I grew up hiding in the hall when my dad would sneak home late at night. I lay in bed and heard my parents argue. I caught my mom crying in the bathroom, at the stove and whenever she thought we weren’t looking. And there were a few weeks, when I was eight, when my dad left on a “really long trip” as my mom called it. Years later, my dad again left. But this time it wasn’t under the guise of work. We were grown, so this time he used the word “divorce.”
After a tumultuous summer, my parents got back together. Sometimes, I feel like I’m holding my breath, waiting for the cycle to happen again. Because their marriage has been like this for over 30 years—a back and forth dance of happiness and heartbreak, adultery and absolution. “Break up or shut up,” I once yelled at my father when he told me he wanted to leave my mother, again.
As I grew older, I scoffed at my mother’s decision to keep her marriage intact. In college, newly enraged with my newfound feminism, I confronted my mother about her relationship. “You should leave him,” I said.
She responded: “You love your father too much for me to do that.”
“Well,” I snapped, “that hasn’t stopped him.” My mother walked away.
A year later, when my husband and I got engaged, I immediately approached him with my demands. I was the daughter of a lawyer after all. I knew how to drive a deal. One evening, before we sat down to plan our wedding, I laid out the terms of our marriage contract: House work would be 50/50, he had to be fine with no more than one kid, and adultery and abuse were automatic dealbreakers. Jail would be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Dave laughed at the earnestness of my demands, but he agreed. The negotiations were simple. Adultery and abuse were dealbreakers for him too, but not for the same reasons. Dave had been raised in a religious household, where trust and faith were important virtues. For my husband, the worst thing I could do was break his trust and that’s what he saw adultery as the ultimate betrayal.
Not long after Dave and I hammered out our marriage contract, I again asked my mother about her marriage. We were cleaning my kitchen. She was at the sink, clinking cups in soapy water. I shoved dishes into a haphazard stack. “Why,” I wanted to know, “why didn’t you leave him when he cheated?”
She turned dried her hands. “You never know the truth of someone’s marriage until you’re inside it.” We’ve never spoken of it since. But for six years, I’ve thought her words were a cop out, an excuse for something else—fear, weakness, shame.
But now that I see my husband as a parent, I’m rethinking my dealbreakers.
Eighteen months ago, my husband and I entered a new phase in our relationship. We had a daughter. All bonny and blue-eyed, like her father, she is his tutu-ed doppelganger. She squeals when he comes home and crawls after him when he leaves. She lets me know that only daddy can wash her hands the right way and when I ask her if she wants a snack she hmphs in agreement, just like he does. He is her favorite book reader, couch snuggler, hair washer, and swing pusher. And no matter what I think of him, or what he says, or how ever many times we fight, those two have a bond that is beyond me and god help me if I tamper with it.
Science has shown that more than anything, the quality of a father’s involvement with his daughters “was the most important feature of the early family environment in relation to the timing of the daughters’ puberty.” Daughters need fathers and I know this not just in general, but also personally. Because part of me is still that little girl, eight years old, with big blue glasses and skinned knees, watching her father disappear in a red Ford Tarus, kicking up dust on a white chalk driveway.
And because of that memory, if it should ever come to it, I’m willing to put aside my fears, my humiliation and my betrayal, so that my little girl doesn’t have to go without her father. It’s not noble. It’s selfish, really. I know what it feels like to get hit with the flak of betrayal and be stuck in the crossfires of a war that isn’t mine. So, while abuse and some reasons for going to jail are still on my marriage dealbreaker list, adultery is off.
I don’t stand in judgment of adultery ultimatums or divorce. I also realize that my answer to this very question may change in the next seven years. Nor do I exonerate my parents, but I understand now, it’s not my place to do so. Bearing witness to my husband as a parent has made me understand that this relationship is much more complicated that the zero-sum game I once thought it was. There are more hearts on the line than my own. And I’m beginning to see the truth in what I once thought was a copout.