Meg Josephson, LCSW sits down with Artist Elizabeth Sutton in Long Island City
"I had the pleasure of interviewing contemporary artist Elizabeth Sutton, who has emerged somewhat unintentionally as a role model for newly divorced women.
Elizabeth uses her Instagram account to provide legions of her loyal followers insight into her rapidly growing business, whirlwind personal and family life and her refreshingly honest perspective. She’s a woman who never seems to slow down or stop moving—constantly running from her impressive Long Island City art studio where she hosts a parade of interesting clients, supporters and fellow female entrepreneurs to events and trunk shows in Miami and NYC to promote her burgeoning handbag and tile lines. She always, somehow makes it back in time to have a beautifully prepared Shabbat dinner (table-scape included) for her two kids and more often than not, her ex-husband (who seems willing to oblige her in a good old fashioned “co-parenting selfie.)”
However, what seems to really resonate with her followers is that Elizabeth has no qualms about acknowledging that neither her divorce, nor her life have been easy and that being good co-parents takes work and is most of the time less than Instagram-worthy. In our increasingly curated world, her refreshing honesty provides inspiration to women who are just like her, newly divorced and trying to establish a new normal.
MJ: What do you think it is about your art that resonates with other women who are going through divorces?
ES: I think because of the fact that I choose to share so much of my life on Instagram, my art becomes an extension of the story I am telling. That story is one of a woman who is starting her second chapter, and is willing to stop at nothing to succeed.
My divorce series features sayings like “Richest at My Poorest,” “Dance through the Pain,” and “Life is Fucking Complicated.” Women really seem to connect to these sentiments— you should see how many direct messages (A.K.A. "DM’s") I get about them! The art is inspired by my personal experiences, and I want women to feel empowered to make hard decisions, and have the strength to know they can survive them. Another signature collection is my butterfly series. Butterflies symbolize the universal themes of hope, transformation, change and growth, all things that resonate with women going through hard times or reinvention.
I have had such a strong reaction to opening up about my divorce that I’ve been toying with the idea of having a divorce series as part of the blog I am launching. The subject matter is sensitive, and I am still thinking about how frame it educationally, as opposed to something that incites gossip.
MJ: You can practice here! Where would you advise women to start if they are considering getting divorce?
ES: If you're thinking about getting divorced, I cannot overemphasize the value of preparing yourself financially and emotionally. Consult out and get solid advice from a trusted source – an attorney, a friend who has been through the process, your parents. Start saving some money. Start hustling. Start thinking about what kind of career you would like to pursue if you don’t already have one.
For the emotional part, it’s important to be in touch with why you have decided to get divorced and set some objectives for yourself. For me, that meant writing out a physical outline to refer back to as I focus on manifesting them. Objective one was to find myself and connect with my values. Become financially independent. Be happy with myself. The things that ran through my mind were, what kind of woman will I be? What are my goals? Are they financially sound? How can I best prioritize my children’s happiness? Most people who are getting divorced have lost themselves somewhere along the way in that marriage. I recognize that this is a long journey and the questions I am suggesting you ask yourself are hard ones. However, it’s the journey that I’m currently on and even though my struggle is at times real and scary, I’ve never been happier, and that’s because I’ve never been in better touch with who I am and what I want from life.
MJ: It’s clear that being an artist has become a huge part of your identity. What would you tell women who do not possess an obvious talent or career path like you do?
ES: My talent wasn’t obvious at first. I picked up a paintbrush for the first time 3.5 years ago and am entirely self-taught. Give yourself a chance to figure something out, and try not to get discouraged if it’s not glamorous or exciting. Everybody can be successful with enough hard work. Try to swallow your pride– even if that means becoming an Uber driver, just to have the means to put dinner on the table and having an income. I also want to emphasize the emotional value of work. It helps you feel connected to something outside of your day-to-day divorce drama and the associated negative feelings. Keeps your mind busy! In my case, sometimes I’m a little too busy and I sometimes completely neglect my personal life! I’m currently working around 120 hours weekly, but I do hope that once I feel financially stable, I can take Fridays off to cook for Shabbat and take care of other normal household chores and personal appointments.
MJ: How has divorce changed how you approach your personal finances and spending patterns?
The financial impact of divorce is real, and if you keep your head buried in the sand, you may risk getting yourself into serious trouble. That’s why I tell all my friends to find a financial planner and get a real understanding of what they have and what they can afford to spend. Erring on the side of caution and cutting expenses is not easy, but for me, it was the only way.
If anything, my divorce has taught me that material things do not matter. If I do have disposable income, it goes towards activities that support mental health – like therapy (shoutout to my grief counselor who saved me), Barry’s Bootcamp for exercise, and a few vacations a year that keep me motivated throughout my sometimes grueling 120 hour work weeks. I cannot stress enough the importance of therapy, and though I know it is expensive, it is the most worthwhile investment. If you truly cannot afford a private therapist, contact your insurance and explore other low-cost or group therapy options. I see so many women who are embarrassed to ask for help and think they can handle things on their own. I always encourage them to trust the value of having a trained professional they can turn to.
MJ: It seems like you have a good group of friends who have been through this. How has that shaped your experience?
ES: The truth is, I only recently have a strong network of divorced friends to rely on. I was the first of my friends to get divorced and in many ways, I had to navigate it alone, making mistakes as I went along. My mom was divorced but I didn’t feel comfortable taking her advice on this matter – especially in regards to dating – in the beginning as the transition was tough for my family as well.
Now, a lot of my friends are divorced and it helps to have that camaraderie and support. I look forward to our girls trips where to focus is solely on us, not on meeting men. In the city, I have no problem fifth wheeling but I think it’s important to acknowledge that when you get divorced, your life changes, and so do your social needs. You will learn through the process of getting divorced that some relationships may not survive. It is painful, but it is also important to recognize that some people you’ve known forever will feel uncomfortable with your decision and new reality, and may not be able to provide you with the kind of support you need. You cannot afford to have that negative energy in your life, and may need to say polite goodbyes to some very old relationships you have.
MJ: How is dating different now than before you got married?
Dating after divorce is another reason why I recommend finding a solid group of divorced friends. My first relationship post-divorce was a disaster. I let myself be way too vulnerable and trusting too quickly because I fell in love, and love had been absent from my life for a long time. After a short yet intense 3 months, my heart was broken and my trust decimated. In dating, especially after divorce when we inevitably have all sorts of psychological stressors, make sure your trust is EARNED and not given too quickly.
There are new aspects to dating post-divorce that don’t even enter your mind – such as, if you are dating a fellow divorcee, do your custody arrangements align? If not, it will make it very difficult to coordinate calendars. If you have a new dating prospect who is still currently in the divorce process, do you want to get involved in that or is that going to be an added, unnecessary headache?
After this experience, I came up with a solid, “don't date anybody who's not fully divorced yet” rule. However, I would not have known that if I didn’t go through personally, because at the time, I had no divorced friends to warn me!
Everything feels so unknown, so set new boundaries for yourself that you can feel comfortable with. Again, I revert to my therapist when I come across situations about which I am uncertain. Having single or divorced wing women for Girls Nights is just as important as a friend who will listen to you cry and vent and won’t think less of you for it. Then there are awkward conversations about things like how to practice safe sex, not getting too emotionally attached to your first partner, etc. The list is endless.
MJ: How does your ex-husband feel about appearing on your Instagram and you speaking so publicly about your divorce? Do you feel the need to negotiate it with him?
ES: He doesn't exactly love being on my Instagram, point blank. However, he does acknowledge that I built my business on social media, and that it represents 70 percent of the sales I do. He knows that our family relies on this income, and for that reason— he begrudgingly accepts the role that he plays. Also, he knows the trauma I went through as a child through my parents’ divorce, and I try and help him understand that we are setting an incredible model to other couples going through divorce.
On social media, I write things like ‘Best Divorce Ever’ – trust me, that doesn’t mean we don’t have problems. We have a lot of problems, and if we didn’t, we’d still be married. Ultimately, we put them aside to do what is best for our children, always. People love seeing us together – it is some of the content that gets the biggest positive reaction because people don’t understand how we are able to be so civil. The truth is, he still lives a 5 minute walk from my apartment and we are in each other’s homes all the time! We do it for our kids. He does not have access to the thousands of messages I receive thanking me for being so honest and open, and complimenting the way we handle our divorce. I always tell him, we collectively should be proud because we both swallow our pride to do what is best for our kids. This is not something to be embarrassed about. For G-d’s sake, the man still eats Shabbat dinner at my mother’s house, even when I’m not there. We made the decision to bring two children into this world and we need to be responsible for their lives and wellbeing. And that means maintaining a loving and united front.
When I'm writing a caption that I think he might have a problem with, I don't ask him for permission but I do give him a heads up. I imagine he won’t love if I write a ‘Divorce Series’ on my blog. When it’s time for launch, I will let him read anything I write prior to launch so he can get prepared, but at the end of the day, people are coming to me because I am honest, and transparent, even if it’s not always pretty.
MJ: If you can, can you share how your experience of your parent’s divorce shaped your own views on divorce?
ES: What I’ve learned through my own intensive therapy is that my family never healed together as a family unit and this impacted each of us differently, whether or not we acknowledge it. It is the sole reason as to why I’m trying to approach my own divorce differently.
I cannot speak for my mother or my siblings, so this is purely a reflection of how I experienced my parents’ divorce. Four months following my parents split, my father got remarried while still legally married to my mother. He abandoned us emotionally, became ultra-orthodox overnight, and expected us to follow suit. His wife also forbid him to contact my mother-- a woman with whom he had 4 children, ages 8-20. If you can imagine, that led to a very difficult and tumultuous existence as a child. From the outside, I was a good student and never got into trouble. On the inside, I was grappling with my life being turned upside down by this divorce, struggled with low self-esteem, bullying and got involved in an emotionally abusive relationship. I did not feel comfortable sharing this at the time with my mother, and in retrospect, these formative experiences weighed heavily on me. The silver lining, of course, is that it made me resilient and able to cope with subsequent hardships in my life.
MJ: Do you think talking about this stuff makes you more vulnerable in that way?
I am happy to be open about my experiences because I think there is strength in vulnerability. There are so many shared experiences that still have were just a bit more ‘real’, they would learn they are not alone in their struggles.
I finally felt free and happy after I left my marriage. Petrified, unstable, and relatively unsupported but happy. The transition was a serious process, even with my family’s acceptance of the situation over time. If my vulnerability and transparency can help even one person feel less alone, then it was worth it.
MJ: I personally can’t wait to see how you decide to approach these issues in your blog and to see what’s next for the rest of your brand. Can you give us a peek into where Elizabeth Sutton the Brand (and person!) are headed in 2019?
ES: 2019 will be the year of focus and leverage. There are so many things I’ve learned, both creatively, and in life that I hope can be resources to others. I’m excited to put it together collectively in the digital sphere, while growing my business and brand. I know it will be hard work and will force me to be more open about my challenges than ever before. Whether it is sharing about my experiences with divorce, my recipes, my design process, or entrepreneurial advice, I can’t wait to see how people respond.
For more about life post-divorce, read this article about Managing Your Post-divorce Finances. To connect with Therapist Meg Josephson, LCSW click here. To see more of Elizabeth's work follow her on instagram @elizabethsuttoncollection and visit her website.