I’m not sure whether I am remembering my own memories or my mom’s; it’s possible that I have been told this enough times for it to feel like I know it myself. Logically speaking, I was probably too young when it happened for the first time to really remember it with my own mind.
When I was five my dad fell in love with my mom’s friend. She wasn’t younger, more beautiful or more successful than my mom; she was battling cancer while my mom was battling post natal depression. If my chronology is correct, my mom, my baby sister and I moved out of my parents’ shared house into my mom’s mother’s house, away from my dad, before my mom was institutionalized for the first time. She was however emotionally unstable enough to break down in front of me, hysterically crying that my dad had fallen in love with this other woman and wanted to be with her.
Of the time in my gran’s house I remember very little. My memory skips to when we’re all back together, the threat to our unity had passed away, quite literally. I remember, yes, really this time, all four of us attending church. Dutch Reformed, Afrikaans, which is somehow relevant. My dad came home crying after most services, after over an hour of the dominee also crying, his supposed message not making sense to me at all. Once when I asked my mom what all the crying was about, she explained that the dominee had committed the same sin my dad had: infidelity. The dominee had confessed, publically and was in the process of putting his family back together. His struggle was also my dad’s struggle and their shared emotions were bringing them to tears regularly. I remember wishing they would all just get on with it so that we could have a normal life again, without all the drama.
“Normal life” was a relative term though, as it still is. I don’t think it’s fair to blame my mom’s consequent jealousy/possessiveness/obsession solely on her mood disorder, then still called Manic Depression, now Bipolar. She did, after all, actually have enough reason not to trust my dad. Her behaviour was always closely related to his: the more secretive he became, hiding in his study for hours on end, listening to music and working on some obscure manuscript on his computer, the more suspicious she became, giving him the third degree about every move, every word. Or was it the other way around? Was his study and his own withdrawn mind his only safe haven, hiding from my mom’s mistrust? But he was the one who made the first move, the first mistake. He took the first misstep. Or did he? Was his falling for someone else already only a reaction on my mom’s bizarre behaviour?
I’ll never know. The point is, neither his infidelity nor her jealousy ever ended or changed. There was always someone at work, or in the same neighbourhood, or in the same church, that had caught my dad’s eye. And my mom always seemed to be justified in her distrust. Equally, my dad always seemed to be able to state her behaviour as a valid reason for his own. It worked both ways, gnawing at our being a family, the hole getting deeper and deeper daily.
In an episode of “Private Practice,” my favourite tv series, Adison, my favourite character, finds out at the age of about 37 that, although she had hated her dad all her life for being a serial cheater, feeling constantly sorry for her mom for choosing to live with it all, it was in fact her mom who had been having an affair for many, many years, with a woman to top it all, and that her dad’s infidelity was something close to an agreement between her two parents. Adison’s reaction surprised me – such shock at 37! – and I felt quite proud of my own cynicism, all my romantic illusions having been removed a long time ago.
I now live far away from my parents not to be part of their continual marital mayhem. I can’t see my mom’s heartbrokenness at realising my dad will never be just hers. I can’t see my dad’s heartbrokenness at realizing that she will always find a reason not to trust him. Having said all that, my parents are still married, for about 34 years now, and in a surreal sense they’re actually happy. They’ve each decided how much they’re willing to forfeit to keep being with one another and it seems to work for them. I often wonder how much different their lives would have been had they each married a different person. They don’t seem to think about the what-ifs at all though. I honestly don’t know when my dad’s last real infidelity happened – it could have been when I was five, all the other times imagined by my mom, or it could have been last year with a work colleague who apparently needed many hours of extra training on the computer – and I honestly don’t want to know either. It’s one of the things we don’t talk about; there are many.
In my own relationships I have seen both my mom and my dad in myself. I have been possessive; I have been a cheater. It would be reassuring to be able to say I would never jeopardize my current relationship of a decade by giving in to either one of the two characteristics, but I don’t feel sure enough of myself to say that with certainty.