You are currently browsing the daily archive for February 1, 2008.

Ending the week on a favourite note. 

My musical awakening seemed to happen in 1971.  Rachel lived next door and was six or seven years older than me and wild.  I heard this record first in her bedroom which was full of exciting things.  I still love this record, especially that groan.  Not sure I realised quite what the record was about when I bought it with precious pocket money.  My first album was called Hot Hits 4 and had a woman on the front in a shocking state of undress.    It included songs such as “Is this the way to Amarillo (every night I hug my pillow)” and “My Sweet Lord”.  How I loved that record too.

This article appeared in the Times shortly after New Year in anticipation of the annual flood of clients that present themselves at solicitors’ offices and advice bureaux having decided over Christmas that their marriage is over.  It is more often the case that they have decided themselves that the marriage is over quite some time before that but for various selfish and unselfish reasons they have decided to keep things going until Christmas, ostensibly for the sake of the children.  Laughable, really, that you give the children a “happy” Christmas, then ruin their lives (at least in the short term) a week or two afterwards. 

I meant to post this weeks ago, but I have not had time to do half the things I wanted to do. 

As the writing that a friend wrote with an invisible pen on the wall of her marriage many years ago looks as if it is about to show up with ultra-violet impoliteness, I post this now, wondering what can be done.  And wondering whether my last two posts do not have quite a lot to do with the situation all of us find ourselves in.  Look at these UK statistics here.
Libby Purves has written a great deal about being  a less-than-perfect Mother, and is passionate about families, so this article is unsurprising in its thrust.  But I wonder if she should not have published it in August or September when the decisions are often made.  In this short article perhaps there was not space to point would-be divorcees to more than one possible solution.  KBO seems to me to be a pretty dismal motivational statement.  

January 8, 2008

Divorces here! Everyone a loser!

This may be the worst time of year for marriage breakups, but it’s always worth sticking it out if possible

“I trust you didn’t spend yesterday with a divorce lawyer. Thousands apparently did, since it was trumpeted as Manic Monday when everyone resolves to change their life. Most do it with resolutions, diets, job applications and holiday brochures. Divorce lawyers, however, brag of a “deluge” of calls on this baneful day. Research claiming that matrimonial firms are twice as busy in January emanates from their chirpy website entitled, whose subtitle – yeuch! – is “Winning the life you want”.

Which should act as a warning, if fed-up spouses would only notice it before scrolling down the chirpy checklists on how to find a lawyer, sell the house, book a child psychiatrist and fix a prenup contract before you remarry. That subtitle, frankly, contained every warning you should need. “Winning” is a happy word for lawyers but not an appropriate one for divorce. Divorce is sometimes necessary but always lousy. Nobody wins. It is a public admission of failure – either you made a stupid decision when you got married, or else one or both of you has deteriorated into a nastier person.

As for “the life you want”, come off it. The path to happiness after divorce is not as smooth as sloganeering lawyers might want you to think. Easier, perhaps, after a brief and childless “starter marriage”: some young couples stay friends and stay cheerful. But even they must find a way to swallow the ignominy and waste of having spent tens of thousands on a wedding and solicited expensive presents, only to fall apart like a duff sponge cake.

Most divorces, though, happen over 40 and after more than a decade; more than half involve children under 16. Don’t do it. Or if you must (and occasionally it is true that the alternative is cruel misery) then try not to decide in January. Not when you’re broke and bloated and hungover and traumatised by prolonged contact with certain in-laws whom you fear your spouse is growing to resemble. You may just be living the immortal song by the spoof country legend Tina C: “Every day with you is like Christmas – I feel fat and bored.” At least let the daffodils come up before flinging yourself into the octopus embrace of the law. You might survive divorce – we all know happy second marriages and single lives – but it is never fun. Never.

Do 406 British marriages a day really need to end? Or are we becoming divorce-addicts, dashing for the adrenalin rush of change? Only a third of petitioners claim abuse (and that includes “emotional abuse”, an expression subject to all sorts of hysterical me-generation overstatement). Forty-two per cent cite infidelity – though the figures do not distinguish between a silly one-night stand and prolonged disloyalty – and the rest claim “boredom” or insufficient sex. But life is often boring and sex scanty. Things can be improved by other means.

Don’t crack a nut with a sledgehammer. So perhaps a hobby for this perilous week is to list the reasons not to do it, or not yet.

First, your judgment may be impaired by marzipan, booze and Visa bills. Any general yearning for change will naturally focus on the pallid, grumbling, sneezing lump in the corner. But he or she is unlikely to be the only problem. Admit it.

Secondly, think of the financial upheaval. You will probably have to sell the house, on a falling market (the lawyerly website is full of vapid old-hat advice about “decluttering” and baking bread). You will not only be introducing lawyers into your life, but estate agents too. The horror, the horror. Better to move into the shed with a Lilo for a month or so, while you think.

Thirdly, far more importantly, if you have children they too will pay the price. You can limit the damage, but that will involve intelligent effort over a long period. Unless the spouse being discarded is really evil, the children will get sad. Dealing with that sadness, and refraining from making it worse by using them as pawns, will be hard work. It may actually involve more determined love, patience and understanding than you could have spent in sorting out the marriage in the first place.

Fourthly, there are only two ways to divorce: well and badly. If you do it badly, in a quarrelsome and petulant manner, it will be vile – not only for the children but for you. There will be a reservoir of venom and resentment in your head for years. It will make you less pleasant to know, and drive away all but your most placid friends.

On the other hand, doing divorce well – and I know several shining examples of this – will involve at least one partner behaving in a saintly manner, heroically refusing to take offence, accepting financial and emotional unfairness, living closer to the ex-spouse than is comfortable, and often setting aside personal fulfilment and new relationships in order to keep the peace. It is exhausting. I honour those who manage it. But some, after a drink or two, tend to admit that it might have been better to work things out, or forgive the affair or whatever.

So don’t be conned by lawyers, or by celebrity mags full of airbrushed tales of how divorce “really made me grow”. Don’t buy the idea that a decree absolute is equivalent to “winning the life you want”. Borrow Churchill’s motto, which he discreetly abbreviated to KBO: Keep Buggering On. And in case you think I write from some hearts’n’flowers idyll, know that I have just asked my husband of 28 years what he would say to dissuade people from January divorces .

He replied gloomily from behind the paper: “Tell them it’s not worth it, they’ll only get remarried and have it all to go through again.” Happy New Year. KBO.”

I saw a client last week.  Usual sort of thing.  They had asked an old school friend to do some building work on their house and everyone had fallen out over money and the quality of the work, and the builder had issued legal proceedings against my client.  My client was frightened that the bailiffs would call and take the children’s toys.  Except that was only a small part of it.  Towards the end of the interview (it is always near the end) my client started crying.  She was so lonely.  She was married, but her husband worked long hours and was working away at the moment.  She had children, one of whom was disabled.  But worst of all was the loneliness of being home alone.  Because her child was disabled, a bus called to collect him and take him to school, so she did not even have the social contact of the school gates.  She could not work because her son was often ill during the day and she needed to be free to go to school to look after him.  She was lonely.  I felt like crying too.  Not only for her, but for myself and for all the other women I know who have felt the same and who have tried to overcome the loneliness of being home alone.

Another client, a few days ago, came for advice because her job was ending in a few months time and she was petrified that she would not be able to cope looking after her child alone at home.  She was an articulate, highly educated woman, who had come to the UK to work.  She had stayed at home briefly after her child was born, but the loneliness had driven her almost mad.  Whilst she was at work she qualified for help from the government to pay for child care for her child.  Once she gave up work, that help stopped and it would all be down to her.  She could not even see how she could make job applications or attend interviews with this child in tow.

It became clear to me several years ago that many marriages run into problems when the youngest child was about three and a half – roughly the age that children normally start nursery school in the UK.  Not that the problems manifest themselves then, but that is when they start.  And often it is because the wife finds herself contemplating her future.  A future that looks fairly bleak.  A future of cleaning, cooking, washing, shopping for food, ministering to everyone, tidying up.  Over and over again.  The work is solitary and unrewarding.  Small pleasures in a beautiful house are dashed and trashed by the other family members.  Nobody, except possibly her husband, tells her that she has done her job well.  For almost everyone else a job well done is a personal threat – her friends, her family, her husband’s family.  She gets very very little affirmation.  She is starved of attention.  She knows that she is often derided for her pride in her house, but what else does she have?

Most women cope by going back to work.  Often they do not need to work for financial reasons, but just to keep their sanity.  Others have coffee mornings, or play tennis, or shop (not for food), or visit the beautician.  Whatever it takes to keep loneliness at bay. But the sense of loneliness creeps in nonetheless.  Since most women cope by returning to work, the pool of women who do not work and are around to socialize during the day (so much more difficult to go out once the children are home) is limited.  In my client’s case most of her friends could readily find an economic imperative for returning to work.  The necessity of funding private education provides a handy imperative for a lot of women graduates in the UK, where private education is not only about the quality of the education, but also about the social class to which you aspire.

This loneliness is what men have to deal with when they retire, or are unemployed, so beware.  No wonder so many of you die as soon as you have to confront it.  At least your wife is at home with you.  And more of you are happy with your own company.

We spend most of our lives until we have children, or retire, surrounded by other people.  This can be a good thing or a bad thing.  Since I like people (most people), this is a good thing for me, however enjoyable short periods of chosen solitude are.  I presume social interaction and contact with other friendly faces was a good thing for my client too.

So, let’s look at at the life of a typical woman.  A graduate, but she need not be.

Aged 3-5                        Nursery school every day or part of every day.  Boys and girls.

Age 5-11                         Primary school every day except in school holidays.  Friends.

Age 11-16                       More school.  Hobbies.  Friends.

Age 16-18                       More school or work.  Surrounded by friends.

Age 18-22                       University or further education.  Friends 24/7.

Age 22-30                      Work, every day except for a few weeks holiday with friends.

Age 30-35                      Kept busy by young children.  Meeting other mothers.

Age 35-                           Home alone possibly relieved by caring for eldery relatives.

So, by the time she is 35 she has spent 6/7 of her life surrounded by other people in a mixed gender environment.  This environment represents normality. 

The remaining small portion of her life has been spent in a female-only zone save for male children (if any), diluted by short periods of time spent with a husband who is building a career, coming to terms with the shackles of marriage and being a father, and bored by conversations about baby food.  And the future is a life of domestic drudgery unless she decides to return to work.

Finding work is relatively easy.  Continuing with a career is almost impossible.  Jobs that accommodate the patterns of school terms are in very short supply.  As children get older it becomes increasingly difficult to leave them with other carers or in holiday camps, and their dismay at their absent or preoccupied mother becomes more vocal.  Teaching sounds like a good idea, but primary school is easier.  Secondary school teachers may have long holidays, but they have to spend most evenings marking.  Large employers, especially government bodies not driven by profit, are more flexible than small employers and term-time working is becoming a possibility with the largest employers.

Work, however, is only a partial solution.  Because it does not replace the life of domestic drudgery but only displaces it.  The domestic chores still need to be done (and CANNOT BE REPLACED BY A CLEANER, BEFORE YOU SUGGEST IT).  So, now she has two jobs instead of one and is increasingly stressed as a result.  Her health will suffer.  Bound to.  Life seems very hard, though the cage may appear gilded.

None of this is her husband’s fault.  It came about because she chose to become a mother.  It is definitely not the children’s fault.  It is just one of those things.

I gave my client some leaflets about short courses in aromatherapy, floristry, art, cooking and computers.  These courses are free and run by the local council at family centres.  She thought she would choose the computer course, but I suspect there is a waiting list …