It tugs on my sleeve each morning when my husband, Will, greets me in his chipper, smug morning-person voice, because after 16 years of waking up together, he still hasn't quite pieced out that I'm not viable before 10 A.M.
It puts two hands on my forehead and mercilessly presses when he blurts out the exact wrong thing ("Are you excited for your surprise party next Tuesday?"); when he lies to avoid the fight ("What do you mean I left our apartment door open? I never even knew our apartment had a door!"); when he buttons his shirt and jacket into the wrong buttonholes, collars and seams unaligned like a vertical game of dominoes, with possibly a scrap of shirttail zippered into his fly. It flicks me, hard, just under the eye when, during a parent-teacher conference, he raises his arm high in the air, scratches his armpit, and then—then!—absently smells his fingers.
It slammed into me like a 4,000-pound Volvo station wagon one spring evening four years ago, although I remember it as if it were last year. He had dropped me off in front of a restaurant, prior to finding a parking spot. As I crossed in front of the car, he pulled forward, happily smiling back over his left shoulder at some random fascinating bit (a sign with an interesting font, a new scaffolding, a diner that he may or may not have eaten at the week after he graduated from college), and plowed into me. The impact, while not wondrous enough to break bodies 12 ways, was sufficient to bounce me sidewise onto the hood, legs waving in the air like antennae, skirt flung somewhere up around my ears.
For one whole second, New York City stood stock-still and looked at my underwear.
As I pounded the windshield with my fist and shouted—"Will, Will, stop the car!"—he finally faced forward, blink, blink, blink, trying, yes, truly trying to take it all in. And I heard him ask with mild astonishment, very faintly because windshield glass is surprisingly thick, "What are you doing here?"
In retrospect, it was an excellent question, a question that I've asked myself from altar to present, both incessantly and occasionally.
"What am I doing here?"
Don't musunderstand: I would not, could not disparage my marriage (not on a train, not in the rain, not in a house, not with a mouse). After 192 months, Will and I remain if not happily married, then steadily so. Our marital state is Indiana, say, or Connecticut—some red areas, more blue. Less than bliss, better than disaster. We are arguably, to my wide-ish range of reference, Everycouple.
Nor is Will the Very Bad Man that I've made him out to be. Rather, like every other male I know, he is merely a Moderately Bad Man, the kind of man who will leave his longboat-sized shoes directly in the flow of our home's traffic so that one day I'll trip over them, break my neck, and die, after which he'll walk home from the morgue, grief-stricken, take off his shoes with a heavy heart, and leave them in the center of the room until they kill the housekeeper. Everyman.
Still, beneath the thumpingly ordinary nature of our marriage—Everymarriage—runs the silent chyron of divorce. It's the scarlet concept, the closely held contemplation of nearly every woman I know who has children who have been out of diapers for at least two years and a husband who won't be in them for another 30. It's the secret reverie of a demographic that freely discusses postpartum depression, eating disorders, and Ambien dependence (often all in the same sentence) with the plain candor of golden brown toast. In a let-it-all-hang-out culture, this is the given that stays tucked in.
This is the Mid-Wife Crisis.
Mind you, when I say Mid-Wife Crisis, I mean the middle-of-married-life kind, not the kind where you go to Yale to learn how to legally brandish a birthing stool. As one girlfriend remarked, it's the age of rage—a period of high irritation that lasts roughly one to two decades. As a colleague e-mailed me, it's the simmering underbelly of resentment, the 600-pound mosquito in the room. At a juncture where we thought we should have unearthed some modicum of certainty, we are turning into the Clash. If I go will there be trouble? If I stay will it be double? Should I stay or should I go?
Our mothers knew better than to ponder such questions, at least not out loud in front of God and the hairdresser. They deliberately waited to reach the last straw until their children were grown and the house was paid for. At 25, they were ladies with lady clothes and lady hairdos—bona fide adults, the astronauts' wives. By 40, they were relics.
But we, we with our 21st-century access to youth captured in a gleaming Mason jar with a pinked square of gingham rubber-banded over the top, we are still visually tolerable if not downright irresistible when we're 30 or 35 or 40. If you believe the fashion magazines—which I devoutly do—even 50- and 60-year-olds are (lick finger, touch to imaginary surface, make sizzle noise) pretty hot tickets.
We are also tickets with jobs and disposable income. If we jump ship now, we're still attractive prospects who may have another shot at happiness. There's just that tricky wicket of determining whether eternal comfort resides in the tried-and-true or whether the untried will be truer.
Our mothers, so old too young, believed that marriage was the best they could get. We, the children of mothers who settled (or were punished for not settling), wonder: Is this as good as it gets?
Our mothers feared being left alone. We crave time alone. Alone-time is the new heroin.
"What are we doing here?"
We were groomed to think bigger and better—achievement was our birthright—so it's small surprise that our marriages are more freighted. Marriage and its cruel cohort, fidelity, are a lot to expect from anyone, much less from swift-flying us. Would we agree to wear the same eyeshadow or eat in the same restaurant every day for a lifetime? Nay, cry the villagers, the echo answers nay. We believe in our superhood. We count on it.
So, did our feminist foremothers set us up for failure? Or were they just trying to empower us so that we wouldn't buy into the notion of having to be a better better half?
Either way, many of us semi–bought into it. As the tail end of the baby boomers/mavericks of Gen X, we still had one foot in the Good Girl pond, or at least the wet footprints leading out of it. In the beginning, we felt obliged to join the race to have it all; being married was an integral part of the contest and heaven forfend we should be disqualified.
Flash-forward to ten years later, when we discover that we can get it all but whose harebrained scheme was this anyway? We can get jobs, get pregnant, get it done. We can try—with varying levels of success—to get sleep, get fit, get control, and get those important Me-moments where one keeps a journal with thought-provoking lists that go "I'm a woman first, a mother second, a laundress third." We get upset, we get over it. What we don't always get is: Why.
My high-powered, high-earning friend discovers that her magnificently indolent husband has been having an affair with a coworker; she threatens to give him the heave-ho, demurs when he demands that she pay the rent on his new apartment, and decides to work it out. For now.
A woman I know, the stay-at-home wife of a mogul—a really nice mogul with multiple houses, a jet, a chef, the whole pizza pie—throws it all over, packs up her two young children, and leaves him in search of greater satisfaction.
I watch in frustration as my son desperately tries to talk to Will through a newspaper or computer screen or whatever other large, flat surfaces fathers place between themselves and filial communication, and yet I know in my heart that I would be mightily hard-pressed to remove this father from his son's house.
Reasons and rationalizations abound and rebound. It doesn't matter whether the infractions are big or small. At a certain point, we stop asking why and start asking how. How did it come to this? How much longer can I go on? When there are no hows left, the jig is up.
I recently stood by as a designer, a mother in her 40s, announced to a group of women that she was divorcing her husband. The women's faces flickered with curiosity, support, recognition, and—could it be?—yearning. Not a one of us suggested that she try harder to make it work. No voice murmured, "What a shame."
Because it isn't a shame. Divorce is no longer the shame that spits stain upon womanly merit. Conventional wisdom decrees that marriage takes work, but it doesn't take work, it is work. It's a job—intermittently fulfilling and annoying, with not enough vacation days. Divorce is a job, too (with even fewer vacation days). It's a matter of weighing your options.
A friend once compared the prospect of leaving her husband to leaving her child's private school: The school wasn't entirely to her liking, but her daughter was happy there; it wasn't what she'd expected, but applying to other schools involved a lot of costly, complicated paperwork and the nagging uncertainty of whether another school would accept her and/or really be that much better.
Another friend viewed divorce as being akin to an extended juice fast: You're intrigued but skeptical, admiring yet apprehensive. Is it dangerous? Does it work? You're not completely sold, but then again, you could envision yourself attempting it down the road.
What this says to me (other than: my friends sure do come up with awfully good metaphors!) is that women don't view divorce as a scary, shadowy behemoth. It's an unpalatable yet manageable task—like changing schools or extreme dieting—that may or may not yield a better result.
To be sure, there will be throngs of angry women who will decry me for plunging a stake into the heart of holy matrimony. "My husband is my lifeline," I've heard said (and that's bad news for the aorta). "My husband and I never fight" is another marital chestnut—again, bad news (not to mention a big fat lie), since according to the experts, the strongest relationships are the ones in which people can continually agree to disagree. "My husband is my best friend," others will aver.
No. Your husband is not your best friend. Your best friend is your best friend. If your husband were your best friend, what would that make your best friend—the dog? When a woman tells me that her husband is her best friend, what I hear is: I don't really have any friends.
But if self-delusion is your particular poison, well, then that's fine, too. Just make sure that when you phone your life-order in, you say, "One self-delusion, please," as opposed to "One perfect marriage." Fantasy, as we all know, doesn't deliver.
Because in the end, that's basically what it's all about: getting your order right. Our day comes down to choices—and it's finally dawning on the long-term wives of the world that divorce may be the last-standing woman's right to choose. We can admit that our marriages aren't lambent, lyrical ice-dancing routines and still decide to push on together to the final flying sit spin. We also realize that divorce is an alternative that's fully within reach, be it now or later or never. The more readily we acknowledge the solid utility of marriage (as one friend's husband put it, "I'm essentially a checkbook and a sperm bank—but I'm okay with that!"), the more ably we can splinter the box of marital fantasy that makes us feel stuck, trapped, obliged. One eloquent swing of the ax and happiness is thrust firmly back into our own hands.
This is not to say dismantling one's marriage will automatically bring happiness; it's the idealization of marriage that needs to be shredded, along with its accompanying bumper sticker WIVES MAKE BETTER WOMEN. If we stay, we stay because we decide to, not because our ankles and wrists have been locked into societal expectations. If, after various efforts, we finally leave, we have the confidence to be the leavers and not the left.
Having choices is a cornerstone of strength: Choosers won't be beggars. "Thinking about divorce is kind of like living in New York City with its museums and theater and culture," a doctor friend of mine said. "You may never actually go to any of these places, but for some reason, just the idea that you could if you wanted to makes you feel better."
Maybe one day, marriage—like the human appendix, male nipples, or your pinky toes—will become a vestigial structure that will, in a millennium or two, be obsolete. Our great-great-great-grandchildren's grandchildren will ask each other in passing, "Remember marriage? What was its function again? Was it that maladaptive organ that intermittently produced gastrointestinal antigens and sometimes got so inflamed that it painfully erupted?"
Yes. Yes it was.
Until that day of obsolescence, we can confront the dilemma and consider the choice a privilege. Once upon a time is the stuff of fairy tales. As for happily ever after—see appendix.