In an extract from her book Feminism Backwards, out now, writer Rosita Sweetman describes the breakdown of her marriage in the 1980s and the total lack of support from any quarter …
As a young feminist I was in a great job, in a great life, footloose and fancy free. I only really ‘learned’ Feminism when my marriage imploded, leaving me and my two babies abandoned in the desert Patriarchy assigned ‘Deserted Wives’. Not a fun place to be.
My marriage was in lethal peril. By the time our babies arrived – my daughter Chupi in 1984 and my son Luke in 1987 – I had let too much slip. Glossed over too many glaring no-nos. I had never ‘strayed’ again, or certainly didn’t tell him if I did, while his ‘strays’ had become ever more blatant. At this point I was certain ‘my’ man was now seriously involved with someone I knew and had trusted, and it devastated me.
The artifice began to crumble: I wasn’t Miss Jolly Hockey Sticks anymore; I was a frightened girl without her carapace, alone and responsible for two tiny people. And the truth had to be faced: I wasn’t being jealous/paranoid/mad. He was having it off with someone else. However, when I tried to dig the truth out, I was laughed at, told I was imagining things. Even my family were largely unsupportive and I was told I was being paranoid.
After one of his frequent trips to London, when I was informed by a friend that he had spent the night at the other woman’s place, he arrived home in Ireland the next day in a lather: it was all a terrible mistake. He had nowhere else to sleep. It meant NOTHING! Etcetera, etcetera.
And so it went on: backwards, forwards, sideways. He said. She said.
About five largely uneventful months slipped by and then he announced that he had to travel to Africa for work. Several days later, a friend from London sent a postcard. He’d been at a dinner party. Such a fun evening! My man was there. The life and soul! Actually he’d never seen him in such good form!
I finally got the courage to pull the plug on the whole sorry fandango.
Not ending up in the loony bin during this period was definitely a struggle. After years of denial, after years of saying I was mad for even thinking something was ‘going on’, my ex was now living with his new woman full-time. That it was someone I was once close to only added to my feelings of betrayal. Such incandescent rage flooded through me that madness seemed uncomfortably close.
I knew I was definitely damaged. Damaged long ago by Mum’s retreat into profound depression, by Dad’s retreat into profound unhappiness, by nobody talking to anyone. Damaged by boarding school. Damaged by religion and the guilt nonsense rammed down our throats by nuns and priests. Damaged by my ex and his new partner. Shock, shock, trauma and more shock, and none of it dealt with. I knew now that Armageddon had come and I was poorly equipped to deal with it.
Not ending up in the loony bin during this period was definitely a struggle.
Separated now, I was exhausted and there was so much shit to face. There was the shit that I was going to have to face the future alone as a ‘deserted wife’ with two tiny ‘deserted’ children. The shit that ‘my’ man was laughably not so; was quite happy, in fact, to pull the plug on his life with the babies and me. Oh he’d be sad for a day or two, he told me, but he’d get over it. The shit that my babies would have to face growing up without their dad. The shit that we were penniless now. The social welfare officer visited and promised two years of deserted wives’ allowance. ‘That should see you out,’ he said. I rushed to the mirror after he left. Did I look so old, so fucked, that the social welfare officer thought I would be dead within two years? I was 42. If I died, what about my babies?
What about my babies? I cried into the night. What about them? answered the patriarchy. Here’s £69 a week. Now fuck off. The patriarchy, which had designed marriage – insisted on it, ‘to protect women and children’ – didn’t give a crap. ‘Our’ solicitor, weirdly energised when I went to visit, toddler at side, baby on knee, asked: ‘So what’s it going to take for you to fuck off? £30,000, £35,000?’ I don’t remember how I made it back down the stairs on my rubber legs.
At one point I was so desperate that I went to visit the local priest to beg £50 to get us into the next week. He slammed the drawer of his desk, stuffed to the brim with chequebooks, so hard that he caught his jacket sleeve; it ripped as he tried to lock the drawer and yank out the sleeve at the same time.
When I wailed to the barrister in her consulting rooms, she got up, eyeing me over her spectacles: ‘We could try a mental health angle.’ That shut me up.
My solicitor, a new and wonderful one, said he’d had word from ‘the other side’; they wanted to engage in mediation. I smelt a rat. Why did hubby want to get into mediation? It wasn’t his style at all. My solicitor said I should probably agree. Not agreeing might seem like obstinacy on my part.
This led to two middle-aged ladies in an oblong room, him directly in front of them, me to the side. He was in a new, very expensive cashmere and silk suit, while I was in charity shop duds. The middle-aged ladies – supposed mediators – were all over him like a rash. Yes! Of course! Absolutely! We couldn’t agree more! Finally turning, sad-eyed, to me, asking: Why didn’t I agree to him having the children at Christmas, Easter and for the summer holidays? It would be lovely for them. Wouldn’t it? Yes, all right, he was living with someone who wasn’t their mother, but children are very adaptable you know, Rosita.
Adaptable! Oh how I hated those middle-aged hand-maidens to the patriarchy.
Still, by that point I was so not a feminist that it was a joke. I was too exhausted, too poor and too lacking in self-belief to make some grand gesture like, Fuck You All I’m off to Narnia, while taking a baby under each arm and making a new home and a new life on the Aran Islands.
It was the early 1990s by this point, and there was still no divorce in Ireland. Legal separation was as good as it got, and that was a costly and complicated nightmare.
Oh yes, I certainly began to understand feminism backwards, when I was a ‘deserted wife’, i.e. a total failure in the eyes of the patriarchy. In the eyes of the world.
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