When my family went nuclear in exactly the wrong way—20 years of marriage exploded by betrayal—I agonized over how our divorce would affect our sons, then aged 6 and 12. After they were born, it was most practical for our family for me to take on the role of “homemaker.” Now, our home was wrecked as thoroughly as if it had been hit by a tornado. How would it fit back together?
One piece at a time.
“Clever hands salvaged the windows and doors,
recycled the wood from the walls and the floors.
Hoping to find a more neighborly view,
they picked up those pieces and built something new.”
-Excerpt from “The Big Adventures of Tiny House”
I’d seen friends go through toxic divorces, watched children become prisoners of an unwinnable war. I didn’t want that path, so I channeled my fear, anger and sadness into healthier outlets (therapy, creating art and poetry, a kickboxing bag) instead of blowing up at my ex in front of the kids.
My ex-husband was a good dad who loved his kids, even if he didn’t love me—and I wanted my children to feel at home wherever they were. Together, we made sure that our sons’ needs were met. A family therapist helped us make a custody plan. We were lucky—we had room in our budget to ease over practical hurdles. We tried making tasks like picking out new bedding an adventure, instead of a sad reminder that the boys would be bouncing between Mom’s house and Dad’s house. None of it was easy, but we muddled through the best we could.
It’s been six years now. My older son just went off to college, and my “baby” is in middle school. And me? I found that proverbial silver lining and made myself a cape. Channeling all that pain into poetry kickstarted my career as a children’s author who writes books to help families cope with separation and trauma. I’m also blessed to be in a nourishing, conscious relationship. I’ve learned some important lessons about “making home” – and being me, I put into rhyme.
My latest book, The Big Adventures of Tiny House, explores the concept of home. Like my family, the character Tiny has to adapt when his world shifts. He’s an old farmhouse who gets recycled into a tiny house on wheels and sets off on a journey to discover the meaning of home. I was inspired by the tiny house movement—people, even families, crafting big lives in small spaces (as little as 100 square feet), letting go of their stuff and their oppressive mortgages, in search of freedom and connection.
Tiny house living isn’t the answer for everyone, but it sure got me thinking about what’s essential. Here’s what Tiny learns in the end:
He could be a home anywhere, because home wasn’t a place,
Home was a feeling, a smile on your face.
It was friendship and singing and a full happy heart.
It was sharing good meals, and where you hung up your art.
Whether you anchored in place, or decided to roam,
What called to your heart could still be called home.
–Excerpt from The Big Adventures of Tiny House
Home Means Friendship
For my little guy, playdates were everything. He needed to feel comfortable having his friends over at BOTH mom’s and dad’s, so we made that happen. Finding some friends who also had divorced parents reassured him that there were other kids like him. Two homes could be okay, instead of feeling weird.
My seventh grader hosted “Breakfast for Dinner” parties. (Nerdy and totally awesome. Encourage this kind of thing whenever possible.) All I asked was that they restore the kitchen after flipping pancakes and frying bacon. I kept little brother and myself out of the way. Apparently, we lowered the coolness factor.
Don’t forget your own friendships – they are oxygen. If you’re sharing custody, use your new free time for hobbies that make you happy, where you can meet friends, too. That’s the same advice you’d give your kids, right? My friend Joe, for example, discovered the joys of swing-dancing. I took art classes and nature hikes. On days with your kids, set up group activities—take the kids bowling or out for burgers with other dads, for example, or join a youth group that encourages family participation, like scouts or 4-H.
Home Means Structure—and Singing
This is the section where I could talk about the importance of consistent bedtimes and brushing your teeth for at least two minutes. Sure, a schedule gives kids a sense of security, but other types of structure are important, too—the blanket fort, for example, or the refrigerator box-turned-spaceship.
Heck, grab a hammer and teach your kids to pound nails into old pallets (they make awesome Nerf war bases). No yard? Build a dollhouse! Creative play develops the imagination and strengthens positive associations with home and family. After the fun, enlist your child’s help by putting on music and singing out loud during clean-up. (I love the tongue-in-cheek “Happy Working Song” from the film Enchanted).
Home Means a Place to Hang Up Your Art
I repeat myself here, because it’s that important. Art has the ability to transform trauma. All those emotions stuffed INSIDE can flow OUT when you give them a canvas. Scribble, strum a guitar, cobble together crazy robots out of old car parts. MAKE SOMETHING. HAVE YOUR KIDS MAKE THINGS.
When we don’t express ourselves, pressure builds up inside…and that leads to more nuclear explosions down the road.
Here’s an easy art project to get you started: talk about what home means to your family—and decorate a “Welcome Home” sign together to put near the front door. Ours says: “Friends” “Harmony” “Peace” “Love” “Fun” and “Art.”
Home Means Breaking Bread, and Sometimes Dishes, Together
Cooking and corralling kids for meals can be exhausting, even boring. Time for dinner, and dishes, again?! Turn on some tunes, invite friends, say hello to Taco Tuesdays! Make food together: even the littlest tots can sprinkle cheese on pre-made crusts, and everyone wins when you bake cookies together. If an egg or a plate gets dropped on the floor, it’s okay. Spills force us to mop the floor occasionally. That’s a good thing.
Home Means Something Different For Everybody
The biggest lesson tiny house dwellers taught me is that life isn’t about size or stuff. That’s not what the heart needs. It doesn’t matter whether home is your parents’ basement or a penthouse. Fill it with music, creativity, and love—don’t drive yourself crazy worrying about what your ex or anyone else has, and don’t put yourself into debt or despair trying to buy things you don’t need.
Remaking home can be an adventure! When you hit a rough patch, just build a blanket fort, crawl in with your kids and your favorite books—and you’ll be home.