Miss 5 came to me this week with a firm instruction that her teacher was no longer to be called Mrs XYZ, but Miss ZYX. “She got unmarried”, I was informed. Mmm, so I’d heard. It happens; a lot, unfortunately. But until recently my children were very lucky that the majority of couples around them were pretty solid. Whether or not they were actually married in the legal sense, the bulk of our closer circle of friends and family was made up of couples who seemed to be in it for the long haul. In the latter part of this year, though, that has changed in a few unexpected cases, and I’m having trouble juggling the inevitable questions from the small folk.
As grownups we recognise that no relationship is perfect and that many marriages are likely to end before the actual ‘death do us part’ bit comes into play. But clearly, as a population, we keep on getting married, so we must all be seeing the glass half full, at least at the start. (I’m trying not to make a pun about how many relationships have been found at the bottom of a half full glass…but I digress). But how do you explain all this to children? After the first of the major break ups amongst our friends, it went something like this….
“Well, sometimes married people just don’t want to live with each other anymore. They’re still friends, but they live in a different house now. Yes, we’ll still see them both when we go to [insert child’s name]’s birthday party. Yes, [name] will still be [name]’s Mummy. Yes, they still love [name] and [name] very much. No, I don’t know who is getting the dog.”
Miss 5, who’s a thinker, took this away and pondered it for awhile. She asked for clarification on a few points. She compared it to some school friends whose parents, she knew, lived in different houses. It was a learning curve for both of us.
Later that day her behaviour took a major turn for the worse. She was picking fights with her siblings for no particular reason and had upended a bowl of fruit all over the floor. Her father – with patience at its limit – hit the roof and began laying down the law about picking up her mess. She dissolved into tears. You all know the drill. Then, with the fruit cleaned up, she sat at my feet and whimpered “Mummy, I just can’t help wondering whether you and Daddy might get unmarried one day.” Ah, the moment I’d been waiting for. I gathered her in my arms and wiped the tears away. All the afternoon’s temper tantrums were put aside for a moment so that I could reassure my beautiful girl that Mummy and Daddy were doing just fine. “We argue sometimes, of course, but that doesn’t mean we don’t love each other…etc” I’ve watched enough family movies over the years to know exactly how this scene was supposed to play out. We cuddled while I gave her my spiel and the crying gradually stopped. I asked whether she had any particular concerns?
“It’s just that I was sort of thinking it might be really cool if we had two houses. ‘Cos then Dad wouldn’t get so annoyed at me and yell at me when I spill stuff. But if you were in a bad mood, or on the computer or something, we could always just go to Dad’s house and he’d probably let us have takeaway and stuff. So, if you could please get unmarried, then, if we did have a dog…well, we could, like, have two dogs…cos we’d have one at Dad’s house and one here. Mum, Mum, can we get a dog?”
So much for Super Mum.
The scenario in her head, of course, is more like life in one of those terribly modern Hollywood families where couples live in separate houses, but next door to each other, so they can explore their artistic temperaments without compromise whilst still, ostensibly, being in a relationship. I read that this works for Helena Bonham-Carter and Tim Burton, for example. Perhaps that’s why she still gets to play the lead in every one of his films, rather than becoming just another embittered divorcee? You’ve got to admit, it would help keep the mystery alive.
But then again, when you get married, aren’t you kind of acknowledging that the mystery, lovely as it may be, is going to be replaced at some point by other things? If you’re lucky, it’s replaced by a comforting level of commitment – something less explosive and more comfortable, but something very special nonetheless. It’s hard to generalise, obviously, as every relationship is as unique as the people in it. Some marriages end in a blaze of fire and fury; others peter out with a minimum of fuss and legal fees. Some of the hardest ends I’ve had to watch are the ones where the couple clearly still care about each other but stress or illness or IVF or geography or poverty or some other crazy life factor forces them apart. Some people struggle on through counselling; others call it quits and move on. No one, ever, escapes completely unscathed.
There was a time in my 20s when the majority of girlfriend and/or martini related conversations were about how to meet a man. Then, through my 30s, the martinis were replaced by glasses of salutary bubbles as I attended weddings with the regularity of a Richard Curtis film. Now, the almost-40s are becoming a time for endings; for dividing up the hard-earned houses and much-loved children; for changing Facebook statuses.
My marriage is OK, at the moment – assuming my husband doesn’t kick me out in a fit of blog-resenting rage. He knows I’d probably just blog about it anyway (bwah, ha, ha…my cunning plan). But, all jokes aside, I treasure my marriage and I’m so sad for the friends who’ve hit the skids in that department lately. Onwards and upwards I guess, for us all. Here’s cheers.