I always said I wanted a marriage very different than the one my parents had. By the time I came along in the late 1970s, my parents had been married eight years. By the time my mom died 16 years later, they’d been married 24. They were passionate about each other. I can still remember them making out like teenagers at my sister’s fifth birthday party. But they also spent enormous amounts of time apart, and their interests were about as different from one another as they could be.
My mother was a vegetarian yoga teacher who spent two hours every day meditating, swimming and doing yoga. She wore mala beads and chanted and burned incense. My father is/was a very career-oriented, practical person who loves ribs and french fries and all manners of dessert. He is about as spiritual as Gordon Gekko. How the two of them got together was a mystery to me.
And that’s not even to speak of the travel.
Throughout most of my childhood, my father spent up to three weeks out of each month traveling internationally for work. He loved it. He still does. But it made my mother resentful and angry, and she would take that out on him in passive-aggressive ways, which I saw. I promised myself when I got married, I would be as different from them as I could possibly be. Mostly it has been. But a couple of years ago, my husband had a job offer he couldn’t refuse for a job that is about 30 percent travel.
I asked him not to take it, but also realized that it wasn’t realistic for him to turn it down. At 15, it was easy enough to say, “I don’t want a husband who travels,” but at 36 with three kids to care for, it’s another thing entirely. Between the money and his waning job satisfaction at his old job, it was hard to turn down such an opportunity. So I told him to go for it.
At first it was hard. My third baby was brand new and we were in the midst of a Northeast winter. My husband was flying out to California every Monday evening and flying back every Thursday night on the red eye. I was alone with all three kids for days at a time. I felt very sorry for myself and I remembered my mother’s anger. I remembered why I’d said “never” to this particular form of marriage.
“I am a single mom,” I remember my mother telling me through anger. “Your dad provides money, but I do everything else.”
That stuck with me. And here I was in the same kind of marriage. The kind that is affectionate and happy when we were in each other’s presence, but difficult and frustrating when we weren’t. As the latter moments seemed to grow, the situation came to a head and I had to consider another option: maybe it wasn’t the travel as much as it was my parents as people. My dad is the kind of person who just does what he wants, who prioritizes work higher than just about anything. My mom was an intensely private person who tended to suffer in silence and say things to me she never would have said to my dad.
Maybe my path to a different kind of marriage wasn’t through not traveling, but through open communication. We fought. I cried. I told him I couldn’t stand the travel and he asked me if I really expected him to quit his lucrative job. I didn’t. But he listened. We found a compromise. During the weeks where he was gone full three days, he would arrange to work from home on the other two and he would be responsible for dropping and picking up the kids from school. This was huge.
And so we crawled out of our hole. I’d spent years thinking my parents’ marriage was damaged by travel when it was really not about that at all. And while it’s true we can learn from our parents’ marriage, it’s also true we can’t always see what’s there when we aren’t in it ourselves.
Other people’s marriages are always unknowable even when you live with the couple. Even when you are their daughter. And maybe that’s what I have learned. We don’t have my parents’ marriage. We have our own. And the best thing we can do is to find our own path forward without always looking back for guidance.
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