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I’m 35 years old, and I’ve been married twice. My first husband, Aaron, died from brain cancer in 2014 after three years of marriage. My current husband Matthew (who does not love being called my “current husband”) and I met after he went through a pretty brutal divorce.
Matthew and I were both the human equivalent of rescue dogs, and never expected to find love and happiness again. Even though we had both decided to focus our energy on ourselves and our children, the world (and a mutual friend) had different plans for us, and we quickly discovered that the pieces of our broken families fit together perfectly, a puzzle we didn’t even know we were trying to solve.
In the past four years, I lost a husband and found one. I went from being a mother of one to a mother and stepmother to four. And I learned a few things in the process:
1. I’m married to two men.
Aaron died in 2014, but our marriage didn’t die with him. Aaron and I have a child together, and I am who I am because of the love we shared. Being loved by Aaron made me the kind of person Matthew could fall in love with. It’s not a competition. There is no first place trophy. Matthew and Aaron are both my husbands, and they’re both the loves of my life.
One is definitely a more reliable shoulder to cry on, but when I’m crying on Matthew’s shoulder, it’s often about Aaron. Which leads me to my next point...
2. Love is big.
In all of its forms, love is bigger and more powerful than we realize. It’s bigger than our fear. I was afraid to love Matthew, as if loving him would mean that I loved Aaron less. I was afraid that because I loved Ralph so much, my heart wouldn’t have enough for the rest of the kids. But your heart is not a minivan. You don’t have a set amount of love available to burn through. You’re not going to run out of love just because you’ve opened your heart to someone else. If anything, you’re going to make more of it.
Love is like an endless cup of coffee at a crappy diner, only it won’t give you heartburn and you’ll actually enjoy it.
3. Your wedding is not your marriage.
That’s a phrase my grandmother squawked at us since childhood, but one that I momentarily forgot during my brief engagement to Matthew.
When I married Aaron, it was in an art gallery. I wore a red cocktail dress and he wore Nikes with his suit. We livestreamed the ceremony for our out-of-town guests and sent out an email invite for everyone else. I didn’t care about flowers or decor, and my sister took care of the food and drinks.
But when it came time to plan my wedding with Matthew, I suddenly felt pressure to have a "Real Wedding." Something that would give him a do-over, and me a long to-do list. Flowers, a fancy dinner, a white dress, favors. A few months into the wedding planning, when I’d made no progress, Matthew and I looked at each other and said, “Do you even want to do this?” The answer was no. We didn’t want a wedding.
As much as a wedding is intended to be “your day,” it is easy for it to become about everyone but you. We wanted a marriage, something for us and our children. So I canceled the venue and all the hotel rooms. I deleted my Pinterest board. We invited some friends and family over for brunch one day and surprised them all with some vows and some really excellent donuts. We breathed a huge sigh of relief. Was everyone happy with it? Nope. But it wasn’t their wedding, and it isn’t their marriage. It’s ours.
4. It’s … complicated.
My dad used to say, “You marry a person, you marry their whole family.” Well, when you marry a divorced parent, you marry their entire former family, too. If you think it’s awkward for you, think about the kids. The kids you love are the middle part of a Venn diagram between several different family structures. These other people may not technically be your family, but they’re the family of the children you love. If you’re lucky, you’ll all get along swimmingly and have brunch together every Sunday.
If you’re an average person, you’ll just smile and wave when you see one another and hope the weather gives you enough to talk about.
5. There are no happy endings.
From the outside, I know how it looks. I lost my husband, but I finally got my happily ever after! That’s a neat little way to tie things up, but it’s horribly inaccurate.
The vows you take on your wedding day are just words. Maybe you wrote them yourself, and maybe they’re the same words your parents and grandparents and great grandparents said to one another. Anyone can say a vow. But not everyone can live them. What I learned from my first marriage was how to live them. How to truly be there in sickness and health, 'til death parts you.
I know marrying Matthew is signing up for more happiness and more heartbreak. For more love and more pain. And I’m ready for it.
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Nora McInerny is the author of "It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool, Too)," and the host of the podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her family. Her second book, "No Happy Endings," will publish in April 2019, from HarperCollins Dey Street.