The Mom’s Guide to a Good Divorce with Sarah Armstrong




Jessica: The beginning of anything is always the hardest, right? It’s no different with a divorce. The first year can be really tough as you’re adjusting and figuring out how to navigate and everything for yourself. And if you have kids, and if you work, you’ve got to find your groove, and it can take a minute. Of course, it will start getting easier. Because once you are able to find that groove, things will be a little smoother as time goes on. But that first year, no question, it’s a lot. That’s what we’re talking about in today’s episode of the Divorce etc… podcast. We’re the exEXPERTS, Jessica and T.H., although I’m solo tonight as T.H. is under the weather. We help you navigate your divorce and successfully move on with your life. Let’s bring in today’s guest, Sarah Armstrong. She is a powerhouse, a mom, and executive at Google, and the author of The Mom’s Guide to a Good Divorce. She’s definitely an expert to talk about the year of firsts. Welcome to the show, Sarah.

Sarah: Oh, thank you so much for having me, Jessica. It’s great to be with you.

Jessica: Thank you so much for being here. I mean so many places to start, but tell me first so people know about the book. I mean, it sounds like it’s so up our alley. We always talked about how we’re the girlfriends to get you through the divorce process. A book called The Mom’s Guide to a Good Divorce seems like something very easy to read. How did that come about?

Sarah: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting. I actually got divorced when my daughter was seven. She was in first grade. I always like to start to say, first of all, I’m actually not an advocate for divorce.

Jessica: Nor are we.

Sarah: Right? Right?

Jessica: We just think if that’s where you’re going, then we want to help you get through it. We don’t advocate for divorce.

Sarah: Absolutely. So I always like to just start there. Because in an ideal world, you get married, you stay married, and sometimes it doesn’t happen. Actually, my parents have been married 55 years. So I had—

Jessica: Mine too and T.H.’s.

Sarah: Really? Okay, so that’s the thing.

Jessica: Our families, our parents are still together.

Sarah: Right, so that was the model I had in my head. When it was clear that that wasn’t going to be the model—I had grown up seeing some very ugly divorces of my parents’ friends, so I had that mental model—I thought if we’re going to go through this, I don’t want to do it that way. And so we made some very conscious decisions along the way with how we were going to approach this and really keeping Grace at the forefront of all the decisions we were making throughout the process.

Jessica: Can I just interrupt for one moment? Was there a specific incident that caused the divorce? For T.H. and I, both of our exes were having affairs. When we found out about it, we were like, “Fuck that. We’re out.”

Sarah: Yeah.

Jessica: But some people just grow apart and it just isn’t working anymore.

Sarah: Yeah, yeah, it was the latter for us. This was just not going to work. And so we made that decision.

Jessica: How long were you married?

Sarah: We were together 17 years: dated 5 and married 12.

Jessica: Yep. Okay. Yep.

Sarah: And so with that, it’s one of those things where after we made this decision, we went through a collaborative process actually to go through the divorce. Went through it, and as a kind of fast forward, about over the course of five years, I had a number of friends that would come to me after the divorce and say, “Would you help me think through this because you had such a good divorce?” And I’m like, “Well, yeah, I’m happy to help you.” I never wanted to convince them to get a divorce—going back to the earlier comment. But I said, “If you’ve decided, then let’s talk.” So we went through it, and I talked through things with them. At the end, they’d say, “You should really write this stuff down.” I said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “Well, I don’t fashion myself a writer. I’m in the business world.” I didn’t have a goal writing a book. I was actually at a business dinner in Mexico City with a group of colleagues, and a friend and colleague of mine turned to me. He goes, “Sarah, you’re so happy.” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “But you’re divorced.”

Jessica: So you’re not allowed to be happy.

Sarah: I said, “Well, getting divorced is not a death sentence.” I said, “My ex husband and I decided to no longer be married to each other. I’m happy, Grace is happy, my ex husband is happy.” I’m like, “We’re all happy. And yes, we went through divorce.” I mentioned that my friends had been encouraging me to write a book on this. He goes, “You really should.” And so the next morning, I flew out to Mexico City, I opened my personal laptop and I started writing. The first line I wrote was, “This book is written by a girl who never ever thought she would get a divorce, who got a divorce, and what she learned along the way.” Then I wrote about—

Jessica: For everyone listening, that quote is on Sarah’s website too.

Sarah: Yes, yes.

Jessica: Where there’s a lot of information about her. You can get to know her.

Sarah: Yeah, yeah. And so with that, it was interesting because I wrote about 90% of it on Delta, Jessica, because I traveled internationally—

Jessica: I’m a huge Delta fan. I love Delta.

Sarah: That’s so funny. Yes, so I literally wrote a lot at 30,000 feet.

Jessica: I hope you thanked them at the end.

Sarah: It’s funny, I do reflect on in the book that a lot of this is written up in the air. What was interesting though, is a year after our divorce, Grace was eight, and she’s actually the one that coined the term “a good divorce” for me, truly. Because we were standing at a CVS checking out and there was a People magazine on the newsstand, and there was a celebrity couple getting a divorce. She looks at it and she says, “Hey, Mommy, is that a good divorce or a bad divorce?” I said, “I don’t know. What’s the difference, Grace, between a good divorce and a bad divorce?” She goes, “Well, a good divorce is when the mommy and daddy are nice to each other like you and daddy. A bad divorce is when they scream and yell at each other.”

Sarah: So had she seen that? Did she have experience with friends whose parents had had very acrimonious divorces?

Sarah: No. No, she was the first of her friends. But that was her understanding from I’m not sure what.

Jessica: TV, movies, who knows, right?

Sarah: Yeah. Yeah, and so I said, “Grace, it’s hard to tell from a magazine cover.” But as I walked out of that CVS that day, Jessica, I thought, you know what? Whatever my ex husband and I were doing, the fact that our now eight year old, a year after the divorce, could say that we had a good divorce, that we were on to something, that we were doing something that allowed her to feel that she could refer to it in that way. We kept on that path. Then it led to obviously me writing this book. But the “good divorce” piece was really coined by Grace.

Jessica: I love that. I have to say, I mean, you and I have in some ways, very similar stories, because as I said, my parents are still together. There was a girl that I knew growing up—I feel like back in our day, not a lot of parents had gotten divorced. Not a lot. Those that did it, it really was like War of the Roses.

Sarah: Mm-hmm. Oh, yes.

Jessica: There was a girl that I knew whose parents had been divorced. I don’t know anything about the circumstances. She wasn’t a good friend of mine, but friendly. Her mother was just always miserable. By the way, I have no idea if it has anything to do with the divorce. Her mother just may have been a miserable person. She was always angry, always upset, always seemed pissed off. Unrelated or not, the dad really wasn’t around. He wasn’t around, I think, for the high school graduation. I feel like I heard he really wasn’t around for her wedding. Not that I ever plan on getting divorced, but that stuck with me, and I don’t even know why. I remember when I realized that I was going to be getting divorced, that was what was in my head. I thought what was the end game? What did I want the end of my divorce to look like? That was certainly not it. And so all the steps I took were leading towards the end, which is how it happened. I am sure that my kids would both say we had a good divorce—mine were two and four at the time—as they grew up and met other kids whose parents had gotten divorced. I don’t know that they necessarily witnessed yelling and screaming among anyone else’s parents, but they knew that other people’s parents weren’t around. They knew that we sometimes would get together still for a family dinner or celebrate holidays together. And so I feel it was a gift to my kids to be able to have that kind of divorce.

Sarah: Absolutely. It’s interesting you say that, because even Grace, by about sixth grade is when some of her friends’ parents were starting to get divorced. She and I would talk at dinner. She’d say she was observing some things in these other family situations. She’s like, “Mom, it doesn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t have to be that hard.” I said, “You know what? It doesn’t.” I said, “Your dad and I made some very specific choices about how we were going to approach this situation. We always really kept you front and center. Sometimes parents lose focus and they don’t have their kids front and center in those moments because there’s high emotion and lots going on.”

Jessica: And getting so caught up in the bitterness. I’m always like, love your kids more than you hate your ex.

Sarah: Absolutely. It’s a great way of saying it. Absolutely.

Jessica: However, I do understand, specifically from T.H.’s story, that there are people who have specific personalities like her ex, where a divorce like ours really would not have been possible.

Sarah: Yeah. That’s absolutely—

Jessica: Right. But she always still takes the high road. There’s still a way of taking the high road.

Sarah: There absolutely is. I say, “This high road can sometimes be very, very steep.” It can be a very steep high road, but it is worth always taking the high road. It is worth it for the children that are involved for that to be the case. I fundamentally believe that if you do that, you can end up in a better place than you would be otherwise.

Jessica: Agreed. Agreed. 100%. So do you feel like there are ways to lessen the impact of the divorce in the physical home environment?

Sarah: Yes, there’s a number of ways. One of the first ones that I talk about is minimizing the gaps. When I say minimizing the gaps, depending on the divorce situation, if you’re staying in the home and your ex spouse is going to move out, just using that example, that was our situation—I was staying in the home with Grace and my ex husband was going to move out—all of the physical representation of the house being pulled apart: a chair moving, a piece of art being taken off the wall, whatever the case, all of those things that you have to do because you are most likely splitting up household items across the two of you, can have a huge impact on how your child feels about their environment. My poignant moment with Grace is we had a family wall of black and white photos that were up and down this long hallway. Half of them were my ex husband’s and half of them were mine. And so I took the time to get other photos done and then framed, and I sent her down to a play date. I took my ex husband’s photos off the wall, put them in a box, put new photos up, and Grace was out of the house.

Jessica: Right.

Sarah: About an hour or so later, she came home and I’m in the kitchen, and I hear this voice in the hallway say, “Hey, Mommy?” I’m like, “What’s up, Grace?” She said, “The wall has changed.” I stopped in my tracks and I said, “Well, what’s changed?” She said, “There are more pictures of me up there. It looks great.” And she ran up to her room.

Jessica: Right, as opposed to having holes on the wall. You had such foresight there.

Sarah: That’s the thing. I say that if I hadn’t taken the time to frame new pictures, put them up there and exactly your point and just left the little hangers interspersed throughout that hallway, the thing Grace would be telling a therapist years from now is my parents got a divorce, and my mom took the photos of my dad off the wall and she left those little hangers.

Jessica: Right, right. You know, that’s really such good advice, and especially for everyone listening, because look, someone’s moving, right?

Sarah: Yeah.

Jessica: Someone is moving out of the house. And so to be able to have that as a smooth transition, if you know you’re getting rid of specific pieces of furniture, or you know you’re going to have an empty wall from a piece of artwork that’s leaving, do your best to put something in its place. It could just be a fresh update. The kids don’t even have to know why.

Sarah: Absolutely. We had pieces of art that came down. I might put a mirror up. I might not be able to afford to put that piece of art up there.

Jessica: Yeah, yeah, yeah, it could be a framed poster.

Sarah: It doesn’t matter. It’s just that the hole, the visual gap, whether it’s a chair, to your point, rearrange the room so that the place where the chair was, that isn’t there anymore, just rearrange it a bit. Now the flip side of that is, in Grace’s room, we had photos of—we like photos—there were photos of both sides of the family in her room. In her room, those stay.

Jessica: Agreed. I kept in my kids’ rooms, the pictures of them with their dad and stuff like that. Yeah.

Sarah: And grandparents and all that. That is her family, those are her moments, and they’re not for me to remove. It was a combination of things that we did over the course. But that’s an example of the physical environment, which I think is really an important one, and I think can be overlooked in the craziness of all that’s going on when you’re transitioning households and the things that have to take place. But it really is important.

Jessica: Yeah, no, I totally agree with that. I’m just going to take a quick pause here for a moment to say to everyone when T.H. and I were getting divorced from our exes, we hoped that there would be someone who could take us by the hand and make sure we didn’t make any mistakes with our kids, or dealing with our ex, with friends, dating, all of the things. But you’re in luck. Because just like building exEXPERTS for you, we also created a Divorce Rulebook. We share what we knew back then so you don’t make the same mistakes we did. If you want your copy, all you have to do is visit, and it’s right there for you. The link is also in the show notes. You don’t know what you don’t know, but we do. And so does Sarah, because that is such a genius piece of advice. Tell me about what some potential pitfalls are that couples experience, particularly during the first year of divorce, that are the hardest or possibly the most challenging time when you’re trying to keep things amicable?

Sarah: Yeah, I think one of the big things, and this was a realization for me that I had to stop and really think about how we were going to manage it, is we were going to see a child specialist before we told Grace we were going to get a divorce. He looked at me and goes, “Do you travel?” And I said, “Yeah, I travel internationally for my job.” He looks at my ex husband and goes, “Do you travel?” And he said, “Yeah, I travel domestically.” He said, “Well, Grace is about to become a professional traveler. She’s going to travel every week for the next 11 years, and she’s going to have to pack a bag.” And I burst into tears.

Jessica: Wow that hits hard.

Sarah: I burst into tears. I looked at him and I’m thinking this is not what I want for her life. So I had this visceral reaction to this. We walked out and I looked at my ex husband and I said, “I don’t know what this looks like yet, but I want to minimize Grace feeling like she’s a professional traveler. I want to minimize her feeling like she has to pack a bag each week.” Now I realize what I’m going to say, Jessica, will have some socioeconomic considerations.

Jessica: Yeah, no, of course.

Sarah: And I always like to recognize, but what we tried to do is have the basics at both homes, right? With having the basics at both homes, that meant that when Grace walked out to go to school with her little backpack, she wasn’t carrying an extra bag to school just because she was going to mom or dad’s house. Because then that’s like showing everyone that Grace isn’t going home after this, she’s going to another home. And so we did what we could. Now I do say in a light hearted moment, somehow, the socks all ended up at one house. We don’t know how. I literally don’t know how it happens. They end up at one house, and so we had what I—

Jessica: Or just sucked in by the dryer.

Sarah: Exactly. It’s what I was about to say, they were lost completely. But we had what we call rebalancing days. I would text my ex husband, or he would text me and say, “I don’t have X or Y,” and then it was up to us, though—this is important part—it was up to us to go figure out what was out of balance and what needed to come back to the other home. It’s not up to Grace at age 7, 8, 9 to go figure out why her wardrobe across two homes isn’t where it should be. We would pack up a bag, and then when we did the transition, we handed it to each other. Then we put it back in her place. Because again, why is she having to reorganize her drawers? But again, it is little things, but those are the things that we really were trying to be very conscious of, especially in that first year as she’s adjusting to going across two homes. The thing that I can tell you too, Jessica, which is really crazy, fast forwarding, as Grace was going off to college—so she’s 18 years old—she comes home in August before she’s heading off to college. She came home from her dad’s house. She goes, “You know what, Mom?” She was getting ready for college. She goes, “I’m calling this a great consolidation.” And I go, “And why is that?” She goes, “Because when I head off to college, it’ll be the first time in 11 years where all of my stuff is in one place.”

Jessica: My son is a sophomore in college and I didn’t really think about that.

Sarah: Yeah, and so it was interesting. I said to her—because Grace never once, Jessica, she never once complained over those 11 years—and I said, “You know what? I am so happy for you that you’re going to have all your stuff in one place because you were so amazing over those years of going back and forth between my house and dad’s house. I’m happy for you that you have that.” But it was a moment for me where even though she didn’t complain, I knew that wow that was a lot.

Jessica: Yeah, I remember when my kids were really little and people, in particular, my in-laws, who I call the out-laws, would say things like, “Oh, it must be so hard for them.” I mean, I have always had the mindset that kids pick up the way you feel, right? If you act a certain way, your kids will emulate the way that you act. There was nothing I could do to avoid the having to go back and forth, literally nothing.

Sarah: Right.

Jessica: And again, they were two and four. They really didn’t know—

Sarah: Didn’t know anything different.

Jessica: Correct. When the out-laws or anybody else who were kind of anti-divorce would say or make those little ummph comments to me that were passive aggressive about the fact that I had gotten divorced like, “Oh, it must be so hard for them,” I used to just say, “They don’t know any different. This has been their life their whole lives.” I agree with the concept if you’re able to, to have the basics in both places. But it was interesting, because I feel like not so much for my son, but for my daughter, it became the most challenging. She’s a senior in high school now. I feel like it became more challenging for her, I would say within the last year to year and a half, as she became a young woman and has her products and her makeup—

Sarah: Oh, absolutely.

Jessica: —and she’d be going to school with her cosmetics bag. I would always say to her, “Why are you doing that? Go to your dad and say, ‘Dad, I need you to bring me to the store and I need you to buy me these things.’” We ended up working it out because I was saying to her, “You should not have to carry that to school because you don’t have mascara at his house,” or whatever, the stuff that she’s carrying around. But it is true, the consolidation in particular, I remember times where my ex would call me and be like, “I have no underwear here. I don’t know why. I don’t know how that happened.”

Sarah: Exactly. No, yeah, exactly. Yeah, no, it is. Also, to your point about special things, there are going to be things you’re not going to buy two of, right? Now when that happens, here’s the key though, at least from my perspective, is there was a day where Grace came home and she goes, “It’s dress up day at school and my dress up shoes are at Dad’s house.”

Jessica: Yes.

Sarah: I looked at her—now, in that moment, in my head, I’m thinking, “I don’t really have time to go to Dad’s and get your dress up shoes with you. You’re going to be late for school,” all these things. But all I would do is I take a deep breath and go, “Well, let’s go to Dad’s,” because he was just 10 minutes away. We were late to school, okay. But again, it’s not her fault. Because in some instances as a parent, you’d be like, “Grace, you should have known—”

Jessica: “You should have know it was dress up day. Why didn’t you prepare?”

Sarah: Yeah, and I’m like, you know what? No, that’s an unfair step to expect of kids, is that they’re keeping track of that thing over there. There’s just moments where you have to check yourself as a parent and say, okay, deep breath, pause, and say, okay, well, let’s adjust to this and just go do what you need to do to make the situation get better.

Jessica: You’re totally right. For people out there, I really think that this is part of why, if you are able to have an amicable relationship with your ex spouse, these are the reasons why. It has nothing to do with you. It has nothing to do with them. It has everything to do with not blaming each other and not getting caught up in all of the crap that happens when kids inevitably forget something here, or they forget the birthday present, or the birthday party, or whatever it is. It really has to be that you guys are working together as a team, to some degree, and you will be for years and years and years. There’s just no getting around it. If you guys can’t do that, the only person you’re hurting is the kid.

Sarah: Yeah. I generally say when you think about couples that get married, you get married, and you think you’re going to be together. Things don’t work out.

Jessica: Of course.

Sarah: Right, of course. But the stakes are so high when you go through divorce, and we make a commitment when we bring our kids into this world that we’re going to raise them in the healthiest, happiest, safest environment possible. I joke that we cover the plugs, and we put bike helmets on them, we feed them organic milk. We do all these things to make sure they’re healthy. Then if you go into a divorce, and if you aren’t careful, you can put them in a very toxic situation for potentially months, potentially years. That has huge impact on their view on relationships and their view on marriage, and actually the view on their own self worth and happiness. All of these things can be tied up. I think we have to make a commitment as parents that if we are going to go through a divorce, that we don’t put them in that toxic environment, that we keep it away from them, and that we protect them from that. Because I think that is fundamentally what is so important. I think there are instances where couples can lose sight of that because of the emotion that you talked about. That ends up driving everything. It’s like, no, you’ve got to press pause and figure out how you can—and I’m not saying to suppress emotions, because that’s not healthy either.

Jessica: I was literally just going to say the emotions are okay. We all understand it. Everyone’s allowed to do that. But there’s kind of a time and a place, and you do have to sort of compartmentalize when are the times that you can have conversations if you are lashing out at your ex for one reason or another. But you’ve got to find that balance.

Sarah: Absolutely. Absolutely. I actually talk about in my book, building a compartmentalization muscle.

Jessica: That’s so funny.

Sarah: Yeah, and the reason is it’s really important. I joke that I do Pilates so I really focus on building a strong core muscle, but I think one of the most important muscles in life that we can build is a compartmentalization muscle. And again, it’s not about suppressing emotions. It’s about deciding when you’re going to express them, who you share them with, and when and how.

Jessica: Right.

Sarah: And so it’s one of those things that I think some of us don’t have them, and we need to build them. Some of them have them, and we just need to use them appropriately. But it’s an important one.

Jessica: Are there things, a few things that you can recommend for people who, if anyone’s listening and who are going through that first year, things that they should try to be doing during that first year post-divorce?

Sarah: Yes. I talk about that year of firsts, and the first thing is to recognize the first year post-divorce, you are having a divorce hangover, okay? So it is a hangover. You have to realize that that hangover will go away, but you have to give yourself the time and the space to allow that hangover to process and get out of your system. I think first it’s recognizing where you are. I say jokingly, you have a divorce hangover, and you still have to get up and drive carpool every morning, right? You still have to get up and be social and interact with people. On some days, you’re like, “I don’t want to do any of that.” Well, life continues—

Jessica: “No, I don’t; nothing for me today.”

Sarah: Exactly. It’s like, life goes on, and you still need to show up both for your kids and your work and society. I think part of it is recognizing the divorce hangover part of it. The second thing is recognizing every major event that happens that first year, you’re going to go through it, and in going through it, whether it’s a birthday, whether it’s a vacation, whether it’s the holidays, which can be super tough, go through it and then evaluate for yourself, do you want to do it again that way next year?

Jessica: Yeah.

Sarah: Or do you know what? That was great. Yeah, okay, that’s either a new tradition, or I liked it, or whatever the case and your kids liked it, and that worked. Or you might say, “You know what? I never want to do it that way again ever.”

Jessica: And that’s okay.

Sarah: And that’s okay. And so I can say really honestly, my toughest was the first holiday without Grace. I made a decision after that first holiday that I’m not doing it this way again. Nope. Nope. But I think it’s for you to be honest with yourself and those around you about what you need to do to be okay in these moments. I had to say to my family, “The holidays I don’t have Grace, I’m not coming to be around all of you and my nieces and nephews,” and like, “That’s not going to be healthy for me.”

Jessica: So you would rather be alone?

Sarah: No, I had a special person in my life, and we would go away. We’d go, and I would just not celebrate in the same way.

Jessica: Okay.

Sarah: It was just a choice I made because of that dynamic, and one that I followed over the years. Now other people would say, “No, I want to be with them,” which is great. It’s choices. But it’s about what works for you and really evaluating what that looks like and how that feels for you.

Jessica: How do you think that you’ve been able to balance it all? I mean, with this high profile job, you’re traveling all the time and raising a young child.

Sarah: Yeah, no, it’s a lot. It’s a lot. I actually call it juggling—it’s actually my second book I’m writing right now, it’s called The Art of the Juggling Act—

Jessica: Oh, my God, okay. When is that coming out?

Sarah: It’s coming this fall. It’s coming out this fall.

Jessica: Okay, the fall of 2024.

Sarah: 24, yeah. It’s going to be a bite sized guide for working parents. But it’s very much that, I call it a juggling act. I do think that in this instance of life, when life presents itself and you still want to juggle a career and manage a career and be a single working mom, I was fortunate that my ex husband wanted to be very involved in raising Grace. So I did have a very willing and very capable parent and co-parent in the midst with me. I was also fortunate to be able to have various nannies over the years that helped with things when I was traveling internationally. I had moments where there was a flood in our town and the school is closed, and I’m in London and I’m getting a call that the school is closed. I’m like, “Well, my nanny will be coming to pick her up because I’m not close to being able to pick her up from school.” I think those are those moments. But I did enjoy the juggling act over the years, and I think it just takes being really organized and lots of putting Grace first and then figuring out how everything works around that.

Jessica: Yeah, I totally agree with all of that. Well, that’s all a lot of great advice. I hope everybody listening really took something away. I feel like it was a lot of tangible stuff that you can do. You really have a lot of great tips.

Sarah: Thank you.

Jessica: So I really appreciate that. We definitely want to talk to you when your next book comes out for sure. So for everyone listening, if you enjoyed this episode of the Divorce etc… podcast with the exEXPERTS today, let us know by taking a moment to subscribe, rate, and review. That helps us out and it helps others going through divorce to find us and the resources they need. For more about Sarah and her book, The Mom’s Guide to Good Divorce, check out the show notes. And of course, share this episode with anyone you know who could benefit from listening. Have a great day.

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