A few weeks ago, Chris and I separated.
I’m not going to tell you about all the reasons, since I’m not the only person involved (otherwise, of course I’d be talking your heads off about it). On the other hand, I do have millions of observations to share about what it means to separate at such a crucial time in your life.
Yep. Forty-three is a particularly savage crucial time.
That’s why it’s pretty common for people to separate at my age. It’s a time when you learn who you really are, and a time when the illusions of youth burst violently into bits to make room for the more peaceful landscape of understanding yourself. It’s not an easy transition and a lot of relationships don’t survive it.
But it’s also marvelous and fascinating.
Also fascinating? How people react to the separation.
Him: “I’m really so sorry.”
Me: “You know, it’s okay actually. This is good, it needed to happen, things weren’t going well between us anymore.”
Him: “Arrrgh, it’s so hard, though. I hope you’re doing okay anyway.”
Me: “Yes, honestly, it’s okay. You know, we thought about it a lot, it’s a good decision, and besides, the breakup seems to be going pretty well between us.”
Him: “Well, hang in there, you know. Love will come your way too. Don’t lose hope…”
Me: (getting angry like only an ex can make you) “Oh my god, seriously, I just said things are okay!!! Can you stop trying to make me fit into your idea of the poor lonely woman whose life is ruined?”
Him: “Yeah, well I’m here if you want to talk. Hang in there, everything will be okay…”
Grrrrrrrrr aaaaaaargh eeeeeeeekfuck. Okay. Bye.
Her: “I heard about the breakup. I was so sad to hear that.”
Me: “Thank you, but that’s the way it goes. Just because we looked like the perfect couple doesn’t mean we were at all…”
Her: “Yeah, but you guys seemed so good together. It really breaks my heart.”
Me: “Ummm, thanks, but you know if you really knew us, it wouldn’t break your heart. I think you’d be happy for us, actually.”
Her: “I understand, but it’s just devastating.”
Me: “Um, well, I’m sorry things ended between us, I guess?”
I went on my way, really relieved that someone reminded me that their heart was broken…
Her: “You’re going to find a new guy in one second flat. Here we go, moving on. Let’s find you a guy.”
Me: “Yeah, no that’s okay. I’m happy to be alone, it’s nice. I’ve never been single for more than two weeks, I think it’s time I learned to…”
Her: “Yeah, but what about sex!!! You need sex, it’s obvious.”
Me: “No rush, I’m good, don’t worry!”
Her, scrolling through her contacts: “Wait, I’ve got this amazing guy, super hot, he’s not that smart, but you won’t care…”
Me: “Ew, no! Put away your contacts right this second!!!”
(Self-proclaimed as being obsessed with motherhood, she did 15 IVF treatments to have kids, she loves it, has a blast, lives for them.)
Her: “So, what are you going to do now?”
Me: “Well, nothing. I’m getting used to my new life, it’s cool, I’m giving myself some time – I need it! Maybe I’ll have a baby on my own like some of my friends have, it sounds cool…? Who knows…!”
Her: “Okay, well let me just tell you right away. If you don’t have a baby in a year, you’re going to shoot yourself in the head!!!”
Me: “Wooooow, do you really need to say things like that? Stop projecting on me! My whole identity as a woman doesn’t come from being a mother!!!”
Her: “Yeah, so you say, so you say…”
Of all the reactions, this is the one I was worried about the most. And I always have been.
I was afraid of being judged by society – and what do I mean when I say “society?” I’m talking about generalized judgments. You, me, men, women, the label that gets stuck on our foreheads whenever we’re over 35 and single, judgments I also formed in my head, despite myself, or even expressed out loud without realizing it.
The idea of a single, mature woman, who’s ruined her life. The old maid. The one who missed her chance. The woman who ended up paying the price for her professional success, or worse, the woman who preferred her career over her personal life. The woman who was “unlucky in love.” The Jennifer Anistons (you absolutely have to read her open letter here). The woman who would have definitely preferred to be with someone than in this disastrous situation: single and childless after forty. And since I haven’t been silent about my fertility problems, I told myself the floodgates of condescension were about to fling wide open, so I’d better be prepared.
You know what I mean by condescension?
Those little side glances we give to people whose apparent misfortune makes us feel better about our own lives? The people who scare us because they are living through the things we are most afraid of in life?
I know this because right now I’m living through one of the things I was most afraid of in life. Being alone. I’ve never been alone. I think I was much too afraid of the emptiness inside me.
So here I am living through my deepest fears – and even so, I feel calmer and more in harmony with myself than ever before.
There comes a time when, by the grace of maturity, you realize you don’t give a damn what people think anymore. That it’s much more important to live your own life than to live a fake ideal.
That you’re ready to suffer through a little bit of condescension if it means finding your truth, your self-love, your creativity, your mental health, and a new world of possibilities.
Especially because you know. We all know couples who stay together just to save face. Or for their kids. Or to not be alone. We all know unhappy people who stay in careers that are slowly killing them. The people with tons of money who are totally miserable. Those perfect lives on Instagram that collapse the moment you take a look “backstage”. We’ve seen it all. The nonsense people tell us about life that we unwittingly keep passing down into eternity. The idea that happiness is a perfect house and a perfect husband and two perfect children.
And a glamorous job. Like in fashion or something. With the perfect balance between work and your personal life.
We know because we see women, our friends, killing themselves trying to be perfect because very few alternatives are offered to us. Alternatives like saying:
A breakup can be a great moment of discovery and self-love.
Sadness is an emotion that’s just as beautiful, just as deep, and just as important to experience as joy.
You can be marvelously happy, alone and without a child.
You can “have it all” and still be miserable.
There’s a big difference between saying it and experiencing it, and that’s the magical thing about life. Personally, I need to experience it. Now that I’m alone, I’m finally realizing that, just like in stories for children, my biggest nightmares had just been harmless shadows on the wall all along, and I can finally fully inhabit the person I truly am.
The day of the breakup, I met M. at a dinner.
I told her: “I’m feeling a little weird tonight. My partner and I just separated.”
She answered: “Oh, that’s amazing! I did the same when I was 42. I left behind my ‘perfect life’ and went off with my two children, thinking I’d be better off alone in a tiny apartment than in this big house where I was so unhappy. I wasn’t looking for anything except peace and harmony, and I even told myself I’d probably never meet anyone again, but I didn’t care! Except… I did end up meeting the love of my life and we just had a kid!!! And sweetheart, I’m forty-seven!”
A few days later, I found a little wicker basket in front of my door, from my friend R.
A breakup gift.
Inside, there was sage, fruit from his garden, a book, a little packet of lavender to put under my pillow, and a little note that said: “Here’s to new adventures! Lots of love for this new chapter in your life.”
Then, one morning I received an email from Veronica. I hadn’t told the Atelier about my breakup yet, but it wasn’t a secret. Emily had let Veronica know. Her email read:
“I just wanted to let you know that Emily told me about your breakup. I always say CONGRATS when my friends go through breakups instead of sending condolences because I’m sure it was a long time coming and a hard but right decision. So CONGRATS is just to remind you that you did the right thing and good things will come because of it. No condolences needed.”
There’s nothing more to add to that, don’t you think?
So, here’s to life, in sadness just as much as in joy, here’s to the people who can see the hidden beauty beyond the surface, here’s to renewal, and here’s to new adventures!
Translated by Andrea Perdue