I was five years old when I realized everything was going wrong. I don’t remember the words that were hurled from Mom to Dad and back again, but I remember being scared and burying my nose in a book called Henrietta Operator. It was about a platypus who was a telephone operator, and it made much more sense to me than the chaos in my parents’ apartment.
The split happened a few weeks after I turned six. I was fairly calm when my parents sat me down to explain it. When they finished with their spiel, I simply asked Dad if we could go to Haagen-Dazs for chocolate ice cream.
And then things got more complicated than my young mind could process. Dad had a girlfriend. He had one immediately. It was a family friend and one of his coworkers, someone I truly adored. And it was obvious even to me that this was not really a new development. He had been with her before the end of the marriage.
Ruth (her middle name, for the sake of discretion) had worked with my father since I was six months old. She had visited me in the hospital when I had my open-heart surgery at 23 months. She had picked me up from nursery school and shuttled me to Dad’s office. She had given my parents the piano that I would eventually play for years after Dad moved out. She was warm, she was intelligent, she was someone I loved being with.
It could not have been more complicated.
Dad and Ruth maintained for years that they did not have an affair. They claimed it was only (to swipe a phrase from Alex Rodriguez’ wife) an affair of the heart. Finally, last year, they told the truth that had been so self-evident. And even though I had known all along, it hurt so deeply once again. The conflicting emotions came to the surface. Ruth was wonderful to me, but had been part of something that devastated my mother for countless years. My father was happier in his marriage to Ruth than he ever was with my mother, but he had betrayed the trust that I had put in him as a child.
For those of you who think that the immortal saga of Brad/Angelina/Jen is never-ending, I offer up my parents’ divorce. The wounds are still raw all around more than twenty years later. My mother and stepmother are mutual antagonists, with my little sister and me caught in the middle.
But whose fault was it? Ruth’s or Dad’s? Or was it neither? Why is the other woman always more stigmatized than the man who consciously chose to step outside his marriage and family? From my point of view, it was certainly easier to vilify this interloper than the father I still cannot help but worship.
When my father had a breakdown four years ago — really marking the onset of his early Alzheimer’s — he started cheating on my stepmother. He had not changed his behavior, and my stepmother was as hurt and angry as my mother had been. I was an adult, 23 years old, but felt almost vindicated when Dad told me that he and Ruth were going to separate. She had received her comeuppance, her punishment for what she had done! I was six years old all over again, and the other woman was at fault instead of my compulsively cheating father. Looking back on that, I feel deeply guilty and ashamed, and amazed that I am still struggling to move beyond that six-year-old frame of mind.
Over the past few years, as Dad has slid into Alzheimer’s and profound depression, I feel so grateful to have Ruth. I admit that there are still those times when I wish my father had been able to stay with my mother (and yes, I do understand that no divorce is ever that one-sided). But I realize that the split would have occurred with or without the other woman, the interloper, the stepmother, the other mother. Ruth did not end my parents’ marriage. My parents ended their marriage.
It is easy to blame the other woman. It is harder to assign equal responsibility to both parties, especially when the man is blood-related and, well, a man. Surely, Ruth must have been a scheming temptress, sharpening her claws for a catty catty catfight with Mom.
No, definitely not. It was a speedbump in everyone’s life. It was not one woman’s grand plot to bring down a nuclear family that was in fact deeply dysfunctional. Ruth was not a siren steering the family into Scylla and Charybdis so that there would be a grand shipwreck. The whirlpool of anger has slowly subsided within me, and the only thing I can hold against Dad and Ruth is that they used extremely poor judgment. It hurt me, but that was not their intention. And, in the end, extremely poor judgment is a human trait. Parents are human, sometimes disappointingly so. Their children cannot change that, they can only move beyond it. I hope I have done so.