By Bernadette Murphy
The alarm goes off at 6 am. It’s a sweltering Monday in August, the first day back to school for my daughter, Hope, and the last time I’ll ever oversee this annual routine. Hope will start her senior year of high school today. This time next year we’ll be leaving her at a dorm on a university campus yet to be determined.
For the past 21 years, I have been overseeing these back-to-school mornings, taking pictures of my three kids as they hoist on new backpacks filled with freshly sharped pencils that smell like sawdust, packed alongside clean binders and pristine notebooks, as they lace overly bright fresh-out-of-the-box tennis shoes, adjust new school uniforms and comb fresh haircuts. My oldest, Jarrod, finished his Bachelor’s degree a year ago and is now in his first real job. My middle son Neil is about to start his junior year in college and has been living away from home since we dropped him at his dorm three years ago. And now, Hope’s a senior.
My job as a mother – a job that has consumed and thrilled and exhausted and tried and awed me for more than 23 years — is coming to an end.
The day before school resumed for Hope, my husband John and I picked her up at LAX where she flew in after spending time in Romania working for Habitat for Humanity, then making an overnight stop to visit her cousin in Minneapolis en-route. Waiting for the luggage carousel to start turning, I suggested we stand nearest the place the luggage would travel down its chute.
“I know all about airports, Mom,” she told me in an overly tired, snotty voice. “I’ve got it.”
She’d spent eight weeks the previous summer in Moorea, French Polynesia, having traveled there on her own. On the drive home from this Romania trip, bleary-eyed with jet-lag, she recounted for us the travails of her journey – boarding passes that wouldn’t print due to missing visas, having to run through the Amsterdam airport to barely make a connecting flight – and yet here she was, no worse for the wear.
She’s right: she’s got it.
And that means, on some level, I’m done.
In many ways, this is reason to celebrate. Though I have loved being a mother to the deepest part of my marrow, it’s also been a difficult, surrendering, tear-inspiring, hair-pulling, and teeth-grinding journey. There have been days when I’ve been so tired of care-taking that I didn’t know what I wanted to eat, if I needed to sleep, what I thought about the burning political question of the day, or who I was. But little by little, as these three young people have grown and ventured out into the world on their own, I’ve been filled with amazement at their lives, their composure, their willingness to try and fail.
And aware that the focus of my life can now return to me.
I would say “us” – being married and all, that would be the logical assumption, wouldn’t it? — but that’s the problem. There isn’t an “us” to return to.
Beneath all the time and energy and love and passion John and I have lavished on our children, there’s been an unacknowledged specter hiding, hoping we’d stay busy enough to not mind his presence. But as our time of being a family with at-home children has ticked away, that specter has gotten bolder, his presence harder to deny. He had one thing to say to us:
Your marriage is not working.
Looking back on the 25 years we’ve been married, it seems that the whole purpose of our union was to raise the kids. Then again, maybe that’s simply what happens to any couple who’ve been mired in the day-to-day demands of parenthood for so long. Perhaps, like us, all couples lose track of themselves as individuals, and of themselves as a couple. Perhaps, like us, they willingly sacrifice both their personal identity and their marital unity on the altar of child-rearing.
Or, perhaps, that’s only what I’ve done.
There weren’t any kids yet when we spoke those vows in the church, when we clearly enunciated hefty words like “’til death do us part” having no idea what they meant. I was 24; he was 26. How could we have known what words like that mean? How can I pretend, even now, that I understand the depth of that commitment?
When I met John, my life sorely needed grounding. My mother had died a few years earlier, a blessing really, given her severe bi-polar illness and her seemingly near-constant desire to die. I had just moved with my father and younger siblings, whom I’d mostly raised, from the home we’d lived in for two decades to a community where I knew no one. I was finishing up at the local state university—I’d never gone away to school or lived apart from my family – and was terrified that the seeds of my mother’s mental illness were swimming in my blood stream, awaiting the right combination of factors to spring alive and seize me. Alcohol and drugs helped blunt the vision of the future that seemed to lie in store for me, something I wanted to escape with all the desperation of a drowning person.
Is it possible, I wonder now, that in that desperation I latched onto John, ensuring we’d both be in the drowning pool together?
He was handsome, tall and stable, came from the Midwest and had a family that looked like the Cleavers. No history of mental illness or alcoholism or drug addiction. No brothers in juvenile hall or California Youth Authority or prison. No high school dropouts. No teen pregnancies. He and his siblings all went away to prestigious universities right out of high school – not even a stint at community college first. He’d just moved to the LA area from Minneapolis and knew no one, it seemed, but me, whom he’d met at a church function I’d been dragged to.
If ever there was someone who could keep me sane — perhaps I thought this in some unconscious region of my brain? — there he was.
In the early days, we laughed together – he has a great sense of humor – and enjoyed each other. We shared a set of values, an outlook on life, an idea of what a future family might look like. Plus, there was attraction: sexual chemistry is a potent brew and worked its mojo on both of us. I held onto huge goals and dreams and aspirations that he found admirable, even if he didn’t share them. He was easily satisfied by life, while I chased things.
In 1989, eight weeks after the birth of our first child, I woke up severely hung-over.
“We need to give Jarrod the breast milk I stored in the freezer,” I told John as I pumped fresh breast milk to throw down the drain. “I was drinking last night.”
John knew I struggled with drugs and alcohol before he’d married me, but I’d done an excellent job keeping the extent of the problem hidden, ensuring my outbursts remained under control. I’d managed to stay abstinent throughout most of the pregnancy, but the demands of new parenthood were shaping up to be more than I was able for. I knew from experience where the path I was on would lead – my mother’s own mental illness, helped or exacerbated by alcoholism I can’t say for sure, had clearly demonstrated that to me. I left our newborn in John’s care that morning to seek help.
A year later, we bought a house in the suburbs, had two more children, and I did my best to embody what I pictured to be the good wife and mother. I wore Winnie-the-Pooh denim jumpers, brought string cheese, juice boxes and peanut butter crackers wherever I went, was the consummate soccer mom, balancing this identity with my work as a freelance copywriter. Motherhood, I had chosen to believe, was my calling. I would be the best mother possible, trying perhaps to make up for my own sad childhood. If there was no way to go back and re-do that one – and with my mother’s death, that possibility had closed – I would do the next best thing: Experience a solid, fulfilling mother-child relationship from the mother’s point of view. I immersed myself in my kids’ world, becoming an advocate for childhood literacy, pushing children’s books on everyone I knew, volunteering in the kids’ co-op preschool. I was happy and fulfilled — for a time. And then the need to grow reared its head and I signed up for graduate school in creative writing.
I drove from the suburbs to attend classes in the city and my life opened up. I developed different interests, met new people who were just as alive to the written word as I was, who felt just as passionate about finding the right combination of sound and meaning in language, who were able to discover the piercing beauty in another’s (and occasionally one’s own) sentences as I did. My life dilated to allow in more light, more joy, more beauty, more presence. The experience empowered and emboldened me. I went from being a writer-for-hire, ready to scribble my words for anyone who’d pay me, to writing things that mattered deeply to me. Before I knew it, I found ample paying work, signed a couple of book contracts, and developed supportive allies to keep me company on my journey.
The tricky part was coming home. The passions that fed me in the larger world didn’t fit into my life with my husband, they had no room to thrive, no place to survive. He was supportive in a good-for-you kind of way, applauding from the sidelines. I tried for a time to deny my passions in order to fit in at home, only to feel my soul begin to dry out and become like the potato-chip leaves on an un-watered plant. I realized I had done this same soul-shrinking routine throughout my life, contracting myself to fit into whatever scant space was allowed me. But my desires had now become too big, the call to a larger life too loud to be easily hushed. Denial was no longer going to work.
That’s okay, I figured. I’ll have those things for me — I’ll find a way to fit them into my world — and just share the family stuff with him.
Is that where I made the wrong turn? Was that the point at which I set this fate in motion?
Being a father has always been John’s vocation. He came alive, seemed to be more himself in that role than in any other. One time, for Hope’s Fairy Tale Father-Daughter school dance, he contacted a local costume rental agency so that Prince Charming himself, in all his pale-blue-and-white splendor, might escort our 11-year-old daughter to the ball. He loved decorating the house for Christmas and hiding Easter baskets every spring. As our children grew too old to appreciate some of these details, the young cousins continued to call out for “Uncle John! Uncle John!” whenever he was around. He was Disneyland incarnate – swinging them by their feet, playing ping-pong or basketball, throwing squealing children over his head, tickling them and playing peek-a-boo. Which is great at family get-togethers, but at home with kids who were now young adults with lives of their own, he didn’t quite know what to do.
That decision to get sober in 1989 put me on a new path, one I’ve trudged some 23 years. Over the course of those years, I did whatever it took to maintain my clean-and-sober life and to honor my sense of inner peace. Time after time, I was faced with simple choices: Either do the difficult, I’d-rather-do-anything-else-in-the-world-than-deal-with-this-issue work of truly growing up and healing my life, or drink. On a regular basis, I had to choose between living fully or dying incrementally. As a result, I embraced countless therapy sessions, worked through painful childhood scars, allowed in fresh experiences, made new friends, and simply held on through patches of skin-scraped-raw self-discovery. Now, I have built the most whole and happy life I can imagine for myself. I no longer fear losing my sanity and have come to see myself as someone who’s generally balanced, lively, responsible and trust-worthy. I feel complete in all parts of my life.
Except when I go home. And there, I feel more alone than ever.
Twenty-three years ago, I changed the trajectory of my life. And the unforeseen result has been that while John has continued to move in a straight line along the same axis he was on when we met, steady as he goes, my trajectory shifted. Even if I only changed that original trajectory by a degree or so, over the course of 23 years, that shift has made for a very different course.
I just didn’t know it then. And if I had, I would have made the same decision.
Somewhere along the way, I found ways to feed the passions that drove me without breaking the confines of the marriage. When Jarrod was 16, he wanted to learn to backpack. So did I. John and the other kids had no interest, so Jarrod and I read books, hung out at REI, outfitted ourselves and became well-versed, if not quite seasoned backpackers. Most summers, we planned outings together, and the year he turned 20, we backpacked Mt. Whitney, the largest peak in the contiguous United States, together.
The following year, I took up running. As someone who’s struggled with asthma and respiratory distress for decades, I didn’t think I’d get very far. But I found friends who encouraged and stayed with me. Six months into my running regime, my running partner Emily and I entered a 5K race. It was a Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot in our community, raising money and foodstuffs for underserved populations. I met Emily that morning and together we accomplished what, to me, was a big deal, only to rush home after that race to peel and boil potatoes, oversee the turkey, carry on as usual, my own passion fed, but now it was time to feed the others.
That became the routine. John coached the kids in soccer and track. I began running marathons –I completed one with Hope when she was 16. When the kids no longer participated in local sports, John stayed home, watching sports on TV, listening to sports radio while I found things outside the house to do. Each step of the way I discovered friends and children who would accompany me.
Just not a partner.
Over the years, we remained courteous and polite with each other, but no longer engaged in deep or meaningful chats; we no longer needed to share the details of our day with each other, no longer revealed to the other deep dreams and aspirations — in part, I suppose, because I felt as if I were the only one to have ambitions that reached beyond our four walls. We’d stopped fighting years ago when the fights just ended up causing more hurt and resentment, solving nothing, digging us in deeper. I stopped telling him about how much a certain story I was writing meant to me, or how crushed I was by a rejection. He stopped reading my work. He’d never been one to tell me much about his job, or to share about his day. I’d ask, and the answer was invariably a shrug of the shoulders and a heavy sigh over how busy/crazed/overworked he felt. Soon, all we had to talk about – beyond the kids — was what we’d read online that day, what interesting news-bit had caught our attention.
Somewhere along the way, he stopped allowing me to help him. While not exactly a perfectionist, I am known for being far-too-efficient and capable. Perhaps my smug capability threatened him. Or maybe he’d never wanted my help in the first place. Whenever I’d ask – could I help him pack his lunch as he rushed around the kitchen running late for work, or help him organize the garage in which it was becoming increasingly difficult to find things, or could I solicit friends to help us rebuild the fence that had blown down in the last wind storm? – the answer was always no. He took a stance of complete self-sufficiency; he neither needed nor wanted whatever I had to offer. And with that, the little part of me that was still connected to him began to die. It’s one thing to not share dreams and aspirations, it’s another thing entirely to feel as if you’re contribution does not matter, as if you’re not needed or wanted. I’d go away on business trips and notice that my absence was of no significance at home. When I asked him about this he said it was easier, sometimes, with me gone.
I can’t help looking back over the years to see where we turned wrong. Surely there was a point when a simple yes or no decision – yes, I’ll go grocery shopping with you or no, I’d rather we go away for a weekend as a couple than as a family –- might have made a difference, as if it’s simply a wrong turn to be analyzed, to go back to that point and turn left this time instead of right. Yes, I’d love to go see a baseball game. No, I’d rather stay home tonight with you.
If only it were that simple. Perhaps all that sacrificing for the kids, I see now, was an important coping strategy. As long as we had healthy, wonderful, accomplished children to show for it, surely our union was worthwhile. With all our striving on their behalf, we managed to keep ourselves from noticing the corrosive neglect taking root in our marriage.
John would – and does – disagree with this assessment. We were in couples counseling for seven months and the marriage, while far from perfect, is okay with him. Not optimal. Not ideal. Not what he’d prefer. But it’s not worth throwing the baby out with the bathwater, he’d say.
Let enough years like that pass by and you too will find yourself where we did, looking at each other in couples counseling, trying to see if we could build a bridge across that divide. John was perplexed. He’s played by the rules of the game and here I was telling him at 51 years of age, “Game over.” He felt gypped. Meanwhile, I was saddened at the years I’d spent in this marriage unaware on a conscious level, but painfully aware on an unconscious one, that we’d end up here. How could I not have known? Is there something I could have done differently? Could I have spoken up sooner and changed things?
I don’t know.
What I do know is this: Our marriage created the perfect scaffolding within which to raise our children. I look back on our decision to marry, and I consider the three wonderful kids that are the result of that decision and I cannot regret it.
And if our marriage accomplished that much, surely it was, on some level, a success.
But now I’m left with a scaffolding that serves no current-day purpose Is it possible to appreciate the beauty of the scaffolding even as I dismantle it?
I was asked to a dinner party recently, a birthday party at a restaurant for a dear friend, Stacy. Since her husband was planning the event and he wanted to attend, the girlfriends – a close lot, all of us – were asked to bring our husbands and make it a coupled event rather than the usual get-together of the “girls.” I couldn’t see myself attending with John; it would be too uncomfortable, too much like a date. I called Stacy and told her I’d feel better going solo.
That night was my first venture into the realm of singleness while still snuggled inside the paired universe. At first, I felt awkward, the one who didn’t fit in; I was also the only one not drinking. No one made a big deal of the fact I was alone – they all seemed to assume John had something else he needed to do. These were couples I’d known for years. We all had kids about the same ages, had all walked through much of the same marital and child-rearing territory. These women and I had accompanied each other through some pretty rough life rapids.
As the meal progressed, a photographer employed by the restaurant came to take pictures. First the big group, then Stacy and her girlfriends. Finally, the photographer went around the room taking couples shots. When she came to me she seem perplexed and just skipped over me.
At dinner, I noticed the other couples. Some touched each other lightly on an elbow or shoulder. The man next to me, who made delightful conversation to keep me from feeling lonely, asked his wife if she’d like to try every new dish as it passed by, making sure she had whatever she might need. A number of the couples were able to crack us all up with their antics. I knew that, like John and me, these couples had all been through the wringer with each other. Yet, I also saw in that moment something I hadn’t before. Our marriage wasn’t like this, with tiny bits of joy and flash-like moments of connection amid the hassles of parenthood. I hadn’t had a marriage with lightness and fun, with a sense of play and togetherness in years. Maybe a decade.
I left the birthday party aware that I was making the right choice. I may not be able to identify where I turned wrong, but it’s clear to me that I cannot go back.
So I find myself stranded here, standing alone on this little sand-spit perched between marriage and singleness, between being a wife and mother and being just me. The signs of my leaving are already present, like the fall leaves heralding the arrival of winter.
Why couldn’t I have stayed the person John married? Why can’t I be more easily satisfied?
I stand here, my feet clammy in the sand of this wayside place that smells of death even as it hints of life, waiting for the next step to reveal itself.
Before Hope leaves home this morning to start her first last day of school, I pull out the camera to take a photo. She’s wearing her ratty old tennis shoes from the previous school year – in all the chaos of her Romania trip, no one thought about ordering her new shoes, one of a number of details that seem to be slipping through the cracks. I will order new shoes later this morning, and will remind her to sign up for the fall SAT exam. I will also remind her to rescheduled her senior portrait appointment and to arrange her annual physical before soccer season starts – though, really, I don’t need to remind her of any of this. As she keeps telling me, she’s got it.
But first, I need to drive her to her morning carpool. As I do so, I think about how, after 21 years of a back-to-school routine, this is it — the last first day of school.
And the last year of maybe everything as I have known it.
Bernadette Murphy is the author of, Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life (May 2016, Counterpoint Press). She has published three previous books of narrative nonfiction including the bestselling Zen and the Art of Knitting, is an Associate Professor in the Creative Writing Department of Antioch University Los Angeles, and a former weekly book critic for the Los Angeles Times. Her website is Bernadette-Murphy.com. A version of this essay appeared previously on The Rumpus.