Divorce is never easy, but it’s particularly hard when children are involved.
For Aryn Drake-Lee, 39, her contentious split and ongoing litigation with Grey’s Anatomy star Jesse Williams has indeed taken a toll on their family. But as mom to their kids Sadie, 5, and Maceo, 3, she finds it important to be transparent with her journey.
“Children hold the mirror very close, and they challenge you in ways that can be really, really difficult,” she says. “But through that difficulty is where you get to find the beautiful nuggets of growth and expansion for yourself.”
Speaking out to PEOPLE this week for the first time since Williams filed for divorce two years ago, she’s ready to share what all she’s learned with the world. Drake-Lee and mom pal Trian Long-Smith, launched their BBSARETRASH (Babies Are Trash) podcast on Mother’s Day, opening up about all of the beautiful and tough parts of motherhood.
As for her experience, “I have a new level and sequence of tools that I had to develop to manage this litigation, which is next level,” she says of her ongoing divorce from Williams. “When you start spinning, the children start spinning, so even if you’re looking at them and you’re telling them everything is fine, they know it’s not fine because they can feel it’s not fine.”
A proponent of attachment parenting, the stay-at-home mom and entrepreneur says she’s found it important to be open with her children.
“I talk to them on their level,” she explains. “It’s also okay for the children to see me crying, to see that I’m having a hard day today. Because that lets them know that when they have those hard days, there’s also room for that.”
One such instance happened recently, and her daughter Sadie’s response touched her heart. “The other day, I was having a hard morning and I said something to her, and she got upset. I got down and I said to her, ‘Mommy’s having a really hard morning, I don’t know if you can feel it?’ She said, ‘Yeah, I can feel it.’ I said, ‘Okay, well, I’m really sorry. It’s going to be a little while, but I’ll feel a little better,’ and she pulled me in, and she said, ‘I’ll hold you while it hurts.’ She’s unbelievable this little girl.”
Turns out it was a message of support young Sadie had picked up from her mom.
“She pulled this from a conversation we had the week before, when she was telling me about how she wanted straight hair to blend in at school. I said, ‘Your hair is beautiful and it grows out, and it reaches out to try to reach the sun. And that’s a beautiful thing. Mommy’s does, too.'”
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Sadie responded, “‘I know, Mommy, but I just want to be like everybody else right now.’ And I said, ‘I know. I know it feels yucky right now, but it’ll make sense a little bit later. And if you’re hurting, I’ll hold you while it hurts.'”
Adds Drake-Lee, “She is an old soul. It’s not her job to take care of me, because I’m the adult. But it is okay for her to see me, and to see that I’m a whole person and to see how I take care of myself, and how I take care of them, and how then she learns how to do that for herself, and for others.”
It took some time, and a lot of self-work, for Drake-Lee to adjust to her new normal as a single mom.
“I’m very into holistic natural wellness. The talk therapy wasn’t really working because your body goes through trauma each time you tell the story.” Instead she says, “I started doing some positive meditation, which I had not been doing before. I got more serious about yoga practice, and I had to go every day.”
Also a proponent of somatic therapy, homeopathy and acupuncture, Drake-Lee says during the divorce, “I had to get very aggressive with my self-care so that I could make sure that I was going to be able to be sound and grounded, and balanced enough through the weak moments, because the children were only going to be okay if I was okay.”
While she says she lost many friends during the split, these days she has made new ones, like Long-Smith, while serving as the ambassador for families of color at her children’s private school. And with help from her kids’ long-time child-care provider who has handled pick-ups and drop-offs between her and Williams, she’s embracing her new life to the fullest.
“There’s community through the couple of friends that stayed true and through new people that I have met,” says Drake-Lee.
“I love to travel. I hang out with friends, have drinks, have dinner. I’ve been a foodie since I was very little, growing up in San Francisco. I go to the Korean spa regularly, yoga five, six times a week. And I get to read a lot more. One of the sweet, sweet secrets that I don’t think many people talk about, I get to have time by myself. And it gives me room to power back up, and have that good time.”