I was 28, newly separated from my husband and living with my mother. I maintained social media to stay connected.
Instead, I felt my world constrict. People were posting Facebook statuses riddled with engagement news and ultrasound photos. The exclamation marks and smiley faces were like hieroglyphics.
The more I browsed those carefully curated pages hoping to find social comfort without putting on pants and leaving the house, the lonelier I felt.
The isolation seeped into face-to-face interactions, too. One afternoon, shortly after I moved home to Michigan, I went to the house of a close high school friend. Sheryl had gotten married around the same time I had. I had just experienced the rather sudden death of my marriage while Sheryl’s belly swelled with new life. She waddled around her four-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath home, showing me the jungle-themed nursery and her newly finished basement bar.
I felt like a foreign exchange student, learning about the pristine practicality of Bed Bath & Beyond. When she began describing the physical effects of pregnancy, I sat wide-eyed, both horrified and envious. Sheryl and I spent our younger years at bonfires, watching horror movies and dating boys we usually couldn’t stand in the end. Now she was a human biology experiment, and she couldn’t have seemed happier.
“Sometimes he gets the hiccups. Weirdest feeling,” she said, her Midwestern accent stronger than ever. “He’s literally pushing on my organs. It makes it hard to breathe.”
I was suddenly in the fourth grade again, learning about puberty and how babies were made. I found myself wondering if my body would ever stretch that way. If I would ever feel a tiny alien kicking me in the ribs.
My ex-husband and I met when we were children — 19 and 21 to be exact. We went to school at the University of Maryland, where I received my undergraduate degree in journalism and he got his PhD in social psychology. We married when I was 26, because we loved each other and because we were taught it was an important step in the trajectory of adult life-building. Neither one of us had truly evaluated how compatible we were as romantic partners. We found something we needed in one another early on, and we stuck with it.
We were uprooted for his first academic job to a small town in the Netherlands, and moved just weeks after our wedding. It was there that the flaws of our relationship, once obscured by comfort and routine, were glaringly obvious in the harsh light of a new context.
We still loved each other intensely. It was more of a sibling-type love, but we were family, nonetheless. The dissolution of our marriage sent me back home. Not just to the United States, but to my mother’s house, and to the town where I grew up, where several of my high school friends remained.
Growing up, I thought divorce was something people endured after years of marriage. It was when two people who were no longer happy together became free of one another. I had other plans for my life at 28. Surely, I would be on my way to professional satisfaction and maybe even pregnant. It would be a time of growth, of excitement. Not defeat.
And yet, there I was: making my wedding albums on Facebook private, slowly removing any traces of public proof that I was deep in personal crisis while everyone else seemed to be thriving.
I felt a similar way about 12 years earlier when my dad died. I was taken back to those detached days as a junior in high school, listening to a chorus of slamming lockers and shrill laughs and talk of parties, while I grappled with the concept of losing someone forever.
To say it’s the same type of loss is far from a perfect comparison, but when my ex and I lost hope in our future, our relationship was dealt a terminal diagnosis. His role as my life partner had ceased to exist. With that came the death of our planned future and a life together that I had lived over and over again in my mind. The two of us preparing our chubby baby for bath time. Post-retirement vacations.
I was bereaved anew.
Divorce — especially divorce under 30 — rarely comes with sympathy cards and casseroles. A divorced 20-something is, at best, not understood by her peers. At worst, she is stigmatized for failing at the very thing other 20-somethings are just beginning to master.
And this exists even outside of the tangled web of dangerous social comparisons inspired by social media.
I attempted to take part in gatherings organized by the people who seemed most settled in life. Loneliness was inevitable, but complete solitude seemed the more destructive variety. I attended baby showers and weddings. I smiled through my best friend’s engagement news, and stifled scoffs during bouquet-throwing and other wedding traditions that suddenly seemed farcical instead of sentimental.
No matter how many pictures I was tagged in, I never really felt like I had been there.
My friends asked me questions about my dating life: “I really admire you for getting out there,” they would say, as though I had a choice.
“Don’t lose hope,” they’d say, heads cocked to the side, brows furrowed.
I’m 35 now. I spent several months living at my mother’s, some days eating only when she brought me food to bed. I eventually gathered myself, got a job and moved to Washington, D.C. I survived my millennial divorce. Slowly, other peers began trickling into my category.
I’ve heard those in mourning must grieve in full, or they’ll be grieving forever. I’m not sure I did that adequately after my divorce. Perhaps I would have if I had fully accepted it as not a failure, but a fatality, with all of death’s brutal markers: the excruciating loss, the inability to conjure memories without pain, a future ruptured by the unexpected.
A few years ago, three days before our wedding anniversary, my ex posted pictures on Facebook of his wrinkly newborn son. I cried as I allowed the flickering ghost of that chubby baby one last giggle, and let it fade away for good.