I don’t say that too often. Not because of my fortitude, but because it’s embarrassing.
I had a treacherous childhood. My parents divorced when I was five. My father re-married and then divorced when I was ten. I suppose my mother harbored some hope that my father would come back to us, and when he didn’t, Mom quickly evolved into a destitute modern day Miss Havisham. Our life stopped for her despair. We lived in memoriam of her broken marriage. Dirty dishes remained stacked on the kitchen counter, with crusted bits of food left to decompose. She unplugged the refrigerator, leaving its contents untouched for years. Garbage bags piled up around the house, filling the house with the smell of rot. She recalled life with my father as if her memories had just happened. She blamed me for our tattered circumstances.
But unlike many abused children, I had a way out. My millionaire playboy father was only a phone call away. I could have easily retreated to a life of guaranteed comfort and normalcy, leaving my mother’s craziness behind. But, for four years I said nothing and stayed with mom. I understood that without me she would be homeless and impoverished. My father owned our house and was our landlord. We lived off of my child support checks. I believed I owed her the years of my childhood because my life would continue on without her. Even then, at age 12, I felt guilty for being a survivor, for knowing I would eventually leave her behind. I victimized myself, allowing her to neglect me and use me so that she would have a roof over her head. I stayed so she wouldn’t feel abandoned.
Years later, after college, therapists and friends told me I needed to address my suppressed anger and resentment if I was going to truly be able to let go of it. In therapy, I was given the freedom to stop blaming myself for my childhood-to hold my mother accountable for her mistakes. I took big cleansing breaths while remembering the gradual creep of decay that spread over our home. I wrote a letter to Mom asking her why the grief over her divorce was more consuming than her love for me. As directed, I never mailed it. I was able to get out my aggression by hitting pillow after pillow, recalling how she used me for cheap rent and child support checks. I fed my anger and resentment the way one would feed a baby bear cub, nurturing something small and weak that would one day turn into something fierce.
I was told I had made great progress. My anger was commended as a step forward. I pursued my own life. I married, had children, and was a very different kind of parent than I had ever known. My biggest achievement was that the cyclical nature of child abuse ended with me. I took the high road and allowed my mother into my children’s lives, never forgetting what had been. Over the years, my husband and I grew apart as a couple, but together as parents. While my marriage was far from perfect, my children had a perfect family. Back then, I would have done anything to maintain the façade of our family. I did not care that I felt unloved and alone. I knew I would endure it for my children.
I only figured out how much love mattered to me when I met a stranger who showed me how alone I felt with my husband. Our relationship began a with a casual one-night stand that evolved into an extramarital love affair.
Five-and-a-half years later, he died. He was the love of my life. I was devastated. Heartbroken.
Grieving him was very different as his mistress than it would have been as his wife. I had to get on with my life as if he had never been, as if I my heart hadn’t been shattered.
Instead of making breakfast and school lunches for my children, I wanted to stay in bed. I did not want to do laundry, make dinner, or clean house. I would have been content to wallow in my sadness and never shower again. I wanted to retreat to the memories of our happy moments, to my fantasies of what could have been. I had a frightening impulse to be like someone I’d always failed to understand: my mother.
Unlike her, however, I chose love over grief, my children over my memories. I was again, a survivor. But the insight gained by my sadness gave me the two things that had previously eluded me: compassion and forgiveness. Finally, I was able to understand how her actions had everything to do with her and little to do with me.
In the end, I was a better woman for my infidelity.
Given all of this, by which action you will judge me: as a survivor or an adulteress. Or both? Yes, I was the other woman. But I am also so much more. And in that I know I’m not alone. The modern-day mistress is more than her stereotype of bed crawling vixen.
With the divorce rate hovering at 50 percent, infidelity rates going strong, and more women straying from marriage than ever, the other woman is probably a woman who is more like your sister or best friend. She may even be you. Either way, odds are good she has children and a family that she loves and cares for; nurtures. She likely has a rich life busied with friends and a career. She is a person of substance who has something worthwhile to offer. She is not a whore.
I believe that accepting the humanity of the mistress means coming to terms with the fact that a man might stray for reasons other than sex and excitement; that she has value as a companion and as a human being. If you have been left for another woman, it means accepting the possibility that perhaps your marriage wasn’t what you thought it was; that maybe only you were happy. It is easy to be angry at the mistress; to make her the scapegoat for all that is wrong and to blame her for a faulty marriage and a wayward husband—to make her the villain. She was wrong, you were right. Yes, that is the easy thing to believe. But it is brave to make room for the notion that some affairs happen because of love—and that the mistress can be a woman worth loving-that she may be a woman who is more like you than not.