“Just so you know, I’ll need you to sleep over on my first night,” I tell my friend Kim, upon signing the lease of my post-separation rental house, a mini-me version of the dream home my ex and I built over a decade ago. It’s not that I haven’t slept alone—hell, I did it for 12 months, after my 29-year-marriage officially went off the rails—but we had to put our dream house on the market in May, and it was time to officially be living alone after divorce and change my life in a big way.
Or rather, in a smaller way.
For the first time ever, I had no concept of what life might look like.
I’d like to say that the only thought in my head when talks of separation first began was, “How am I going to live without my husband?” But if I’m being brutally honest, the other phrase that was also floating around was, “How am I going to find an affordable place to live that sings to my heart so I don’t end up a depressive mess?”
When my daughter left for her junior year of college this fall, she did so knowing it would be the last time she’d see her house and knowing that I would be facing the difficult task of physically dismantling our lives. And so she left a note on her pillow for me that ended with the following words:
I’ll miss this house, Mama, but remember…it’s not our home. Our home is the place where we’re together.”
My wise girl is right. And yet sometimes, home is where my white denim slipcovered sofa is. And my antique crystal chandelier. And my French bistro glasses. It sounds shallow, but the trappings of where I live have always been inextricably tied to my heart.
Feathering My Nests
My parents’ mid-century modern home in Seattle, with water views from the floor-to-ceiling windows, was where I learned how to proudly make a house a home. How to decorate a Thanksgiving table. How to be a loving and supportive parent. And how, if I spent five hours moving the furniture around in my little bedroom, I could feel as though I just got new digs.
The thought of being single and 55 scared the sh*t out of me.
Before I knew it, this wide-eyed 22-year-old college graduate found herself on the cusp of moving to New York City for a magazine job. If you, like me, are currently in your 50s, you might remember the glorious early issues of Self magazine, which included features like, “How to Decorate a Studio Apartment.” I pored over those pages, envisioning my first solo home.
What I ended up with was an L-shaped studio in midtown Manhattan. It was barely 300-square feet. I remember the thrill of decorating every inch of that tiny space to reflect my taste: There was the gate-leg table that magically folded up into nothing after dinner, a velvet sofa-bed that hosted many an out-of-town guest, the little glass-front cabinet that held my favorite drink-ware as I somehow hosted parties for 40 in that small space. I think the Self editors would have been proud. I know I was.
Some years later, after a foray with my then-husband in a Country Living-inspired cottage, I landed in my dream house, back in Seattle, where my children grew up and flourished. It had a 12-foot kitchen island; dark-wood, wide-plank floors; white granite countertops; glass pendant lights. I decorated it to resemble a Hamptons beach house, heavily influenced by my favorite movie, Something’s Gotta Give. Sadly, what gave was my marriage, as this house was the place in which it eventually crumbled. I did, too. In addition to feeling like a complete failure as a wife, a mom, and a woman, the thought of being single and 55 scared the sh*t out of me.
What Exactly Does “Home” Look Like After a Divorce?
It took countless tears, tens of hours of self-reflection, and twice-weekly appointments with my therapist to realize that every place I’d ever lived had come with a vision. While the dream house was conceived with the same mental exercise, it ultimately became the place where I lost my ability to picture a future. Because that, you see, is my coping tool. I try things on for size in order to get comfortable with change.
Those months spent poring over Self magazine? They were my trial run for living alone in New York City. When I left my magazine staff position in Manhattan to have a baby and start freelancing from Seattle, I feared losing my identity as a powerful editor. And so I had to visualize our new suburban house with a dishy home office; conjuring up dreams of writing at a beautiful white desk, while my baby boy played in his cozy sky-blue nursery. Envisioning a scene of grown-up life—and making it reality—benchmarked every stage of my life to date.
I cried to my therapist about my worry of not finding a place I could both love and afford.
But for the first time ever, I had no concept of what life might look like, and, what’s more, I felt paralyzed to imagine it. I couldn’t see myself sitting down to pay bills and negotiate cable contracts on my own (a task I hadn’t handled in 30 years), much less throwing holiday parties as a single woman for all my married friends. Frankly, I couldn’t even see being able to afford a place that would make my heart sing.
And so, with great effort, the dreaming had to begin anew—this time, without a magazine to guide me. What does a single me, mid-50s, look like when home alone? I pictured writing on my laptop from my white denim sofa and entertaining friends with warm meals, cocktails, roaring fires, and board games. I saw my 20-something kids staying with me in cozy, comfortable bedrooms. In between, I cried to my therapist about the prohibitive real-estate market and my worry of not finding a dwelling I could both love and afford.
And then, one day, I saw photos on Zillow of a small rental house that looked remarkably like the beloved home I was leaving; my heart skipped a beat. The outside? Nothing fancy. But inside the newly renovated place were dark wood floors, a great room with a 12-foot kitchen island, glass pendant lights, and white countertops. When I walked in for the first time, I instantly knew I would be okay. It felt like home. It was totally my taste. It was as if the stage set for this next phase of my life had just been perfectly, reassuringly conjured up.
To his great credit, my ex—who knows my taste up, down and sideways, and thankfully remains my right-hand man—came to check out the place before I signed the contract. After a tour, he turned to the landlord and said, “My wife could literally pick up her furniture and plop it down here and she’d be home.”
Living Alone After Divorce: Re-designing My Home and My Life
Emotionally, decorating this rental house took me right back to those post-college days when I was outfitting my studio apartment. I felt excited, giddy almost, as I transformed the space. I soon realized, though, that the thrill I was feeling was about something much more important than painting a brick fireplace white or installing bistro shelving: it was about being transported back to a time when I called the shots in my own life.
I was designing my world again, physically and metaphorically.
My first order of business was creating a glam chick bedroom (which I’d never had because I flew from the studio apartment straight to married life). So in went a white-velvet tufted headboard, lace throw pillows, and mirrored deco night tables. Its gorgeousness, however, didn’t diminish my fears of spending the first night in the house alone. Kim thought I was afraid of a break-in, and like any best friend, she stepped up to the plate and said she’d be there with bells (and pjs) on. But I knew my trepidation had little to do with fear of home invasion; and everything to do with fear of life invasion. Single life invasion…the kind that hits when day becomes night and you realize you are totally alone in that bed.
I needed to put on my big-girl pants and stay in the house alone, to prove to myself that I wasn’t afraid anymore.
I also didn’t know what to do with childhood photos of my husband. They will always be precious to me, but they seem like inappropriate décor now that we’re no longer together. So I embellished my daughter’s new bedroom with pictures of her Daddy, knowing we’ll both feel secure seeing the extension of her old life gracing her new one.
On move-in day as the trucks left me surrounded by cartons, Kim—along with a couple of other friends—met at the house to help me settle in. We laid down rugs, shoved furniture around the living room, ordered pizza and had a shot of celebratory vodka (consumed from votive candleholders because I hadn’t unpacked my glasses yet). By the end of the night, I told Kim that I’d changed my mind about the sleepover. I needed to put on my big-girl pants and do it alone. Not just to set a precedent of independence for my friends, but to prove to myself that I wasn’t afraid anymore.
Before she left, Kim took me upstairs to my bedroom to show me that she and my pals had made my glam chick bed. Laid out on it was a pair of pajamas that she’d dug out of one of the countless Hefty bags. I cried. Not for the loss of my marriage. Not for the loss of my dream house. But for the knowledge that I am still loved.
Today, I sit in the cozy home office of my rental house, gazing at a photo of my two beautiful children on my white desk, yellow leaves falling off the trees outside my window, and music from my Bose speaker (that I set up myself!) playing in the background.
My home is singing to me. Granted, it isn’t the home I thought I’d be in at this juncture of life—that one is now sold and occupied by another family—but it feels wonderful. And 100 percent me.
Hillary Quinn has worked as an editor at various magazines in New York and is a well-known beauty and lifestyle writer. Her work has appeared in Elle, Cosmo, Bride’s, Good Housekeeping, and many other publications and websites.