At the age of 27, I got divorced and became a single mom to an 11-month old baby girl.
This occurred three months before starting an intensive internship year in Clinical Psychology, part of my training for a doctoral degree. It all happened suddenly, although by no means unexpectedly (except to family and friends…). After five years of marriage, I gained two new labels — divorced and single mother.
I didn’t mind the labels. They really meant nothing to me; I knew I was above them. But I did think about my mother, and how she might feel ashamed that her daughter had gotten divorced. I believe she saw divorce as a failure — I saw divorce as an option and as a choice to a happier life.
But divorce, no matter the circumstances, can be quite unraveling. That is, if you have nothing to fight for. Raising my daughter alone while still training became the biggest fight of my life. This was no time to collapse, break down or get weak on the knees. I was determined to rise above, to successfully complete my PhD, while raising an outstanding and happy child.
Was it hard? Hell, yeah! Did I feel alone? Sad, at times depressed? Absolutely. But I had dreams to achieve — that was my focus. The idea that I would disprove the stereotypes associated with single-motherhood became a strong motivator.
So I took the next five years by storm. Every morning, at 6:45 AM, I pushed my daughter’s stroller a half-mile down a steep hill towards her day care center, and delivered her at 7AM to the arms of two caregivers who had another seven kids to care for. I would then run down the stairs to catch a bus to North Central Bronx Hospital. By 7:30AM I was sitting in clinical rounds at the Psychiatric Emergency Room, where no one knew my story. Every morning, we reviewed the new patients waiting to be evaluated — a woman who had drank Clorox to end her life; an adolescent manifesting his first psychotic, schizophrenic break; an agitated old man with dementia.
There were moments when it felt surreal to be there. Here I was, evaluating people who were deeply emotionally-distressed, many of them clinically depressed because life had not happened as they had envisioned. I completely understood their pain and confusion. There was a part of me that felt that way too, but I had a job to do. I had to remain as intact, composed and focused as possible. And I did.
From 7AM to 7PM, I was on the go, I was productive, sharp and efficient. Any reminders of what was going on in my personal life, I folded it away nice and neatly, put it inside a drawer in a corner of my soul, and closed it tightly. I would get to it later, I told myself. Not now. This was not a time for pity parties… PhD, Professional Merit, Financial Empowerment, Independence, Control, Proving Everyone Wrong — recurring thoughts that kept me going.
Music became my healer. At home, as soon as my daughter began to walk, we would dance together in our large living room. She would look up at me and I would down at her, and laugh and move and simply love our time together. She had these beautiful big eyes full of life and energy — an energy I deeply needed at that time. We had an awesome time together, just her and me.
My sister and her husband, my mother and my young brother became instrumental during this transition. They helped with babysitting on the weekends, when I had graduate work to do. They were there 100% for support, company and laughter. I lost count of the number of times my sister and her husband helped me move, paint, and do errands. Most importantly, they were a phone call away in the middle of the night, whenever life felt like it was more than I could bare, and I needed someone to talk to with tears in my eyes.
But I kept going strong. When my daughter was three years old, I submitted an application to Fieldston Lower School, a well-respected independent private school in New York City. I have always valued excellence in education, and Fieldston Lower School was more than I could have ever imagined for my child. Not only was she accepted to the school, but she also received almost a full scholarship. Receiving her letter of acceptance was a turning point during that phase in my life. I was filled with excitement for her, and I felt superbly proud of myself as a mother.
Our years at Fieldston were unforgettable. This place became my daughter’s second home. A safe, child-centered place where children felt loved and special. Fieldston became a defining part of my daughter’s life and character. And that, was enough to fill my heart with tremendous joy.
The next few years were only about my daughter and completing my dissertation. After dinner, I would work on my manuscript with my daughter by my side. She on her small chair and table, drawing or painting, and me on my desk full of papers. She drew for long periods of time, content and quiet, as if she knew well that mami had something important to do. [Today, she’s an artist and photographer.]
I spent many New Year’s Eve’s on my desk, writing this dissertation, while my family called and insisted I come join them to celebrate. But I was on a mission. I knew there would be plenty of holidays to celebrate, and moments to hang out and relax in the future. I just had to finish this thing I had started, and I had to do it well.
For five years I dated no one. There would also be plenty of time to date, once I finished my PhD — I told myself. But deep down inside, I doubted there would be someone waiting for me in the future. Despite all the wise words of the feminist authors I had come to embrace in college, I couldn’t believe I had fleeting thoughts of being damaged goods because I was a divorced woman with a child. How old fashion is that…?! At times, I was amused by these two opposing inner voices…damaged goods? Give me a break!
In 1998, three years after my divorce, I found myself in a large university room, in front of a group of professors. My mentor sitting right across from me, smiling. This was the day I had waited for so long…my doctoral dissertation defense meeting. This would be the last day of the journey that had started 6 years ago. By the end of this meeting I would have a degree that no one could ever take away from me.
In the back of this room sat my sister, holding my 4-year old daughter in her arms, next to her husband. They were my special and only guests. My anchor. I tried not to look that way…I needed to be focused.
As is customary of dissertation defense meetings, I was asked several questions by this group of professors. The topic of my dissertation seemed to be of interest to them. I had done a study focusing on the impact of cross-cultural migration on mental health, using a Dominican immigrant sample. The professors were curious, they asked more questions, and made some comments. Overall, they seemed happy. So far so good. I looked at my mentor and she smiled. I sat there, completely present in the moment. A turning point in my life like no other…
I was asked to leave the room so the committee could discuss whether or not the dissertation had the merit to be fully accepted. I waited outside of the room. Quiet, again. Then, the door opened and my mentor signaled me to come in. I sat back again on the chair to meet the eyes of those in front of me. “Congratulations Dr. Perez!”
I finally looked back to my sister. She had the proudest face a sister could ever have. And I smiled back, dying to express more.
Those years were and will always be the most defining era of my life. I learned to face fear, emotional pain and challenge. I held on to my convictions and kept firm on what was important to me. I came out of that experience feeling triumphant and strong. I learned that there is nothing I can’t survive or rise above.
I also learned that life has its own agenda. Those years transformed me into an incredibly confident woman. Confidence is sexy. And it was that sexiness that attracted my wonderful husband, Alain, when we met a couple of years later.
The rest is good history…