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
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.

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