I expected a lot difficult things in advance of getting divorced at age 28, as the mother of two small children. I expected my 5-year-old would have an adjustment period acclimating to life in two separate households, and I predicted lonely nights and holidays when my children were with their father, awkward looks from people unsure what to say, and well-meaning friends who could only offer platitudes instead of tangible support. I expected difficulty socializing in a Jewish community where my contemporaries have either just bought their first home with their spouse or are living the swinging single life on the Upper West Side; I don’t fall neatly into either category. I didn’t think that my mothering—even with a new set of overwhelming responsibilities and the absence of an in-house partner in parenting—would take a hit.

If I wasn’t a wonderful wife, or always the best daughter or friend, one role I was proud of was being a mother. I’d looked forward to having children all my life, and in the throes of a serious case of anorexia during my teenage years, it was often those glimmers of potential children that compelled me to emerge from a rocky adolescence intact.

When I gave birth to my son at age 23, I sailed through first-time parenting’s learning curve fairly easily and threw myself into motherhood. I fell in love with everything: the nighttime feedings and milk-induced snuggles, the wondrous thrill at the first smile, words and steps. And when my daughter came along three years later, it was easy to focus on her and adapting to life as a mother of two, especially when my marriage was flailing. I was present and engaged; rarely, if ever, did I raise my voice in anger toward my children. Being a good, conscientious mom was always “my thing.”

Fast forward to a few months post-divorce, though, and it’s an entirely different picture. Not because I serve heat-and-eat chicken nuggets more than I ever did, or coordinate perfect weekend activities less than I ever did–these things do not a good mother make. Rather, it’s my inability to be the kind of present parent I once was in the face of my exhaustion in my new reality. If I used to experience the usual ever-present fatigue of a mother of young children with a full-time job, it’s nothing compared to the crushing state of sheer exhaustion in which I find myself now.

Between the morning and evening commutes to drop off and pick up children from school and day care, the days at the office and the nights paying bills, doing household chores and freelancing but only after making dinner and bath and bedtime, my time is devoted to doing and not just being. In the place of simple quality time, there’s just frantic racing around the house trying to check things off my list, things would never get done if I left them for the slender window of time between putting my kids to bed and falling down zombie-like with Netflix, my mind always racing with more to-do lists but a body too tired to comply. “Which chair is Mommy’s at mealtime?” my ex asked the kids one night when he came to pick them up, surveying the messy table. “Mommy doesn’t really sit down,” my 5-year old shrugged.

The deep and vast wellsprings of patience I once had for my kids have been drained in the face of this new schedule. Now, when my children don’t do something the first time I ask them to, I descend into screaming much quicker than I used to. I have little energy for drawn-out bedtimes like I once did because all I can think of is the worn leather sofa with my name on it, only to find that when I get there, I can think only of the Hallmark-worthy fort-building memory I just robbed my children of.

It takes willpower not to blurt out loud the things that form on the tip of my tongue, cruel phrases born of mounting frustration and lack of adequate sleep, and, sometimes, things like “Stop bothering me,” or “Leave me alone already!” slip free. Horrified, I apologize to my 5-year old, and draw my 2-year-old close and hug her tight in appeasement. They forgive me because they are children, and children’s generosity of spirit is expansive and unreserved. But words are powerful, and I remember all the terrible things people have said to me even long after I’ve forgiven them.

Despite an ex-husband with whom I’m on very modern “consciously uncoupled” terms and who has almost equal custody time, and the frequent support of my parents who live about an hour away, I find myself failing in the one role that had always been my refuge. The constant guilt that plagues me is almost unbearable.

People are quick to tell me to cut myself some slack, to give myself time to adjust to this new-found reality. I’ll find the balance, they assure me. But in the time it’s taking to find that state of equilibrium where I can manage my new demands and get back to a place of more conscientious and loving parenting, there’s nothing to stop me from playing my children’s crestfallen expressions when I lose my patience too quickly on an endless loop in my head.

All the things I thought would come with divorce have happened, and they’ve been unpleasant to experience. But it’s the one thing I did not anticipate that’s been the bitterest pill to swallow. Being a present parent, it turns out, is a lot more difficult when you’re falling apart. I only wish I knew how to forgive myself as well as my children seem to.

Tova Ross is a freelance writer. She Tweets @TovaMos

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