When you announce your engagement, it is natural for people to congratulate you with great excitement and immediately glare at your ring. When you tell people that you have just separated, however, the acceptable etiquette is to produce a piteous sad face, accompanied by a heartfelt “I am so sorry.”
In your engagement, and commitment to another person you are celebrated; in your separation, and commitment to yourself – your values, your truth, you are pitied.
As a child to divorced parents I didn’t want to get married. My parents’ love story gone bitter taught me at an early age to never believe in Fairy tales, especially not the helpless Cinderella narrative of being “rescued” by Prince Charming. I preferred to be in charge of my destiny and have always been fiercely independent. But this independence and thirst for life has not made me immune to love. When the man I had barely known for six months proposed to me, high on love, all I could say was, “of course I will marry you dumbass.” It was only the following day when we began to discuss the kind of wedding that we wanted that I suspected that we saw things very differently. He wanted a Catholic wedding and a big party – both of which ideas couldn’t be further from my secular, spiritual world of simplicity. A compromise was reached and we married in my hometown Budapest in a small chapel and had a crowd of forty or so guests at our celebration on a boat on the Danube river, overlooking the breathtaking castle by night. It was magical.
Less magical was real life with two young children as an immigrant who is cut from her family and creative pursuits I neglected in favour of diapers, nursing, cooking and cleaning. I didn’t understand why when supposedly I should have been the happiest (mission accomplished: husband, house, children, health) I felt more like my soul was dying. I felt an enormous amount of guilt, as clearly my daughters and husband meant the world to me. I was convinced that the problem could have only been with me, until I picked up Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and realized that I suffered from the same syndrome that suburban American housewives suffered from in the sixties. A problem that was defined as “the problem without a name” and pointed at a lack of personal fulfillment and purpose. No wonder I felt guilty when despite the major progress owed to feminism, I still (unconsciously, but firmly) held onto the belief that my greatest fulfillment would come from caring for my daughters. These feelings of confusion were echoed in the park’s sandbox by other women who spontaneously burst into tears admitting to me that they felt “so lonely.”
My husband too made his own sacrifices for our family and in our senseless competition of who had it worse, we grew apart, rather than closer. Our romantic wedding on the Danube river was a distant memory replaced by resentment and our beautiful Mile End home became a battlefield.
It takes great courage to admit that a separation is the more humane path forward. It can take years to accept the idea of breaking up the traditional family unit, and no feminists theories helped me along the way. Despite the fact that I was intellectually aware that it takes two to tango, I saw this separation as my own, personal failure. I have failed to keep our family together. It was my fault and fault alone.
But once catching my eight year old daughter’s face in the mirror after yet another ugly fight, I knew I had no choice. What ensued is a process I often describe as walking through a dark tunnel in search of the light while continuing to receive punches from every direction. Moving out, finding a cheap place (or a “shithole” according to my daughter Celeste) in Outremont to renovate with my bare hands, and doing it all over again after a transition living with a family, while graduating from university with “great distinction,” winning a writing award and scholarships, and even writing a play in Italian (during a pandemic). Shouldn’t these achievements be celebrated – congratulated? They were much harder wins than getting a ring on my finger.
Or, how about this as an achievement? My ex-husband helping me put shelves in my new place and repainting the old bathtub, us having a pizza night regularly every Friday and celebrating Christmas together as a family? Or going on a rock climbing vacation almost two years after our separation? These are not traditional family scenes, but we are still a family, and always will be.
One of the great gifts of a divorce is that you can rewrite the contract. And although the enduring narrative is that you are supposed to hate your ex, I have found more love in my heart for the father of my children after separation. Because in this new, unorthodox arrangement I can be me, while also being there for him – as someone I care about.
That doesn’t mean the road has been free of bumps. There have been moments of intense anger and frustration. But what I am most proud of is our ability to navigate this sensitive, and potentially explosive process with integrity. Our daughters never witnessed us badmouth each other, and instead see us working together as a family, more in agreement than when we were married.
We had help along the way. After two unsuccessful attempts at mediation we found the extraordinary Sophie Bérubé. I often wondered what makes a mediator want to do this awful job of acting as the referee between two people who, in most cases, would rather throw the table at each other. But ten minutes into our meeting I realized that Sophie was on a mission to heal the world. If she could get two people at war to reach a truce, and possibly, even a respectful agreement, the whole family, and indirectly our world, would reap the benefits. She reminded us that there was no such thing as a perfectly fair agreement and that there are contributions that cannot be measured with a price tag. She worked with us patiently and compassionately and to my greatest surprise – the process wasn’t as painful as I had feared. When signing the divorce agreement my ex husband and I even found the room to laugh and went on to care for our daughters after sharing a hug.
When walking away from the man I vowed to love forever in the traditional sense and failed, all I could feel was relief, and immense gratitude that we had succeeded in rewriting the terms of this love into something that would honour us both individually, and as partners in parenting our daughters. Finally, I let go of the shame and the guilt. And yes, I was crying all the way home. But these tears carried hope for the future, not despair.
And then came the text messages from my friends, “well done you. Congratulations” and I was smiling again.