Experience: I'm proud my mother left home
The Guardian, Life and style, Michele Gorman,
'It was her family's reaction that left the deepest scars. Mothers do not leave their children, they told her with their silence'
Michele Gorman 'This was the late 70s. Women did not leave husbands without stigma.' Photograph: Mark Chilvers
I remember the meal exactly: steak, mashed potatoes and buttery corn on the cob. All my favourites. Mid-chew, my father calmly announced, "Your mother and I are separating. She's moving out." With a mouthful of potato I became the product of a broken home. And with those words my father became a full-time parent to two young girls, aged seven and 11.
It was impossible for my little sister and me, on that night, to reconcile the happy family life we knew with the reality that it was breaking up. But the truth was my mother didn't love my father, and hadn't done for many years.
That's not to say the marriage was loveless. My father deeply loved my mother, enough for both of them for a while. Desperately, he used words he hoped would convince her to stay. If she wanted out, he told her, she'd have to be the one to leave. He knew he had society on his side.
This was the late 70s. Women did not leave husbands without stigma. My sister and I weren't even aware of these taboos. We grew up in a small town where all our friends' parents were married, to their first spouses, as were all our neighbours, cousins, aunts and uncles.
But my mother knew she had to leave, and so she explained to us until she was sure we understood. "I'm unhappy being married to your father," she said, "and I'm making him unhappy. That isn't good for either of us, and it isn't good for you two either."
The message was consistent, and clear. She wasn't leaving us. She was leaving her husband. We had the choice to go with my mother. We chose not to. My mother's new place would be just three miles away but I wanted my friends around me, and the familiarity of the home I'd grown up in. Besides, on a practical level, I didn't see how the school bus would know where to find me if I moved. (I'd had similar concerns about Father Christmas years earlier when we went to my grandma's for Christmas Eve.) My mother must have been devastated by our choice, and overwhelmed at the enormity of what she was doing. Recently she told me about the first night in her new place. She stood in the bathroom, looking in the mirror, and heard a noise. It was high-pitched and terrifying. Then she realised the sound was coming from her.
My mother knew she'd made the right decision but was unprepared for the consequences. The neighbours stayed neutral at first but social invitations quickly dried up. Long-time friends snubbed her at the supermarket. Dad was the wronged party, in their eyes, left to care for the abandoned waifs. They didn't see the pans of lasagna, our favourite food, dropped at our door because she knew the way we liked it. But it was her family's reaction that left the deepest scars. She was judged and convicted in absentia. Mothers do not leave their children, they told her with their silence. Her brother still doesn't speak to her. Her father broke off all contact for more than 15 years, though eventually they rebuilt a close relationship. Many aunts, uncles and cousins also believed my mother was an abomination, and most of those living still hold a grudge. Her decision cost her almost her entire extended family. Their condemnation was misguided.
My relationship with my mother didn't change when she left because we saw and talked to each other so often, and as a working mother we'd never seen her during the day anyway. We stayed at her place regularly – it was another home to us.
My mother and I are extremely close. I have no doubt that if she'd stayed in the marriage we'd have a different relationship today; I would have grown up with someone miserable and frustrated. As it was, my mother wasn't afraid to make a horrendously hard choice, for her own good and the good of her family. She always says she wasn't meant to be a wife. She's too independent to be happy in that role.
That sense of independence is something she passed on to my sister and me. And she managed to do it without seeming bitter about relationships. She became a stronger person because she was brave enough to leave. My sister and I grew up on many mantras from my mother but I think the most important is: if you don't like something about your situation, see how you can change it. She taught me that it's better to be judged by others as unconventional than to judge yourself a coward.
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