Living With Kids: Melisa Russo

By Gabrielle. Photos by Bentley Waters.

Some of you might remember Melisa from her days writing on The Lil Bee, a blog that was equal parts Sex and The City/New York style, as well as the diary of your best friend you’ve known for, like, ever. It was lovely, and so is she.

I asked if she would share her journey of living with her two daughters after a divorce, and she said yes. Please help me welcome Melisa, won’t you?

I’m Melisa and this is the home I share with my two daughters, Devon and Blake. Back in the day I wrote a blog called The Lil Bee, which was mostly about my two babies and other various interests. Those babies are now five and six (how?!) and are the girliest girls you’ve ever seen; everything is rainbows and pink all day and night and nobody leaves the house without at least six pieces of jewelry on at all times. I marvel at their big personalities and huge hearts, and feel lucky that I get to come along for the ride.

Sometimes I miss blogging, so I was excited when Gabby asked me to share a peek inside our world and, in particular, what life looks like post-divorce.

It’s been four years since we moved here and I can honestly say that it now feels like home. That took a while.

When we first moved in, all I was hoping for was a sense of calm and continuity. That this space has evolved into a place we look forward to spending time in is something I’m really proud of. Here’s a glimpse of what life looks like around here.

We live in a townhouse in the suburbs of New York City. I grew up in this area and moved to Manhattan after college. It never occurred to me that I would move back to the ‘burbs as an adult. Never! So when living in the city became unrealistic for several reasons — cost, outgrowing our space, planning a family — my ex and I moved with our dogs to a house up north.

The truth? I wasn’t thrilled about it. I like living in close proximity to my neighbors and had always felt more at home in a city environment. But gradually I began to see the benefit of having a support system close by, and now I’m so grateful to be here.

My mom, who the girls call Mema, comes over all the time and even cooks dinner for us twice a week. She is a godsend. The girls and I have play dates with my high school friends and their kids, and we’ve found a great network of families through both our schools and our neighborhood.

Summers here are our favorite, when everyone on the block congregates outside our house, which is at the end of a cul-de-sac. The kids ride bikes and the parents sit around on lawn chairs and chat. We spend hours and hours at the pool, just down the block, ordering pizzas and eating popsicles until everyone is shivering and our toes are like prunes.

Our family looks different than it did a few years ago, but we’re happy and healthy. Life here is good.

The town we live in is very diverse, which has been a blessing in more ways than I could have imagined. My kids are surrounded by all different types of families, which helps reinforce my teaching that every family is different. Some children have two mommies or two daddies, some live with a grandma or an aunt, and some have two homes, just like us. I’m not sure if this is the community we’ll live in long-term, but the fact that our town is a reflection of us in many ways is a definite plus.

I think there are lessons to be learned in any environment or family dynamic, so no matter where we end up, I won’t sweat it. As long as I’m making decisions for us from a place of love and good intention, I trust that it will all work out.

When we split up, my ex-husband kept both of our dogs, with the understanding that the dogs would come visit us as often as we’d like. This arrangement made the most sense for a lot of reasons. Still, saying goodbye was heartbreaking.

Aside from that (huge) loss, divvying up our belongings wasn’t as tough as you might imagine. My ex generously gave almost all of the furniture to us so that the girls’ lives and surroundings would be as cohesive as possible. The day we moved, he and my mom worked tirelessly, putting together the girls’ bedroom so that it was fully furnished by the time the girls walked in.

A couple weeks later, I drove the girls to their dad’s house and they got to see their second brand new room, which he’d decorated beautifully. That day was pretty brutal, because I saw firsthand that my children would be spending a good portion of their lives in a home that was theirs, but not mine. They’ll have traditions and private jokes and all sorts of routines with their dad that I won’t be privy to. But I’m at peace with that now.

Nothing about divorce is ideal, and nobody enters into a relationship dreaming about the breakup of their lives and belongings. But for many, divorce is a reality. So, you can wallow in it, or you can focus on the amazing life you do have and build upon that.

I work in the city in publishing and commute four days a week. Truthfully, I love my commute. My train runs along the Hudson so I can look out the window at the river and watch the sun set on my way home from work. On the ride in, I try to write for a solid thirty minutes, though some days are more productive than others. I’m currently writing a memoir, and this time on the train has been invaluable to me.

What happens before and after my train ride is the messy logistical stuff that all parents juggle. For years, I woke up before dawn, got myself and the girls fed and dressed, drove across town to a nursery school, then back across town to catch my train. I had a half-hour commute before I’d even left my own town! Hiring a sitter this year was the best decision I could’ve made. We’re all calmer and happier as a result.

The after-school routine is more of a crapshoot, with Dad and both grandmothers taking turns meeting the kids at the bus. At times, I’ve even relied on my neighbors. Truly, it takes a village, and the sooner I accepted that, the better off we all were.

Over the years I’ve learned to ask for help when I need a break and am certain I’ll lose my mind. My mother has swooped in on many a Sunday afternoon and told me to get lost, at which point I’ve escaped to the grocery store and walked around, zombie-like, loading my cart with bags of potato chips and feeling absolutely blissful.

I’ve also learned to call on dear friends when I’m in a pinch, for example, when one daughter is invited to a birthday party and the other isn’t and I need someone to watch her. Or when I’ve had a particularly grueling day of work, followed by two poorly timed tantrums — are they ever well-timed? — and need a friend to come sit on my couch and drink wine and laugh about the absurdity of it all.

You’ve gotta surround yourself with people who have your back without judgement. I’m lucky to have a bunch of them.

I used to be a clean freak, and I used to balance my checkbook down to the penny. Having kids forced me to lighten up in a lot of ways. My house is clean, but it does get messy, so I’ve developed a system. When the basement — which doubles as our playroom and TV room — gets crazy and I don’t feel like cleaning it, I simply shut the door and come upstairs. That’s it, that’s my whole m.o.

Deal with it later.

Recently, like everyone else I know, I read “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo, and did a complete overhaul of our two bedrooms. You would never have looked at our rooms before and thought there was an abundance of stuff, because I had it all organized or stuffed deep inside our closets. But I wholeheartedly believe that too much stuff of any kind — toys, books, clothes — is overwhelming to children, and I know for certain it is for me.

So I gave the book a try and in one day I carted out 25 large garbage bags worth of donations and trash/recycles. I can’t wait to continue with the rest of the house. Feels so liberating!

I’m not sure I have any decor rules. I like what I like, which is typically either all white or really colorful. Whatever feels natural, I go with it.

As for parenting rules, I feel like children come into this world knowing what’s best for them, and it’s our job as parents to guide and protect them. That may sound crazy, but I believe we’re all born with instinct, and if we cultivate that in our children, I think they’re more likely to be happy, well-adjusted people.

I tell my kids all the time, “You already know the answer.” If something you’re doing makes your stomach feel uneasy, don’t do it. Listen to your gut and follow your heart.

I want my daughters to be empowered to do what feels right for them and to look out for others.

Two of the phrases I’m sure they’ll remember as Mommy’s favorites are: “Worrying helps no one” and “Choose to be happy.” I’ve caught my kids saying these words to one another and have grinned quietly from the other room.

Sometimes their words come out as a shout: “CHOOSE to be HAPPY, Devonnn!” But the message is getting across, nonetheless. Can’t ask for much more than that.

I hope my girls remember riding bikes and having scavenger hunts, eating dinner outside with the neighbors while their hair is still wet from the pool, throwing impromptu dance parties in the kitchen, laughing, playing restaurant while Mommy cooks dinner, cuddling on the couch with a snack and our favorite TV shows, coloring, building castles in the bathtub and driving me crazy with the splashing all over the floor, and love. SO much love.

This might sound strange but I don’t really remember how to be a parent with someone else. I co-parent with my ex-husband, and I think we’re doing a pretty great job together, but I don’t know what it is to parent with someone where we meet at the table for dinner, talk with the kids about their day, put them to bed, and then sit on the couch and talk.

I don’t know what it is to spend weekends together with my kids and their dad. The girls and I moved here when they were one and two, so I’ve been doing this on my own for longer than I ever did while married. The family dynamic as I know it is the three of us, with an occasional four-legged friend by our side.

When we first moved here, I felt gutted any time my ex came by to pick up the girls for a night at his house. My children’s father is a huge part of their lives and an amazing dad in every way. But saying goodbye to my kids and watching them drive off with my ex felt totally unnatural.

With time and lots of love from friends and family, I learned to cherish my time away from the kids. I now use this time to write, spend time with people I care about, go to the gym, or take walks around the river and empty out my brain. Time alone has been unbelievably important to me. And I know that it makes me a better parent.

When my kids come back from their dad’s house, I’m ecstatic to see them. I’ve had a chance to recharge and reconnect with myself, and I’ve had a moment to miss my kids. My ex has said he feels the same way when he hasn’t seen the girls in a few days. What this means for the kids is that they get two excited, happy parents who can’t wait to spend time with them. In short, because of my time alone, I’m more present.

Every parent I know feels like s/he’s stretched too thin. For me, the solution is simple: find a time and space of your own to decompress regularly, whether it’s a 30-minute commute where you listen to music and drown out the inner monologue, or a regularly scheduled hour away from the kids to go grocery shopping or take a walk outside. (Seriously. Grocery shopping can feel utterly spa-like when you don’t have children hanging off of your cart or tossing Cheez-Its in your face when you just need a loaf of bread.)

To be clear, time with friends and loved ones is important, too, but I’m talking about time alone, ALL alone, by yourself. Everyone needs this.

I wish someone had told me that raising children after divorce can be not just doable, but wonderful. I love that my time with my kids is just for us, and that I don’t have to check in with anyone; I can just pick up, pack up, and go. Our weekends are carefree and spontaneous.

We’re not just getting by, as I imagined we might be. We’re thriving. I have the family I always wanted, it just looks a little different than I’d imagined.

I’ll never forget calling my aunt four years ago and crying in a parking lot as I told her we were getting a divorce. She was one of the first people I told, and each time I said the words out loud the story became more real. Not knowing what a divorce would look and feel like scared me senseless.

“I just want to be OK,” I sobbed into the phone.

“You will,” she said. “You’ll be better than OK.”

Those words became like a mantra for me over the next several months and really saved me when I felt like I might collapse under the weight of it all. Sometimes all you need is for someone to convince you that you’re going to be OK, and that somehow it all works out. That’s the advice I’d want to pass on to anyone who’s going through a tough breakup or navigating parenthood.

Parenting is scary and intimidating no matter how many people are in your village, and I’m told it’s no easier when your kids reach adulthood. In a nutshell, I’m winging it. Little by little, day by day.

But I love the life we’ve created here and I’m excited about what’s to come. Together with my girls, I know it’ll always be an adventure worth taking.

–-

Better than OK is a pretty good goal, isn’t it? Melisa, I really love reading about how well you and your ex are navigating your parenting and Living With Kids realities, and I want to thank you a thousand times over for providing some welcome reassurance for any fellow readers who are facing such a change themselves. Go, village!

I love the “Choose to be happy” mantra, too. What are the sayings in your own homes that your children have appropriated? I so enjoy those stories — do tell!

P.S. – Are you living with your own kids in a unique way? Are you interested in sharing your home and experiences with us? Let me knowWe love to be inspired! And it’s a lot of fun…I promise! I should also mention, I have a goal to bring more diverse points of view to Design Mom this year. So if you don’t see yourself or your community reflected here, let’s make it happen — send in your details, or recommend a friend! Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here.

22 thoughts on “Living With Kids: Melisa Russo”

  1. Wow, what a wonderful post. Melisa, I never read your blog, but I wish I had – I love your writing.

    Divorce always seems so sad for everyone involved, but my heart always goes out most to the woman/mom (it just does). This part got me: “I saw firsthand that my children would be spending a good portion of their lives in a home that was theirs, but not mine. They’ll have traditions and private jokes and all sorts of routines with their dad that I won’t be privy to. But I’m at peace with that now.” Thank you for sharing your honest journey, and I’m so glad everything seems to be going better than okay for everyone!

  2. WOW. So many amazing life lessons here! This was a fantastic read (and tour) – I swear I get more out of the interviews on these posts than I do from the photos, which are always gorgeous and brimming with inspiration :)

  3. This was such a beautiful home tour. My parents are divorced and so I know all the things that she’s feeling about kids making memories that she isn’t a part of. It’s funny because growing up that wasn’t something that ever registered with me, but I totally can see now how my mom must have felt that, and honestly it makes me wish I was a nicer teenager now… Such a great home tour.

    Paige
    http://thehappyflammily.com

  4. Thank you for your story, Melisa. I have a similar story in that I married someone who had shared parenting with his ex. It was mind boggling to me that the kids have a whole other life we know very little about, even though they spend most of their time with us. Divorce is hard, so hard. But certainly, there are times where it is absolutely the best for everyone involved, especially the kids. Best wishes on continuing life!

  5. Melisa,

    I always loved your blog and was so sad when you closed up shop. So thrilled to know you are thriving and happy.

    Wishing you and your girls all the best.

  6. I adore this gal!!! having met her in person, she is so lovely,funny and awesome and this new life she’s created for herself and her kids sounds absolutely awesome and happy and full of love. I have so much respect for what you said about the way our kids are born into this world knowing what’s best for them and the phrases you use to help them along the journey,Melisa. I wholeheartedly believe in those too and that is such great advice. “You already know the answer” and “choose to be happy”. you are awesome,my friend & it’s been way too long since I’ve seen you but I love getting a peek into your life and your happy little family!
    Xo
    Melissa

  7. You have a gorgeous home! I also love your sage words of wisdom and your willingness to share the good, bad, and ugly. I admire your strength, and I know your girls do, too! Love your mantras!

  8. This was an excellent read. I know very few divorced couples well (I suppose that’s weird, but just how its worked out in our circle of friends) so it was quite enlightening to me. I certainly would think that this should be required reading on how to get along for those about to go through divorce with relation to how they handle themselves in front of the kids, etc. Well done to both you and your ex for putting the kids first.

  9. Love Melisa! I miss The Lil Bee blog so much. Thank you for featuring her and allowing us to peek into her life post divorce. She is an inspiration and her girls are so lucky to have such an amazing mama!!!

  10. Thanks for sharing your story!! I remember reading the lil bee years ago and loving the ‘voice’ of your writing style. :)

  11. Thank you so much for sharing your home and story. You sound like an amazing, strong woman who is setting the most awesome example to her daughters. You go!

  12. Melisa, I loved, loved, loved reading The Lil Bee when it was live. It’s wonderful to see how your family has thrived – to use your word – over the past few years. It causes a moment of introspection for me, as well – I’m very different than I was years ago reading your blog slaving away at my 2nd job out of college. In a good way, too. Wishing you all the best!

  13. I read Melisa’s blog for many years and it became a major part of my day. I grew to love her and have been so incredibly blessed to be her friend in real life. Her words have always meant so much to me, struck a chord in my thoughts and her stories/sense of humor stuck with me all day. Thinking of a witty comment for her post became like a tough crossword clue, a fun, yet challenging endeavor. This is such an amazing post, M. Your point of view, perspective and advice ring true to anyone really, and that’s why I loved your writing from the start. Melisa inspired some to have my own blog for over five years and continues to inspire me with her lessons she learned in the last few years. I honestly believe Melisa helped me become a better writer and blogger. So glad she accepted your invitation to blog again here. Melisa, I am looking forward to reading and then rereading your memoir. It will be one of my greatest joys.

  14. This is so lovely and inspiring. I feel lucky to have read it today, and I am happy for you that you have built a life you love. My parents had a hellacious divorce – just seeing how you have refrained from making those scars on your daughters really helped me and touched me. It gave me a true sense of peace to read your words. Thank you.

  15. Thanks so much for an amazing post. I loved Melisa’s blog and am so happy to see how well she’s doing. On top of that, I’m newly separated and can’t tell you how much her words resonated with me and filled me with peace and hope for the day when I, too, will be ‘better than OK’. Xo.

  16. I read lil bee religiously (and also Feather Report) and was so so sad when she announced the divorce and shut down the blog. mostly because i had a baby the same age (she is now turning 6) and was also getting a divorce at the exact same time. I’ve often wondered how they are doing, and i’m SO happy to see that Melisa is doing great! The girls are growing up beautifully, their home is lovely, and I’m so happy to hear they are surrounded by such a lovely support system.
    sending much love your way, and to all the solo mamas.

  17. I used to LOVE reading The Lil Bee and am so thrilled you decided to take Gaby up on doing a Living With Kids post. It makes me so happy (but not surprised) that you and your girls are living such a wonderful life together. Wishing you continued peace and happiness.

  18. What wonderful insight into your home! I am so happy that you are able to co-parent peacefully with your ex-husband- honestly it is the best thing you could be doing for your daughters. Please cherish your mother and her willingness to take care of you & her granddaughters- you are lucky to have such a giving mother. Best wishes for a happy future!

  19. I used to read the Lil Bee! This was such a wonderful feature and so great to unexpectedly hear from Melisa ♡♡♡

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