Christmas and the heavyness of being without a church

photo by David Trotter

I went to a Christmas Eve service with my kids and ex-husband today. It’s been a while since I’ve been to a Christmas Eve service, for a variety of reasons, least of which is the fact that Mark and I try to spend that day together for the kids and there is nothing more awkward than going to church where that act of walking in the door together springs into action a number of people excited to pastor us back into marriage, rather than accepting us as we are – a divorced couple not needing to be saved by any meaning of that word. I’ve also ambivalent about church in general for some time. I think, like many of us, I’ve been hurt by both the people of the church and the behavior of The Church of late. I’ve been angry about how the church had responded equality, to sexual abuse, to women’s issues, to politics. I’ve felt out of place and disenfranchised. And yes, I know. #notallchristians. But it’s sometimes hard to identify with the ways that our faith can be used to hurt others.
Tonight I drove by a mega-church with giant expensive road signs and greeters in Santa hats trying to convince people to turn in. I was part of a church like that for many years. I played parts in the Christmas productions. I sang the solos. I passed out the rave cards to neighbors. I never imagined I would one day be a person without a church, who would drive by the enthusiastic greeters and wince.
We went to a progressive church tonight where we know the pastor but the liturgical style is not familiar to me. I miss the charismatic worship of my old church history but I don’t miss the judgment. During “pass the peace” I didn’t know what to do, and the lady in front of me didn’t either and said so. And then she cried through all of the songs. I don’t know her story except that I could see there was some church baggage. I wondered how many of us felt that today.I don’t have a bow to wrap this story with. This season is hard for a lot of us. I still wonder and marvel at the person of Jesus. I sang Silent Night with my family and in a room full of people and felt a sense of community and corporate peace that I haven’t in while. I miss church and I don’t. I’m okay with it and I’m not.

Finding my footing after divorce

 This post is in collaboration with TIAA to empower women experiencing divorce, encouraging them to take control of their financial future.

Over the past three months I went through the process of sitting for my licensing exams to be a marriage and family therapist.

You may be thinking . . . wasn’t she already licensed? Yes, I was. I was in private practice for over a decade, before I had kids, and before I started a blog.

I loved being in private practice. I liked my colleagues, I liked that the job was challenging and cerebral, and I loved that I could set my own hours and work part-time for a decent wage. One of the things that drew me to this career was that I thought it would be very compatible with motherhood. I thought I could see a part-time caseload during my husband’s off days, while staying home with the kids.

This worked out well when Jafta was a baby.  And then baby #2 came. She slept about 2 hours at a time. She nursed 24-7. I was a mess physically and emotionally. I was tired all the time. I was plagued with post-partum anxiety that made me even more of a catastrophizer than I already am (which is a lot.) I was a ball of nerves all the time. I no longer felt like getting dressed and going to work was a nice reprieve. Now, it felt like a complete and total charade. I was a stressed sleep-walker in a professional pantsuit. Underneath my blazer, I had a bulky maternity bra and leaky boobs. I struggled to stay awake as my clients talked about their life. I showed up to class with spit-up stains on my shirt. I felt like a sham.

In addition to feeling more frazzled in session, I really struggled to keep up with returning phone calls and setting appointments during the week.  Once I had my third child, I could barely find the time to call back the referrals I got. The few long-standing clients I saw after her arrival were hard for me. I felt like my brain was in short-circuit mode. I just couldn’t get my head into a space where I could really be present with clients. I am an introvert, and motherhood was draining any energy I had that I could previously devote to my job. By the time child number four arrived, I decided I needed to close up shop. At least for a while. I cleaned out my office and decided to devote more time to blogging. I made a decent income from the blog, but my husband was really the breadwinner. My income from blogging was a supplement to his steady paycheck that supported our family.

And then I made a mistake that I would later come to regret: I didn’t renew my license.

It wasn’t intentional. I always planned to keep my license and thought it was a job that I could go back to someday. But life was happening all around me, and one year, we moved and I forgot to update my address with my licensing board, and I missed the mail-in renewal. I didn’t realize this until two years later, and by that point, my license had been canceled. All because I wasn’t staying diligent. I was busy being a mom, and I was abdicating the career stuff to my husband.

Fast-forward to a few years later, I found myself in the position of getting a divorce. The regret of letting my license lapse was now even more painful, because I needed to find a way to support myself beyond the supplemental income of my blog. I needed to become a breadwinner in my own right, and going back into practice, especially now that my kids are older and require less emotional energy, would have been a perfect transition. But I didn’t have the option.

I called the board and they informed me I would have to sit for my exams again. MFT exams are notoriously difficult, with very low pass rates, but I was grateful that at least my two years of grad school and three years of internships did not need to be repeated. So I set out and started studying. It was time for me to take control of my financial future.  (TIAA offers some wonderful resources here.)

Taking these exams again was a humbling experience but it was also empowering. It was humbling because I had been a supervisor and a professor. I had taught some of the subjects on the exam. But at the same time, while I was out of practice, certain laws had changed and a new diagnostic manual had been published with a lot of changes – so I was truly behind. I failed my first practice test. I had my work cut out for me.

But it was also empowering because I knew that I was working toward a career option, one that I was grateful to have. While I always wanted to be a mom, I am so glad that I also recognized that nothing is ever certain, and had the sense to study for a career in my early adulthood instead of assuming I would just stay home and let my husband support me. Even though that was my reality for a few years, I’m glad I had a backup.

In September I took the first of the two exams and passed, and then last week I took the second and passed. It has been a huge relief. I’m not sure I will go right back into private practice but I am so glad that I have it as an option.

I had the chance to take part in a conversation led by TIAA about rebuilding after a divorce. It’s a topic I feel passionately about, because I know how much finances can be a strain in that process . . . especially for women. In this video, I talk about the process of finding my financial footing after divorce.

Whether or not you are going through a divorce, I would encourage every woman to make sure she has a clear picture of her financial portfolio and plans for the future. TIAA has some amazing resources to help with that endeavor on their website – check it out to learn more about how you can take control of your financial future.