Friday Takeway: Naomi Shulman

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Hi there! My name’s Naomi Shulman, and recently I got divorced.

Am I oversharing? I’ve revealed no juicy details; I’ve given you only the very broadest strokes here. But when I shared my separation on Facebook almost a year ago, I’ll admit I took a deep breath. I’d noticed how rarely I’d seen other people share similar updates (and it’s not because I don’t know plenty of people who have divorced). Sometimes the only way I’ve realized an acquaintance has ended a marriage is when they suddenly revert to their unmarried name or share an update about a new partner.

Apparently, announcing a divorce is just … not done. I’ve heard about people hiring brass bands to mark the end of the marriage, but I don’t personally know anyone who’s done that. For the most part, we are expected to weather this life-changing time privately.

Some years ago, I had another bad piece of news I felt reluctant to share: I suffered a miscarriage. It was a very big deal in my life, and I am someone who writes about my life — but for some reason, this is something I have never written about. Like divorce, miscarriage is a topic that people often find awkward, and I found there were no easy avenues for bringing it up, much less organized rituals to help me cope with it.

In my case, I had just entered the second trimester, so a lot of people knew I was pregnant; the only way many of them figured out something must have gone wrong was when I failed to show up with a baby six months later.

I’ve been thinking about the kinds of announcements we don’t actually announce. It’s not that we’re all so private — at least, not about some things. Every day on social media, I see someone announce the happy things: an engagement, a wedding, a new job, a baby. And I love seeing all those announcements, but unless we’re living a dramatically blessed (or maybe unbalanced) life, there’s almost always a flip side; people get laid off, marriages falter, pregnancies fail. Many of us keep those harder updates to ourselves, nursing our wounds in relative silence. It may be why social media sites (especially photo-heavy ones like Facebook and Instagram) are linked with lower feelings of well-being.

I wasn’t thinking about my well-being when I shared the news of my impending divorce on Facebook — at least, not in that sense. I was actually hoping I’d save myself dozens of awkward and uncomfortable smaller conversations. I didn’t want to have to break the news again and again every time I ran into an acquaintance at the store or in a coffee shop. This way, I’d rip off the Band-Aid and tell everyone at once.

But the response I got surprised me. I expected people to express support, which they did, in abundance. What I hadn’t predicted were the many comments that my announcement took courage — that simply naming the huge thing that was happening in my life was an act of bravery.

Yet living life can be, and often is, an act of bravery. Going through the many kinds of losses we all encounter forces us to summon stores of strength we may not have known we had. Simply naming these things? I’d like that to be the opposite of brave; after all, by letting others know what’s up, we allow them to help support us. The end of a marriage, no matter how amicable, is necessarily a time of loss. No one needed to know the particulars to understand that I was going through a challenging time. Being willing to name it meant I was putting out the call for backup — and I’m happy to say I got it.

It’s counterintuitive, but social media might be less depressing if we were willing to be a little more depressing, so to speak. I’m not talking about posting more political posts (although I am definitely guilty of that, and fair warning, I won’t stop). I’m talking about letting ourselves show a little more vulnerability. Vacation photos are lovely, but life ain’t a long vacation. If that’s all we’re presenting, we’re hiding from others — and if that’s all we’re seeing in our feed, our friends are hiding from us.

We want to appear as strong and successful as we possibly can, no matter what’s happening inside. We put our best face forward; none of us wants to share pictures that make us look weak or pitiful, after all. But every one of us — every single one — will have moments of weakness, moments that others will indeed pity. No news doesn’t equal good news; sometimes no news is really just bad news that we’re enduring all by ourselves. Maybe we don’t have to.

Naomi Shulman’s work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Yankee Magazine, as well as on NEPR and WBUR. Follow her on Twitter: @ naomishulman.