I felt stuck this morning seeing the birth announcement on Facebook of an old work colleague. I wanted to mark the arrival of her baby but I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to say ‘I hope you’re okay’ or ‘the sisterhood is here for you’ but I couldn’t find the words and maybe she will be okay. Right now she may well be feeling excited and delighted – like the centre of a circle of love. So I just wrote the most banal congratulations which did not reflect what I felt at all – which was A LOT – that motherhood is all-consuming and uncharted and terrifying. That just as I am emerging with time to write and think again, my friend is heading in.
There is a poem by Abi Oborne that I read a year or so ago, and it struck me enough at the time that I scrawled part of it down on the back of an envelope:
‘I CAN FEEL EVERYTHING,’
‘I CAN FEEL EVERYTHING,’
‘SOMEBODY HELP ME’
as I splashed around
in the birthing pool
and the people that were there
were trying to find a pen
that they had dropped
and they were like
trying to look at my vagina
with an underwater torch.
And then she lists broken half sentences detailing the endless, mundane domesticity that is mothering – the half-eaten apples in the bathroom, of “hoovering cheerios off my socks” and through it all she repeats the line ‘I can feel everything.’
I wonder if labour is training for us? To feel everything all at once as some kind of preparation for the onslaught of emotion to come? When every day is filled with so much emotion – guilt, longing, boredom and love. I wasn’t aware that I hadn’t already been feeling everything. Why was I so surprised that to feel everything was heartrending, heavy and exhausting?
I wonder why we use the word ‘labour’ to describe childbirth when it better suits the tedium of a mother’s work afterwards. Childbirth used to be called the ‘groaning’ which still seems too euphemistic (why is it not the ‘screaming cursed night of hell’?). We labour. We pick up other people’s apple cores. We hoover up cheerios. And month by month the intensity of this labour is less, until suddenly and surprisingly you find yourself alone again. But you are not the same person that you were. You’ve bled on a table, you’ve breastfed in public, you’ve cried on the floor.
Just before my eldest daughter’s third birthday, and when my younger daughter was not quite 12 months old, I discovered their dad was having lunchtime sex in hotels, and not with me. I don’t remember exactly what made me suspect something was up. He’d seemed angrier, distracted, patronising. He’d sometimes click his phone off when I entered a room. Something made me suspect enough that I began to slide his phone out of his trouser pocket while he was in the shower.
It feels like a cliche, the intuition. Psychologist Herbert Simon describes intuition as being nothing more and nothing less than recognition. ‘The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer.’ I wasn’t an expert in infidelity, but I was an expert in my husband and his behaviour and my awareness that something felt off revealed itself first as intuition.
At the time my husband was travelling a lot with his job and I was a stay at home mum looking after our two small kids. His career was going well, and I was at home with the small incontinent bottoms, the breastmilk, and the crying.
One morning while my husband and I were talking on the phone, I heard another phone ringing in the background. My husband was supposedly alone in his hotel room. It was 7am. I remember hearing that phone ring, and the sensation of the ground moving away from me, and I remember finishing the phone call like nothing was wrong. It still amazes me the lengths the human brain will go to, to not believe something it really doesn’t want to believe.
A week or so later I found an email. I spent hours thinking about it, coming up with innocent explanations for the content of that email. I remember breastfeeding in the middle of the night, in the dark of my daughter’s room, trying to come up with an explanation that meant my husband was not having lunchtime hotel sex with his subordinate. There simply wasn’t one, and yet still he lied. I had always believed that he was a better person than me. He was the church going Christian. I thought he was more moral than me and it was genuinely hard to realise that he was actually a shithead.
I tried to keep parenting. I got angry with my poor sweet babies. My husband kept on going off to work every day, and I cried because it hurt. It was the strangest realisation that the possession of this new piece of information physically hurt. It was just words and ideas, imaginings really, and yet my throat hurt. My chest hurt.
Eventually I managed to catch him in a lie and everything unravelled. He said he was relieved. We cried together a lot. We clung to each other. He was the only person I ever really wanted to talk to about it. My husband did everything I asked him to do. He stopped staying in hotels when he was away with work, and stayed with our friends instead. He turned down overseas trips if he could, and was proactively looked for another job.
There was one day he accidentally left his work iPad at home and I spent hours obsessively trawling through his email and messenger looking for clues. I wrote down every inconsistency, every email that seemed overly familiar. That night we went over my notes and he admitted to more. He has still never admitted to anything of which I didn’t have proof. This is something else I have had to come to terms with. He thinks he is the one who decides what I get to know.
I wonder if the process of trying to get the details of an affair feels similar to a doctor’s search for secondary cancer. I’d found out that our marriage was diseased but I didn’t know the size or scale. How bad was it? How long had this been going on? How big and how bad would it have to be, to be terminal? I searched obsessively for information. I pushed him to admit to everything. He didn’t see that withholding information meant saving pain for me to unearth at some later date. I found it exasperating that he didn’t understand that each new piece of information hurt as if the act had just happened, and that the wound would have to stop bleeding before it could heal.
I would think about each revelation over days and weeks until I could find where it fit into the puzzle of what I had been doing at the same time. The scale of insult was determined by these comparisons. While sitting in the sandpit at playcentre I would realise that the night I’d struggled with a baby and toddler with gastro, he’d spent with his colleague in Sydney. While pegging the washing on the line one morning I realised that while I’d cowered in a doorway holding our two small children during a magnitude 6.5 earthquake, he was at an awards dinner in Los Angeles followed by an uninterrupted night of sex. The comparisons didn’t serve him well.
My lowest point was when I realised that the first night they’d had sex was the same night I had stayed up till midnight doing housework. I had vacuumed everything at eleven o’clock at night. I had wiped every surface free of its kid scum in anticipation of my husband’s return the next day. I’d been trying to make it nice for him to come home. That was my lowest moment – realising that my life amounted to an unpaid cleaner, losing precious sleep as an act of love for someone busy loving someone else. I pieced this all together early one afternoon and I lay down on the hallway carpet and cried. My sweet three year old patted my head and said ‘it’s okay mama, your friend daddy will come back.’ He wasn’t gone. He was just at work, but work wasn’t a safe place for him to be.
I felt like I needed to know how it had unfolded. How drunk were they? Had she pursued him? What had it looked like? I imagined them walking up stairs together, along a motel landing, unlocking the door. There had to be some trickery on her part. I imagined all of it hoping that somehow it wasn’t really his doing. I have had to accept that it was.
There is shame in staying. You’re meant to have said to your partner at some point that if they cheat on you, you will be gone – no discussion. Then when it happens you’re meant to walk out the door – no discussion. But I never wanted to leave. For starters I didn’t know where to go, and the crisis point was always around midnight. I didn’t know how to turn up crying at someone else’s house in the middle of the night. It felt too hard, too exposing, when all I wanted to do was hide. To this day I have only ever told two friends, and only because they forced me to go away with them for a weekend and got me drunk. I still have not told my sisters. I can’t bear the idea of extended family holidays where my sisters treat my husband like the shit that he is. I mean I like to imagine it because they are awesome wāhine who would shame that man like nothing else, but if we’re going to heal I need family holidays to not be any worse than they need to be.
I read a lot in the weeks and months following my husband’s affair. One of the first things I googled was the stages of grief. I needed some kind of map for the road ahead, so I could console myself ‘this is good, this is how you are supposed to feel.’ When Beyonce released her visual album Lemonade I felt like I was watching my own experience unfold. There it was laid out – intuition (where “unknown women wander the hallways at night”), denial, anger, apathy… I imagined her googling at 3am just as I had done.
A couple of months later there was a work dinner my husband couldn’t get out of. She was going to be there so I insisted that I go too. It was black tie and we argued while trying to get ready. The babysitter was late, and I was trying to do my makeup, and our toddler was crying, and hadn’t eaten their dinner, and now the baby wouldn’t go to sleep. I wanted to be steady, prepared to see her, but I ended up doing my hair in the taxi.
It was a round table with allocated seating and I swapped seats with my husband so that I was sitting between them. She had her hair up. Blonde loops pinned carefully. Her nails were freshly manicured. She told me she’d struggled to take a nap that afternoon because she’d had her hair put up at the salon and didn’t want to ruin it on the pillow. I wanted to rage at him ‘You cheated on me with someone with time for FUCKING NAPS?!’
I couldn’t compete with the hair, or the nails, or the nap taking. My husband never saw me at my best. I was always unshowered and wearing pyjama bottoms. I hadn’t known I was competing. A friend told me that she had agreed with her husband when their first baby arrived, to just survive and ‘see’ each other again in a few years time. I used to think this was an awful, risky idea, but perhaps it wasn’t? Maybe we lost more by not acknowledging that we didn’t have enough left for each other. I’d thought we were okay.
I was polite to her and even friendly. This was before I’d heard Michelle Obama’s ‘when they go low, we go high,’ but that was pretty much the sentiment. Mostly that was the sentiment, but I also knew it was deeply uncomfortable for her and I wanted to make her feel bad. So I chatted about golf and wine and tried to be so nice that she might die from that discomfort. Parenthood has taught me that I can do hard things. I can survive on hardly any sleep. I can survive on nothing but crusts and lunchbox remains, and I survived that evening. I even survived watching my husband drink from her glass. Not all of me survived that, but enough of me managed to keep breathing.
I made the decision to not tell her husband. I like having a little bit of power over her. For the rest of her marriage she will have to deal with the knowledge that at any point I could throw a hand grenade into it. She had that power, but now I have it. Other than that I try to remind myself that it was never about her. It was about all the things that were the foundation of our relationship that we couldn’t do now we had little kids. It was about the absent friends that had once been our Wellington family. It was the cost of babysitters. It was sex feeling like another job asked of me at the end of a long day when I had nothing left to give. It was growing up in a society that taught me sex was more about his pleasure than mine.
I understood how exciting it must have been for my husband to briefly slip away, letting ten years fall away, back to being free and easy. I cannot in all honesty say that I wouldn’t have done the same, had I had the opportunity.
One of the people I googled in the aftermath was infidelity researcher Esther Perel. She writes about how people act out, not because they want to leave what they have, but that they want to reconnect with parts of themselves which they feel like they have lost. You can see how this feeling might be pretty strong, for both mothers and fathers, deep in the mire of small children. I was a stay at home mum, my husband travelled a lot with his job, entertained a lot as part of his job, stayed in hotels every week. I was all babies. All I had was babies. His job fed his ego. Loneliness, drudgery and exhaustion chipped away at mine.
My husband’s infidelity effectively gave me permission to escape this. No one was asking me to be a martyr (other than the limitless pits of need that are two small children). I started spending more time with my friends. Leaving my husband at home with two disgruntled children, I started running again. I sat down and wrote a list of the things I had enjoyed doing before kids and then I worked hard to fit some of them in.
Esther Perel: ‘Today in the West, most of us are going to have two or three relationships or marriages, and some of us are going to do it with the same person.’ The first marriage is over, but you can create a second marriage together.
This is what we are doing now. I’m onto my second husband and without the inconvenience of divorce. My second husband is going a little grey but he’s still pretty spunky. Just quietly, I think I’d be stoked if he hit on me in a bar. He’s not as perfect as the first, he’s not as ‘good’. He’s no longer got some godly moral high ground, but he’s also sexier, a little bit dangerous in a Don Draper way. I know him so much better than I knew my first, and there is an edge to that knowledge which, while not entirely comfortable, makes him more interesting. We’re closer, and better friends than we have ever been. We can talk about hard, shame-filled things. I can’t say if we would have got here without the affair.
Sometimes I feel lucky that this all happened. It could have been much worse. It could have been going on longer or deeper, and felt insurmountable by the time I found out. The EEO Commissioner Dr Jackie Blue says there are many women ‘only a husband away from poverty.’ It took infidelity to show me that I was one of those women. I’ve started working again, as much as anything to reduce this dependence. If this hard fought trust proves to be founded on nothing, at least I will have prepared myself for an independent life.
I wonder if motherhood will be a crisis for my friend as it was for me. Writer Glennon Doyle Melton writes that the Greek root of the word crisis is to sift. ‘As in to shake out the excesses and leave only what’s important. That’s what crises do.’ My husband’s affair helped us both
learn what was important in our marriage, what we needed from each other and how to ask for it free of shame. My husband is the person I love, who I’ve chosen to shape these children’s lives with, and we both understand now the need to keep living our own fullest lives too.
Mary Oliver writes in her poem Wild Geese:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
I think of this poem often, and I try to not think too much about everything that has happened. I just try to love what I love. When our now five year old wakes in the night she whispers in the darkness ‘you be the mummy wolf and I’ll be the baby wolf,’ and I pretend my arm is a long tail that I curl around to keep her warm. We lie in the den of her bed and sleep. After half an hour, or an hour, I will go back to my own bed and lie in the darkness next to my husband, knowing I have done all I can to love the people I love.
I think about my ex-colleague and her new baby, and wonder what I could say. Then I remember a friend (the first of my circle to have babies) sitting with me one day, with tears in her eyes saying ‘it changes your relationship so much.’ I must have heard her because I remember it, but I didn’t understand. I watched her blink her tears away. I don’t know what I said in response. Later, when I was a new mum, I felt like no one had warned me what it was going to be like, but in retrospect they had tried.
I think of my friend and her tiny new love. I still don’t know what to say other than… you will feel everything.
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