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Love Your Work: Week Eight
WITH A LONG WEEKEND AHEAD, NOW IS THE TIME FOR A SUMMER READ.
This summer, we hope you will enjoy sneaking away for half an hour or so every Friday as we bring you each new instalment of our Summer Serial – Love Your Work by first-time Canberra author, Trish Smith.
She recommends reading it in a hammock, with a large glass of iced tea nearby and your phone on silent.
Missed out on last week or want to read the entire series up to this chapter? Click here.
This week: Abby and Patrick are faced with a terrible choice. And no, this has nothing to do with his mother.
“When?” Abby could hardly speak as the realisation started to set in.
“Right after Alice got pregnant. I was so freaked out, Abby, at the thought of having a baby when I was still in school. You have no idea how terrible that time was. My parents, Alice’s parents, they were so angry with us, so disappointed in us. My parents had worked so hard to put me through school, paying private school fees, and the way they looked at it—the way I looked at it—was that I had completely spat in their faces by being so bloody irresponsible. My dad didn’t talk to me for a week, and mum just cried the whole time. It was very intense.”
Abby could easily picture what it would have been like. Allen could be very hot-headed and Jean could milk the drama out of just about any situation. Falling pregnant during his final year of high school would have unleashed both of them, and for an eighteen-year-old kid it would have been very hard to take. But even with all that, Abby couldn’t understand why Patrick went to the extreme of having a vasectomy.
“Because I panicked! I was a stupid kid, or so everyone kept telling me, and the more I thought about it the more it seemed to make sense to fix things so it wouldn’t happen again. I went to three different doctors looking for someone who would do the procedure, because they all thought I was too young. In the end, our family doctor did it, and I think she did it because she knew my parents and she knew the pressure I was under and she didn’t want me going and getting it done by someone who didn’t know what they were doing. So I got it done, and I felt so relieved that it was over. I never told mum and dad, of course, and every time I went out with a girl they would give me a lecture on being careful, as though I needed reminding about how hellish it would be if it happened again. I almost told them once, after dad said something to my girlfriend in second year—can you believe that? He told me, in front of her, that I needed to make sure I kept my ‘Johnson’ in my pants. I’ll never forget it. I was completely humiliated.”
“So you never told anyone?”
“No. Well, who would I tell?”
“You could have told me.”
“I would have, if you’d said you wanted to have a family. But you were adamant that you didn’t want kids. And I was so relieved to meet you, Abby, because when I got a bit older and started thinking about the rest of my life I realised the implications of what I’d done.”
“But have you really decided that you don’t want to have kids? Or did you just make peace with it because you can’t?”
“A bit of both, I suppose. Like I was saying before, you and I have such a great life. I really can’t see how we would fit kids into it, and I don’t want to try. I’m happy with the way things are.”
“But you had a vasectomy, so even if you changed your mind about having kids you wouldn’t be able to.”
“What if you had married someone who wanted to have kids?”
“I wouldn’t have. That’s why I asked you about it on our first date. I asked every girl I went out with if they wanted to have kids, and I didn’t go out with them a second time if they said yes.”
“But I was so young when we got together. I was twenty-one when we met, and twenty-five when we got married.”
“I know that. That’s why I was careful to ask you.”
“You didn’t consider that I might change my mind?”
“Of course I did, so I asked you and kept asking.” He was starting to sound frustrated. “You didn’t want to have kids when we met, you’ve never said you wanted to have kids, and every time I’ve asked you’ve said you didn’t.”
“And that was a choice I was making. Every time you asked me I would choose yes or no, but the whole time I didn’t have a choice, I just had no. You took away the choice.”
“You made your choice, when we got married.”
“No, I said I didn’t want to have kids, but I said that knowing—on a sub-conscious level—that I could still have them, if circumstances changed, even though that seemed completely unlikely. Patrick, it’s one thing to say you don’t want to have kids—it’s quite another to have surgery to ensure that you can’t. I’ve had an IUD put in, and every five years I have to get a new one put in, so every five years I make the choice to do that. And by the way, it would have been nice to know I didn’t need to go through that particular procedure, plus all those years I was on the pill. Jesus, I should make you go and get your prostate checked five times in a row, just so you can appreciate the prodding and poking that women have to go through year in, year out.”
Patrick was looking down at his feet but she saw him smile.
“Patrick, I thought I had a choice. I was choosing not to get pregnant, and it was a choice based on what I wanted, and what you wanted. You told me you didn’t want to have kids, not that you couldn’t. And yeah, maybe I did wonder sometimes if I would eventually change my mind about it, and I wondered how that conversation would go. It never, ever occurred to me that the conversation was over before it even started.”
“I have always been honest with you about my feelings regarding a family.”
“Yeah, you’ve been honest about not wanting to have kids, but you’ve lied to me about why you didn’t want to have them.”
“Hang on, I didn’t lie.”
“Yeah, you did. You have never said “I can’t have kids”. You’ve always said “I don’t want to have kids”. That’s a big difference.
“I can’t see how it matters given that neither of us wants to have kids, Abby. I was very, very careful to make sure you didn’t want to have them.”
“So why didn’t you just tell me in the beginning? Why didn’t you say ‘oh, by the way, I had a vasectomy so you’d better be completely sure about not wanting to have kids’.”
“But you said you were sure.”
“When you were sure, you got a vasectomy. If I was that sure, I’d have had my tubes tied. But I didn’t, I got it taken care of in a way that wasn’t final.”
“Men don’t have that option. They don’t make IUDs for men. We’ve only got condoms.”
“The point is, you did something that took away the option for you. I still had options. If you had been the one to change your mind after five years of marriage, at least we could have had the conversation. Maybe we still would have decided against having kids, but at least we could have talked about it. Now we can’t even talk about this, because you got a vasectomy.”
“I was eighteen and scared.”
“I get it! I get that you were scared and you panicked and I can’t possibly judge you for that! But I can be angry that you lied to me—that you didn’t tell me. I had a right to know, Patrick. Even if you thought the information wasn’t relevant, I still had a right to know.”
“I disagree. It was none of your business, so long as you didn’t want to have kids, and I made really sure of that before we got married.”
“No, the only thing you made really sure of was that I would never find out. And you achieved that by keeping it a secret. You don’t see that as even a tiny bit of a betrayal?”
“No, I don’t. It would have been, if you had ever said you wanted kids, but you never did.”
“And you still don’t want to have a baby?”
“That’s right. Even if I could, I don’t want to.”
“Well, you could, actually.”
“I’m not getting it reversed.”
Abby sensed that there was no point in arguing with him, about any of this. He was certain. There was no question in his mind. He didn’t want to have a baby. She slumped into the car seat and closed her eyes. This is it, she thought. It’s over.
“The thing is, Patrick, I feel as though you have lied to me, but you don’t. I want to have a baby, and you don’t. And like you said, there’s no half way—you either do it or you don’t.”
“I love you, Abby. I’m so sorry about everything. I never intended to hurt you.”
“I’m sorry too! We’re all sorry. But where does that leave us, huh? We’ve found ourselves in a mess that can’t be cleaned up. Where do we go from here?”
“What do you mean? We figure it out. We talk about it and we put in the effort and we make it work.”
“We want two completely different futures, Patrick! How can we make it work when we want such different things?”
“I don’t know. But I love you, and I want to try to figure it out.”
“You mean, you want to try to make me change my mind. Like I changed my mind about giving you my payout? Like I changed my mind about the cottage in the garden?”
“We agreed on those things.”
“No, we didn’t agree. I agreed with you. You put your foot down and waited for me to agree with you. Big difference. And now, I’m asking you to agree with me. I want to have a baby. I want you to change your mind and have a baby with me, but you’ve put your foot down and you’re not going to budge. Tell me how we figure that out, Patrick. Tell me!”
“You can’t compare a baby with that money or with mum’s cottage.”
“Why not? They were both life-changing, can’t-go-back decisions. The only thing that’s different about them is that you wanted to invest the money in your business and build the cottage, and I didn’t, and I want the baby, and you don’t. Other than that, it’s the same thing at stake—who’s going to be persuaded?”
“I’m not having a baby!” yelled Patrick. “This isn’t something you can force on me! And a baby isn’t a financial investment or a cottage—it’s a person, a living, breathing person with needs and wants. Why would you, of all people, try to talk me into having a baby when I don’t want to have one? Because that worked out SO well for your parents, didn’t it?”
“We are not my parents! We are nothing like them and I hate you right now for saying that! Why do you have to leap straight to the assumption that this couldn’t possibly work? Why can’t you even consider it? Why won’t you even consider it?”
“Because it’s not an option! I made my mind up twenty years ago and I have never, ever regretted that decision. You can’t make me change my mind on this, Abby, you just can’t. And I’m sorry if you feel like I forced you to give me that money, and forced you to build the cottage for mum, but those things have worked out—”
“Because I’ve been willing to compromise” she said, quietly and firmly. “They didn’t work out because they were the right thing to do. They happened because you made them happen, and the outcome has been satisfactory because I let it be so. You talk about figuring it out, working hard at it, putting in the effort—and yet you seem oblivious to the fact that I’ve been doing that all along.”
“Maybe you have, but I have too. I’ve been trying to connect with you for the past six months, longer even, and every time I think I’m getting close you push me away. We never go out on dates anymore, we never go away for weekends, we’ve stopped having our friends over on the weekend for a barbecue. Yeah, it’s wonderful, we have all this money and these wildly successful businesses and a beautiful house but our marriage is failing, Abby. A baby isn’t going to solve that problem, but it sure as hell could make it worse. So, you decide what you want to do. Because you have a choice to make. It’s either me, or a baby.”
They drove back into Canberra in silence. When they got home, Patrick grabbed his laptop bag and left. Abby sat up at the kitchen bench with a large glass of wine and a box of tissues, replaying the conversation over and over in her mind. Suddenly she heard the key turn in the back door lock, then footsteps in the laundry. Abby took a tissue and dried her eyes just as Jean came into the kitchen.
“Oh, hi Abby, I didn’t think you were home. I just saw Patrick’s car leave and I thought you’d both popped out for some dinner or something. Where was he off to?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh.” Jean was holding one of her round white quiche dishes, with a green chequered napkin draped over the top. “Well, I made you an asparagus tart. It’s still warm but you could put it in the fridge and have it tomorrow if you’re going out.”
“Thanks.” Abby barely had the energy to talk.
“Are you alright, love?” said Jean, walking across the kitchen and putting the dish on the bench top. “Have you and Patrick had a row?”
“Why would you ask that?”
“Because the car kind of sped out of the driveway.”
“No, I mean why would you ask that? It’s none of your business, Jean.”
Jean looked a little surprised at Abby’s tone of voice. “Well, he’s my son, and I worry if he’s not happy. I can’t help it.”
“I know he’s your son, Jean, but for a long time now he’s been a grown man, and my husband. When are you going to realise that he has an entire life that he gets to live without having to ask your permission? When are you going to realise that he is going to have bad days and you don’t need to be there, watching from the sidelines to see what he does next? Why don’t you just leave him alone? He’s your son, but he’s not a child. And just because you are now living in our backyard doesn’t mean you get to insert yourself back into his life, with your opinions and old-fashioned notions and bloody casseroles. You’re living in our backyard so he can keep an eye on you, now that you’re alone. You’re not living in our backyard so you can keep an eye on him.”
Jean took several deep breaths. “Why are you so angry at me, Abby? You haven’t had a single pleasant thing to say to me in months that didn’t sound as though you had to say it through a mouthful of iron filings. What on earth do you think I have done to deserve being spoken to in such a way?”
“You have no idea, do you, of the impact you have had on his life. He has wanted to make you happy, to make you proud for everything he’s done right and to earn your forgiveness for everything he’s ever done wrong. And you have seized upon that and you have manipulated it to the point where he can’t see how he can live without you right here, in our back garden. And that has suited you just fine, because without him what else do you have? You are his mother—that’s all you’ve ever done and all you’ve ever had to do, and you’ve done a wonderful job. But you need to let go of your need to keep mothering him, to keep watching over him so that he doesn’t do anything stupid ever again. He’s with me now. He and I can figure stuff out between us. He doesn’t need you like that, and I certainly don’t.”
“How dare you say such things to me!” screamed Jean. “I’m his mother, for goodness’ sake. I can’t help worrying about him. I can’t help feeling like I need to be here for him.”
“You’re not just here for him, Jean, you are in his head, you are in every decision he ever makes. When I got my payout, he wanted that money so he could buy Allen out so that you two could start your retirement. And then when we started talking about renovating the house he decided instead that he wanted to build a cottage in the garden for you to live in—” She stopped short before she said too much.
Jean pulled a tissue out of her sleeve and wiped her eyes. For a few moments she didn’t say anything. Abby tried to calm her breathing.
“Look, Abby, I didn’t know your mother and father very well. Your mother especially was never particularly friendly towards me or Allen. I never really understood why but I tried not to let it bother me, for your sake. But you have said things over the years, dropped little hints here and there that paint a picture of a very distant, very disinterested mother. And I tell you, Abby, it breaks my heart to think that her way of parenting is the only way you’ve even known. My relationship with my son is not particularly remarkable.”
“Yeah, I know.” Abby had seen enough of other people’s lives to know that whilst Jean was a little more meddlesome than most people, she wasn’t completely over the top. She blinked hard as her eyes filled with tears. “I’m sorry, Jean. I’m sorry my parents were so cold towards you, but don’t take it personally, that’s just what they were like, with everyone, including me. My relationship with my parents was remarkable. They should not have had me.”
“Well, that might be overstating things a little.”
“No, it’s true. I wish I could have asked them why they had me. I had an au pair from the time I was six weeks old. I saw a four-week-old baby the other day—she was so tiny! I can’t imagine how my mother was able to leave me at that age.” Abby pulled more tissues from the box to wipe the tears from her cheeks.
“She didn’t leave you, Abby, she went back to work. Thousands of babies are raised with the help of nannies and carers and grandparents.”
“And they all grow up to be wonderful people, I know” said Abby, interrupting. “But the difference between me and those thousands of babies was that their parents loved them, and they felt that love. I never felt that love from my parents. I didn’t have an au pair because my mother had a job. I had an au pair because my mother wanted to completely outsource the parenting.”
“I’m sure she grew to regret that, Abby.”
“Oh, she did! In fact, I’ve just had that confirmed this very week. One of her old friends saw my parents the day before their accident and apparently they both had lots of regrets. They regretted they weren’t there for things—not for school assemblies or when I graduated from uni. They really regretted that they missed all those Kodak-moments. I bet that’s what prompted the introspection. I bet they were looking through old photo albums and suddenly wondered why there weren’t any pictures of me.”
“There must have been some pictures, Abby.”
“There are a few family shots, of the three of us, so those were taken by someone else at Christmas time or whenever. And there were my school photos, of course.”
“What about on your birthday?”
“No. We had a Polaroid camera which they hardly ever used. They just weren’t the snap-happy types. The only pictures I have are the ones that other people took of us. God, that seems so ridiculous in this day and age, doesn’t it? Imagine not taking photos at your kid’s birthday party.”
“I think that you are angry at your parents for not being there for you, but you’re also angry at me. You’re taking it out on me because I have been there for Patrick. And fine, perhaps you’re right, maybe I have been too close sometimes, but Patrick is my only son, and I don’t know any other way to be his mother than to care for him and love him and maybe interfere once in a while.”
Abby resisted the urge to challenge the ‘once in a while’ remark. She just sat still, thinking about what Jean had said.
Then she spoke. “You’re right, about my parents. They were terrible. They were never there, and I’ve been furious at them my whole life. It has taken me a long time to get used to the idea that a mother can be such an intrinsic part of a person’s life, as you are to Patrick. It’s still something I struggle with. I’m sorry if I get angry at you when you get too close. I can see that you’re just being his mum. I’m just asking you to respect the boundaries a little, please? Give him the space he needs to make choices with a clear head.”
“I can try to do that.”
“You are a really good mother, Jean. I mean that. Patrick is lucky to have you. And of course you know that Allen felt he never deserved you.”
Jean dabbed her eyes with a tissue and reached for another one. “Well, being a wife and mother is all I’ve ever done but that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I’ve been content, I really have.”
Something in her tone made Abby sit up and turn to face her directly. Jean was looking at her hands in her lap. “Have you really, Jean? Have you really been content?”
Jean started to cry softly. “There’s nothing wrong with being a mother and a housewife.”
“I never said there was anything wrong with it, Jean. I’m asking you if it was enough, if it really was enough.”
Jean seemed taken aback by the question. She paused a moment before answering. “Sometimes I wonder what I might be doing if I hadn’t married so young.”
“What, do you wonder?”
“I wonder if I might have had a career of my own. I did very well at school, you know. My teachers expected me to go off to university and study economics or science, which was quite unusual in my home town, sending a girl off to study something other than teaching or nursing. I might have been a banker, or a physicist. Who knows?” Jean had stopped crying and was now holding Abby’s hand in hers. “Point is, my dear, I gave that all up for a handsome young boy from Cork and look where that got me!” Jean laughed a little to herself. “Well, maybe that wasn’t so bad after all.”
“You had a wonderful marriage, and you have Patrick.”
Yes, I do, and I’m grateful every day. But I’m quite envious of you, actually. You’ve really done well for yourself, Abby.”
“Well, I’m quite envious of you. I’d like to have a baby.”
“Why?” asked Jean cautiously.
“What?” The question was completely unexpected. “What do you mean, ‘why’?”
“Well, you and Patrick have never talked about having a family. Goodness knows I’ve wished for grandchildren but you both said, right before you got married, that you weren’t going to have kids. Why the sudden change of heart?”
“I’ve changed my mind, but Patrick hasn’t” said Abby, wanting to make the distinction clear.
“So, what’s changed for you?”
Suddenly Abby realised she was having a very personal, very serious conversation with the very woman who, half an hour ago, she was trying to exorcise from her life. And yet she was completely disarmed by her. Perhaps, thought Abby, this is what it’s like to have a deep and meaningful relationship with your mum. She decided to plough ahead.
“I feel like something is missing.” Abby lowered her voice, feeling ashamed to say the thought out loud. “I have the husband, the house, the career—and I still don’t feel like I thought I would feel.”
“Yeah. I don’t feel content.”
“Does Patrick know how you feel?”
“Well, he knows I want to have a baby, obviously. I’m not sure if he’s figured out that I’m not content without one.”
“And he’s still certain he doesn’t want to have children?”
“But if you can’t have a baby, what will you do?”
“I don’t know.”
“You need to figure out what else you can do that will make you happy. Something that will fill up that hole in your heart.”
“I don’t know, Abby, that’s for you to work out. When was the last time you were really happy? Or feeling excited or optimistic about something? Take yourself back to that time and place and work out what the thing was, and then try to experience that every day. Don’t stop searching for it until you’ve got it. And don’t settle for anything less.”
Abby didn’t even have to think about it. The answer came to her in a heartbeat.
CHAPTER THIRTY ONE
A blog about the heart-breaking search for your one true job.
EVERYTHING IS DIFFERENT
Tales from My Life
– – – – – – – – – – –
I keep coming back to that thing my father-in-law said at our wedding, about how to have a long and happy marriage, that there would come a time when one of you would want to leave, but as long as the other wanted to stay married, they would pull the other one through. It’s a lovely notion, truly it is, but what happens when the one who wants to stay is not able to convince you, no matter how hard he tries? I guess that’s when divorce happens.
I told my husband that I want to have a baby and he said no. That’s alright, I didn’t expect him to suddenly change his mind and leap up and down with excitement—I’m still reeling in shock at my own dramatic change of heart. So I asked him to think about it, that maybe he might change his mind, too, but he said no. And then he said—are you sitting down—that not only does he not want to have kids, but he can’t. Because years ago, before he even met me, he had the snip. Yes, he did.
So, let’s review. My husband is unable to have children, and unwilling to undergo a reversal. I want to have children. This is called an impasse. There is no going forward. We have both declared our clear intentions never to be dissuaded from our positions and so there is nothing for it but to call it a day.
I have just come from our lawyer’s office, where I’ve spent an hour discussing how to go about filing for a divorce. I want to do this amicably, sensibly, and without emotional outbursts or unnecessary time in a courtroom. I’d like to think that this is possible, after all we still love each other and just want each other to be happy. It’s just that we have mutually exclusive notions of what will make us happy, and trying to force the other’s hand will only make us sad.
What now, you ask?
Well, I’m going to take my mother-in-law’s advice which, ironically, is to find my bliss. She said I need to fill the void of a baby with something else that can make me happy. She said I need to figure out what really makes me content and go after it until I’ve got it, and not to settle for less. She was probably thinking of a hobby, like growing orchids or knitting.
Needless to say, I don’t need a hobby.
I hope my passport is still current.
Mandi on: Everything is Different
I’m actually in shock over this latest development. I really hoped that either a) you would realise you don’t need a baby to be happy or b) your husband would agree to it. I never, ever considered this scenario. I’m really sorry that you are going to get a divorce. Especially since, by your own admission, you still love each other.
But my evil alter ego is really excited to find out where you’re going with that passport.
Sophie on: Everything is Different
Did you really think you’d be able to talk him into it? Silly girl.
Well, I guess the truth really is setting you free and letting you loose in the first class lounge, no doubt. Another marriage bites the dust.
Claire on: Everything is Different
You’re going to leave your husband because he can’t give you a baby? Are you serious? Would you leave him if he was born infertile? Or would you stick by him, no matter what, because you love him?
KateM on: Everything is Different
I’m sorry that you and your husband can’t have children, and I’m sorry that you have decided to leave him. I’m not sure what I would have done in the same situation so I can’t possibly judge you. So I just wish you the best.
BrookeH on: Everything is Different
Your marriage vows included the line ‘for better or for worse’. This is the ‘for worse’ bit, Ms Love. This is the bit you could never have imagined would happen, but you believed, the day you got married, that you would be ready to tackle it head-on. And you made that bold claim in front of a room full of all your friends, who probably believed it, too. They really ought to change the marriage vows to something like ‘for better or for worse, or until something comes along that one or both of you decides is just too much like hard work so you can opt out’. I’m sorry, but I’ve lived through far worse crap than you have and to be honest it disappoints me that you are giving up so easily. The divorce rate wouldn’t be nearly so high if people would just put the effort in. Build a bridge and get over it.
Sophie on: Everything is Different
Wow, @BrookeH – don’t hold back!
KateM on: Everything is Different
@BrookeH – everyone has different ways of dealing with different problems. You can’t judge Ms Love for the choices she is making until you’ve walked a mile in her shoes.
BrookeH on: Everything is Different
@KateM – with due respect, I’ve walked several miles in some bloody awful shoes. I don’t share Ms Love’s gift for online confessions so I won’t go into details, but married couples have got divorced for reasons far less compelling than the ones that my husband and I have grappled with. But we stuck at it, we got counselling, and as a result we now have what we like to think of as a bullet-proof union. You’ll never know the joy you can experience in a marriage until you’ve survived something dreadful together and come out the other side. The world could be full of battle-scarred yet joyous married couples but instead the divorce rate is astronomical. I’m just saying.
KateM on: Everything is Different
@BrookeH – some battle scars never fade.
BrookeH on: Everything is Different
@KateM – obviously I’m not talking about abusive relationships! Of course you should leave those behind. I’m talking about the everyday, garden-variety marital problems that everyone experiences: money, illness, infidelity, kids, in-laws, careers, boredom, trust. All of these can be overcome with effort.
Vanessa on: Everything is Different
For what it’s worth, I’m sorry you find yourself in this mess. But I have to agree with @BrookeH. You should stay with your husband, no matter what. You still love him. Try harder. Don’t be a quitter.
Bernadette on: Everything is Different
Your mother had a baby for all the wrong reasons, but you want one for all the right ones? That’s a lot of pressure to put on such a tiny human being. He or she had better be perfect, because you can’t get a divorce from your kids.
On Saturday morning Abby read through all the comments and felt physically sick. How could all these people, who had been reading her blog for such a long time, be so unkind? Only one person wished her well. She closed the lid on her laptop and instinctively reached for her mobile phone. She thought of someone else whom she hoped would support her.
Hi, this is Emma. Please leave a message and I’ll get back to you shortly.
Abby didn’t bother leaving a message—she didn’t know what to say. Even if Emma was still reading her blog, Abby couldn’t be sure that Emma would be any less critical than the other readers, and if it turned out that she did agree with them, then Abby wouldn’t be able to bear it. She realised with intense sadness that she didn’t have anyone to talk to, in real life or online. She hadn’t felt so alone since the day of her parents’ funeral.
She walked out into the kitchen, half expecting to see Patrick sitting up at the bench with a coffee and the weekend papers, but he had not come home again last night. He’d been away a few nights during the week, and Abby assumed that he had been staying on the sofa at Jean’s. She looked around the large, empty kitchen and wondered what to do next.
Inevitably, half an hour later, she found herself at her old table at The Joint House cafe with a latte and her laptop.
A blog about the heart-breaking search for your one true job.
BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO
Tales from My Life
– – – – – – – – – – –
I have opened up my life and my heart on this blog, and I get the impression that a lot of you have been genuinely entertained by my ranting and raving and occasional navel-gazing. And I’m glad you’ve been getting something out of reading this, because I get a lot out of writing. I have leaned on you a lot over the years, asking for your advice and quite often following it—not always the smartest thing to do but it’s definitely been an adventure!
The thing is, though, I read all your comments on my previous post and I have to tell you I was a little upset. Yes, I understand that if I write this stuff in such a public forum I run the risk of attracting some judgement, and perhaps I expect that from the odd troll who pops in randomly one day to call me a lousy writer or a boring schmuck. But a slap-down from a troll is a lot easier to take than a slap-down from an entire community of readers who have been reading me for a while.
I get it. I can see that you think you know everything about me, but you don’t. You know about some of the things that have happened in my life, but you don’t know ME. So when I read your comments, and you overwhelmingly told me I was wrong to be leaving my husband, that I should just give up on my desire to have a baby, I felt a little as though you had stepped over a line. Sure, I was hoping for some feedback, but I also wanted some support, and I really only received that from one of you. Instead of support, I copped a lot of criticism and advice I didn’t need. And it took me a minute to realise why this bothered me quite so much.
It’s because none of you have any skin in the game. You throw out these ideas and suggestions but do you think about what might actually happen to me if I follow your advice? Let’s say, for example, that I decide to stay with my husband. What then? Yeah, it’s the noble and right thing to do—I promised to love him till death do we part, as some of you helpfully reminded me. But what happens if, five years from now, I’m thoroughly broken hearted, seriously depressed at not having had a baby of my own, with five years fewer eggs left in my ovaries? Where will you all be then? Will you be here to tell me I’m still doing the right thing? Will you be here to support me and encourage me like good friends are supposed to? Because isn’t that what we are? Good friends?
Hang on. No. We aren’t.
“Stay with him, no matter what.” “Build a bridge!” “Silly girl.” I can’t help wondering if you would say these things to me if you were sitting opposite me right now, in this cafe. I’d like to think you might be a little more understanding. A little kinder.
So maybe it’s up to me to be a bit more discerning with regards to what I put out there, whose advice I take, and whose advice I ignore. And perhaps I need to rely a bit more on my own instincts, rather than put the big dilemmas out to a vote and see what you all come up with for Plan C. Because at the end of the day, none of you are actually real. None of you are going to get hurt if my life goes pear-shaped.
I think I need a time-out from this blog. I think perhaps we all do. Ciao.
• • •
Abby logged off her blog and logged into LinkedIn. She typed Henning Hvidberg into the People Search bar and hit ‘enter’. His name came up with the job title ‘director’ and a company name that she remembered seeing in his office in Thailand, but his current location status was saying London. There were two other Henning Hvidbergs listed but she knew he was the right one.
Abby clicked on the link to update her profile picture and swapped the old head-and-shoulders corporate portrait with one of the shots Emma had taken of her on the balcony of their suite at the resort in Thailand, with the bay in the background and the sun almost below the horizon. She was wearing the black dress that she had worn on her last night there.
She clicked back to Henning’s profile and then on ‘compose a message’ before spending the next ten minutes trying to figure out what to write. If she was too cryptic he might not remember her. If she was too forward he might decide not to reply. She needed to get the balance just right. She rejected more than a dozen possible variations before finally, impulsively, composing a note and hitting ‘send’:
Hello, this is Abby. Is this Henning Hvidberg, the one with the really impressive irrigation channels in Thailand?
Abby logged off, shut down her computer and slipped it into its case. She was about to stand when she glanced up. Emma had walked in.
“I thought I’d find you here. Mind if I sit down?” She took off her jacket and draped it over the back of the chair. Caught completely off-guard, Abby just nodded.
“Thanks. Do you have a minute to talk?” Abby nodded again, deciding that silence and surrender were her best options.
“Don’t look so scared, Abby, I’m not going to bite your head off. Look, I’m sorry I haven’t called before now. I’ve just been so busy and, to be honest, I just needed some time to clear my head. I just read your blog. God help me I tried to stay away from it but I couldn’t help myself.”
Abby allowed herself a small smile. “Yes, it’s quite a train wreck these days, isn’t it? Impossible to look away?”
“I wouldn’t characterise it quite like that, but I agree it makes for compelling viewing. Or reading. The sideshow is a bit scary, though.” Abby wondered for a moment what she was talking about but quickly figured it out: the readers’ comments. “It’s no wonder you’ve decided to take a break. I think it’s high time you did, actually.”
“I’ve been thinking that for a while. You have become quite reliant on the opinions of those people who comment on your blog, and I’m not always sure they’ve got your best interests at heart. You said it best yourself—they don’t have any skin in the game. But I think I know why you listen to them so much. It’s because I don’t tell you often enough how awesome I think you are.”
“What?” She had no idea what Emma was talking about.
“It’s true. You’re an amazing person, Abby. And if your parents had ever told you so when you were growing up, perhaps you’d have a little more faith in yourself and you wouldn’t be writing this crazy blog and seeking everyone’s approval for your life choices.”
“I’m not seeking their approval. I don’t need anyone’s approval.”
“Of course you do, Abby, we all do. It’s what makes the world go round, didn’t you know that? You sought it at work and when you weren’t getting it you left and started working for yourself. You sought it from Patrick and he completely shut you down, convincing you to hand over your payout and then talking you into letting his mother move in. You were probably never going to get Jean’s approval anyway but the arguments you have with her are all about her respecting your personal space, which is just another way of seeking approval and validating your status as Patrick’s wife ahead of her role as his mother. And my goodness, you work in an industry that is all about seeking approval—please interview me and find me interesting and give me the job!—and you’re giving classes on how to do it better than anyone else.”
“Wow. You’ve really been giving this some thought” said Abby, deadpan.
“Yeah, I have. Because when we had that fight in Belluci’s I was so angry at you for not seeing that I was just trying to help. But I should have realised that you had every right to be upset about Jean’s cottage, because it was yet another example of Jean and Patrick not respecting you by considering your needs. I guess I was just worried that you seemed to be upset all the time, and I thought you should get over it. But now I see that your anger and frustration is justified, because it’s about far more than a cottage in the garden. It’s about you being listened to and having your opinions matter and have your point of view considered and validated. Which is important for everybody, but especially so for you because you weren’t born with something that most other people—including myself—take completely for granted.”
“Parents who tell you they love you and think you’re awesome. Even when they were here, they never gave you their approval, did they?”
“No” said Abby quietly. “They never did.”
“So now you’re at the point in your life where you are finally ready to say ‘bollocks to this, I’m going to find my bliss, find what makes me feel valuable and whole and happy, even if that means doing something that nobody else could possibly approve of’.”
“So you don’t approve either?”
“I’m your best friend, Abby. I’m the exception to the rule. You can do no wrong in my eyes, and if it all goes pear-shaped you know I’ll still be here, ready to help you pick up the pieces. But I have to ask, are you absolutely sure that it’s a baby you want? You’ve never wanted to have kids before.”
“Yes, I’m sure. I don’t know why I’ve changed my mind. I don’t understand it—it’s biological not rational. I held Claudia’s baby and I just knew.”
“Well, alright then.”
“But do you think what I’m doing is wrong?”
“I think what you are doing is the right thing for you to do, at this time, given the circumstances. You want to have a baby, and Patrick doesn’t, and we all know that Patrick usually gets what Patrick wants.”
“Because I give it to him!” Abby interjected.
“And so you really are left with no choice but to leave. It’s bold, it’s brash, it’s brave and it’s bloody fantastic. Some things you’ll never be able to change—your mother-in-law living in your backyard, for one thing—and sometimes it really is better to just walk away.”
“I’ve really, really, really missed you Emma.” They both got up out of their seats and hugged tightly. Abby squeezed her eyes shut as though that might push the tears back in. They stood like that for a few seconds, and every harsh word that had ever passed between them was completely forgiven and forgotten. Years later, Abby would look back on that moment as the rebirth of their friendship and the deepening of their connection. I wish you’d been born my sister, Abby said to herself. I really would have liked to have had you around from the very beginning.
“So” said Emma, settling back into her seat. “Where is he?”
“Who?” said Abby, even as the heat started rising in her cheeks.
”Oh, please. Henning, of course. Have you been in touch? Do you know where he is?”
“I think he’s in London.”
“Have you spoken to him yet?”
“No, I only just sent him a message through LinkedIn. I’m waiting to hear back.”
“Did you look him up on Facebook?”
“I’m not on Facebook.”
“Right.” Emma reached into her giant handbag and pulled out her laptop. “Let’s see what his relationship status is. How do you spell his name?”
She logged in and typed his name into the search bar as Abby spelled his name out loud. “There is one Henning Hvidberg in London, so I guess that’s—oh my God.”
“Look at his profile picture.” Emma turned the laptop around so that Abby could see it. There, at the top of the list of Henning Hvidbergs around the world, was a picture of Abby and Henning sitting at the tea-light covered dining table, their cheeks touching as they both leaned in, smiling like a couple of newlyweds.
CHAPTER THIRTY TWO
“I took that picture, with his camera. I remember telling you both to squish in close so I could fit you both in.”
Abby felt butterflies in her tummy, a sensation she hadn’t felt since her last night in Thailand. Two years was a long time to go without feeling butterflies, she thought.
“Well, I can’t believe he’s got that as his profile picture!” Emma was grinning like an idiot. “Now I’m excited for you! I cannot believe that he’s been thinking about you all this time, too!”
Abby couldn’t tear her eyes away from the photo. She hadn’t taken any photos of Henning with her own camera in case Patrick might stumble across them. She had forgotten that there were pictures of them together on his camera. She looked incredibly happy in the picture, and so did he.
“But why wouldn’t he have tried to get in touch with me, if he was still interested?”
“Because he thinks you’re married, obviously. And he’s a gentleman. Ooh, let’s see if his profile is public.” Emma grabbed the laptop back and clicked on his name. “Nope, you can’t see anything. You have to become friends first.”
“I’m not going to join Facebook just so I can friend him, Emma. I’m not fourteen years old. I’ll wait to hear from him on LinkedIn, if he’s going to get in touch at all.”
“Of course he’s going to get in touch. Oh my God! This is so exciting. Where is he working?”
“In London from what I can tell.”
“Yeah, but for what company? What’s their address?”
“He’s working for the same company that had sent him to Thailand. They’re called the Global Eco-Agriculture Cooperative or something.”
“Have you Googled it?”
“Have you Googled him?” Emma started typing.
“Why on earth not?”
“Because.” Because if I had started stalking him online after that trip I’m fairly sure it would have become a full-time obsession and so I owed it to Patrick to keep away.
“Because—oh, there he is! Company publicity shot! Very nice.” Emma turned the laptop around so Abby could see, then Emma jumped into the seat next to her so they could both look at the screen. “God, he’s so hot. Was he that hot in Thailand?”
Abby just smiled, and looked carefully at the picture. According to the description underneath, the photo had been taken at a company PR event only a few weeks ago. He hadn’t really changed, though he was a little less well-tanned than he had been in Thailand. He still looked like a slightly older version of Chris Hemsworth.
Her head was swimming. Discovering her face on his Facebook profile suddenly gave her whole crazy plan an unexpected jolt of possibility. “Yeah, he was that hot. I cannot believe that he’s got that as his profile picture. I was mentally prepared for him to either write back on LinkedIn to tell me that he’d never heard of me, or to say hi, nice to hear from you, by the way let me introduce you to my wife. I never once factored in the possibility that he might have been—” she paused, not really sure how to say out loud what she was thinking.
“Might have been waiting for you?” said Emma, finishing the sentence. “Let me ask you something, Abby, and just between you and me I want a straight answer, OK?”
“OK” said Abby, not knowing what was coming next.
“Do you think it’s possible that you have been waiting for him, too? I mean, do you think that maybe, on some level, you’ve never really left that resort? Because you’ve done a lot of great things since you came home from Thailand, but one thing you haven’t done all that well—and this is just my casual observation—is worked on your marriage. And maybe that’s because your heart’s been somewhere else.”
“I never expected to ever see Henning again.”
“I know. But did you maybe hope, just a little, that he would somehow come back?”
“No” said Abby.
“Hear me out. You and Patrick have never quite got back on track since that trip, since that whole year, actually. You two have never seemed quite right again. You arrived home and immediately threw yourself into the company and he had the bigger garage. Then his dad died, and then your business folded, and then his mother moved into the back garden. Neither of you seems to have made a concerted effort to behave like a happily married couple.”
“I am happy!” protested Abby.
“I’m not talking about you as an individual, Abby. I’m talking about you as one-half of ‘Abby and Patrick’. By the way I think it’s very telling that you just said ‘I am happy’ and not ‘we are happy’.”
Abby had no response to that other than to frown a little harder and slump in her chair.
“I think you’re a perfectly well-functioning married couple, with successful careers and a really big house, but when is the last time the two of you had fun together? When did you last make time to have fun? All you both seem to do is work, all the time, in jobs that keep you very separate. How many minutes each week do you spend together, not counting time spent in the bathroom in the morning.
“What are you saying?”
“I’m just saying that I think you haven’t been as happy with Patrick as you make out you are, and that the reason for that is because all this time, all this time, you’ve been thinking about Henning.”
“I haven’t been thinking about him. Honestly, Emma, I haven’t. I mean, yeah, sure, the occasional memory surfaces but I’m not staying up late, dreaming about him.”
“So why haven’t you been putting more energy into your marriage?”
The question stung a little and Abby took a deep breath before she replied. “Patrick made the same observation the other day. He said I don’t put in any effort.”
“What did you say to that?”
“I told him that I put all my effort into compromising my needs so that he gets to have his way.”
“Well, it’s true. He got most of my payout and the cottage for his mother, didn’t he?”
“Yeah, he did” said Emma, nodding.
“Maybe I haven’t been putting in the kind of effort you’ve been talking about, but I’ve been putting in behind-the-scenes effort. There’s a lot more to staying married than giving the outward impression of still being on a honeymoon. We’ve lasted this long because I’ve been willing to compromise, but I’m not compromising on having a baby, and that’s why I’ve decided to leave him. There is something missing from my life, Emma, and it’s time I started looking elsewhere for it.”
“Maybe you’re right—maybe I have been thinking about Henning on some deeply subconscious level. Or maybe I’ve just been actually feeling like I don’t belong in that marriage any more, that I should be doing something else, somewhere else. Being someone else?”
“Alright then. So, when do you leave for London?”
“I thought I might go tomorrow.”
Emma laughed out loud. “Oh my God, I was only kidding!”
“Well, I was just thinking earlier that there’s nothing stopping me flying to London—maybe do a couple of side-trips to Paris or Rome. If I got to see Henning, great. If not, I’ll have had a bit of a holiday.”
“And you can just leave? You don’t have anything coming up with your uni students?”
“No, the interviews for next year’s graduate programs are all done and applications for the next round don’t open until June, so I’ve got about six months to kill.”
“You could do a lot of damage in six months” said Emma, smiling.
“And what’s happening with Patrick? You said on your blog that you have started the paperwork, for the divorce? Is Grant going to handle it?”
Grant Wallace was Abby and Patrick’s lawyer, but he had been a good friend of theirs for years. Grant and his wife had spent Christmas with them a couple of times, and he and Patrick used to play indoor cricket together. It had been devastating for Abby to tell Grant that she wanted to divorce Patrick, but she was relieved that someone she knew and trusted was going to handle it. She had briefly considered hiring a different lawyer, but when she called one prominent law firm in the city their senior family law specialist started talking about how much more money they could ‘get out of the ex-husband’ so she hung up the phone and called Grant.
“Yeah, he’s handling it. He said it was going to take a while. I mentioned I might go overseas for a few weeks and he said that was fine, he said he’d email me if he needed to ask me anything.”
“And you’re absolutely sure about this?”
“For what it’s worth, I’m really sorry you’re getting a divorce” said Emma, giving Abby’s arm a quick squeeze. “Divorce sucks.”
“Yeah. That’s what Grant said.” Abby just shrugged her shoulders. It was not the ending she had in mind when she and Patrick got married, but not much of her life had ever turned out the way she expected. This was just par for the course.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Part of me feels like I ought to be a bit more emotional about it, but to be honest I just feel a calm sense of relief, like this is the right thing to do.”
Emma looked at her watch. “Well, it’s Saturday morning here, which is Friday night in New York, so I’m off-duty. I can come with you to the travel agent if you like.”
“Sure, why not?” As they stood up to leave, Abby’s mobile beeped. She looked at the screen. “It’s an email, from LinkedIn. Oh my God, I feel like my knees are about to give way.” She clumsily tapped in her password and opened the email. “It’s from him.”
“What does it say?!” Emma was almost jumping up and down on the spot.
“It says I’m back in Thailand … How soon can you get here?”
© 2017 Patricia Smith
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher.
First edition 2017
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is unintentional or coincidental.
Much of this story is set in the city of Canberra, which is my beloved home town. There are some long-standing institutions that I have used as ‘props’ in my story, but they are unwitting accomplices and the tales I tell about those institutions and the people who work there are completely made up.