I’ll give up romance when they pry this red rose novel from my cold dead hand.
But I’ll give up ‘happily ever after’ a good deal sooner than that. ~The Silver Daggers
There is a time to every season, we know it’s true. And my time to reevaluate long-held beliefs about what my family would look like seems to have arrived. What does one buy at Christmas for the ex-husband who has everything? How do you keep just close enough to your compadre, your co-parent, to talk about what’s going on with your child, but not so close you never move on with your life? How do you create a village to raise a child in a modern American city? What does dating feel like when you leave half your heart behind, having a bath with animal toys and a book before bed?
It’s all a puzzlement. And the puzzlement of it all makes me curious.
Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage (by Stephanie Coontz) is a tonic. In the introduction to a fascinating study of marriage and family arrangements going back thousands of years, Coontz says, “If we can learn anything from the past, it is how few precedents are now relevant in the changed marital landscape in which we operate today. For thousands of years people had little choice about whether and whom to marry and almost no choice in whether or not to have children.... Between the mid-eighteenth and the mid-twentieth century, the social functions and internal dynamic of traditional marriage were transformed. The older system of arranged, patriarchal marriage was replaced by the love-based male breadwinner marriage, with its ideal of lifelong monogamy and intimacy... Then, in just the last thirty years, all the precedents established by the love-based male breadwinner family were in turn thrown into question.”
Isn’t it interesting that the structure of the story of much women’s fiction today (which I love) remains based upon ideas of the early nineteenth century, such as those of Jane Austen, who told stories about women (and men, somewhat secondarily) who flouted or suffered under the older conventions of patriarchal authority and marriages arranged for family and financial benefit, arriving at a comfortable love match after much travail. I have read many a book rehashing those same themes, along with parallel story lines of women having the right to some intellect, the drive to have a career, and a key to some personal power (whether through honesty, bravery or virtue) within their intimate social circles. We feel so advanced, we Westerners, but in some ways it seems we are still struggling to assimilate the changes that began generations ago.
And how far back does one go to find the beginning (or the end) of influence on our modern family structures? In his most recent book, Sex, Time and Power, the mischievous and passionate idea-explorer Leonard Shlain postulates that it was a series of events within the bodies and psyches of long-ago women that set in motion the process that led us to modern civilization. As humans moved out of the forests and into the savannah, and as they began to walk upright, women began to have difficulty in childbirth. Their pelvises not only narrowed, but heads grew larger, and the turns a baby needed to make in the birth canal became harrowing for both mother and child. Early homo (gyna) sapiens women became the first species for which the giving of life became a relatively common entry into death.
Shlain supposes connections between events: gyna sapiens began to be potentially sexually available all the time, but with a reduced intensity of estrus or heat, and no visible signs that the time for mating was upon her. These early females began to lose significant amounts of blood during menstruation, depleting their iron and causing them to need increased iron in the diet (usually provided by meat). And they began to menstruate in regular cycles linked to the passage of the moon. This very personal and physical link to a temporal, geophysical process helped these early women to become aware of “deep time,” a sense of the past and the future. The perception of deep time allowed them to understand the links between sex and pregnancy, pregnancy and childbirth, childbirth and death. Early woman taught early man about deep time, which allowed him to plan for larger hunts, and she gave him a significant motivation to do so: women needed meat to replace lost iron. Also, because she no longer went “into heat” in the same way as did apes, she had gained the ability to refuse sex, and a reason (their own possible mortality in childbirth) to say no to sex. And so men need women, women need men, women teach men, eventually men build space shuttles. Hmmm.
It’s a juicy theory, isn’t it? Such a powerful echo of the story of Eve, who gave Adam the apple which led to their eviction from the Garden of Eden, which could itself be metaphorically read as the kind of consistent connection with all of nature that would come from living in the Now, on a more equal footing with the rest of Creation. More interesting than Eve offering the temptation of sexuality alone. And yet, as in Shlain’s theory, Eve suffers in childbirth once they leave the Garden. Throughout much of history, sex and love comes with a heavy price, it seems.
Exploring another myth of erotic love (seen through the eyes of author and former Catholic monk Thomas Moore in Soul Mates), we hear that “The enticements of Aphrodite are indeed deceptive, and yet they obviously serve a profound purpose in the raw designs of nature... Through the seductions of romance we are brought to the most physical, elemental, and life-defining events of life – from dating to giving birth, from courtship to family, from the frivolous joys of flirtation to the heart-wrenching pain of separation and death. It does no good to shun Aphrodite’s temptations as illusory. The exquisite truth of her myth is the paradox that life thrives on the illusions it spins, and that the most serious challenges are entered through our willingness to fall and be foolish.”
I fell and was foolish two times (at least) in quick succession, as a student in college. My first love was gentle and poetic, with big liquid brown eyes and curly hair. We shared literature and a strong attraction and we lasted 3 months, but I couldn’t handle the semi-constant intoxication and refusal to commit to even temporary monogamy.
And then came the brash one, the larger than life biker who teased and prodded and argued with me, and made me laugh and made love to me in unexpected places, who alternately thrilled and infuriated me. I thought he would never be a long-term love. But we were together for 15 years, which in retrospect I find utterly amazing.
We climbed a few modest mountains, washed ourselves in the rivers of 2 continents, and had a delicious wedding with family and friends, a champagne fountain, and a borrowed semi-Victorian wedding gown that included a 6-foot train and a mesh back that showed off my tattoo. Before and after the wedding, we fought mightily and nearly broke up at least once a year. We lived in 3 different cities, read each other books in bed, and shared a profound birth experience. We built a life and then we lost it. If you’ll forgive a moment of musical theater: “Don’t cry, young lovers, whatever you do, don’t cry because I’m alone. All of my memories are happy tonight. I had a love of my own...” I am grateful for the years and the miles and all of it. I just sort of wish the expectations had been lower so the fall didn’t seem so hard.
We were one of the first of our child’s friends’ families to go through divorce, and as such it felt unique. After a few more years of watching the marriages drop like flies, I began to feel that our own was not so special, or only in the sense that it was our own. When a friend relates to me any aspect of serious trouble in a marriage, my first reaction is to encourage them to stick with it, whether out of hope or hypocrisy (or a bit of both) I don’t know. You just don’t want to see someone walk off a cliff if it’s not absolutely necessary. And, as the mother of my brother told me when she encouraged me to try to save my rocky marriage, it is often true that “Being a single parent is a very lonely thing.” Our peacemaking divorce attorney gave us his opinion that marriages will continue to fail as long as people don’t have the communication skills to make them work. There’s truth in that, but I wonder also if lifelong happy marriage—and the “usual” nuclear family that results—wasn’t a bit of a long-shot to begin with. Particularly now.
Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia and The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families, claims that, “Americans hold two parallel versions of the family – the idealized version and the dysfunctional version. The idealized version portrays families as wellsprings of love and happiness, loyal, wholesome and true. This is the version we see in Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best. The dysfunctional version depicts families as disturbed and disturbing, and suggests that salvation lies in extricating oneself from all the ties that bind. Both versions have had their eras. In the 1950s the idealized version was at its zenith... In the 1990s the dysfunctional version of family seems the most influential. This belief system goes along with the culture of narcissism, which sells people the idea that families get in the way of individual fulfillment... We have a crisis in meaning in our culture. The crisis comes from our isolation from each other, from the values we learn in a culture of consumption and from the fuzzy, self-help message that the only commitment is to the self and the only important question is – Am I happy?”
In my marriage, we were both certainly guilty of trying to become happy, sometimes at each other’s expense. This does not have to have been done consciously in order to be true. And devastating as the separation was, the loss of home, the 3:00 a.m. panic of life on my own, I wouldn’t trade the experience now. I have now had the chance to be a woman on my own, with space to breathe and no one leading me up the garden path. Does this make me incredibly selfish? Perhaps. It took me a long time to accept the end, and grief is part of the process, even after almost 3 years. When James Kim died in the Oregon snow, I cried for that young father, and then couldn’t stop, crying eventually also for the young family that I had had and that would never come again. Divorce is a death. Period. And like any death, with enough time you begin to heal.
Eventually, even a scarred heart and wary head starts to think of another round. My friend Catherine says, “Bring on the next freak!” Carol Anthony envisions a spiritually based love: “Only the energy of true love is capable of resonating between two people’s essential selves, thus supplying the vital chi energy that invigorates them and overflows to the world at large.” My cup overflows. That sounds pretty good. But, she says, you have to watch out for “relationships [which] can exist between egos. Such relationships are primarily pacts which promise, ‘I will support and further your ego if you support and further mine.’” In an ego relationship, Anthony asserts that each partner “remains starved for the barest emotional necessities” and “end[s] in carrying a heavy burden of repressed disappointment and anger...” With a tightrope walk like that, being single (with a date now and again) sounds better and better.
I suppose most of us (if we’re lucky) will experience what Joni Mitchell described as “Both Sides Now”: “Moons and Junes and ferris wheels/ That dizzy dancing way you feel/When every fairy tale comes real,/I’ve looked at love that way./But now it’s just another show./You leave ‘em laughing when you go,/And if you care, don’t let ‘em know,/ Don’t give yourself away.” If my ex-husband and I didn’t leave each other laughing (and we did not), we are at least not completely incapable of laughing together now, once in a while. That’s something.
The disparity between fairy tales and real life relationships makes me wish for new vows that don’t require promises to the end of life to be taken seriously. It makes me hope for new dreams for little girls that don’t end with a trip to the altar, though I don’t see a problem with including one. It makes me wonder if a lifelong marriage is necessary to consider a relationship successful. I learned and grew and loved. I will live to love again. Gloria Gaynor would be proud.
The baseline of my life now is a different kind of family: I’m the mother of an almost 5-year-old who sings new songs to me (today it was a sanitized version of Big Rock Candy Mountain) and coerces me to roll on the floor in elaborately directed made-up games, and who already rolls her eyes at me and says, “Whatever!” when she doesn’t like the gist of things. I cook, I read, I sing, I work downtown, I drive and shop and get to the woods once in a blue moon. I meditate just enough to keep my soul from cracking on the pavement of this busy city life. My family is across the country, relying on phones and email and annual airplane trips to stay connected. My family is the people I work with and see every day. My family is my neighbors and friends, to the extent that we can make time to get together. My family remains even in the relationship that was a marriage and isn’t anymore.
There’s more to family than the form that didn’t fit, especially here on the West Coast where many of us are emigrants and the freedom of re-creation allows for more possibilities, but that includes the possibility that the shallowly rooted life you just planted will get blown over in a storm. It is either worth the risk or not. Some people would say no and stay rooted in the family they were given at birth, rooted in the family they chose by marriage. I would have thought that would be me, but my life has turned out differently.
The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings you need in order to open your heart. To the degree that you didn’t understand in the past how to stop protecting your soft spot, how to stop armoring your heart, you’re given this gift of teachings in the form of your life... ~Pema Chodron, Start Where You Are.
Shannon Floyd lives and works in Portland, OR. She can be reached at [email protected].