by Katie Mitchell
“But you’re so much prettier,” said my girlfriend as we stared at the photo on my smart phone screen. “I mean, she’s not a bad looking woman. But you’re more striking. With your blonde hair.” It was a December dinner with my five closest girlfriends, and I’d finally tearfully come out with the whole story. Like ripping a band-aid off. My husband of nine and a half years was leaving me for another woman.
The past two months had been full of suspicions and denial and then horrifying discoveries of correspondence between them where he assured her, “To love is to sacrifice, and I will sacrifice everything for you.” And that’s precisely what he did. The 4,000 square foot home, dinners around our table, vacations with the four of us, Christmas morning coffee, our long-shared history. He sacrificed it all for someone ten years younger than me. And the sting was palpable as I sat at that table with my closest friends. Crying into my pasta and asking for more wine.
“But you’re pretty” is the line I’d hear repeatedly in the following months as word leaked out. And it helped sometimes, if I’m being honest. To know that someone saw beauty in me, even though it wasn’t enough to keep a husband.
My friends who are not domestic would say things like “But you cook dinner every night. Like real dinners. I mean, you bake. Like from scratch.” My friends who had trouble losing baby weight would comment that I was back in my pre-kid jeans and “Who did he think he was demanding more than that?” My friends who are childless would comment that I gave him two beautiful children. All these compliments born of a place of wanting to comfort me, and I’m forever grateful for the comfort of friends in those early weeks. But they were also born of that place inside where we think we aren’t enough and see another person as more. What they felt they lacked is what they noticed in me.
And I felt lacking, too. Empty and lifeless. Worn and tired from crying and begging and competing. I can remember so clearly the November, Saturday afternoon when we’d sent the kids to their grandparents so we could attempt to fix the unfixable, and he explained so simply, so coldly, “All my life, it’s like you’ve been the answer to every question on the test. You filled every checkbox. But with her, it’s like I see new checkboxes that I didn’t even know existed. And you can never be those things. You just can’t.”
It was dinnertime, but instead I retreated to the bathtub as I couldn’t eat with that familiar feeling gnawing at my stomach. I’d grown to know this anxiety well in the weeks before, trembling hands and quivering insides as I fumbled to grip what was unraveling. I lay there in the hot water, letting it scald my fair skin to a bright pink.
I looked at my abdomen; the belly that had stretched to hold two babies and was not as tight as it used to be. Perhaps that was it, or part of it. Her twenty-four-year-old tummy tight and smooth.
Or maybe it wasn’t my body at all. Maybe it was more. Maybe I wasn’t prioritizing him. I wasn’t sexy enough or interesting enough. I wasn’t fun enough. I wasn’t smart enough, or not about the right things, anyway. I didn’t make our home easy and comfortable enough when he returned from travel; I let the stress of two preschoolers and the daily grind infect our weekends. Broken and terrified, I was unsure of what laid ahead for me, but I got out of the tub anyway.
The next four months were grueling. The legal headaches of selling our shared home, acquiring attorneys, and restoring my maiden name on all the official documents were nothing compared to the emotional turmoil when they moved in together and announced their engagement five weeks after we signed divorce papers. She was in my driveway each week to help him pick up the kids for his custodial visits and with his family each weekend for holidays and celebrations. And the whole time, I played the comparison game, remembering what friends had echoed to me in their attempts to help. You’re pretty. You’re kind. You were a good wife. But even repeating these affirmations had no real power for me. I was not enough. Of what I didn’t know, but I was clearly not enough.
Then one night, in the midst of a late night conversation, a friend finally said just the thing I needed to hear to shatter my feelings of inadequacy. No flattery or comparison this time. He simply told me that in a relationship “Whatever issues that other person has, they have no bearing on your own validity. You eventually just realize it’s not all about you.”
That declaration came to me at just the right time in my life. A moment when, finally, after months of frantic comparison and apologies and constant clamoring for my own self-worth, I could allow the guilt and shame to begin melting away a bit. As I fell asleep that night, rolling his comment over and over again in my own head, I finally realized he was right. It’s not all about me, and it’s not certain that–even if perfection was possible and I were a perfect wife one hundred percent of the time–my outcome would have been any different.
And with that epiphany came the most important aspect of the equation: that I am not perfect and was not created to be. I was created to be real. To be vulnerable and to talk about my own perspective and my own pain. To connect with others and to know myself. None of those things align with perfection. I’m not perfect, but with that one comment, I finally realized I am enough, and I began to climb my way out of the pit of shame and invalidation I’d hidden in for months.
I relapse to the self-loathing ways every now and again. We all do. It’s human nature, especially among women, to hear our faults so loudly. But as Mary Oliver says in her poem “The Uses for Sorrow,” “Someone I loved once gave me / a box full of darkness. / It took me years to understand / that this, too, was a gift.” It was only through that gift of pain and blame that I arrived on the other side to see myself as I really am. To see all of us as we really are. Beings of shattered ideas and frailties, beautiful and sufficient in our imperfections. Enough. All of us. Even me.
Katie Mitchell is a composition instructor and writing center director at a small liberal arts college and a mother to two energetic kids. A lifetime writer and book lover, she writes about parenting, food, books, and gratitude at her online home, www.mamathereader.com. Katie lives with her son and daughter and their lazy chocolate lab in northern Georgia.