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).

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