On the cusp of my 45th birthday, I made the mistake of looking in the mirror. It wasn’t the bathroom mirror, it was a photo I had from graduate school. I looked at myself 20 years ago and had a startling and clear epiphany. It wasn’t a happy moment. It was a terribly sad moment. It was so sad that I involuntarily burst into tears, something I haven’t done since the dark days of my divorce.
I looked at the photo and came to the conclusion that I had made a real mess of my life. I felt the utter misery of my life come in waves of sadness, regret, anger, and loneliness. For almost an hour I cried as I looked at the photo of a younger me. I was 24 with a fresh MBA from an excellent school. I was eager to conquer the business world. I was eager to prove that women could do anything. I was so much thinner. My clothes looked stylish, almost sexy. Of course the hair style was awful but that was the 80s and such styles could be forgiven. I saw the brightness in my eyes, the sparkle of life, of the great opportunities that were open to me. The world was there for my taking and I was ready.
But somehow, some way, it never came to be. My life evolved into something painful and difficult. But until that moment when I looked at my photo from over two decades ago, I always blamed someone else. It was never my fault for the bad decisions I made. Typically, it was the fault of men – my father, my boyfriends, my husband, my boss, my sons. Never, ever was it something that I had done. When I commiserated with my women friends, they always supported me. They even supported me when I had my affair, telling me that my husband was not giving me the attention that I needed. I read the women’s magazines and every article was about how women were always strong, intelligent, morally righteous, unable to make bad decisions. Worse, I believed that any of my needs, no matter how frivolous, no matter how many times I changed my mind, no matter how miserable I made the men in my life feel, were more important than anything – motherhood, career advancement, a healthy marriage, whatever.
I hate the world for teaching me those lessons. I remember complaining about how my husband never grew up. But as the tears streamed down my face, I came to the conclusion that I had never grown up. I never learned about compromise, trust, tolerance, niceness. I was a bitch, pure and simple. I know now that being a bitch is not about strength or independence. Being a bitch is about being repellent, unpleasant, unhappy, and lonely. Being a bitch is nothing more than being a spoiled princess who is too selfish or stupid to accept the joy in life.
I had become a fat, unpleasant, middle-aged princess because I had refused to grow up. Sure, I had taken on grown-up responsibilities (marriage, career, house, motherhood) but at the core of my psyche was a 13-year-old girl who stamped her feet and whined when she didn’t get her way. Of course, I had stopped whining years ago but I simply replaced the whining with emotional manipulation and ornery bitchiness. No wonder I was still single and my two teenaged sons spent all their free time with their father.
When I was growing up, being a dilettante feminist, I swallowed the standard line that women can have it all. I wanted it all and I wanted to make no compromises, to assume no sacrifices, and to feel completely validated in all of my lifestyle choices. The biggest mistake in my late teens and early 20s was to let other women – women whom I thought to be strong, independent, and intelligent – determine which lifestyle I was to follow. I was simply too spoiled and lazy to look inward, to embrace the kind of introspection necessary to find one’s own path in life, the path that could lead to real fulfillment and happiness.
I remember college well. It was a fun time and I thought, at the time, an enlightening time. The parties were exciting, the political debates intense, the string of boyfriends and casual sexual encounters pleasant. I studied hard and I played hard. I attended the campus feminist meetings and listened to diatribes from sturdy and self-righteous peers about the evils of masculinity. I learned to scorn men when I didn’t need them for selfish reasons – study partners, shoulders to cry on, willing sexual partners. But I was never hesitant to bat my eyelashes or let my skirt ride up on my then-slender thighs if I needed something from a man. Men were handy to have around occasionally, but certainly not required, as my female peers kept insisting.
I learned that the only place for a woman was in the boardroom and that motherhood was beneath my intelligence. I “took back the night” at a few after-dark rallies with hundreds of young women eager to prove to the world that all men were rapists and potentially violent criminals.
When I got pregnant my sophomore year, it was easy to get an abortion. The campus health center was almost eager to make sure the procedure was done quickly and quietly. I never told my parents. I never told the fellow who made me pregnant. I don’t even remember his name, I only vaguely remember a wild night with the college hockey team at an off-campus party. Only now do I consider the irony of how I was attracted to college athletes in school – the type of men who liked being in control.
Pursuing my MBA once I completed my undergraduate studies was a foregone conclusion. I was destined for the board room, or so I had convinced myself. Graduate school was tough. I was competing with some very bright people, mostly men. Those men were destined for success and they knew it. But I had something that I exploited. I had my femininity and I used it ruthlessly when I had to. I tried to convince myself that the affair with my married finance professor had nothing to do with grades. Of course, finance was the most difficult course and when I managed surface at the end of the semester with a B it was hard to rationalize that the secret trysts with the professor had nothing to do with it. But the ends always justifies the means and there was no way I would not succeed. The other few women in my class were doing the same if they could get away with it. We never talked about it, but it was understood and we sometimes giggled about it and gloated that we had something the men would never have.
I met my husband that last year in graduate school. He was pursuing a degree in sociology. The chemistry with him was quite intense in the beginning. He had long hair and a motorcycle. He was the classic bohemian and I felt the need to rein him in, to make him a better man (or at least my definition of a better man). He was irresponsible and sometimes unruly but I loved him with all my heart and soul.
After graduating, I found work in a big corporation. Every day I went to work with my power suit and shoulder pads under my jacket. I walked in my sneakers and changed into work shoes when I got to the office at 7AM to put in another 12 hour day. I was married by then in a wedding straight from Modern Bride magazine. My husband had finally cut his hair after much insistence from me. He would later call it severe nagging but I got my wish so it didn’t matter.
He found work in a consumer research organization. He didn’t get paid as much as me but that didn’t matter. My income was big and growing bigger. We bought a house I found in the suburbs. He had recommended something more modest and closer to downtown where we both worked. I would have none of that. My success had to be readily visible with a big, traditional house and a big lawn. I made sure he took care of the lawn despite his resistance.
After five years, I felt the need to have babies. It wasn’t a mutual decision. I wanted babies. No, I desperately needed a baby. I felt empty inside without kids. It was a completely irrational feeling for a high-flying career woman hell-bent on being the next corporate CEO. My husband was cool towards the idea. He asked how we would balance the demands of being parents and supporting a rather expensive lifestyle. I didn’t care. My womb was empty. I had needs. Neither reason nor logic affected my needs or my feelings.
So, the first baby came. Instantly, life changed. I couldn’t put in the hours I needed to maintain my career trajectory. My husband changed as well. He quickly lost his bohemian attitudes. He sold his motorcycle and became a devoted father to our son. Of course, I had been pushing for this since we had gotten married. His words, as revealed during the divorce, were “shrill, nagging harpy who relentlessly pushed me into fatherhood”. But he loved our first son and even offered to work only part time to allow me to keep on with my career. That would not do. I was the mother, the queen, the all-knowing and wise creator of my son. My husband was clearly an incompetent boob who didn’t know a diaper from a car seat.
My boss saw that I was distracted with my new duties as super-mom. He looked at my productivity and knew I couldn’t perform like my single or childfree colleagues. So, I was “mommy-tracked”. They didn’t call it that then. But when a male colleague was promoted over me, I knew what was happening. I hated it. I was livid. How could I not have it all? So, I played the feminine card again, this time with a stick, not a carrot. I paid a visit to Human Resources with a veiled threat of a discrimination lawsuit. It didn’t work, of course, because it was very clear that I was putting in fewer hours with the resultant loss of productivity. It was all documented and defensible. I was furious. How dare they. I summoned up all the righteous wrath I could. I consulted an outside attorney, a ferocious female lawyer who was quite prepared to sue until she made a pass at me. Open-minded I was, but certainly not a lesbian. I let the legal issue drop and sullenly accepted my reduced role at work. After all, we had expenses to pay and my salary was certainly needed.
I watched my husband evolve from bohemian to responsible father. He was astoundingly good with our first son. Of course, at the time, I didn’t recognize that. I thought everything he did was wrong. Only I, the supreme mother, could raise our first boy. We struggled for a couple of years. It wasn’t easy. So, when I got pregnant again – unplanned by my husband, completely planned by me – the stress continued to grow. Money wasn’t tight but the pressure to maintain our lifestyle and that big house was mostly on my shoulders. I resented my husband for that. He had chosen a career he loved but the pay was not nearly as much as mine. I really had to work and with being on the mommy track, there was no way I could achieve what I had expected in my career.
We did use day-care and a part-time housekeeper. Actually, we went through eight housekeepers. They were never good enough for me. Nothing was good enough for me. My shoes didn’t fit, my clothes looked bad, the car wasn’t clean enough, my husband wasn’t up to my standards. Looking back in brutal honesty, I was a stark, raving bitch. I don’t think I said a nice word in years. I am amazed that my husband put up with me. I didn’t take him seriously, he was just a man, after all.
In my limited social life, I spent time with women like me. We were an unhappy group of 30-something moms with powerful careers. But we also smiled and pretended that life was perfect. We all had the right homes, the right cars, the right schools, the right careers. We convinced ourselves that we did have it all. Occasionally, one of us might vent some frustration at the situation. When that happened, we always had convenient scapegoats – our husbands, our bosses, our housekeepers, the schools, whatever. It was never, ever our fault because we were female.
With one son at five and the other at seven, it fell apart. Rather, it exploded. My husband just gave up. He had been supportive to me and good with the children. So, it caught me by surprise when he just gave up. I guess I should have seen it. I was always using sex as a weapon with him. If he didn’t do exactly what I said, if he didn’t bend over backwards to fulfill my every whim, he didn’t experience any kind of sexual pleasure. I remember I caught him playing with himself one night. I was furious. How could he experience sexual satisfaction without my control being somehow involved?
As a healthy woman, I did have my own sexual needs. So, rather than enjoy sex within the context of a marriage, I had an affair. It was easy. I was still somewhat attractive. There were men around. “Why not?” I easily rationalized to myself. My husband doesn’t give me enough attention, it’s all his fault. The affair was inconsequential, just some sex on weekends and on business trips. I needed it so therefore it was OK. While my husband was being a father, I was being an empowered, independent woman visiting cheap motels with a man who could give me orgasms.
The affair lasted three months. My husband never found out. He didn’t need to, he just gave up. Interestingly, he channeled his efforts into a side business as a marketing consultant. This proved to be quite lucrative for him. Within six months his income had exceeded mine. Our savings account grew substantially. “It’s for the boys’ college tuition” he told me over and over again.
I was unhappy. My career was stressful and unrewarding. My two sons were closer to my husband than to me because of all the hours I was working. He had quit his full-time job and was thriving as a marketing consultant, a job that he could do out of the house with just his computer and a phone. I felt frustrated and unfulfilled. My female friends recommended counseling. So, we gave that a try. I subtly picked a counselor whom I know would be sympathetic to me. The sessions were actually fun in a very unpleasant way. The counselor and I spent 50 minutes picking on my husband. He quietly sat there and took it, apologizing and promising to change. I didn’t have to promise to do anything. The counselor – a woman much like me – made it very clear that my needs were paramount and his needs were completely irrelevant.
Naturally, the counseling didn’t work for us. My husband retreated into fatherhood and his growing business. I contemplated another affair. Unfortunately, I was gaining a lot of weight. At a size 12, it was hard to get attractive men to look at me. My friends recommended that I consider divorce. I look back and think about my “friends” from that period in my life. They were a group of unhappy women trying so hard to validate their own, poor life decisions. I let them influence me when I should have been strong. That was an enormous mistake.
I didn’t hate my husband I just didn’t love him like I used to. I wanted a new and better life. I could raise my sons without him. I had been reading that kids really didn’t need fathers. I was feeling so unfulfilled. When I served my husband with divorce papers, he didn’t seem surprised. I had consulted with a good divorce attorney and she strongly recommended that I go for everything – house, cars, custody, alimony, child support, everything. “It’s a war and as a woman, you have to win” were her words.
The divorce was ugly and despite the fact that I did get the house, the car, the kids, child support, and the savings account that he had filled, I ultimately lost. My ex moved out, leaving me to take care of the house and kids. He moved into a very modest apartment and we agreed that he could see the boys on weekends. The court actually ordered that to happen. I was happy to force him out of their lives completely but he was rigidly insistent and that damned judge agreed.
I was single again. I was ready to date again. But at 38, dating was not like the wild times in college and graduate school when I was young, alluring, and desired by men. No, I was a single mom now. I had cut my hair short and my figure was almost past the point of no return. The kind of man I wanted to date had no interest in me. Those powerful and successful men had younger, prettier, nicer girlfriends.
The divorced men were the worst. They were either so disillusioned that they couldn’t handle a relationship or they were just hopping from bed to bed, not willing to be exclusive. I so much wanted to be swept off my feet into the arms of an attractive man to take care of me and make my troubles go away. I still thought of myself as a princess. I was still silly, stupid, and immature.
Yet the men I was attracted to wouldn’t give me a second thought. The men who did want me were totally unsuitable. It was astounding to me that I wasn’t attractive any more. So many men in college were after me. I remember mocking all the guys who approached me at parties. If they had the slightest flaw, I pushed them away, usually with a pointed insult or two. I never thought twice about the men I rejected, some of them decent and sweet when I look back on it. My girlfriends and I called them “mamma’s boys” while we let ourselves be taken by the cocky, arrogant pricks who always made us feel overpowering attraction and lust.
To make matters worse, I couldn’t fix anything in the house. My husband had tended to all those matters. My boys were pre-teens and very difficult for me to handle. They hated the fact that they could only see their father on weekends. Their grades dropped. They started having discipline problems in school. Naturally, I blamed their father. It was all his fault that we divorced and that he lived apart from them. I tried not to say bad things about him in front of my sons but the feelings were just so strong. I said terrible things about their father, especially when I was drinking, which I did a lot of back then.
If I was unhappy when I was married, I was now wretchedly miserable as a single mom looking for love again. I tried hard to convince myself that I was a strong, independent, and intelligent woman. Sometimes it worked, especially when I was browbeating subordinates at work. I actually hated my job. I made a good living, yes. Yet I had reached the zenith of my career and the board room was not one bit closer. I still felt terribly conflicted about being a good mom and being the corporate woman.
I had lots of blame to dole out. There was no way that the current state of my life was the result of my decisions. My single girlfriends all told me that, many, many times over copious cocktails in sundry singles bars. I read a lot of women’s magazines and the advice I got said pretty much the same thing – a woman is never to blame.
I tried to lose weight but it was so very difficult. When I was hungry, I simply had to eat, usually ice cream or something with chocolate. I had to buy new clothes, again, because the weight kept piling on. I was set up on a blind date and the man had the sheer audacity to say “I’m sorry, I’m just not attracted to you because of your weight.” I never thought about my own hypocrisy about trying to find a man to whom I was attracted to physically. Men must be attracted to me, I am a woman, after all.
The past few years have been kind of a blur. My ex husband had found a new love of his life and I naturally hated him for that. I tried to increase the child support payments. When that didn’t work, I tried to prevent my sons from visiting him. They fought me on this. I took out my frustrations at work. My boss threatened to fire me. Only my girlfriends gave me any support. We had boozy nights where we ate and drank too much. Frankly, we were a bunch of fat, unhappy, single women who heaped blame upon the world for the state of our lives.
So when I saw the photograph from college, the epiphany hit hard. Through the tears of anguish, rage, bitterness, and denial came the incredibly painful realization that I was responsible for my own unhappiness. I finally figured out that I had not grown up and had not truly embraced adulthood. This was six months ago.
I’ve made some profound changes in my life since then. First and foremost, I stopped blaming everyone else for my own problems. This was the hardest. For my entire life I was told – and I believed – that as a woman, I could do no wrong, that I was not responsible, that I was always the victim in some way. Over and over I had to tell myself that only I am responsible for my happiness.
Once I learned to stop blaming the world, I taught myself to be pleasant and nice. This was hard as well. I had always mistaken pleasantness for weakness. This is not the case. A new colleague at work – a woman from the South – showed me very clearly it’s quite easy to be nice and be strong at the same time.
I also dumped my girlfriends. This was easy. This group of unhappy and negative women was actually encouraging me to do stupid things like divorce a perfectly good man because of my selfish and very arbitrary feelings of the moment. I finally learned that acting solely on feelings is the realm of children, not adults. Maybe those women will finally learn that. But I doubt it.
I’m at the gym every day. After being rebuffed by so many attractive and decent guys, I decided to apply standards of real equality to the whole dating thing. After all, if I believe in physical attraction, why should not I understand that men are the same way? Being fat means not being physically attractive to many, many men so it’s up to me to do something about, not be angry with men about the situation. The weight is coming off. It’s a battle, to be sure, but it’s coming off. I’m also letting my hair grow and getting rid of that awful “mom” hair style.
I no longer read those loathsome women’s magazines nor do I watch a lot of TV. When I freed my mind from so many complete misconceptions about men, I learned that men are actually wonderful people. My sons saw my transformation. As they grow older and become men in their own right, I have stopped nagging them about “feelings” and “sensitivity” and encourage them to be men. I doubt I’ll ever mend fences with my ex husband, all I can do is hope that he finds happiness and joy in his life. I have a new respect for him, a respect born from understanding that men are very different, not worse, just different. My ex is also an excellent father, I am blessed for that.
I’ve learned to accept that my needs aren’t the center of the universe. That was actually quite liberating. No longer am I a slave to the whimsy of my often shallow emotions that can’t be reasonably fulfilled. This means I complain less. If I can’t change the situation, why complain about it? Winter is cold, my complaints about the temperature will do nothing to warm the air.
The biggest regret I have in life is being so weak as to not to have made the serious introspection until this point in my life. If I were truly strong, truly intelligent, I would have really thought about what is important to me instead of following the herd. In retrospect, clawing my up the corporate ladder was a very bad decision. Exploiting my femininity to manipulate men was even worse. I love being a woman but using sex to get what I want is no better than a man using brute strength to get what he wants.
I’m still single and dating still eludes me. There is a glimmer of hope, however, a very nice man complimented me on my smile. At 45 years old, that was the first time anyone has noticed my smile. My eldest son noticed it too, “Mom, I’ve never seen you smile until now.” Life must get better for me. That’s my responsibility, no one else’s.