For many years, back in the days when I was married to my children’s father, I kept a postcard in the drawer of the desk where I worked. It was a famous image, shot in Paris sometime in the 1950s of a couple kissing…
More often than you might think, for a mother of three young children working full time and then some, I used to take this picture out and study the two people it portrayed. It was an image of something I longed for in my marriage, and hadn’t possessed for a long time.
You could say — and you wouldn’t be wrong — that passionate kisses on the streets of Paris were an unreasonable goal for the parents of three young children who just barely managed to pay the mortgage every month and made it out to the movies every few months, if they were lucky. These were not years when romance featured prominently, no doubt. We were not alone, as a couple who’d started out loving each other a lot, and — as the expression of their love — pursuing the dream of making a family. We were not the only ones who, having accomplished that part, had lost sight of the thing that got us there in the first place — our feeling for each other, and our desire to share our lives.
To a lot of people who knew me back when my husband and I were raising our three young children on our old farm in New Hampshire — and to many more, who read what I wrote about those times — we appeared to enjoy a great life, and in many ways we did. In the stories I used to publish in the syndicated newspaper column I wrote in those days — titled “Domestic Affairs” — I told about snow days spent making forts out of cardboard boxes and summer campouts by the brook down the road from our house, growing tomatoes and picking blueberries and tapping our maple trees for syrup. Above all, I wrote about our children — three lovable unique characters who filled my days. I wanted to tell honest stories about raising a family, including the hard parts.
Sometimes in the stories I told I’d recount an episode in which my husband and I had our differences — like the time I thought I’d surprise him by bringing home an expensive rug we couldn’t really afford that he made me return. But I always managed to come around to a happy or hopeful conclusion to the story — one that generally portrayed me as a bit of a goofball, reined in by my wiser and more sensible partner. I was Lucy, he was Desi. At the end of every episode — in my newspaper columns, as with the TV show — a big heart filled the screen.
I cared a lot about being an honest writer, but there were other parts of our story I never wrote about in the newspaper. Fights about who took care of the children. Fights about money. Times I wanted to talk, and he wanted to be left alone. Times he must have reached out, when I was too occupied with our children to see. More than anything, what I left out was the simple truth that we had been poorly suited from the first, and no amount of hard work or commitment to keeping our family together concealed that fact — though I concealed it from myself for a long time. Unable to face that sad, sad fact, I concealed it well from my readers, too.
No doubt this accounts for why, after four years of publishing “Domestic Affairs,” when I announced that my husband and I were separating — and later, that we’d divorced — readers were shocked. In the days after that column ran, I received more than a thousand letters.
One woman wrote to tell me how, after reading the news in her paper on the bus to work, she’d burst out crying. Many others expressed anger. How could I break up our family? How could I do this to our children? What kind of narcissist must I be, to pay so little attention to their happiness? How could I have left the wonderful man to whom I’d been married — known to them from my own loving descriptions of him, every week?
I didn’t, actually. I never wrote this part in my column, but he had been the one who said he was done with the marriage, though — 32 years later — I don’t fault him for the decision. We had struggled a long time by then. We’d loved each other passionately, once, but our 12-year marriage had been in trouble for a long time.
One of the things I read in the letters women sent me after the divorce was that my stories about my marriage, and surviving its difficulties, had inspired them in their own relationships. “As long as you two were making a go of it, I thought my husband and I would, too,” they wrote. One after another came some variation on those words. Readers felt not simply disappointed and saddened, but betrayed. It was as if my failure to remain married to my children’s father signaled that their marriages would fail, too. They were angry. Or maybe scared.
In the years that followed, as I continued to tell stories of my life — released from the requirement to paint a picture of a life I didn’t actually possess — another kind of letter started showing up in my mailbox. Women — sometimes the same ones who’d chastised me years before, when I first divorced — wrote to apologize for judging me. Somewhere along the line, their marriage had broken down, too. They were less quick to judge now.
My divorce was excruciating. For me and for my children. I can’t speak for their father, though I’m guessing this was so for him, too. But on my worst days, I also knew this: that as much as I would have wanted to raise my sons and daughter in a happy home of two parents who loved each other and shared a common vision for their family’s life, I did not regret that they no longer lived in an unhappy home, with two parents who had come to feel more resentment, disappointment and anger than love. Nothing they had seen going on between their father and me during those last years could have inspired them with a strong, healthy picture of how a couple should be with each other, how a marriage should be. How one partner should treat a partner he or she loved.
I remember a moment — the flip side to that picture from my French postcard — when, on a family trip to the beach, my daughter had observed a couple kissing, and laughed. She said they looked silly. The idea of two people displaying that kind of affection for each other was that unfamiliar.
Back in those days — we’re speaking of the early 90’s here, when I was in my mid- thirties and my children were very young — a psychologist named Judith Wallerstein had published an enormously popular and well-respected book (and then a series of follow-ups) presenting the theory that children of divorced parents were far more likely than those of “intact” families to suffer a myriad of trouble, not only at the moment of divorce, but for years and even decades to come. The book, based on a study led by Judith Wallerstein of a group of divorced families in Marin County, California, promoted the idea that for many of us, the decision to divorce was a selfish act in which modern parents obsessed with nothing more than their own shallow view of personal fulfillment placed their own needs over those of their children. None of that sounded like me. Still, Wallerstein’s words haunted me.
I was not alone, as a divorced parent during those times, in feeling guilt and terror over Wallerstein’s prediction for my children’s future. As a parent who would have done anything for her children, the idea was crushing, that by my inability to stay married to their father, I might do them irrevocable lifelong harm.
The divorce was a bitter one. By the time it was over, no remnant of good feeling appeared to remain between the two of us. I had read the articles and books about children and divorce — not only Judith Wallerstein’s, but other less guilt-inducing texts — and I knew a parent should not speak ill of her fellow parent in front of their children. But sometimes, when I was tired, or worn down, or lonely or just plain sad, I failed to follow the experts’ advice. My children witnessed no shortage of anger towards their father. Also tears. My bitterness endured way too long, and it was alive in me still, when he remarried and had another child, as I did not.
Time takes care of many things. Our children grew up, and though trouble found us on occasion, nobody got addicted to drugs, nobody got arrested, nobody dropped out of school. They were always kind people, and contrary to Judith Wallerstein’s dire predictions, all three became adults who seemed to know how to establish good relationships, make commitments, treat a partner lovingly, become a good parent.
Late into my fifties, I remarried too, and when I did I discovered for the first time — as I was closing in on 60 — what it meant to be part of a healthy, loving couple. Three years later, my good and loving second husband died of pancreatic cancer, and I was on my own again, but I was a different person from the one I’d been at 35, the first time I’d found myself on my own.
I think it was loving someone really well, and then the brutal experience of watching him die, slowly and painfully, that accomplished what no amount of therapy ever had. I let go of the old anger. All those decades-old wounds, past crimes — real or imagined, some committed by me — seemed so unimportant now, in the vast scale of a person’s life, particularly if she was lucky enough to have lived as many years as I’d got to by then.
Three years ago, I started work on a new novel. The territory was familiar. I wanted to tell the story of a couple who meet and fall in love when they’re young, and set out to raise their children — three of them — on a farm in New Hampshire, much as my first husband and I had done. In the story I wrote, my fictional family bore many resemblances to the real one I’d known and been part of.
I wanted to follow the five of them over four decades, from the 70s into the 2000s, into adulthood and — for the parents — late middle age. If Judith Wallerstein’s book had suggested one scenario for a family in the aftermath of divorce, I wanted to portray a different one. The family I brought to the page was not without complexities and sorrows, as is true for every family, whether there’s a divorce or not. But I also wanted the central character in my novel — the mother, who was not me, but bore a certain resemblance — to reach the place of resolution I’d found in recent years. I wanted these people to forgive each other. Equally important, I wanted them to recognize their need to be forgiven. One thing I had discovered over the thirty-some years since my parting from the father of my children: There is seldom a single villain in a divorce, and seldom a hero.
Part way along in the writing of my novel, an odd and briefly disturbing thing happened. I had done a sufficiently good job of portraying the lovable qualities of the husband in the book — as well as his infuriating ones, and the equally infuriating qualities of the wife — that I woke up in the middle of the night one time with a heartbreaking thought:
What if my husband and I could have made our marriage work? If so, we might have spared our children so much grief. Imagine if, now — more than halfway through our sixties — we were living together on our old farm, welcoming our grandchildren there. Gathering around the big old trestle table where, long ago, we once rolled out the cookie dough and made potato print holiday cards. What if the whole thing — our years of doing battle with each other, the money spent on lawyers, my move to another town, and then another town after that, and another after that — had all been unnecessary? What if, instead of shuttling between our two houses all those years, with their brown paper bags of clothes and baseball gloves and school projects and stuffed animals — our three beloved children had gotten to grow up with their two parents, together, under one roof?
My sense of grief over the picture I’d made in my head that night lasted only a few days. Gradually, it came to me that the story I’d allowed myself to fall in love with — of the characters who might have resolved their problems — was a work of fiction. The real characters who had in part inspired it — my children’s father and I — could never have lived out our lives happily and lovingly together. We were too different. It wasn’t even about a shortage of romantic kisses like the one I used to study on my postcard. That’s the Hollywood version of what keeps a couple together. As hollow as that phrase may be — irreconcilable differences — it applied to us.
The worst part was not the divorce at all, I came to believe. It was the pointless, wasteful, hurtful bitterness that followed. It was probably impossible for two people in their thirties, still raw from hurt and losses, to make the large, brave, humble leap a person must, when she or he lets go of anger and chooses forgiveness instead.
Our children survived it all, as do the three fictional children in the novel I finished last fall, that I titled Count the Ways. Not unscathed, though certainly not doomed to a lifetime of relationship failures either. I think in the end what they may all have learned from their parents’ foolish battles was to do better, themselves. They didn’t stop loving us. They forgave us our trespasses. The prayer whose words I never paid much attention to before made sense at long last.
A native of New Hampshire, Joyce Maynard has been a reporter and columnist for The New York Times and a regular contributor to NPR, Vogue and more. She first came to national attention with the publication of her New York Times cover story — An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life — in 1972, when she was a college freshman. She is also the author of 18 books. Her latest novel, Count the Ways, came out on July 13, 2021.
P.S. Nine women talk about their divorces, and a seven-step guide to heartbreak.
(Illustration by Abbey Lossing for Cup of Jo.)