A little over a year ago I told my family that I had ended my marriage, and they were shocked. They hadn’t seen it coming, and wanted to hug me, console me and counsel me. And when I said to them “I’m alright. Really, I’m alright” they didn’t believe me. They thought I was putting on a brave face and trying to be strong.
The irony was that I really was alright, as opposed to the preceding years when I had put on a brave face every single day. My family never had a clue.
I was happy for most of the first year of my marriage, living in ignorance of what was happening when I was looking the other way. The remaining three years of my time living with my husband grew increasingly miserable and oppressive, and during our final year together I cried almost every day. And yet I never gave my family the smallest clue as to my misery. It was usual for the two of us to have a big row before going to an event or family gathering, and yet I would walk in with a smile on my face, presenting the picture I felt the world needed to see.
On one occasion my husband could not find the shoes he had been planning to wear to a formal family gathering and began shouting at me to find them as he started feverishly hurling items out of the wardrobe and from under the bed. Unable to find the pair he wanted, I hunted down every other shoe he owned, and presented them to him in turn, trying to placate him, to convince him he would still look fine. He grew angrier and angrier with me for not knowing where the desired shoes were, until eventually he screamed that he would not be coming with me. I cried and begged him to come. This was an important family occasion. I wanted my husband by my side. I did not want to go alone. I sobbed and sobbed, and then once he was satisfied I had been punished enough for not knowing the location of the shoes, he calmed immediately and said he would come. Because of the time spent dealing with the shoe crisis, I was left with no time to do my hair and make-up, and I left the house feeling frumpy and unattractive, instead of looking good, the way I had planned. In the car on the way there I bit my lip and said nothing, trying to fight back the tears so that I would not arrive red-eyed and puffy-faced. My husband was oblivious, trying to engage me in light-hearted chit-chat. When I was short and quiet in my answers he grew angry with me for my mood, which led to me shouting back at him. We yelled at each other through the whole journey. I swore at him and told him I hated him, and he responded with a wounded expression, pleading with me not to say that. As we arrived at the family event I pulled down the car mirror to check whether it was obvious I had been crying. It wasn’t. I left the car, slamming the door behind me, and walked briskly to the entrance, not waiting for my husband to catch up. As we entered I smiled. A big, broad smile that told everyone I was the happiest one of all to be there, and that all was well in my world. My husband and I exchanged playful banter. To others this might have even seemed flirty. For us, the undertones were there, and were painfully clear. I was deeply, horrifically sad and miserable. But I didn’t think it was right to let my family know.
This example is one of many. Many. It’s actually quite a tame one compared to others. The point of recounting this story, though, is not to garner sympathy for the way I was treated. It is because I still sometimes wonder why I did not tell the people I love most what I was dealing with. Yes, there are things that happened in my marriage that I felt I had no choice but to keep secret – things so horrific that, had my family known then, there could have been absolutely no future for the marriage that I wanted to try to save. But the shoe incident. Why did I feel the need to present the big fake smile? Why didn’t I quietly tell a couple of people that we’d had a big row and that I was feeling shitty?
The reason I’m mulling this over now, so long after the event, and so long after my spate of blog posts thinking about my marriage, is because of something that happened yesterday. J was looking through my wedding photo book. I have considered putting the book away many times. Hell, I’ve considered burning the book. But J and L like to look at it. They like to see Mummy looking beautiful, and the photos of their family. And it is part of their history. I want them to know that I brought them into the world for the right reasons. That I believed I was bringing them into a place of love and happiness and security. So I keep the book.
After J had finished, I picked up the book and started flicking through. And then I saw something I’d never noticed before. Two photos next to each other on a page, one after the other, telling a clear story.
The first picture shows my husband and I walking along a corridor towards the marquee, where all the guests at our wedding reception were waiting to greet the bride and groom. Our heads are bowed together as we walk and it looks as though we are in deep conversation. However, it is actually a photo of our first argument as man and wife. We were furious with each other over something that had just happened, to the point that the toastmaster and caterer were trying to intervene, pleading with us not to argue on our wedding day.
Cut to the next photo, taken no more than a minute after the first. We have just walked into the marquee, our guests on their feet applauding us. We are holding hands and I am smiling.
As I looked at the second photo the emotions came flooding back to me. Trying to subdue the feelings of anger and sadness, and push them to the back of my mind. Knowing I had to show the world I was happy. And from that moment on, that is the way it was.
Over the years that followed I didn’t want my family to know how unhappy I was. I didn’t want them to worry. I didn’t want their sympathy. I didn’t want to have to answer their questions, or face up to a reality I was trying to ignore. I didn’t want to end up feeling forced into defending my husband in the face of their anger. So it became part of who I was and what I did. I dealt with the truth about my relationship at home. Then I put on my mask and dealt with the world. As our marriage hurtled towards its inevitable conclusion I think the cracks sometimes started to show. But still, my family was shocked when they heard we had split up.
All except for two people. My children. When they were babies I hated arguing in front of them but consoled myself with the fact that they were too little to understand. But they were three years old when we separated, and almost without me realising it they had gone from understanding nothing to taking it all in. The day I told my husband not to come home there were three “final straw” moments. One of them was an argument that took place that morning. As was usual he had, completely apropos of nothing, lost his temper with me to the point where I was sitting on the bed sobbing as he stood in the doorway shouting loudly and aggressively. This was nothing new. What was new was this. J had his hands over his ears and was repeating: “Don’t shout, don’t shout, don’t shout, don’t shout”. And L was stroking my leg, looking up at me saying “Don’t cry Mummy. Please don’t cry”. And in that moment I stepped out of myself and saw my family. My sad, angry, fucked-up family. And I knew enough was enough. That was the last morning my husband ever woke up in the family home. And when I told my children that Daddy was going to live with Grandma and Grandpa, L replied “Good. Now I don’t have to hear Daddy shouting at you any more”.
But today I was talking to a friend and discussing the notion of “staying together for the sake of the children”. And I have to admit that this is the main reason I didn’t end my marriage earlier. Despite everything we were living with, there was still that deep, ingrained belief that I needed to keep my family together, and that I had to do what I could to save our family before I took the last resort of splitting it up. It took an extreme situation for me to realise how utterly flawed it was for me to stay with my husband for my children’s sake. Now of course, it is obvious to me that in relationships where children are submitted to watching and hearing their parents argue, and where they are living in an environment of anger and sadness, it is always in the children’s best interests for their parents to live separately.
But not all marriages end like mine. As a teenager I had a friend whose parents separated when we were 17. They explained that they had fallen out of love some ten years previously but had decided to stay married in order to raise their children together. Now that my friend and her sister were old enough to be less dependent on them her parents finally felt free to separate and live the lives they wanted to. But my friend hadn’t asked them to give up ten years of their lives for her. And she had to live with the guilt of knowing her parents had lived half-lives, putting their own happiness on hold “for the sake of the children”.
And so I’ve been thinking about a parent’s right to happiness. Because the received wisdom is that, as soon as you become a parent, your own happiness; your dreams, desires, passions, ambitions; must immediately cease to have any importance in comparison to those of your offspring. We are told that parenting is about sacrifice. About giving up the things you want so that your children can have the best of everything.
It goes without saying (and yet I’m going to say it anyway) that I know a lot of parents and we would all give our children everything we have and want if it was necessary. But – and here’s the thing – most of the time it’s not necessary. Of course there are families (way too many families) in which parents really do have to go without in order for their children’s most basic needs to be met. But for the rest of us – the lucky ones – our children can be happy and safe and loved and fulfilled and challenged and excited … and so can we.
So this is where I think I’m going to get just the tiniest bit controversial. Because I think it’s OK for a parent to simply say “I want to end my marriage because I deserve to be happier than this”. Not because they are abuse-victims, or affair-victims, or any other kind of victims. Just because they know we only have one shot at life, and that this life is not the best, happiest life they could be living.
And their children might find the period of breaking up sad and difficult, but like the vast majority of children from divorced families, they will adapt. And their new reality will be fine. They can still be happy. But now so can their parents. Because let’s face it. I certainly wouldn’t look back and wish things in my childhood had been different, if I thought it would bring my parents misery.
Life now, as a single Mum, is hard. It’s bloody hard. But compared to my life as a married Mum, it’s bliss. And my children are happy, not only because they are in a calm, stable, loving environment, but because I am (mostly) happy. And the best thing is that the “brave face” mask is banished forever. At last, when I am smiling (which is most of the time) it is a real smile. And when I am miserable, I tell people I am miserable. Because being honest with myself and everyone around me is what has, at last, brought me true happiness.