In a recent op-ed for one of Britain’s most iconic newspapers, an anonymous feminist woman described the moral courage it took to leave her husband and four children – on Christmas – to be with her lover.
“Everyone knew what was going on. My now ex-husband cooked everyone a hearty meal. Poached eggs and smashed avocado. The last brunch. Then he lined up the children, our children, so I could say goodbye to them. He stood there while I did this act, tears pouring down my cheeks, unable to speak. He watched silently. Then he took the children off shopping,” she recounts in a piece published Sunday in The Times.
The woman says that prior to the divorce she was the primary “breadwinner.” Her former husband, meanwhile, did most of the cooking and was home more for the children.
She says that while she thought the example she was setting was “inspirational,” she’s surprised her ex-husband sees it differently.
“What I thought was an inspirational example of a woman working is now seen by my husband as ‘neglect,'” she says. “‘You spent all your time working and when you weren’t working, you were shagging someone else, neglecting the children,’ he told me.”
Since leaving her family last Christmas for a home rented a few blocks away by her lover, the woman has grappled with a life apart. While she sees her kids during court-approved visits, they are not allowed to see her new partner and live with their father.
Then there is the social stigma, which she says is sometimes “overwhelming.”
Some of it is overt, the woman describes, such as the “looks and gossip from the neighbors” that make it “clear that leaving a marriage, for a mother, is still frowned upon.”
Some of it is indirect.
The woman claims there are “countless heartwarming, romantic images of solo dads successfully coparenting outside the family nest.”
But where are all the movies for moms who have abandoned their families?
“I can’t think of any cultural imagery showing a woman with a new partner successfully looking after her children outside the charmed circle of the [matrimonial family home.] All the films about divorced women, and there aren’t many, seem to be about how a gutsy solo woman copes when a man leaves her for a younger version,” the woman laments.
But she refuses to be bowed by societal conventions, dismissing her ex-husband’s gentle reminder that she was the “one who had the affair, you know,” as the product of “righteous indignation.”
Her choice to leave was, in fact, the ethical choice, she explains:
I left a marriage that had fizzled out in order to be with the love of my life. I swapped sneaking around for a life of integrity. I demanded to be happy and fulfilled. I stopped sleepwalking through a marriage and left my husband. I have, however, not left my children. I love them totally and now I love them from a position of honesty, not from the standpoint of having an affair. I am also obliged to love them from a distance and from a position that is regarded as shameful by many.
And her husband’s rebukes aren’t the only ones she has had to contend with. In the Times piece, the woman describes a letter she received from an old university tutor:
“Do you know what you are doing? You will miss out on all the important things of being a parent,” he thundered. “The first boyfriend, the first driving lesson. Homework, anxieties, laughter. Your children will always know you as the mother who walked out on them.” I’m quoting from memory as I have destroyed the letter.
Adding to her aggravation is the sympathy mutual friends have expressed for the woman’s ex-husband:
Friends look at me with sad eyes and tell me they are going to go round to cheer up my ex-husband. They bring food round, as if he is an invalid. They invite him over for Sunday lunches. Female friends cluck round the children, imagining them to now be “motherless” and declaring themselves fit for the job. One of my oldest friends actually lied to me about when she was going on holiday to Italy because she intended to invite my ex and my children to go away with her instead.
“People envisage him with pity, perhaps cooking with an apron on, sweating over a hot stove, cleaning the bathtub, dealing with homework,” she says, apparently finding the thought of him doing these things unthinkable or insignificant.
The woman does not encourage friends who have doubts about their marriages to leave their husbands. She does so, not because she thinks it’d be wrong for them to abandon their families. But rather because she’s not sure they’re brave enough.
Perhaps encouraged by my actions, girlfriends confide in me that they wish they could act similarly. Many of them envy me having the trigger of falling in love with someone else. Many say they have never been in love with their husband, that he bores them, that they have no sex. Not many people my age are having sex, it seems. I listen, but I don’t encourage them. It’s too much responsibility for me. Leaving a family is such an enormous action that it can only be precipitated by a profound personal choice, one that in my case took years to pluck up the courage to make.
She’s also struggled with what her decisions reveal about her political outlook, especially her desire to be “great feminist role model.”
“Can a woman morally justify occupying two positions at once? Can one be the engaged worker and also be the one having the affair? Does she have to?” the woman asks.
Despite all the heartache and public “shaming,” the woman says she regrets nothing because she is living with “integrity and happiness.”
“I am living with the man I ought to have been with when I first met him. No, I am not going to kiss my children every night as I always did for 20 years. But I am not going to live with aching regret,” she declares.