in the back of my head, that she has a better chance of being happy and amused by something. It is, like I said, the toughest thing to do. I can be honest and say there are moments when I have—instead of just being real, or just saying, “Mommy’s having a hard day emotionally or I’m feeling a bit sad about a situation,” where I have come apart, and you feel so guilty as a mother. You think, “I’m supposed to put this face on, and be resilient with a capital “R,” and put on my “mummy armor,” which was something that my therapist and I used to talk a lot about. That’s great, but there’s going to be days of the month, either that something hits you, or your hormones hit you, or something just is not going to lend itself to being a resilient kind of day. I’ve struggled with that guilt as well and just trying to be like, “What are other mothers doing? Are they coping better in this kind of situation?” But it also has given me so much more compassion for people that have not been able to hold it together 100% in front of their kids, because that’s unrealistic.

Brandy:  That mommy armor is heavy. And to carry it constantly, it’s gonna fall. It’s gonna break.

Tara:  It is. That’s also why I try to get a lot of what I’m feeling and thinking inside expressed through my writing. Because for me, that’s an outlet where I’m not getting upset in front of my daughter, or my family, I’m not crying down the phone every other day. I am able to know what I think about something and also have it be a therapeutic process for me when I write these things. That’s something else that I’ve got pushback on and differing opinions from people. A lot of people like yourself who say, “I follow your story, and I appreciate it and your honesty and all of that,” and then I’ve had other opinions from people that are like, “Why didn’t you just call me up if you were feeling that bad? Why did you have to write about it?” Or just others not understanding the writer point of view of, this is a form of therapy and if I don’t get it out, literally my mental health is just going to tank.

Brandy:  Yeah, and sometimes you need—The writing process I find is sometimes I need to not talk to somebody else about it, I need to talk to myself about it and write through what’s really happening. So even somebody who’s like, “Why didn’t you call me?” Well, there’s different ways we support each other and we support ourselves. I know for me, sometimes I just need to hash it out with myself, how I really feel about something and having somebody else’s point of view is actually not helpful.

Tara:  Right. Yeah, I find for me, if I share something on Facebook, for example, there are so many other women and people, like I said, that have gone through this, and a lot of people in my life haven’t. They are so kind and supportive and well intentioned. But it’s not the same thing as hearing from somebody that’s been there and how they got through it and past it. 

Brandy:  Yeah. 

Tara:  I’ve also had a lot of people telling me, “You’re going through so much right now and it’s so raw. Your emotions are at the surface. Why don’t you wait for a while? Why don’t you get some distance from this mess and then you’ll have a different perspective on things, and it won’t be as raw?” And that’s actually come from a lot of writers that I know through social media, and it’s made me think, “Are they right?” 

Brandy:  I mean, that’s one way, but it’s not THE way.

Tara:  Should I write for myself only? Like in a diary in a notebook or in a Word doc, and not share it with anybody and just have it there and then look at it in a few years and think, “Oh, if I want to write a memoir, I can look back on this and revise it or see that it wasn’t my perspective a few years later.” But I tried to do that. I tried just posting pictures of my daughter, or my cats, or inspirational quotes and I found I couldn’t not write. I have dialed back on some of the more personal elements of it, or any kind of distinguishing factors or that kind of thing, after having conversations with my ex and trying to respect his wishes, that I don’t share everything with everyone around the world about what’s going on in our situation. But I would like to think that I’ve found a way to be honest about my life without totally crucifying him, or making it sound as if he’s the bad guy 100% and I was the one that did nothing wrong. That’s not the case.

Brandy:  No, and it doesn’t seem to be what you’re saying.

Tara:  Yeah, I tried to be fair and equal, but there’s still going to be some people that if you share anything, whether it’s on Facebook, to a private group of friends, or whether in my case, you shared it with a newspaper, or you’ve shared it with national news, which is a huge thing that I had to reckon with with other people, that some people just aren’t going to understand that and are not going to be happy with that. I’ve actually lost a couple of relationships with that. Because of that. That’s something that I’ve wrestled with. I think to myself, “Would you still have done that interview knowing what the fallout would be with some people? Was it worth it?”

Brandy:  Oh gosh. Then that feels like being silenced, right? 

Tara:  It does, yeah. 

Brandy:  That’s the hard part about it is, the cost is you being silent about it and there’s a fine line between, you don’t want to vilify and you don’t want to give too many personal details about the other person, but there are always the people who feel like you speaking your story at all, is too much. That feels like a prison, to be silenced like that. That sucks. I’m sorry you dealt with that.

Tara:  I actually used the word “muzzled” at the time when I was going through that, and since then, I’ve had a lot of people come back and support me and say, “You know what? It was probably really painful and took a lot of nerve for you to even do that and then to deal with this extra painful repercussion is added on that.” But I’ve also learned to realize that some people are not going to be happy no matter what you do and it’s not my job to make them happy or to make them comfortable. Two truths can exist at the same time and there can be one side of me that’s like, “You were right to do that interview or share your story because you needed to for your own agency and mental health and to help others,” which has been the main priority for all of my writing, whether it’s about mental health, chronic pain, having an only child, etc. But it’s also true that some people are hurt by that and they don’t understand it, and they don’t want to be necessarily associated with me or talk to me because of that. They exist at the same time and that’s something that I’ve had to learn that, yes, I would do the same things over again, but I can’t control the other part of how people will react. 

Brandy:  Right, and there’s always going to be people—So then if you aren’t talking about it, people are like, “You should be talking about it.” There’s just no winning it so you have to do what feels best to you. But I was thinking about with the writers—what strikes me as interesting is that other writers have said, “Maybe wait some time until you have some perspective.” I mean, that would be different if you were writing a memoir, and you’re gonna write it fresh in this, which isn’t what you’re doing. But to write Facebook posts, to me, what that speaks to is this idea that only when you have it polished, and you have it all thought through, is it valuable, or should we witness it. What I’m loving about your posts—and I love people who write through the process of it, who write through the different phases of it, and who then maybe down the line go, “Gosh, I remember I was so X, Y or Z about this thing and now I have a different perspective.” If we don’t show the human process of all the nuances that you go through and all the different emotional places that we land, but then we suddenly appear two years later and we’re like, “So here’s the meaning I’ve made out of this.” I want to see the mess because we’re all living the mess every day, and if we only see the tidy at the very end of it, to me—That’s why I’m surprised that writers would say that. But there’s all different kinds of writers and what people like, but I appreciate the process, because I think that’s where a lot of people need to shine a light and need to be validated is on the process, not in the, “After the hardship happened—and here’s the meaning I made.” Again, there’s going to be people who disagree with me, but I so appreciate the process. I think somebody who really (I think) showed us this in a big way was Glennon Doyle. Because she has these books where—and love her or hate her. There’s definitely writers that are like, “How did she get these books published? In the ones before she’s saying her marriage is so great, and then she has this book where it’s not great, and now she’s a lesbian.” But I love—it’s a process. So what, she’s not supposed to write until she gets it right, which is maybe when she’s on her deathbed? So I just think she was a great example of somebody who wrote regardless. And yeah, had to come back later and be like, “So that one thing I wrote? I don’t feel that way anymore.” And I just, I don’t know. I just feel like I wish we had more acceptance for people in the mess trying to figure it out.

Tara:  I agree. I’m not saying that I would take these Facebook posts, and in two months, say, “I’m using all of these, I’m going to put them together, I’m going to figure out a way to make a theme out of them, and then this is my memoir.” Because anyone would know—I mean, people have done it. I don’t know what they think about it after the fact. But I know that it’s messy. I know that it’s raw. I would still like for it to be honest and raw at the end of it, however form it takes. But there is no way that I can’t write it. And that’s something that I just realized. I thought, “Do you want me to be in a mentally stable place where I’m able to get up, get out of bed, look after myself on the days where it’s just me, and then be able to care for my daughter and be halfway normal and present when she’s with me?” Because if I have this urge, and these words are in my head, and they’re already forming, and I stifle them, I muzzle them, that’s not me. I have to be able to get them out and share them. Some of them resonate more with people, and some of them—just kind of whatever. It’s not it’s not a question of how many people like your posts, but for me, it’s when people comment, and even get a conversation going, or comment on other comments and say, “This is my input.” What I’ve learned is people have such unique perspectives on what you write, and they come at it from so many different situations, and they interpret it and they have their own spin on things, which for me, they really make me think differently in ways that I wouldn’t necessarily come up with myself. That’s been so rewarding, because I think I’m just posting about this, this is my viewpoint and then other people will come in and say, “Well, actually, this is the way I interpret it.” Or, “This happened in my life.” Or, “Don’t beat yourself up so much.” It’s just been so interesting and validating to have that kind of feedback. Like I said, it’s not a case where I need 300 people to like a post.

Brandy:  Right.

Tara:  It’s a case of whether someone comments or sends a private message, or even in the old days when we were out and about or you ran into someone, and someone would say, “That thing you wrote, or that essay that you wrote, really helped me.” That’s part of it, too, why I see it as a vocation. Obviously, it’s for myself to get it out and to get therapy. But it’s also—doing the interview about being separated, in the background of a pandemic was—I’m speaking to other people, too. This is not just for me, I’m not trying to get media, it’s not a revenge story, or whatever. This is, because other people out there are feeling the same, they’re not talking about it, and it would make me feel better if somebody else was—and if I have to be that person, even though I’m introverted, and camera shy, and that kind of thing, I will be that person for myself and for other people that don’t have a voice.

Brandy:  Yes. Well, In closing, I’m curious. For you, what surprised you most about becoming a separated, single mother? Are there things that married moms don’t understand about this? What jumped out at you? Or, I guess, what surprised you?

Tara:  I guess what surprised me the most is the strength that I didn’t think I really ever had inside me to deal with things on my own. That’s not to say that I don’t have moments where I still feel that there are things that come along that I don’t feel equipped to deal with. It is also just being with my daughter. The situation has—I wouldn’t want to say forced, but it’s put me in a place where I have to be present with her. I’m the only one here. There’s no tag-teaming anymore. There’s no more, “Okay, I’m done, it’s your turn, you’re up.” That’s a big thing that I didn’t realize, being in a marriage, not being a single mother is how much I relied on those periods where I could step down, go away for an hour, read my book, get some rest, and my husband would take my daughter to a park or something, and come back, and then I would feel like, “Okay, I’ve had some time, now I can have fun with her, I feel ready to do that.” That’s gone. It’s not that I don’t ever say I need to rest if I’m in pain, or I need a break, or whatever. But I’ve learned to—I want to say just try to go with the flow and enjoy moments with her. Whereas I’m not secretly looking at the clock thinking, How many hours is this going to go on for? When does she go to bed?” Some of those thoughts I would have had, maybe previously when I was married, where I thought, “There’s someone else here who can pull up the slack if I’m just not in the mood. I know a lot of mothers, some mothers just don’t feel like mothering all the time for whatever reason, whatever’s going on in their life. 

Brandy:  Yeah.

Tara:  Now being this newly single mother, you’ve got to step it up and use that strength and resilience that you’ve had that you’ve never really had to harness in quite this way. You can do it. It’s really tough and it’s really hard, but you can do it. The fact that some days I get it right, like with the baking thing, and then other days, I get it wrong, where I fall apart. Like the two truths, holding them at the same time, we were talking about earlier. I’m learning how to be more easy on myself, not so judgmental, and more forgiving. I want to say about the entire situation, that I didn’t blow up my family, or ruin everything. A lot of it was circumstantial, it was the way that it went, and in the long run, it could be the best thing that’s ever happened for all of us. But being able to harness that wisdom and that strength and realize that it has been there all along. But maybe I haven’t needed to draw it out or depend on it so much until I had to.

Brandy:  Right. Yeah, and you’re in the process of it, too. I’m sure there’ll be, as you’re saying, that time is a healer and helps things and that’s what people tend to say but you’re in the process of getting to those places. It’s beautiful, like you said earlier, that you can feel and see this version of yourself, even if you’re not quite there, that you’re still in process. I love that there’s a guiding part of yourself that’s showing you that it’s possible. One of the other things I wanted to mention before we wrap up is, somebody had posted something today that was about—I don’t know if it was from Brene Brown, because I know she talks about radical acceptance. But I thought it was so interesting. It read, “Radical acceptance, when you cannot keep painful events and emotions from coming your way. What is radical acceptance? Radical means all the way, complete and total. It is accepting in your mind, your heart, and your body. It’s when you stop fighting reality, stop throwing tantrums because reality is not the way you want it, and let go of bitterness.” And I was like, “Oh, shit.” And then it says, “What has to be accepted? Reality is as it is. The facts about the past and the present are the facts even if you don’t like them. There are limitations on the future for everyone but only realistic limitations need to be accepted. Everything has a cause, including events and situations that cause you pain and suffering. Life can be worth living even with painful events in it.” I just really—I don’t know. There’s something about that that spoke to me this morning. I hear about radical acceptance all the time, but this really when it said, “Radical means all the way, complete and total. When you stop fighting reality because it’s not the way you want it.” Oh, damn. I don’t know, that struck me. And going from reading that and then actually breathing that in and living that I think is—again, like we’re talking about, it’s a process. But I would imagine there’s definitely some wisdom in there. It seems like you had kind of said already, realizing that this isn’t what you thought it was going to be and having to change your trajectory.

Tara:  Exactly. It also reminds me of a moment very early on in Liz Gilbert’s book in Eat, Pray Love where her marriage is over and I think she’s in the bathroom, crying in the middle of the night and she hears this voice in her head, her higher self speaking to her saying that everything is going to be okay in the end and that she’ll get through this. I’ve thought a lot about that myself, because I do hear echoes of that voice within me, my higher self and that’s what’s guiding me through this process to that radical acceptance that you mentioned. It’s inspirational. 

Brandy:  Yeah.

Tara:  It’s something to move toward. I think that I probably will get there, or a place close to there, eventually. But I do see it as encouraging that I’m following the words that one of my therapists said to me, quite a few years ago now. The biggest thing I took away from our sessions is quite simple. She just said to me, “Whatever situation you’re in, or you’re struggling with it, or you don’t know what to do, or you think everything’s your fault, just take a minute and ask yourself, is there another way to look at this?” At the time, I didn’t really put too much stock in it. But now after all these things that I’ve gone through; separation, health issues, mental health issues, I thought, there’s a lot of wisdom in that statement because it really forces you to just stop listening to your own negative self talk on loop—”It’s your fault. If you hadn’t done this or hadn’t done that, then this wouldn’t be happening.” And just think, “Is there another perspective here to look at this situation where it’s not me beating myself up—all those things that I did.” That has really helped me in recent months, just to say, “It takes two to tango and relationships die, not just from one person doing one thing or another.” It’s been really comforting to me to think there’s a whole other way to look at this situation, that won’t be so painful one day, and if I can keep practicing as much as I can, listening to that higher self, then I’m not as worried about the future as I once was, say on that morning in August.

Brandy:  That’s wonderful. That’s something that’s inspirational to you and helping you along. I think that’s brilliant. So Tara, where can people find you and your writing?

Tara:  They can find me on my website, which is www.TaraMandarano.com, but I would say most of my writing is either on my Facebook or Instagram accounts. Those are set to private at the moment, but usually if we have friends in common or other writers or people along those lines then I will usually accept them. I would also say if anyone’s interested in what I have written (like you said at the start of the show) I’ve done a lot of personal essays based around the subjects of mental health, chronic pain, how that intersects with parenting. So if you just Google my name in that way, then a lot of these things will come up. Hopefully they will resonate with a lot of women who may be in those situations and feel like there is someone out there who’s gone through the same thing and they’ve made it out okay.

Brandy:  Yes. Thank you so much, Tara, for telling your story here with me today. I feel truly honored that you felt comfortable enough to do so with me. Honestly, your writing is so beautiful. There’s so much in the Facebook newsfeed and whenever I see a post from you, I usually read the first couple sentences and you get me through the whole thing because what you’re talking about is interesting and gripping and like I said, it’s witnessing somebody in process, which I am always drawn to. But then also the way you describe things in the poetic nature of how you write, I’m always sold. So thank you. Thank you for doing that and thank you for being an honest voice out there. I feel like we need more women who are willing to not be silenced, and to talk through the process for everybody else. So thank you. 

Tara:  Thank you so much for having me.

Brandy:  A quick plug for my book, which as an indie author I gotta do. If you’re enjoying this podcast, you will likely enjoy my book Adult Conversation: A Novel. It’s a darkly comedic story about a frazzled, modern mother and her therapist who go on a Thelma and Louise style road trip to Vegas, looking for pieces of themselves that motherhood and marriage swallowed up, while they are also tested and tempted to make life altering choices. Yes, there are strippers, there’s weed. It’s Vegas. One Amazon reviewer said, “Absolutely phenomenal! One of those books that you ignore everything going on in life to finish it. It leaves you wanting more. Never has there been a book that has such a clear portrayal of the real struggles of being a mom. We all lose a part of ourselves (sometimes a huge chunk) once that little baby is put in your arms. But we cannot lose all of ourselves.” And this reviewer was not even friend or family (that I know of). 

Brandy:  As always, thanks for listening. 

** As always, thank you to Scott Weigel and his band, Seahorse Moon, for providing me with that jaunty intro and outro music. You guy are awesome. Check ’em out on iTunes.