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Biography & Autobiography Personal Memoirs

Happily Ever After Marriage

A Reinvention in Mid-life

by (author) Sarah Hampson

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Jan 2011
Personal Memoirs, Divorce & Separation, Marriage & Family
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    Publish Date
    Jan 2011
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Earlier in my post-divorce life, I thought marriage would never happen again for me. Having exited a painful one, I had no desire to enter another. Why would anyone want to repeat a difficult experience? . . . I felt that my heart would never be as trusting as it once was. I had lost my faith in marriage. I wasn’t sure it was the best custodian of love. And I still feared how the wife identity could sabotage me. I was content to sit to the side and let others have their turn at giving the institution a whirl. – from Happily Ever After Marriage: There’s Nothing Like Divorce to Clear the Mind by Sarah Hampson
After eighteen years of marriage and three children, Sarah Hampson finds herself amongst the growing ranks of divorced MLWs (“Mid-Life Women”). “This is what happens when you are outside the marriage bubble,” she writes.
Suddenly, you are in a parallel universe, across some mythic river in a place where you are the un-wife – and you and your un-husband are on the un-married side. And once there, as some kind of compensation for the hardship of the journey, you develop relationship X-ray vision. You know more than if you had never inhabited the bubble. Illusions (and delusions) drop away. Everything is clearer. (pp. xi­­­ – xii)
Hampson uses this newfound vantage point outside the “marriage bubble” to bravely explore the institution of matrimony. She applies her famously warm, perceptive and frequently hilarious perspective, not only to her own marriage experience, but also to those of her family and friends, along with the myriad celebrities she has interviewed in more than a decade of journalism.
Hampson asserts that the tradition of unveiling the bride after the vows have been made is all wrong. “A bride wears a veil after she becomes a wife,” she writes. “For many, it’s a question of denial, not just of what they want and their unhappiness but also of the characteristics in their mate” (p. 138). With the veil lifted from her eyes, Hampson scrutinizes the marriage assumptions she made as a child, better able to see the domestic compromises made by her mother and grandmother, as well as her own.
As a young girl growing up in a comfortably privileged household, Hampson felt secure in her expectation that she would one day be taken care of by a husband. “The message in all quarters of our upbringing was that marriage was the life glue” (p. 30), she writes. Now an Un-Married, Hampson has no end of worries to keep her awake at night. Will her children be irreparably damaged by the divorce? Will her “Ghost Dad” ex stop disappointing them, and her? How will she manage financially? Will she find the serenity she craves?
And yet, despite her worries, Hampson finds that as a mature and independent woman she has access to the sort of security and self-possession that she sorely lacked when married. She traces her divorce journey, from her hilarious “Un-marriage Ceremony” (selling her wedding ring to a junk gold broker), to a more fully realized state of being, in which life can be viewed as “a carnival of choices, good and bad, wise and regrettable, designed not to teach us pride in ourselves for engineering whatever successes we may have, but humility in acceptance of how it happened to unfold” (p. 280).
Candid, humorous and full of fascinating stories, Happily Ever After Marriage is part modern guide, part passionate conversation with friends and part meditation on what can be seen as a new rite of passage to self-actualization in mid-life. By bravely examining her own life, Hampson brings clarity to the underlying cultural messages that inform the choices we make – and shows how embracing change at mid-life can open oneself to new possibilities of connectedness.

About the author

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist with the Globe and Mail. This is her first foray into the world of writing for children. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.

Sarah Hampson's profile page

Excerpt: Happily Ever After Marriage: A Reinvention in Mid-life (by (author) Sarah Hampson)

1. My Mother Wore Lipstick in the Chevy
My mother thinks I should take up bridge. “You never know who you might meet,” she says brightly. We were having one of our regular Sunday afternoon telephone conversations, a ritual we have maintained for years. This one took place a few years after my divorce, when I was adapting to being single again.
My mother believes in marriage and thinks men are as important to a woman’s life as a good pair of shoes. That is how her generation was brought up—and what I was encouraged to believe. “It is just what we all did,” she explained to me once about her early marriage at twenty-one, a decision that put an end to her nursing education. Her belief in the goodness of marriage has been reinforced by her experience. My parents have been married for fifty-five years, and they have endured spats of bad weather, confident the squall would soon end and that calmer seas lay ahead. Certainly, as one of five young passengers in the ship of their union, I always felt snug and safe.
“But I know how to play bridge,” I say.
“How well?”
“I get by.”
“Well, you can always get better, and it’s fun!”
For her, bridge with her friends is an important part of life. My parents have a flat in London and a house in Sussex, an hour southeast of the city. In both places, she has her circle of bridge friends, and when she returns from her afternoon games with them, she is buoyed by stories of their bidding, who played what how, and the news about grandchildren, health and recent travel that floated up in gaps of concentration.
“I don’t know, Mom. Maybe.” Somehow bridge makes me feel that knitting will follow. Or that my hips will start to creak.
“What about ballroom dancing?” she suggests. “Wouldn’t that be fun?”
“A possibility,” I reply patiently.
When I was young and had moved to a new city for a job, I told her that I didn’t know very many people, and she suggested that I join a church group. In my family, the solution to almost all complaints and anxieties is to do something. There was, and still is, little tolerance for self-pity or emotional stagnation.
When I think back on my childhood, I remember it as richly peopled—I was sandwiched between two older siblings and two younger ones—and full of adventure. I was inculcated in the importance of family. We were always doing something as a team. I was never alone. My father, who was born in Montreal as my mother was, wanted us to know our native Canada, from sea to sea. We went on canoe trips as a family in the wilderness. “It’s glooorious!” my father would say, as he floated in a lake, no matter how cold or weedy-looking. He has a way of floating on his back, in a semi-reclined position, as if seated in an invisible lawn chair. “Come in,” he would call to us, oblivious to how his determined enthusiasm would back fire, entrenching us further in various forms of teenaged sullenness.
Once, my elder sister, Daphne, who never liked camping much, sat on the beach in a funk, talking with the exaggerated, faux patience of an annoyed school teacher to the flies that landed on her arm. “All right, little Buzzie, you’ve had enough fun now. Time to leave,” she would mutter through clenched teeth from beneath her floppy sunhat. She would slap away at the fly, but if she had been able to march it off her arm by the edge of its wing, I swear she would have.
Long ago, I remember my father saying that he liked his work in the corporate world because he could “manage potential and possibility,” and I often think that was how he saw his role as a father. And there were enough of us to be a little company—one of pimples, hormones and scuffed knees, that is. We three senior ones anyway, Geoffrey, Daphne and me, even had our own collective name, GeSaraDa, and used it to christen the forts we made in the woods.
My father took all of us on as if we were a motivational project. Even on rainy mornings during those camping trips, while my mother and all of us stayed snug in our tents, he would stand outside and rouse us with “Rise and shine! Pancakes are ready!” Out we would crawl, crumpled and grumpy, to sit under a tarpaulin around a wet picnic table, eating his thick, lumpy, disgusting pancakes. “Come on now. They’re delicious,” he would say, as we rolled our eyes.
Shortly after my lonely New Year’s Eve, I tell my mother that I am thinking about taking up flying.
“In a plane?”
“Well, yes, Mom. Not in a video game.”
“A big one?”
“No, a little one. Sort of a tin can with a lawn-mower engine.” I have already taken an introductory lesson in a Cessna 150 at a small airport north of Toronto. I love the feeling of being beyond birds, piercing the sky.
“Oh, don’t do that!” she says, clearly horrified. “I don’t want you to die!”
“Don’t worry. I’m just trying it out,” I reassure her.
It’s a bit of a cliché as a pursuit, I realize, especially for women, many of whom pursue it in mid-life. I mean, what are we doing? Wanting to prove our ultimate liberation, sexual and otherwise, by showing ourselves and others that we don’t have a fear of flying? (If true, that would be your fault, Erica Jong.) It’s more about being cool, to be honest. Staying adventuresome in mid-life is a strong incentive. Besides, it’s a hell of a way to make an entrance. At an afternoon party in the country years ago, the host’s mother, who was in her sixties, arrived in a small plane by herself—a red one, to boot. As she taxied up the grassy strip, she upstaged everyone. An alternative activity is golf, I suppose. Many MLWs have embraced golf like a new religion, but on that subject I find myself paraphrasing Hermann Goering: whenever I hear the phrase tee-off, I reach for my pistol.
I know my mother wants to help. Her agitation reminds me of my own plight as a mother of grown children: you never stop worrying, no matter how old they are. In a conversation she had with a friend, which she later told me about, they were talking about their lives and their accomplishments. My mother never worked for pay. She was a corporate wife, following my father faithfully, with five children and pets in tow, every time his job for a multinational company necessitated a move. “You have your children,” her friend said. “They were your career.”
Once, when I was headed out to Los Angeles to do an interview for the paper, she phoned me to wish me a good trip. I told her where I would be staying and how long I would be there.
“Now don’t talk to any strangers,” she said at the end of our conversation.
“Okay, Mom.” I allowed a pause. “But that’s my job.”
We both laughed.
She is not quite sure what to do with me—a divorced midlife woman. My elder brother is divorced too, but in a new, happy relationship. My other siblings are in long, stable marriages. We all married young and contributed to a brood of fifteen grandchildren. On some level, we wanted to continue what we had been the beneficiaries of.
“We were just lucky,” my father says of the successful union with my mother. Perhaps it was his way of reassuring me that the failure wasn’t so much the fault of the individuals involved. But my parents’ success was more than luck.
In part, my parents benefited from being part of the same tribe—a motley band of WASPs whose history in Canada dates back to the late 1880s. Ancestors arrived in Montreal, then the commercial centre of the country, in the decades following Confederation, when opportunities were abundant. A society flourished as wealth was created. Anglo superiority kicked in, in some ways aping British society with a New World class system. They took themselves very seriously. Gentlemen of industry pictured in a souvenir book for the Montreal Board of Trade to commemorate its fiftieth anniversary in 1893—including both my mother’s paternal grandfather and my father’s paternal grandfather—described their work in noble terms. The small biographies make a dry goods merchant sound like a force of unity in the great Dominion.
My parents and their friends went to the same parties, skated the same rivers, tobogganed the same hills, ate the same food (much shrimp cocktail), sang the same hymn (“Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven”) at all important life passages and bought shoes in the same store on Green Avenue in lower Westmount. It was almost as though my parents’ marriage was arranged. Their parents knew of each other before they met as potential in-laws. That world was a little too small for my liking. The tendency to marry a mem ber of another “good family” seemed old-fashioned to me—a throwback to the days when marriages were made to secure the participants’ wealth and land titles.
My mother and father had similar expectations—an important one being betrothal at a young age followed quickly by marriage. They met at a “not out” party thrown by a mutual friend in 1952. My mother was seventeen; my father, nineteen. A “not out” party was a formal affair in a private house. “Not out” meant that the women had yet to be presented as debutantes at the St. Andrew’s Ball, held at the grand Windsor Hotel. That event involved mem bers of the Black Watch, dressed in their uniforms of kilts and red jackets, piping the women into the ballroom, where they were presented, with a curtsy, to some lesser Royal or visiting Lord.
When it was my mother’s turn to be a debutante the following year, at eighteen, she invited my father as her escort. Two years later, they were engaged.
But if their marriage adhered to the social expectations of their era and class, it was also clearly about love. As a child, their affection for one another gave me comfort. They called each other “Hon” more often than they used their first names. Sometimes, my mother would suddenly get up and plop her self down on my father’s lap. “Oaf,” he would say, surprised, pretending shock, as if the weight of her was too much. “Hug,” she playfully instructed him. “Kiss,” she said, bringing her face close to his, and tapping the side of her face, indicating where he should plant one. Even now, their behaviour is the same.
Recently, my mother showed me a scrapbook she kept of her youth. From magazines, she had cut out pictures of popular movie stars—Jimmy Stewart and Elizabeth Taylor and Cary Grant, among others—and pasted them on the pages. She had also kept memories of her courtship with my father, including a letter from him, thanking her for a weekend spent with her parents, and a note he wrote wishing her well on her night shift as a training nurse. He had given her a chocolate bar, the wrapper of which she had fixed to the page with tape. There is a large black-and-white picture of them on their first formal date, at a restaurant in Montreal, in 1953. She told me then that it took ages for my father to get up the nerve to kiss her. The week before her wedding day, my mother turned twenty-one. My father was twenty-three. By the time she was thirty-two, they had five children.
I never had to wonder where my mother was—a memory that made it difficult for me to leave my children when I returned to full-time work after the birth of my first two sons. She sent us off in the morning, and when we came home for lunch, she was there, making us a sandwich to eat at the table. She always dressed in skirts and blouses. If I went out with my mother in our Chevrolet station wagon—nicknamed Nelly—to do errands after school, when we were stopped at a red light, she would often look at herself in the rear-view mirror. She would push at her bouffant hair and check her lipstick, smiling broadly at her image, looking for red smears on her teeth.
At night, she would transform into the Wife. If they were going out to a dinner party, before they left she would come to say good-night and give final instructions to the babysitter when we were young enough to need one. Perfumed and pretty in a dress and pearls, she was foreign somehow, leaning over to kiss us. Our mother was now his, not ours. And just as we saw the edges of their intimacy, we witnessed the fringes of their disagreements. The summer that I was fourteen was particularly difficult. My mother was thirty-eight, with three hormonal teenagers, two younger children and two golden retrievers. My father was away a lot on business. When we were staying in a rented cottage in Cape Cod during a two-week holiday, I remember my mother saying, “Well, maybe we should just get a divorce.” But no argument ever erupted in front of us. My father looked at her, silently, as he put down whatever it was he was reading. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. And when he returned to reading, she made a face at him and blew a raspberry in his direction.
More often than not, my mother deferred to my father in family matters. He set out a monthly household allowance for her to follow. The Depression had been a factor in their youth, despite the comfort of their childhoods. As a result, they had respect for money and the discipline of frugality. We adhered to a strict, no-frills budget. Our diet consisted of fish sticks, frozen peas, meat loaf, Kraft Dinner, shepherd’s pie. My mother made a dish called Frickatelli, with hot dogs in rice and tomato sauce. Only on our birthdays were we allowed a glass of orange juice at breakfast. For years, we drank milk that was a combination of real milk and the powdered variety, mixed with water, to make it last longer. Toward the end of the month, if she had run out of money and needed to ask my father for more, an argument often ensued—behind closed doors. My two sisters and I say that our determination to make money of our own, even if only part-time when we were busy with young children, was partly fuelled by not wanting to be in the same position as our mother, who had little economic autonomy.
But for all the inequality in their relationship, at least in those years, there was also a deep commitment to each other and their family. We moved around frequently in the first twenty years of their marriage. It was our family that was the consistent element, not our school, not the neighbourhood or city or province in which we lived, not our friends. We were our own little country. Despite the peripatetic quality of our life, our parents provided constancy. My father worked for the same company his whole career, enjoying a sure and steady rise up the corporate ladder. My mother was always there when we came home, wherever home was. Rituals remained the same. In the late afternoon, after homework time and supper preparation, she liked to rest on her bed. When I came in to talk to her, she often asked me to lightly run the tips of my fingers over her back, under her shirt. “Like that. Perfect,” she would say. “Keep it up for ten minutes, and I’ll pay you ten cents.”
My parents did not live at a time when the Pill allowed them to easily opt out of parenthood or to engineer our arrival. They had children because they had them—not always perfectly planned; welcomed and loved, but not idolized. My elder brother and I are eleven months apart—for just over a week every year, we are the same age.
My parents’ relationship to one another, which always seemed like something special and different from what they were to us as parents, had an immutable, self-contained quality. And I think that partly accounted for its success. They treasured what they had together, just the two of them, as much, if not more, than they enjoyed their interaction with the family as parents. And they rarely let one sphere intersect with the other.
When we were young, we would be sent off to bed after our baths so they could have their adult time. On some weekends, we would go to visit my maternal grandmother at her farmhouse outside of Montreal in St. Andrew’s East. There were plentiful apple orchards and weather-worn sugar shacks deep in the woods. She had been widowed in her early fifties, so my parents brought us often to visit her there, to fill up the rambling house and her life.
At night, branches from the big trees scratched the windows, and the walls groaned in the wind, like the hull of an ark on high seas. Geoffrey and I would often slip out of bed and into the hall, flatten ourselves like inchworms on our tummies and wiggle closer to a wide, black grate in the floorboards. The one we liked best was right over the living room. It was a perfect window into the adult world below, a place of crackling fire, music and conversation, where we could see my mother, legs neatly crossed, laughing, and the top of my father’s head, hair brushed neatly, wearing a blazer, both of them drinking from heavy tumblers and leaning in to tap the tops of their cigarettes into a ceramic ashtray the size of a pond. It fascinated us that our parents lived a separate existence beyond our understanding in a parallel universe.
“It’s not easy being single in your forties,” my mother said tome when I was on the brink of divorce. As an older woman, my  eligibility was diminished, she thought, and she was expressingher worry—perhaps as an incentive for me to remain married—that I would not find a new husband. She is aware of the loss in “social capital”—the term psychotherapists use—that comes in the wake of divorce, when a former spouse loses contact with the ex’s family and those friends who side with the other. She would like to be able to make my life more conventionally happy. Recently, as a joke, she sent me a gimmicky item that read Grow a Boyfriend! A tiny plastic he-man in a white undershirt came with a promise: Mr. Right grows 600% his size in water!
Social currency for a single woman is also not the same as when she is part of a couple. A few years ago, when I was in a relationship, I was invited to a neighbourhood dinner party with a group of other couples who had met my boyfriend. It was the first time I had been included in their social circle. “That’s because you’re with a man,” my mother observed when I recounted my week to her in our regular phone call. “Otherwise, a single woman is seen as a threat.”
When I talk to her, I tell her I am happy on my own—even if that’s not always completely true. “I have great friends. I love my work. The kids are doing well. I’m fine, Mom. I’m happy.”
“I’m proud of you,” she says. “You’ve made your life work.”
Sometimes I feel that she projects her own fears of being alone one day onto me, so I didn’t tell her what a single, nevermarried woman I know said to me when I asked her how she coped with occasional loneliness. “You learn from the widows,” the fiftysomething explained. “You keep busy.”
A few times, I have spoken to my mother about widowhood. So many of her friends have lost their husbands. “The men just drop like flies,” she often says. When my father, never one to admit frailty of any kind, changes a flat tire, shovels a path of snow or carries heavy suitcases up flights of stairs, she expresses her anxiety by joking, “Don’t have a heart attack today.”
Stupidly, about two years ago I gave her a copy of Joan Didion’s the Year of Magical Thinking, a meditation on the sud den loss of her husband. It is beautifully written, elegiac, I reasoned. My parents are both avid readers. But later, when I asked if she had read it, she said she hadn’t. She had thrown it out. “I didn’t want it in the house,” she explained.
“I think people react differently to grief,” I told her once, when we went out, just the two of us, for lunch when I was in London.
“How would you know that?”
“I don’t know. It’s just what I imagine—that you can’t know or plan for how you will feel.”
“You’re right, I think.”
“It’s one of those things you only know when you’re in it.”
“Like divorce?”
I nod at her acknowledgment that our marital experiences are so different. “Or, like a good marriage,” I say.
We laugh.
“Some of my friends are just fine,” she says, returning to the discussion about widows. “They get on with it. They find things to do.” She pauses to eat, finishes her bite. “And some women are quite relieved when the old duffer passes on.”
We laugh again.
My mother has never been on her own. She moved from her father’s house into one shared with her husband. In their forties, I remember my father telling her, “I’ve known you longer than I haven’t known you.” Now in their seventies, they discuss health in the same absorbing way they used to discuss children. “It’s just the stage we are in,” she says, explaining that when their friends get together, they all have a conversational rule. “We are allowed to talk about health issues for only ten minutes. We could go on for hours, if we wanted to.”
It is hard to imagine how one would cope without the other. My siblings and I naturally express worry about the eventuality. Their marriage has largely defined both of them. “We do things together,” my father once said when we were on holiday as a family, to explain why he was waiting patiently for her to get ready to go to the beach, which was mere steps from the front door. In the morning, my father usually sets the table, placing all the little homeopathic pills they take, and a baby aspirin, next to her place and his. Over the morning papers, they do the anagrams and other quizzes together. “Brain fitness,” my mother says, tapping her temple. At Christmas and on their birthdays, they shower each other with presents, each delighting in the other’s reaction.
My mother never lets anything change the way she conducts herself, not a crisis, not advancing age. She rarely appears at the breakfast table without having “put my face on,” as she says, which means lipstick and a bit of eye makeup and rouge. Once a week, she goes to her local hairdresser and comes home with a high helmet of smooth, hairsprayed hair. When she swims, she holds her head above water, wearing a bathing cap like a fancy Easter bonnet. One year, when we were together for Christmas, she filled my stocking with little presents, one of which was a single napkin ring. I took it as a reminder about keeping up one’s standards when liv ing alone. I was not to start slouching toward the Frigidaire in my pjs.
She and I tiptoe around our generational gulf. We respect each other’s geography, which mostly involves me charting mine for her. I know hers well through observation and the often-unkind judgment of a daughter. For the longest time, I thought hers was an unfulfilling life. But I see now how short-sighted that was. My generation’s brand of womanhood confounds her. When my two sisters and I started having babies and trying to figure out what our balance of work and family should be, our mother expressed admiration over our individual permutations of the Juggle. “I don’t know how you girls do it,” she said.
She is the product of a forgotten time, when many women and certainly most of her friends didn’t pursue work. A career was a sort of distasteful sideline, suggesting that their husbands were unable to support them, and divorce was something people did not do.
When I told her that I had pitched the Globe and Mail on the idea of writing about marriage and divorce, she reacted with some astonishment.
“And you’re going to write about your own?”
“Well, yes. Why not be truthful?”
“Interesting,” she replied in a small voice. My parents come from the sort of background that frowns upon personal display. A woman who laughs too boisterously was considered unbuttoned somehow, lacking discretion. A person—and certainly a woman—should be in the newspaper only three times: for birth, marriage and death announcements.
“It’s what everybody does now—they write about their own experiences. Because of blogs, I guess.”
“Blogs—first-person accounts on the Inter—”
She cuts me off. “I know what blogs are.”
“Well, like that, then.”
My parents are not ones to be left behind the times. They e-mail like teenagers.
“And besides, how could I not write some of my story when I’m asking people to tell theirs? It would be cowardly.”
“Oh,” she says.
“And you and Dad are going to be in it.”
“Well, just a bit. It’s a good thing you live in England,” I joke.
As much as she tries to understand the state of mid-life post-divorce, and the fearless exposure of the truth about marriage that it often invites—a violation of its sanctity, some might say—she is still on the other side of that mystical river, in a different bubble of experience, like women who have never had children trying to fully grasp the sea change ushered in by motherhood.
But if I once questioned the nature of her marriage, I now envy her for the life she and my father built together. They share a lifetime of memories. Even if I marry again—tomorrow—I will never know that.
We choose partners whose personalities are the same, the opposite or a combination of both or one of our parents. That’s what the Oprah-endorsed Imago Relationship Therapy maintains anyway. (They encourage participants to recognize which parts of their partners are their mothers or fathers, and then address, in a positive way, the unmet needs from childhood—because parents apparently leave all of us with some.) Like many people, I have thought about the influence of my parents, and the example of my father as a man and a husband. As I was growing up, he could be authoritarian, strict and formal. When I was sixteen, he allowed me to have a drinkbefore dinner—only a thimbleful of sherry in a small glass, despite the fact that my friends and I were drinking beer on a regular basis and had, on several occasions, snuck into a tavern downtown behind the old Montreal Forum.
He preferred my sisters and me in feminine clothes. “Is that what you’re wearing?” he would say, slightly disapprovingly, as he folded down a flap of his newspaper, when we were going out as a family and one of us appeared in pants rather than a skirt or dress. Invariably, we would retreat back upstairs to change into something more appropriate. It wasn’t that we were being encouraged to be dependent as future wives. We were all inculcated with a strong work ethic, and expected to work at a summer job after the age of sixteen. And the expectation that we would all go to university was very clear. But I was raised with a version of femininity that was not so much about being a woman as being a lady—demure, never pushy.
My father was the patriarch, and we obeyed him. He insisted that we learn proper table manners. Most Sunday lunches or evenings, we would eat in the formal dining room. When the meal was finished, we had to ask him, “May I be excused from the table?” We learned to respect our elders. We didn’t dare talk back to him or to our mother. He never once called his mother-in-law by her first name, Margaret, or the name we called her, Gagi, even though she insisted. He addressed her, always, as Mrs. Evans. Well into my thirties, I used Mr. or Mrs. for my parents’ friends too.
When Geoffrey and I were about seven and six, respectively, we shared a room in our family home in Toronto, where we lived for a year. One night in the summer, we lifted the heavy curtains that covered the long window between our beds to look at our parents in the garden during one of their parties. My father happened to glance up at our window, and saw us there, the tops of our heads. We dropped like stones into our beds, under the covers, feigning sleep. We heard the slam of the back door, the sound of his feet coming up the stairs. He asked us what did we think we were doing, out of our beds, when we had been told to go to sleep. Maybe we murmured some attempt at explanation or apology. It didn’t matter. He spanked us, each separately, on our bare bottoms.
He was often remote—a scary authoritarian figure in many ways. I may have wanted a husband who was more emotionally available, but that didn’t mean I avoided men who took control. I revered my father’s calm guidance. He always knew what to do, especially in a crisis. I will never forget an evening when we went out to the theatre in the West End of London, when I was home from university. Before the performance began, we were standing on the ground floor, in the foyer, having a drink, as is the custom. In a far corner, a man suddenly drew a knife and began to slit his throat in a suicide attempt. There were screams. People recoiled in horror. My father walked over to the man and grabbed his hand, forcing him to drop the knife. “Don’t do that,” he told him sternly. Shortly after, the police arrived and led the man away, while the patrons filed into the darkened theatre, glancing with expressions of admiration and curiosity at my father from the corner of their eyes. We were in awe too, of course, following him like minions after their monarch.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Helen Gurley Brown, the iconic former editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, and author of Sex and the Single Girl, the book that promoted sexual liberation and made her name in the 1960s. She was eighty years old when we met, and she had come to Toronto to accompany her husband, David Brown, a noted film producer. We started talking about love, marriage and sex (what else?), and without any hesitation, she was soon telling me about her octogenarian libido. She explained, smiling wickedly through her bright red lipstick, that it was good, very good—which was a bit more than I needed to know. I recall that she even told me about some techniques for the bedroom.
I asked what the secret was to her long marriage. She and her husband had wed in 1959 and survived all her success and his. Never marry the charmers, she said. Forget the men who whisk you off your feet, who wine and dine you, who are out to impress you with their fast cars and nice clothes and fat wallets. She held up one boney forefinger to make her point. “Go for kindness,” she advised. That’s what she had done. “You want someone who will be your best friend, who will support you and want the best for you.”
I never focused on kindness as a trait in the men I wanted to date when I was younger. It seemed too bland an attribute, something expected of a little brother, not a lover. I wanted something more exciting. But I see how vastly underrated kindness is. I see that it is what nurtured my parents’ marriage. My father was and is not an uncomplicated man. His moods are many, but kindness is the most constant.
He encouraged my mother to go to university, which she did, part-time, when she was forty. And when she and one of her friends wanted to work outside the home, he helped the two women to set up an art gallery in downtown Montreal, a venture that made mini mal profits. Upon their move to London, England, in 1978, he supported her when she studied decorative arts. He treasured his relationship with her. On Valentine’s Day, he would send her a goofy card in the mail, with Guess who? written in a script that was meant to be that of a mysterious suitor.
A typically retro Dad, seated behind a newspaper most of the time rather than on the floor with us building forts, his love was rarely expressed in words, but it was never questioned. When my younger brother was brought home from the hospital after his birth, I remember feeling that I had lost my place. I had been the baby of the family for almost seven years. In the nursery, my father motioned for me to sit on the wobbly platform of his knees. A few minutes later, he took me into the living room to sit beside him on the piano bench, just the two of us. He played something. I can’t remember what. His long, thin hands floated over the keys, rising and descending gracefully, like birds.
The message in all quarters of our upbringing was that marriage was the life glue, which I’m sure helped propel me into marriage at twenty-five. It doesn’t surprise me that I was one of those young girls who dreamed of being a bride. I was raised in a culture that revered it. When I was eight or nine, I liked to fasten a white ballerina skirt to my head like a bridal veil, my hair scraped back off my face. I walked slowly toward a mirror in my nightie and would gaze at my reflection, as if I were the husband admiring the beauty of his wife. And then I would practise a kiss by pressing my lips against its cool surface. I rehearsed life as a mother too. My brother and I loved to play family with our stuffed toys. His room in our house in Montreal had a blue rug, which we pretended was a sea. His bed was the ship, and we would go to far-off places with our brood of monkeys, bears and a kangaroo. Rescues were often necessary, as some insisted on diving into the sea. Our game was called The Hansons—our own rendition of Hampson.
In our extended family, there was the curiosity of Greataunt Mabel, a spinster, as they called unmarried women then. Mabel suffered from macular degeneration, which forced her to wear thick glasses. As she aged, she developed a widow’s hump on her back from poor posture. Her lack of physical beauty served as explanation of her ineligibility, underscoring a pernicious paternalistic message that women are happiest when pretty enough to be held in a man’s gaze. She was painfully shy when she was a girl, we were told. The youngest in a family of three and the only daughter, she had cared for her father after her mother died (which was ex pected of daughters in those days). By the time he died, she was in her early forties, well past the traditional marrying age.
Throughout my childhood and into my adulthood, we went for tea at her house, where she lived on her own for nearly fifty years. She would feel her way along the walls. She never used a white cane. She acted as though she could see. As children, we knew not to laugh when she almost missed while pouring the tea from her china pot into the cups. Her best story was one she repeated often. She was walking down the street in her neighbourhood one day and fell down an open manhole. The men in the bottom of the sewer were very kind. They helped her up the ladder and gave her back her purse. We loved her, but she was a strange creature, who didn’t quite fit. I thought of her as someone who had been left behind somehow, abandoned, as the traditional opportunities of life—marriage, children, work—passed her by. Not that this was ever expressed by her or any of us, of course. She was included in our family rituals like a treasured relic.
Even in the story of Granny, my paternal grandmother, who was not an easy woman and never seemed to enjoy domestic life, the lesson was that marriage meant more than we sometimes think. A spoiled and somewhat vain woman, she had grown up the last of sixteen children. Her father had a boot and shoe business, although, when pressed, she would only allow that the family was “in fine leathers.” (One of their biggest contracts had been supplying the army during the Boer War.)
In the dining room of my grandparents’ house, where we would often go for Christmas dinner and other occasions, a portrait of her hung on the wall behind her chair at one end of the table. In it, she wore a dress of black silk satin, designed by Oleg Cassini. “Buster,” she would often say to my grandfather as we settled down to dinner. “The portrait light is not on.” A tall, round man with a face as gentle as Sunday (his nickname came at birth because he was ten pounds), he would get up from his seat at the opposite end of the table and dutifully flip the switch.
But if my grandparents’ marriage survived on repressed, patrician manners, its sudden end, when my grandfather died, turned my formidable grandmother into a vulnerable widow. She developed a nervous habit of biting her lip. She adjusted to the change eventually, travelling with friends and inviting the family on holidays together. But she was never again as fierce. All those years of being impatient with him, of reminding him to do this and that, of being annoyed about the qualities he didn’t have, were suddenly replaced with fondness for the lovely traits he did have. It wasn’t just that she was alone but that she was without him, the very man who had once made her seem so discontent.
It is often said of children of divorce that they emerge from childhood damaged by the conflict they endured, soured to commitment in their own relationships by having witnessed their parents’ broken promise of everlasting love. But we all carry some kind of weight from childhood, even a wonderful childhood—a burden of expectation, if nothing else, that you will have what your parents had, that you will fulfill your dreams, that the world will be as fair as it seemed back then. I sometimes think that the happiness of my childhood was a liability as I became an adult. I had a burden of trust. I thought husbands were like taxi drivers. If you chose to take one, to become a passenger, they would get you to your destination safely. That was their job, wasn’t it? They had a licence. They would know the way.

Editorial Reviews

“With great compassion and insight, Sarah Hampson takes the reader on a journey through the dilemma of divorce: its confusion and pain as well as the clarity and contentedness it can bring. She shares her stories and wisdom like a treasured friend, which is what you will feel she is by the time you finish Happily Ever After Marriage.”
— Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle
“Compassionate, bracing and rich in life-tested wisdom, this is a book that mid-life women have been waiting for. Sarah Hampson points the way from the bruising disappointments of love gone wrong to new possibilities for growth and connection.”
— Rona Maynard
“An important new book that combines respect for marriage, love and child raising with the changing expectations of how we want to live our lives. Hampson’s thoughtful and moving take on life after divorce will inspire all women in mid-life who have come of age after their marriages ended. And—hallelujah—it gives divorced men and women a much-needed context for their experience.”
— Susan Swan
“Sarah Hampson’s book on the upside of divorce is like having a glass of wine (or two) with your girlfriends: it offers good medicine, laughter and hope.”
— Marni Jackson

"[An] intelligent, thoughtful and finely written meditation on midlife after divorce."
— The Gazette (Montreal)

"[Hampson] finds a good balance between the personal and the professional, humour and nostalgia, and even men and women. . . . She is brutally likable, her writing smooth and honest and self-deprecating, her story real and relatable. And even better, no dude rides up in an Audi to save the divorcée in distress. Take that, fairy tale."
— The Globe and Mail

Other titles by Sarah Hampson