Shannon Kavanaugh | To All Those Who Sent Me Messages…
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To All Those Who Sent Me Messages…

To All Those Who Sent Me Messages…

On December 17th Scary Mommy posted perhaps my most widely read article to date. It was about co-parenting with an ex who hates me and was titled “When the Father of Your Children is Your Enemy”.

Something extraordinary happened that day. I was headed to Kansas City to spend Christmas with my family. I had my two children (six and four) in tow for a 3+ hour flight from SEA>MCI. This is not an unusual thing. I have traveled with my children lots and this day did not fill me with dread… that is, until my six year old woke up at 3am the night before puking. And puking. And puking well into the time we were to leave for the airport at 8am. I’m not sure I slept at all. She begged me not to go. “Please mama, please?!” She was scared of what was to come and my heart broke every time I had to tell her we HAD to go. Changing flights would be much too expensive at this point and I hadn’t been home for Christmas in over a decade.

20151217_091656She was motionless. I carried her to the car. I carried her to the shuttle. I put her in a wheel chair to get through the airport. She looked so horrible they almost denied us on the plane. My poor, poor child. I felt so, so guilty

All the while, my phone was blowing up with messages. One after another after another. On a different day, at a different time, I might have been able to answer all of you. But not this day. I could not. My child needed me.

We got to Kansas City fine and by the next day, she was well again. Something she ate, probably, considering the quick turnaround.

And still, the messages came. One heartbreaking story after another. One message of gratitude followed by another asking for help. I wanted to respond to each and every one of you. I HEAR YOU! I SEE YOU! I KNOW. I KNOW.

I did respond to a few, but not all. And for that I am sorry. So I wanted to respond here; the best I know how with some advice with dealing with someone who tries to use your own heart to hurt you. Because this situation is a unique kind of misery.

The guilt. You feel it. I know you do. Guilt will eat you alive. You should have known, right? You should have done x y and z differently. It’s all on you. You’re the “sanest” one now; you’re the only one who can save the kids.

There’s a part of me which feels like I deserve to suffer. I feel I made a horrible mistake by going so far down a road my gut told me to stay away from years ago and that mistake has damaged so many lives. People, who are the most important people on earth to me, will never be the same because of the mistakes I made.

Hindsight is a horribly lovely thing. It can teach us so much and yet, changes nothing. Looking back over my marriage I can see the places where I should have made different choices. Whether it was who I was at the time, or what I would have had to sacrifice back then… whatever the reason, I made the wrong choice. No denying that fact now. And there’s a part of me that feels like this current pain, this sorrow, this angst is my payment for those bad choices. That I don’t deserve the happiness in my life because of all the suffering I’ve caused due to my poor life choices. When I should have known better. This is guilt. And I am wracked with it from time to time.

I’ll say it again, because it bears repeating, guilt will eat you alive. I know this. I’ve been chewed up a few times and spit out by guilt’s teeth on my psyche.

Brene Brown (y’all know Brene, I’m sure) says that guilt is holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.


And guilt is also tied to shame. Shame is believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. That something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.


But also…

“Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” ~ Halocaust survivor, psychologist, Victor Frankl

Divorcing with young children you can’t hide from them how you really feel. They are walking intuitive beings picking up emotions more accurately than you and I. I can tell my kids that zombies and vampires are real on Halloween and they will believe me without question but I can’t fake the emotions I get from this guilt and shame and I can’t fake my feelings toward their father. They don’t understand facts, but feelings, they often know better than I.

I decided I couldn’t pass on my guilt and shame onto them, and I couldn’t taint their relationship with their father with my complicated feelings toward him. Their life and perceptions aren’t mine. And so I knew I had to change my mind. I had to find a way to transform my guilt and shame into meaning.

And this is it. Writing. Not always about divorce, not always about pain, but always about life and how to live it by what I call “camp ground rules” which is to leave it a little better than I found it. To be more aware of my surroundings.

This is also what is behind the culture’s “fail forward” mantras as of late. “Rise above! Find meaning! Turn lemons into lemonade!” And all that crap that sometimes means absolutely nothing when you’re in the middle of a dark, dark tunnel. This mentality that I should be failing well has brought me large doses of anxiety. I’m always so anxious to find the light at the end of the tunnel; to muscle my way through to the bright side, dammit!

But I have come to learn that the tunnel exists for a reason. You cannot unearth anything precious without first searching, and it is in the PROCESS of searching that we create the moment of true and lasting joy that comes upon discovery.

There’s this short film I saw in IMAX with my children called “The Flight of the Monarch.” While it is a documentary about the discovery and mystery behind the migration of monarch butterflies across North America, it’s also about the life and love of Dr. Fred Urquhart. Fred and his wife, Norah, spent 40 years trying to uncover the secrets of monarch butterflies. The measures he took in this endeavor were extraordinary. Before the digital age he tracked individual butterflies with tags on their wings. It took years to develop the glue which could stick the tags to the delicate wings and then many more years before people would find those tags and report back.

Fred was fueled by a love and curiosity to know the truth. I know that love. I know that curiosity. I feel it every time I look at my children and wonder who they are and what they might become.

It wasn’t until Fred was 65 that he found the truth. After 40 years of searching he walked into the a remote jungle in Mexico to see a billion butterflies clinging to the trees. Within five minutes, he picked up a tag which told him the truth of their migration. A tag which clung to the wing of a butterfly with a glue he developed and after it flew 2000 miles to land at his feet.

If easy answers fell into our hands like mana from heaven the moment we needed them… our lives would have been wasted. We could never understand the precise amount of preciousness in life’s truths had we not searched and searched in darkness and felt the overwhelming frustrations and tinges of hopelessness at soul crushing dead ends leaving us breathless. Without these things, we would not understand the preciousness which lies before us, often, in the tiniest things.

The searching. The tunnels. The dead ends. The dark nights of the soul have purpose. They are not pointless, fruitless, hopeless things. They are teaching us – in all their horrible brutality – what the opposite of them feels like so that when we see it, we know.

These dark times are definers and boundary expanders of joy. Everything negative is always defined and made more clear by the positive. I always say, there is no definition of the dark that does not include the light.

So maybe we don’t “rush” through the tunnels to run head-long into meaning. Sometimes, we just need to sit down for a while. Pay attention. Take in the loneliness and feel the cold hand of hopelessness creep up our spines. Let the guilt and the shame be our teachers, not our executioners. This takes a iron-clad strength for which I had help.

I read books. I went to yoga. I recited poetry. I floundered. I wrote. I yelled and drank and confessed too much. I tried not to hurt people. I held on to whatever small light I could, for as long as it would stay. None of this brought a lasting light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, but it taught me that I could see in the dark.

When you can calibrate to the darkness, you learn to love the light even more. And now I do.

So while my daughter was throwing up cherry flavored, red medicine into my hands at the terminal that day, I literally felt your messages as they buzzed in my pocket. And they got me through. It was your gratitude – the knowledge that my pain, my darkness, brought some light that day – was enough to manage that sad day I felt like I was breaking her heart again. And it continues to help me through.

And I could only see life through these eyes because I have calibrated my sight. I can see in the dark, now. There is no one who appreciates light more than I. And I love all of it.

So don’t rush through your tunnel. It’s there for a reason. Teach yourself to see in the dark. Spend 40 years if you have to looking for the truth so that when it comes, the joy can carry you for the rest of your life. There is no greater purpose than finding meaning. So go find it.

“When you know better, you do better.”


“When you learn, teach.”

~Maya Angelou

(This was written rather quickly and from notes I took in early November. Please forgive typos, I did not edit much 🙂 )


  • Cherie
    Posted at 10:07h, 04 January Reply

    You always describe exactly what I’m feeling. Your words touch me and encourage me – thank you deeply

  • Joy
    Posted at 09:55h, 12 January Reply

    I LOVE your writing and you are one of my favorites, Shannon. I love your insight and honesty. I felt I needed to tell you that although I’m sure you’ve heard that a million times before.

    I agree that we shouldn’t rush into the tunnel and avoid the pain and suffering, or argue with the Universe about showing us what all this means. Thank you for that reminder. I am generally impatient. And so today I’ll share with you one of my favorite quotes, (if I haven’t yet), and hope you will appreciate it too….

    “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”

    —Rainer Maria Rilke (Letters to a Young Poet)

    By the way, I’ve also seen ‘The Flight of the Monarch’ and loved it. I was struck by the transformation they go through and had some eureka moments as well, haha. Anyway, thank you again and I’m glad you made it home and that your daughter recovered quickly. Take care!

  • Laurie
    Posted at 06:04h, 06 March Reply

    Wow! What a coincidence that I came across both your articles today. Yesterday I was accused of parental alienating him over a sandwich! It sounds ridiculous but it isn’t. It is a serious accusation that can have you losing your child in no time. It is a revenge filled, last resort, I will do anything to destroy you threat that he will follow through on. He makes it sound like it is him and our son against me, the evil mother. He has done this to every professional involved too and once they see his true colours they quit us. Our son is a preschooler with ADHD so not having help has been challenging to say the least. PAS is hard to disprove so I suspect this time he will be successful in taking our son away from me. They always know how to hurt us and the only way he can really hurt me is by doing just that. The first battle was implied threats of abuse if the little guy got one bruise and now we are on to this. I too feel the horrible swallowing guilt of getting him involved after he walked for 2 years. I am filled with anger at his constant financial abuse, accusations, critiques, 5 to 10 emails on our family wizard every single week and his recorded 10 to 20 logins to the website some weeks. But you know what? Because of the constant dread that he will succeed in his endeavours and lies and manipulation, I love my sweet baby boy more than you can imagine. I live each day thinking that by the same day next year it might be empty and sad, so I hug him longer and tell him I love him just the way he is 100 times a day. I pray like I have never prayed before and hope that someday what is wrong will be filled with the peace that I find myself reaching for each day. My heart breaks for each of us living this way. I don’t want to parent in fear anymore. I want to enjoy each moment without threat, like other parents, and the real crime is that we have been robbed of that freedom. I hope and pray that the court system can see the light this century. Thank you Shannon for making me feel that I am not alone today. That I am not the cra-cra one! And that I am not a horrible mother!

  • Samantha
    Posted at 15:44h, 24 May Reply

    I read your article, titled “When the Father of Your Children is Your Enemy”, and clung on to every sentence because you were describing my current life. After fighting the shame of divorce for so long, I finally threw in the towel after the physical, verbal and financial abuse continued. However, since my ex share a toddler child, the abuse continues through our child. I’ve had my son repeat “mommy you is monster” and “mommy you is dirty” within minutes of returning from a visit with his father. My ex screamed “I’m calling CPS on you” in front of our child, and followed this threat up with an email falsely accusing me of leaving “dried blood” on him (even though it was red powder from a kids’ party). He videotapes me during exchanges, and taunts me by putting the camera in my face. He gives me the middle finger as he drives away from exchanges (all at a police station, btw), and calls me vile names as he hands our child to me (in front of a police officer – so he whispers it). So “enemy” doesn’t even begin to describe the SOB I’m dealing with.

  • Cassandra
    Posted at 16:42h, 23 February Reply

    Your writing really speaks to me. I’ve gone through most of your blog and I feel like we’re living similar lives. I’ve been divorced for 5 years; we have two children together. My ex was so angry that I wanted a divorce that he did everything he could to make my life difficult. He even took my family. Yes, my family. My mom sided with him in the divorce, because, good Catholic girls don’t get divorced and he wanted to stay and make it work so I *must* be the evil one in the partnership. My mom and I haven’t spoken in 5 years. To add injury to insult, my mom also took me to court for grandparents visitation rights, as if my 50/50 visitation schedule with my ex didn’t take enough time with my kids away from me. Thank God, the judge denied her petition, but it just made her more angry and my ex needed to find something else to torture me with.

    Anyway, please keep writing. I am enjoying every word!

  • Jill
    Posted at 13:30h, 17 April Reply

    I loved the first and second blog… I feel we need a support group and we could all be presidents. My son is now 13 we divorced when he was 2, I would love to say it gets easier but it doesn’t. I feel like how did I just never see it before, why did I put us in the awful place with such an awful person. How did I not know? They are masters, at making you see only what they want you to see, and hiding their crazy and then later blaming you for the crazy, cause it couldn’t be their fault they are perfect and you made them act this way. And when all is said and done their child is just another possession to show off and when they aren’t doing well and aren’t shiny enough, that is your fault also you aren’t holding them to high enough standards. It never gets easier…. the anger is less when they have a girlfriend cause they have to focus their energy on tricking that person, but soon that poor soul will know too. Stay strong everyone … focus on what matters and protect the ones we love.

  • Tara
    Posted at 08:50h, 03 May Reply

    I just discovered your article on Scary Mommy when I searched for “co-parenting with a narcissist.” Wow. It was like you wrote that for me. I sent it to my parents and to my sister. They understand what I’ve been through, but your words really clarified it. My divorce was finalized last July and in some ways, it’s harder today. I’m grateful for each day when I don’t have anxiety. It’s nice knowing that there are other people out there who understand what it’s like to be married, then divorced, from a narcissist. For the 17 years I was married to him, I always asked myself if it would be harder to be married to him or divorced from him. I’m still deciding.

  • Laura
    Posted at 15:50h, 16 June Reply

    I cannot tell you how much your article ‘When the Father of your child is the enemy’ resonated with me; and brought me to tears (good tears) at the same time. I am not alone. I am not alone. Someone else has gone through what I am going through, feeling what I am feeling, and sees light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I was divorced in February this year after 10 years of living with my ex, I have a 4 year old daughter and we share custody. My 10 years of marriage were continuous grey clouds, lots of storms and the occasional hurricane. The last 18 months have been nothing but hurricanes however, for the first time, I can see blue sky – it’s far off but it is there and you never know – there may even be sunshine. Thank you!!!

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