Here’s the dirty little secret about being divorced in mid-life: it’s fantastic. Once you endure the trauma of your marriage’s demise — and I don’t use the word trauma lightly — you have an opportunity for reinvention. I suppose it’s possible that you can reinvent yourself within your marriage; since my marriage got cut off before my fiftieth trip around the sun, I don’t want to pretend I’m the authority on it. I am, however, dabbling in being an authority on my own life, and since publishing my book about dating and sex post-marriage, I’ve heard from many divorced women who feel similarly empowered and exhilarated to be on their own.
First let me get the dirty laundry in the hamper. Not every marriage blows up as spectacularly as mine did. Some fizzle out, chugging along on little but the dregs of fuel that do immeasurable harm to one’s engine, until they finally break down once and for all. Pondering whether or not that makes the recovery more or less painful is akin to asking if it’s preferable to endure the loss of a loved one to a debilitating illness or death on impact. There are certain advantages to each, but losing something precious to you — a beloved, a marriage, a home — is life-altering no matter what the circumstances.
That said, if exiting a relationship is not your choice but a choice made for you, you likely will suffer a most unwelcome shock. Having to acknowledge that the way you perceived your life with your partner is the polar opposite of how your partner perceived it is jarring and deeply unsettling. If I had been content, bustling around to keep my family’s motor happily humming along, and he felt like he was dying, what does that say about my ability to intuit, feel empathy, observe what takes place around me? I had long counted on those qualities to be a good wife, mother, friend, sister, and daughter, so being confronted with how far out of touch I was in my most important relationship was like being hit by a tractor trailer. The life I had been living was dead. Rebirth in some way was going to have to happen.
After the shock settled in and made itself comfortable, I became clear-eyed about the fork in the road at which I was now standing. Turn left, and adopt the role of middle-aged divorcee as I had seen it in the media: angry, abrasive, man-hating, a victim, a channeling of Kathleen Turner in War of the Roses. I was entitled to that role, had paid for it with 27 years of loyalty to a man who brutally betrayed me, and it seemed like an unappealing but possibly unavoidable option. Turn right, even though I could not see what lay beyond the first steps on that trail: a precipitous cliff, a field of daisies, a barren wasteland?
I turned right. For someone who fearlessly jumps into cold lakes, intrepidly travels the world, lives in far-off cities, or has wild flings with strangers, turning right is the obvious choice. That was not me. I lived in the city in which I had grown up, married the third man I had sex with when I was barely out of my teenage years, and suffered such anxiety before taking trips that I had nightmares for weeks centered around what to pack. But I did have a desire to live, wholly and authentically, and I could see that turning right was the only way to give myself the chance of that happening.
When I turned the corner, I understood immediately that I was starting my adult life over, and I wanted to change course and turn left. It was confounding to wrap my head around this fact: I was the mother of three, two of whom were almost adults themselves; I had a beautiful and clean home, the kind I longed for during the seven years my husband and I lived in our shoebox starter apartment; I was an established pillar of my community, running PTAs and ensconced in the organizations in which my family was a part. So how could I be starting from scratch when I already had the trappings of an adult life?
The simple answer: those were all things I did and roles I played with ease, but there was something more, a voice I heard, so faintly that it was as if buried beneath piles of rubble. It was the calls of the woman I had abandoned long ago and, indeed, decades worth of falling debris had silenced her. That woman had a life outside the neat tableaux in which existed her kids, husband, family and friends; the woman I had become over the course of my marriage existed solely for her kids, husband, family and friends period.
It wasn’t the fault of marriage per se — neither my personal marriage nor the institution of it. I could parse out the blame and assign some of it to societal expectations of women, some of it to the ways in which I equated being a good mother with being a martyr, and some of it to my willingness to render myself a 1950s-style housewife if that’s what it took to get the cohesive nuclear family for which I had long yearned. I could blame my husband for making sure he achieved both professional success and a family without concern for my attaining the same and my mother for encouraging me to have it all but making having it all look so damn hard.
I won’t point fingers though, because at the heart of it all, I blame myself. At a young age, I accepted what I thought was a very adult understanding of the world: that having a full life meant negating myself, that to be good at anything, I had to wholly give myself over to it. What if I had continued to work even part-time while raising children? Did I have to so harshly judge myself for wanting more than naptimes and snack packs and trips to the park?
Was I beholden to judging other mothers, who attempted to balance work and family and often hired people to fill in for personal responsibilities? What if I had believed in myself and my own financial prowess instead of taking all of my eggs and putting them in my husband’s basket? What if I had looked at myself objectively, with a hard and cold eye, and scolded myself: “OK, so you’re a mother and a wife, can’t you also be more?”
Now that I’m here — fifty and single — I fully intend to stay here. Sure, the numbers will keep increasing; I may be a hopeless optimist but even I acknowledge that I can’t stop time. My marital status though, that’s all mine, though I take affront with the phrase itself. I do not want to define myself by absence, I do not wish to declare that my marital status is that I no longer have one. A gift is something a person receives, and shifting from a married state to a non-married state in midlife is just that, a giving, not a taking away; a subscription to an uncertain future in which I answer to myself.