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My cousin held me tighter as we hugged and whispered “you look so sad”.

She’s right, I do, I thought later. The decades of a dysfunctional marriage had taken a toll, but the three and a half years trying to salvage it were a whole new level of destructive. By the time I saw her during a Denver vacation last summer I barely looked alive. There was no light left in my eyes, I looked as burdened as I felt. It’s a phenomenon that gets endlessly discussed on various support groups I participate in. Before and after pictures are often shared, hope for those still finding their way out, proof of progress for those who have a more distant perspective.

I couldn’t deny the reality of what she said but it still came as somewhat of a shock. I hadn’t seen her in years. I thought I did a better job of hiding it. I was grateful she said something, knowing that I have three pairs of eyes watching all the time, learning both how to be a partner and what to expect from one. If I didn’t find the courage to face the truth and value myself and my contributions, I was running the risk of them meeting the same fate. Knowing I was still building the path that would in some ways shape their future gave me the courage to advocate for myself, to ask for what I needed, and to not compromise my own welfare.

Over the last few months I’ve made it a point to try and look my best, to find the joy in nurturing myself again. I love playing with colors, even if I’m not always comfortable with it. So coloring my hair, indulging in the occasional mani/pedi, and a budding makeup addiction have been a way to invest in myself. Those investments had a measurable impact on my earnings (for the better), and garnered endless comments from my loved ones about how much happier I look.

I spent so many years convincing myself that spending anything on me was frivolous and essentially stealing from my kids. Of course, I was also unaware what the true root of our financial problems were. I believed what I was told, that it was all my fault and if I just sacrificed more and more everything would be fine. It became a way of life, and I have to admit, it’s uncomfortable still to spend money on myself. My first instinct is always to sacrifice what I want and need for the welfare of my family.

It’s another one of those unhealthy patterns I’d like to break. I’m hoping to learn to model better and more consistent self-respect for my boys. I need to remember the risk of feeling the need to ask them why they’re so broken someday is very real.

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