Gift registries after divorce offer a new way to support loved ones

Divorce registries are part of a trend toward breaking the stigma of broken marriages

A couple exchanges wedding bands
AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File

Monogrammed towels. A toothbrush holder for four, rather than three. Shared bedding. For people putting a life back together after divorce, mundane household objects can be painful marital reminders.

Also difficult can be the absence of items that departed with the ex-spouse.

Olivia Howell knows all too well how it felt, going through her own divorce in 2019 after eight years of marriage and two kids. Her husband decamped with his stuff and she donated other items that triggered unwelcome emotions to a thrift shop.

“What was left in the house was almost nothing,” she said.

Howell then got busy replenishing, and trying to make the experience better for others through Fresh Starts. It's a gift registry specifically for rebuilding after divorce that's also packed with vetted experts if needed and other resources.

Divorce registries are part of a trend toward breaking the stigma of broken marriages, along with divorce parties and formal divorce announcements akin to wedding and marriage news.

Howell built Fresh Starts from the ground up with her sister, Jenny Dreizen, who found herself in a similar situation after the end of a long-term relationship. Nearly three years after launch, it remains a rare support resource offering divorce-specific registries for those starting over, and for loved ones who may struggle to find the right words and ways to reach out.

“I thought, you know, I had a baby registry and I had a wedding registry. This is when I actually need things to restock my life. I need the community support. I need new towels. I need new sheets, I need new utensils,” the 39-year-old Howell said.

Today, Fresh Starts has between 50,000 and 70,000 monthly visitors. The sisters also host a podcast, “A Fresh Story,” featuring guests discussing how they began again after divorce or navigated other huge life changes.

Erin Eloise Tulberg, a yoga teacher, actor and dancer in Brooklyn, has not yet finalized her divorce as she works out custody arrangements for her 9-year-old son. She started using Fresh Starts last summer at the suggestion of a friend.

“There was an immediate need for me to get my own apartment. I was moving into a place with absolutely nothing. I had no furniture. I had no kitchenware. I had my clothes and my books,” said Tulberg, 37.

The situation, she said, was “kind of scary.” Originally from Washington state, her closest family and friends are scattered around the country.

“It was a great way to have my friends rally behind me,” Tulberg said of her registry.

Flowers, bottles of wine, and a pile of “I'm sorrys” or “congratulations,” depending, are often how divorce news plays out. Those looking to support their friends or relatives don't often think about the need for a lamp or new sheets, Howell said.

They may also not understand the emotional impact that simple objects can take on. New household goods at a time of rupture and despair can draw community closer and become totems, a rebirth of sorts, said Leslie Jamison, a Brooklyn novelist and essayist whose latest book, “Splinters,” is a personal exploration of her own divorce.

“Part of it is a kind of faith and hope and trust that a new version of one’s life, household, family not only is possible but can be filled with beauty,” she said.

Howell, among the first of her friends to get divorced, had loved ones who checked in daily to make sure she was eating and sleeping. They sent Mother's Day gifts after her separation just ahead of the holiday. And they reassured her with standing offers to assist in any way.

But there was a lot they didn't immediately understand.

“Every time I would go into the bathroom, I would feel horrible because I would see a toothbrush holder for a life that I thought I was going to have. It made me feel so much shame and guilt, and all of those other feelings that come with divorce,” Howell said.

One day, her sister showed up with a new one just for three.

"I still get emotional talking about it because it was really like, OK, this is happening. I’m going to be OK,” Howell said.

For Tulberg, it was matching beds for her and her son. They share a studio apartment.

“Suddenly, I had things from all of my friends that are real and tangible and not ephemeral," she said. “I look at my plates and I know exactly who they’re from. My friends say it feels good to be able to give something solid and real to us.”

Many retail registries can be set up for a multitude of purposes, including divorce.

Fresh Starts uses Amazon. It suggests bundles of items ranging from $99 to $500. Among the bedroom, kitchen, home office and bathroom essentials are a shower curtain, a can opener, a bedside clock, a humidifier. The site also groups bundles by room, including child-size hangers and a night light that projects the stars for a young one's space.

Recipients can go the bundle route when choosing what to list, or they can pluck specific items from them. They can also select anything else on Amazon. Getting to the emotional place that allows someone newly separated to reach out for this kind of tangible help isn't always easy.

“It’s about meeting people where they are,” Howell said.

Divorce talk can be awkward. Fresh Starts offers text prompts covering how to introduce a registry to loved ones, along with suggestions for what friends and relatives can say.

Howell doesn't describe divorce registries as “gift registries” but rather “support registries.” Some of her users create registries for other reasons, too.

Not everyone is on board with the idea. Howell hears from a lot of haters.

“There are some people that are very against it because they feel like divorce shouldn’t be celebrated. We’re saying that divorce is a brave decision and that you should be honored for that brave decision and supported,” she said.

Angela Ashurst-McGee, 52, finalized her divorce in March after six kids and 32 years of marriage. She and her husband took turns choosing what they wanted in their 3,000-square-foot house about an hour south of Salt Lake City. She, too, heard about registries from a friend.

“So it was like, I want the sofa in the living room, I want the sofa in the sunroom, I want the hedge trimmer. I want the drill, you know, down to the waffle maker,” she said. “Just on a practical level, I needed to replace various things. And also, I felt like this is a big life event that I think we should kind of rally around and celebrate."

One of her sisters set up her registry on Amazon, without using Fresh Starts. Ashurst-McGee chose a few just-for-fun things among her essentials, including twinkle lights for her backyard patio.

“Everybody who reached out said, I think this is a great idea, or I’ve suggested this to some other people I know. It’s hard to know what to do for somebody who’s getting divorced other than saying, you know, bummer. So it was kind of something concrete that people could do,” she said.

Concrete, she said, and positive.

“I think one fear people have is in regards to taking sides,” she said. “And this is something you can do without taking sides. It’s forward-looking. It’s not denigrating the other person. It’s not blaming anyone. It’s just practical support.”

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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