I stood at the bedroom window talking to my mother on the phone. It was late summer in western Washington, the Cascade mountain range green against a blue sky. Her voice was gentle as we talked through the usual topics: my daughters, the latest on my work, the antics of our high-maintenance dog. But I knew the question was coming. I knew because we cannot hide things from our mothers. They are like a detective assigned to only one case – us. We’re a puzzle and they know all the misshapen pieces. They know how they fit together.
She knew something was terribly wrong with me. And the question came.
“Are you all right? You sound really down lately.”
“No. I cannot do it any longer,” I said. “I can’t be married to him.”
A moment of silence, and then, the inevitable discussion that I’d feared and dreaded for so long. I told her all of it, every hurt and disappointment and frustration. It was not as hard as I thought it would be. As it turns out, she saw everything, despite my attempt at hiding my pain. There was no judgment, no recriminations, only support and compassion and understanding. Yes, I felt understood. And yet, in accompaniment, was an overwhelming sense of failure. Of having failed her.
I am a good girl – have been all my life. Good at school. Well-behaved at home. Married at an appropriate age. Had two beautiful little girls three years apart. Attended church regularly. I did everything right and had the Christmas card to prove it.
But inside I was dying, married to a man unsuitable and incompatible in a way that made me feel shriveled and alone and sad. I had to get out, even though it would hurt him, my daughters, my stepson I helped raise, and my parents.
For years I stifled my own needs so that it would not come to this. I would not give up, I told myself a thousand times. I would pretend everything was fine, even to myself. But at some point hiding from the truth no longer works. There is a moment when you say, enough. I’ve had enough. I have to save myself.
Then you have to tell the truth. And although the truth sets you free, it also hurts. Ask anyone who had to tell her children: divorce, moving out, we still love you both, it’s not your fault. Ask anyone who had to utter the words to their husband of twelve years, I’m unhappy, and watch his face fall into itself. Ask anyone who had to tell her mother, I’m dying inside. Ask anyone who has to tell both supportive and critical friends, one by one, we’re divorcing.
For a good girl like me it was excruciating. It’s been six months already, and although I know it was necessary, I still feel like a failure. I could not make this marriage work. I broke up my family. My children will always be a little sad when they think of their childhood.
But here’s something I learned. You can let everyone else down – spouse, children, friends – everyone but your mother. She is always on your side. She already knows everything about you anyway. She may hurt for you but not because of you. This is the only person who wants your happiness more than she wants her own. This is the only person in your life who knows you better than you know yourself.
I know this because I am my daughters’ mother. Someday they will call me with their failures and triumphs and fears and joys. No matter the time of day or night, I will pick up the phone. And my response will always be the same. Thank you for telling me the truth. No matter what, I love you.
Because I’m a mother. And that’s what we do.