On Wednesday night I attended a black-tie dinner in one of Oxford’s prestigious colleges and had the company of a semi-retired management consultant. In his 60s and having worked and travelled extensively all over the world, it took less than 10 minutes for him to share with me his divorce and impart words of wisdom to keep my marriage alive.
This gentleman is wildly successful and yet his pain was palpable. He was very matter of fact but his story was full of regret and also shock. As he neared the point in his career when he was ready to return to London and to slow things down, he looked forward to a more relaxed life, enjoying simple pleasures with his wonderful wife who he adored. She had borne him their fabulous daughter and had followed him all over the world, sacrificing her career to care for them both. Yet when that time arrived, she asked for a divorce. He hadn’t realised, but over their 40 years, she felt he had never really been there – always consumed in his career. She felt like they were strangers. He also feels that during the time his wife put herself last and their family first, a quiet resentment grew and the target of that resentment became him.
There had been no falling out, no anger, no heated confrontations; just a slow and steady erosion of the ties that had bound them: they had lost one another since neither of them was recognisable as the two individuals that first joined hands. The heart-breaking thing is that there is still love – the couple, though now divorced, meet at least once a week for dinner. My romantic heart hopes this is not the end of their love story….
In the meantime, my new friend urged me to think deeply about his story.
My new friend looked me straight in the eyes and stated the importance of keeping yourself whole. Each of us needs to protect ourselves; to future-proof ourselves for when the kids leave home and for when your focus is forced inwards; to future-proof ourselves for a time when there is no noise to distract you and no-one else is calling on your time. Who will you be then? Will you be so lost that you do not recognise yourself? Sometimes, I think that is already my problem as I face 40 and move out of the preschool years.
For my new friend, it was the same clichéd story: he wished he had been able to lift his chin up and that he had remembered to step firmly off the treadmill and be wholly present in his family life. It is not enough to be physically there – you must discipline yourself to quiet those thoughts which lead you back to business and learn to really feel the joy of your family. But more than that, he had neglected the man who had first met his wife; he had been so consumed with his career that even in times of leisure he talked of little else. What was it that had first made his wife laugh? What had kept them talking into the early hours? Certainly not his latest sales win!
But mainly, my new friend was looking at me. I was open and honest about returning to work and finding it hard. He wanted me to keep going, to find a way to forge a new path that returned me in part, to the woman I had been before children.
As parents, it is so easy to put yourself at the bottom of the list: there is always a reason to neglect yourself, there is always a job that needs doing, always a child wanting you to stay home. Certainly, I find it really tough – blimey, I no longer get any crackling from a roast pork dinner and my favourite chicken wings are long gone! All symptomatic of the many other sacrifices.
I hear time and time again the importance of looking after oneself, making time to exercise, be with friends, go on date nights and yet the watery blue eyes of a stranger, an ordinary man sat next to me at dinner have really got to me.
I’m not saying every stay at home mum needs to go to work, but I am urging those mums and dads out there who don’t carve out time and a ‘thing’ for themselves as individuals, to make sure they do. For their own sakes and each other’s.
I would hate the girls to leave home and to find myself floundering and I certainly don’t want to feel resentment towards them or towards Dan. I know those whisperings would come unintentionally, and without apportioning any responsibility – I am in charge of my own decisions, but I also know that some things are hard to un-hear, even if it is only your own thoughts.
In many ways I learnt nothing new, but to know that something dear was lost after so long and so many sacrifices and at so late an age, well, it scared me. I have often heard the analogy of being on a plane – you must put on your own oxygen mask before you can help your child. But in everyday life it’s easy to ride the turbulence without oxygen, but if you imagine that plane journey over years, it is easier to imagine the extent of the damage done. So, another nudge: another reason, I need to push on and re-establish my career. I know I need something and yet that tug, that feeling I am abandoning the girls just will not yield. Yet I need to remind myself of the importance of my own needs. I can and will be more than just a mother. I also need to give Dan more freedom to be more than the man who protects and provides for us. I’m good at saying go to the pub etc (though I know he (not so) secretly uses me as an excuse!); I am less good at saying, go to the football, visit your old friends, take the day. Just be you.
In the meantime, thank you to my new friend for being so searingly honest and open. I will be forever grateful.
Ps thanks to Pinterest for the image.