Can Anything Good Come of This?

I’m getting married this fall, I hope, if we can manage—between three jobs and six kids—to plan a wedding celebration. We wanted to wait until the dust from our previous marriages and divorces had settled. Then one day I woke up and realized that the “dust” might never “settle.” What’s more, the fallout from divorce is not annoying yet relatively harmless, as dust is—it’s more like a fine mist of napalm. It is, as everyone says, hell.

When I was twelve, my sister and I moved in with our dad, his wife, their dog, and two cute, perfect preschool kids. Our dad’s wife didn’t really want to inherit two adolescent daughters, and all the black eyeliner that came with them. So, after a couple of miserable years as a distinctly unblended family (frequent notes in the fridge stuck to premium food items warned, “If you can read this, do not eat, do not touch”), my stepmother insisted that my dad and my sister and I go see a counselor.

The three of us traipsed off to the counselor’s beige, low-rent office in the local strip mall. We sat on a scratchy couch, and he listened to the saga of our unhappiness, especially that of our stepmom, who, of course, was not there. Then this counselor (whom we never saw again) said the most shocking thing to my dad: “If your wife can’t get along with your daughters, why don’t you get a divorce?” Wow, I thought. Would my dad actually do that? “Never,” said my dad. Why not, I wanted to know. “Why not?” asked the counselor. “Because I am never, ever going through that hell again,” said my dad.

A few weeks ago, a Japanese book arrived in my mailbox. Turns out that a local magazine publisher is now marketing an anthology in Japan, and one of my articles was included. This means I’ve finally been translated (and believe me, I’m boasting about it whenever casual conversation veers anywhere near Japan). But it also means I’ve been telling people in a faraway land that divorce is not really a bummer for girls after all, and that in some cases girls even benefit from observing their mothers change their lives for the better after a marital breakup.

Yeah, right. The problem is that despite the impeccable research and interviewing I did for that piece, it was total hogwash. On a very basic level, divorce sucks. At minimum, your kids have to slog back and forth between two houses and deal with parents in constant combat. What I probably should have told those unsuspecting Japanese folks is that they ought to hunker down and enjoy their miserable marriages as best they can.

Not that they—or you, for that matter—can’t perhaps find a partner with whom you’re more compatible now that you’re over the legal drinking age and have sanded down your most jagged character flaws through the sobering and selfless activity of parenthood. But is it worth the torment, the stigma, and the godawful endless warfare of divorce? It is true that for some, staying together is an even hotter hell, and I would never urge someone in a genuinely abusive relationship to stick it out. In many cases, divorce is the lesser of two evils.

It is also, ultimately, a selfish act—never mind that it’s also about as much fun as exploratory surgery, and lasts far longer. In my case, I’m not sure I had ever done anything truly selfish before getting a divorce. After all, I was raised not to ask for things (and I’m also the middle child). You get the picture: “Where should we go for dinner?” “I don’t know… where do you want to go for dinner?” Or, “Which movie should we rent?” “Either is fine with me, which one do you think we should rent?” Or, “When would you like your lobotomy?” “I’m not sure, when would you like me to have my lobotomy?”

Marriage changed me; motherhood changed me more. But divorce and its aftermath changed me the most. I no longer have the energy to be desperately deferential. I’m turning into everything I never was before. I merge fearlessly in traffic. I park in tight spots (and sometime miss). I say no. I talk about my problems. I sometimes hang up on telemarketers (though I still cringe to admit it). And now I love someone again, someone who seems to love me more than I can explain, and I’m getting married again—even though it’s hardly perfect, given our kids and our pasts and our complicated present. Now, however, I don’t give a damn about perfect. I have what I need, and mostly what I want. I’ve paid for it all, and with that I can do well enough by everybody else, most of the time. So listen up, after all, Japan, and good luck to you all, every last one.