The Way We Really Were: Joyce Maynard on Divorce

For 17 years, when Joyce Maynard told the story of her divorce, she always made her ex the bad guy. But as she neared 50, she was finally able to admit her own part in the marriage’s demise

By Joyce Maynard

Marital MiserySeventeen years have passed since my husband and I parted. Parted. There’s a mild word for you. Describing an event so full of rancor and pain that even a person simply standing on the sidelines, taking in the scene, might have felt the need to shield her gaze — the way we are told to do when viewing an eclipse of the sun.But the bitterness gradually subsided to the point where I could tell the story without the muscles of my face tightening into an ugly mask. My right eye no longer twitches as it did for one whole season, beginning around October 1989 and continuing through the long and bitter winter that followed. I seldom feel a need to talk about those days anymore. I have finally gotten on with my life, as they say — preferring to concern myself with the present and the future — and things took a dramatic turn for the better when I began doing that. Still, I am well acquainted with the plot of the story, as I told it, easily a few hundred times. Title: My Divorce. Hero: me. Villain: my ex-husband.I am a storyteller by profession, and I got particularly good at telling this one. When someone asked me, "How did your marriage end?" I had my answer down. We married young, and with no shortage of passion going for us. He was a painter. I was a newspaper reporter. In an era when young women were more typically focused on career advancement and personal fulfillment, I burned to be a parent. I gave birth to our first child (our daughter) at age 24, almost a year to the day from my first date with her father. In the six years that followed, her two brothers joined her.So we had hardly known what it was to be simply lovers and partners before we became parents. We had never explored the questions of who would take care of the babies or who would pay the bills, but how it worked out was that I kept writing magazine articles and books, and he made beautiful artworks hardly anybody bought. I told myself this was okay, but it wasn’t. I also took the martyr role as the main childcare provider, while he stepped in on occasion — "to babysit." He played on a softball team, went mountain biking. I stayed home with the children. He had a six-pack. I had stretch marks. We argued a lot about that situation, and more. No doubt I felt anger, resentment, self-pity — emotions I expressed with tears, speeches, and sometimes with large and dramatic demonstrations of frustration and rage. One time I held a pair of scissors to one of my long braids, announcing, "I’m going to cut off my hair." It was not a particularly successful way to get my point across. Finding time to do our work was always a problem. Money was always a problem. Childcare was a problem. Sex was a problem. Communication was a problem. (I deluged him with words. He gave me silence.) He gave me a pressure cooker for my birthday, when what I wanted was a nightgown and flowers. He marked our 10th anniversary by replastering and painting our bedroom, when I wanted to go away someplace other than our house. My long list of grievances grew.We went to counseling, without much success. At night, we kept to our own sides of the mattress, and sometimes days went by when we hardly spoke. I kept a postcard in my desk drawer of that famous photograph by Doisneau, showing a couple kissing on a Paris sidewalk. I wanted to be kissed like that.In our 12th year of marriage — when I was 35 years old — news came that my mother had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, and I left home to take care of her during what would be the last summer of her life. Before I took off, I hired two babysitters to replace me. One was a married woman with two young children of her own; the other was our longtime 18-year-old babysitter.Partway through that long and painful summer of caring for my mother, I came home to see my family for a few days. Setting down my bags in the kitchen, I looked out the window to the field behind our house and saw my children playing. And a few feet over, my husband and our beautiful young babysitter, looking at each other and laughing in a way he and I had not done in a long time. That night, when I asked him about her, he didn’t say much, but when I asked if he had fallen in love with her, he didn’t deny it. I told him I wanted to save our marriage (for no better reason, I think now, than because another loss at that moment seemed intolerable). He said he was through trying to work things out. We’d been unhappy long enough.A Dramatic Turn of EventsSo that fall, two hard things happened within a week of each other. My mother died. And I moved out of our house.Although I concealed from our children the bit about our babysitter, all of this became a part of the story I recounted to sympathetic friends and the supportive-seeming men who came into my life over the years.Here’s something that happens in the aftermath of a painful divorce. (There’s a redundancy for you: a divorce.) Maybe because the actual events were so hard to live through, we revisit only the story we have come up with to explain what happened. How the marriage ended may be obscured by the story you form to make sense of it.Among the stories I recounted over the years, there was a little trilogy involving the births of our children, in which, once again, the man I’d been married to took the role of the bad guy. Our second child, Charlie, was born at home, and because the birth had come on with extraordinary swiftness, I found myself about to deliver him with the midwife still a half-hour’s drive away and nobody present but my husband. He responded to the situation by telling me he needed to step outside for a minute and have a cigarette.Two years later, I would go on to say, I was once again giving birth. This time my husband stayed at my side. This time, nobody smoked. The trouble came the next day, the day of our daughter’s sixth birthday party; she took a fall on her new Rollerblades and broke her arm. Two days after that, my husband went off to attend an art show in Georgia for five days, leaving me to care for a 6-year-old in a cast and a 2-year-old and a newborn.But it was what happened afterward that formed the climactic moment in the story: He’d returned home, just as the rescheduled birthday party was to take place. With 20 children coming to our house the next day, he left to go skiing — making the observation, as he departed, that I was always hard to deal with when I was arranging a birthday party. That afternoon, the call came from the ski slope: He had fallen badly; he had not simply broken his wrist but shattered it. It was unclear whether my artist-athlete husband would ever have the full use of that hand again. In the end he did, but only after expensive surgery that nearly wiped out the little savings we had, and after months of recuperation during which all of his energy had gone to rehabilitation.I always say, when talking about the art of storytelling — fiction or nonfiction, either way — that a crucial element is what you choose to tell and what you leave out. It took me a long time to admit this, but the same could be said of my own best-known oeuvre, The Divorce Saga.I know now there was another side of the story. When I talked about the divorce, I omitted that part. Not just to keep my listeners from considering certain details, but, more destructively, to keep them from my own scrutiny. It is the part my former husband would spin — if he were the type to regale sympathetic listeners with a saga. And in this one, I am a less heroic figure. Not simply a long-suffering victim, but a woman who inflicted wounds on the marriage that may have been as damaging as those of her partner.Acknowledging InfidelityRewind to the spring when I was 31 years old, the seventh year of our marriage. Six weeks after my husband smashed his wrist, I was on a highway coming back from New York City late one Friday afternoon, with my infant son in the seat beside me.For three days a month, I made the round-trip from our house in New Hampshire to New York City this way, to sit in an airless cubicle and ghostwrite articles for a magazine designed to help women take charge of their life, even as my own spun more and more out of control. Now I found myself heading home with my son (a nursing baby, he came with me everywhere), and I was exhausted. And though I didn’t tell myself this, no doubt I was angry too.On a highway in Connecticut, I remembered that this was the weekend of my husband’s 10th college reunion and that a bunch of his old friends would be attending it. The thought came to me to pull off the highway, have dinner, and show off our baby before heading back on the road for the last few hours of the drive home. But who knows? Maybe I was thinking something else too. Maybe I was enjoying the picture of getting, from my husband’s classmates, a kind of tenderness and support that had been lacking in my life with him.One of the people in attendance at this reunion dinner was an old friend of my husband’s, whose wife had recently died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 31. He and I barely knew each other. We had met at the funeral, in fact, only a few weeks earlier. He was my husband’s friend more than mine. Now we sat together at dinner, he and I. And in a way I only came to understand years later, we recognized each other: two lonely people, each one grieving a different kind of loss and heartbreak.Over dinner and a few glasses of wine, we talked about our lives with a kind of naked trust I might not have possessed if he weren’t a new widower and I the mother of a newborn son. By the time the meal was over, I knew I was too tired, with too much wine in me, to drive back home that night. So he walked me over to the dormitory, where attendees at the reunion were housed, to find me a room.Then we were sitting on a hard little single student cot, and then we were kissing. Then I pulled out a drawer from the dormitory bureau and laid it on the floor, with a folded-up towel in the bottom, and set my baby son inside. Then I lay down beside the young man, still raw with grief from his wife’s death, and spent the night with him.In the morning, I drove home to my family. At her school picnic later that day, my 6-year-old daughter commented on a red mark on my neck. It was where the widower had kissed me the night before.My husband’s widowed classmate paid us a visit that summer, and when my husband suggested that he might like to stay on for a while with us, nobody argued. For six weeks — as my husband continued to rebuild his shattered wrist and I cared for our newborn baby and my other two children — it was the widower who kept me company.Affair strikes me as an odd word for what took place that summer, but if my husband were telling the story, he could call it that. Though the better terms for what went on then would be betrayal, abandonment. The very words I later used, in my head, to describe what he had done to me.When the summer ended, the young widower returned to New York City and I stayed in my lonely marriage — lonely for us both, I now recognize. The only indication anything unusual had happened lay in how we never talked about it, until the day — a full two years later — when my husband asked me, in the middle of an argument, if something had been going on between me and his friend that summer, and I told him yes. We didn’t speak of it again until a few years after that, when we were in counseling. I brought it up, because he hadn’t. Otherwise, the fact of my infidelity lay like a pair of blood-soaked gloves in the back of a murderer’s garage.Selective editing. It transforms the story, of course, and not just for the listeners. For the teller too. Because every time I recounted my version of our divorce, I locked it more firmly in place, until it was hard to remember what I had ever loved about this man. I look back with huge regret now, on the years from age 35 to 48 or so, as having been filled with a foolish and wasteful measure of self-righteousness and blame. The fact was, we both did a poor job of being partners to each other. We knew nothing of stepping outside of our own stories with sufficient imagination and compassion to recognize what the other person’s story might have been.Somewhere around age 50 — having lived longer divorced from him than I did married, and with our children in their 20s — something changed, finally.I was immersed, that year, in writing the story of a woman my age who had murdered her husband after a 30-year marriage. (With a hatchet, yet.) And so I was thinking a lot about rage and hurt and the stories we tell ourselves about what is going on in our lives, which may be easier to stomach than the truth.The story of this particular woman, the murderer, was that her husband had been abusing her for years — an idea only one of the couple’s two adult sons supported, while the other laid out a very different version of what had gone on in their family. And though I had entered into my exploration of the tragedy with a certain predisposition to sympathize with the wife, I ended up viewing her as a liar. Though I knew, too, that she probably believed her own story, she’d been spinning it so long.Changing My StoryIt was around this time that I found myself having a conversation with a young woman going through a divorce — and practically dripping with bile. The thought came to me that I must have been a woman like her once, and I was ashamed.I looked at my children — at how they loved their father and at the kind of adults they’d become, many aspects of which were easily attributable to him — and because I loved them so much, I had to love those parts of the man who’d produced them.I looked around at all the troubles people I loved were struggling with — health and money problems, career disappointments, depression, ailing parents, sadness over what was happening in so many parts of the world — and the idea that I could still be sitting in a coffee shop somewhere, recounting the story of an injury inflicted over two decades back, seemed petty and wasteful.I was sick of my story. And if I were truly to hold on to the habit of talking about it, I knew I would have to add the other part to my telling: the part that I had played in the whole mess, the betrayal that was mine.My children had evidently forgiven me for the many years they witnessed my anger at their father. It seemed fair, then, to forgive him as well. This wasn’t a totally new concept, I should add. Many times, over the years, I’d imagined a scene in which some dramatic truce occurred between my children’s father and me — something along the lines of the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri.More than once, I had delivered the pronouncement: "I won’t talk about it anymore." Only, I did. But when the sense of forgiveness finally overtook me, I didn’t call anyone up and talk about it. I did not notify my ex-husband that a change of attitude had occurred. It was enough to know this was so.There was a time, when people asked why my marriage ended, when I used to say, "My husband fell in love with our babysitter." But this was not the answer, any more than it would have been the answer to tell them, "I had an affair with his friend." It was never about the babysitter, or about the young widower, or about the cigarette, or about his playing softball and my folding laundry, or my failure to recognize — as I do now — that plastering the bedroom, slowly and carefully, by the old traditional method, to mark our 10th anniversary, was in fact a beautiful gift.Although in another way, that was it precisely. What he offered, I didn’t value. What I offered back, he also missed. We were two people who loved each other, but we had such different ideas about how to express it. The other people we sought out (both of them long gone from our lives now) were really just a way of making the connection, somewhere, that we couldn’t make with each other. I was in Michigan recently, doing research on the woman who murdered her husband, and hoping to talk with a young man, age 19, who had loved and admired the murdered husband. This young man was debating whether or not to trust me enough to talk with me for my book. So he agreed to meet me at a restaurant, for the purpose of putting a series of questions to me, he said. I had supposed he’d be asking about my career, my previous books, my credentials as a journalist. It took me by surprise when this not particularly savvy or worldly young man began his interview of me by asking, "Why did your marriage end?"It was a question I’d answered a thousand times over the years — in coffee shops like this one, on a few hundred blind dates and visits with friends. Now he was asking, I suppose, as a way of assessing where my loyalties might lie in the story of this particularly disastrous marriage. Maybe he wanted to know if I’d been a battered wife and therefore inclined to sympathize with a woman who claimed to be one herself.But the fact was, his question left me without words. I sat there in the coffee shop, unable to form a single sentence. Something about the openness and guilelessness of this young man’s face, and the simplicity of what he was asking, made it unthinkable to haul out my old stories. "We both screwed up," I finally told him. Nothing particularly profound there, but it was true."All right," he said. Then, evidently believing my story, he told me his. And we moved on from there. This essay is excerpted from the anthology The Honeymoon’s Over (Warner Books, February 2007), edited by Andrea Chapin and Sally Wofford-Girand. Joyce Maynard’s latest book is Internal Combustion: The Story of a Marriage and a Murder in the Motor City.Pre-Order The Honeymoon’s Over Purchase Internal Combustion Originally published in MORE magazine, December 2006/January 2007.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 17:12

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