Sitting in the back of a dark auditorium, I am watching my daughter’s ballet dress rehearsal. Another mom plops down next to me and we start chatting, quietly. She knows I’m newly separated and starts to tell me about the circumstances surrounding her good friend’s separation, which had been a long time coming.
He verbally abused her for years. He never paid attention to the kids. She couldn’t get him off the couch. He was a horrible, selfish man.
Hearing this kind of thing is not new to me. I’ve recently taken to joining online support groups for newly separated mothers, and it seems that people tend to fall into one of two camps. Most of the women are either devastated at being unexpectedly left by their spouse, or they are the ones who left themselves — but only out of complete and utter necessity. They talk about the abuse they sustained for decades, whether physical or emotional. They talk about men who never held down a job or helped with the kids.
While my marriage had plenty of its own strife, the truth is I don’t fall into either category.
I was the leaver in my marriage. Only I didn’t leave an abusive man or a man who never worked a hard day in his life. I left a good man who wanted me to stay — who begged me to stay, to keep fighting for our family. Instead, I chose to rip that family apart, renting a one-bedroom apartment for us to switch in and out of while we figured out what to do next.
Even though my husband was kind and decent, I simply didn’t love him anymore, and saying those words was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
Of course, I’m aware how preferable my situation is. Compared to being abused or left unexpectedly, falling out of love seems petty in comparison. When people ask “why?” it seems both too personal and too trite to say out loud. Instead, I ramble on about the different problems we faced. I reshape the story because I’m afraid my lack of love isn’t a good enough reason. I’m afraid that as a woman and a mother, I wasn’t allowed to be unhappy.
The truth is, while it might be preferable to be the one who wants out, I’ve found that being the leaver has its own unique burdens to carry when you’re a woman. While men leave all the time, without reason or warning, my decision felt impossible. So much so that I battled it, and my own self, for years. Because I knew that the weight of breaking apart a family built from my bones would be mine to own, and that I would likely carry it for the rest of my life.
I weighed my unhappiness, wondered if it even mattered, for so long that the question almost became an immovable part of me. I couldn’t imagine leaving, or even talking about leaving, until I did. And even then, it didn’t feel real. Then, there were months upon months of sorting and apartment shopping and finally, cutting up my joint debit card and fearfully starting over.
My husband fought it every step of the way, which only made me doubt and question myself even harder. It only made being the leaver feel like being the quitter that much more — the one who ruined all of our lives.
As a wife and mother, I’ve always been the one to feel the heartbreaks of my family. I was the one to feel my life ripped open and stitched back together each time a baby came screeching out of me, and I cried and searched the universe for where I had gone off to. Each time, I’m not sure I ever fully returned. I was the one to feed them from my body. I was the one to work from home, to be here for every moment, and when they were old enough, to pick them up from school.
When my children struggled with friends or had their own sadness, I felt that, too. I cried myself to sleep when they were sad. I stayed up all night wondering how I could mend their hearts. When my husband was stressed or overwhelmed or so distraught he had to change jobs, I carried and supported that too, and all that came with it: the extra hours, the missed dinners, the extra love I had to give to my children because I was the only one here.
I gave so much, there was nothing left. My love was like a well that dried up so badly, whenever my husband tried to drink from it, I’d roll my eyes and say, “I’m empty.”
For years, I managed my own life and everyone around me, so when it all started to fall apart, it was as if I was the only one who knew. I walked around day after day with it wrapped around my shoulders like a python that tightened its grip each night when I tried to sleep. I imagined in some way that being brave enough to leave would free me.
As I pieced together this new apartment, it felt good. I searched yard sales and online swaps to find couches and end tables. I bought plates and cups from dollar stores. But I am still so tethered to my old life that trying to build a new one makes my body ache in old and new ways. I am still the keeper of everyone’s emotions, somehow. Feeling my own is mostly an afterthought.
While I thought the end of our marriage would be the end of me carrying the mental load, so far it hasn’t changed much; or really at all. When my husband is struggling, I am the first one to know. He points his sadness at me so harshly, I can barely breathe. He does it without meaning to — he is hurting. I don’t blame him. And because he is a good man, unlike the other men I hear about so frequently, I struggle to let it flow through me and out the other side.
Instead, I take his sadness and make it my own. I carry my own emotions, my children’s, and my soon-to-be-ex-husband’s. I keep the python on my shoulders. It is so heavy, yet I’m not sure what it feels like to be without it.
I used to think that listening to the heartbeat of my life was easy. I’m a woman, after all. I have intuition. I know how to tune in. But then I became a wife and a mother and everyone else needed me and needed me. Listening in got harder. Believing that the me I left behind had value felt like turning my back on my family, my kids, my everything. And even though I know this is the right decision — that I couldn’t have stayed for the long haul, that my marriage wasn’t meant for me — sometimes the guilt still jolts me awake in the middle of the night.
I’ve learned that when you leave a good man, there is no real escape route; just a tiny trap door. And when you fall through it, so much comes with you. Maybe it’s why most people don’t bother with it in the first place. They know they’re being followed. They don’t say “yes, go, run,” either — they don’t tell you that your happiness is as good a reason as any. It is, but you’ll have to remind yourself of it over and over again.
You’ll have to be brave enough to find your heartbeat, so entangled with everyone else’s, and hear it beat on its own once more.More On