When I got divorced, I lost a mother

Can you divorce your husband but keep his mom?

"The only time you cry now is when you're talking about Matt's mom,” my therapist told me a year after my divorce.

My eight-year relationship with Matt had several casualties. I had been warmly welcomed into his large, tight-knit, nice Jewish family. Their home on Long Island served as the scene for every holiday and birthday. Matt and I didn't have children, but his siblings did and with in-laws, significant others and an ever-growing number of grandkids, there was a crowd.

I come from a close Texas family of four. I love them and they love me. But because they were so far away, I took comfort in this second East Coast brood. Inevitably I'd end up in the kitchen with Joan, Matt's mom. We'd gab over coffee and I'd help cook dinner for her army. That's where we forged our relationship.

Three months after Matt and I started dating, Joan was diagnosed with breast cancer. Everyone secretly feared the family might crumble. I wanted to help ease her pain so I sent her a care package: flavored water because chemo was dehydrating, and magazines to occupy her mind.

But it was Joan who ended up consoling me. “Lindsey, I hear you have some real bullies for bosses,” she said as I sat by her side one day.

The family, and Joan, survived.

The ultimate matriarch, Joan was always prepared with whatever we might need: advice, an aspirin, a cardigan, a hug and a sympathetic ear. Once Matt and I married, she asked me to call her “Mom,” an easy adjustment for me.

Joan had great style. On visits, I'd frequently find her (now vintage) clothes or shoes set aside for me. We shared the same shoe size; “Cinderella feet,” she said. One pair of cognac riding boots always stopped fellow fashion enthusiasts on the street.

Then my marriage began to disintegrate. He was unhappy with his career. I was unhappy with us. Couples therapy only revealed how deep the chasm had grown. I started avoiding lengthy phone chats with Joan. I felt too guilty to pretend everything was good.

Our inevitable separation made me worry how Matt would deal with things. But I was mostly concerned with Joan. I felt as if I was letting her down. I feared I'd go from being an almost daughter she loved to the callous bitch who left her son. It was hard enough to break Matt's heart. Now I was losing my second mother.

People say when you marry someone, you're marrying a family. But no one ever talks about divorcing them.

The marriage ended five years ago, sadly but amicably. I haven't spoken to my second mom since. Our wedding gifts still reside in her basement. I couldn't bear to ask for them back, despite my own mother's nudging. The thought of facing her to collect my half of the reminders of our happy day is too daunting. Plus keeping them there makes me feel as if I'm still connected to her.

Last week as I shopped for a Mother's Day card for my mom, I picked up one for Joan too. I stood at the register wondering, “Am I even allowed to send this?”

I desperately wanted to reach out. I turned to Facebook. On Matt's page I found him with his pretty new girlfriend at a family wedding. Joan was there too.

Suddenly I felt a sharp, confusing pain. My boyfriend of the last three happy years sat on the couch within arm's reach. Why did I care if Matt had someone new? Then it hit me: Joan wasn't mine anymore.

I wrote her the card. Maybe next year I'll send it.

Lindsey Kaufman works in advertising and lives in New York City.

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