"One day last week, Jack came home from the office to find me in our basement knee-deep in water trying to take care of a burst pipe," said Kate, 45, a stay-at-home mother of two. "He took one look at me, turned around, and shouted over his shoulder that he'd be back around 10 p.m., after he worked out and went to a meeting at church.
"I just stood there, soaking wet and sobbing. Why should I stay married to a man who is never there for me? He's seldom home, but even when he is here, he's emotionally absent. And he's hardly involved in the kids' lives — never has been. Matt is now 13 and an avid soccer player, but Jack has only rarely gone to watch his games, and he always finds an excuse to miss our 10-year-old Lizzie's piano recitals.
"Jack and I got married almost 25 years ago, and waited 12 years to have kids because he wanted to be sure we could afford them. At that time, I was a piano student at Juilliard in New York City, and my teachers said I had a promising career ahead of me. But I gave it all up after Jack and I got married, so I could support us both while Jack was in medical school. I took a job that I hated as a secretary, but I just kept reminding myself that I would eventually be a doctor's wife, and I'd be able to stay home with my children.
"Finally, when I was 32, Jack joined a practice, and we were ready to start a family. I got pregnant right away and quit my job. From the time Matt was born until Lizzie was about 3 years old, Jack had regular office hours, but he had gotten into pro bono work for church projects that took up his evenings. That's also when he joined a gym. I told myself that when the kids were older, he'd be around more. I'd imagine Jack kicking a soccer ball with Matt in the backyard, or reading a bedtime story to Lizzie when she was old enough to appreciate chapter books. I convinced myself things would change.
"But they never did. Jack grew even more distant. I've tried to explain what we need from him, but he ignores me. Recently, I asked him why he didn't hug his kids more, and he just walked out of the room and slammed the door. When we do manage to talk, we fight — mostly about the kids. Jack says I'm 'pushy' and too involved in their lives. Well, I see motherhood as my job. I'm trying to motivate Matt and Lizzie to do well in school and other activities so they'll have a good future. They're too young to know what's good for them; that's why I'm here. Matt says he doesn't care if he doesn't get into an Ivy League college, but I know he'll regret that later. I'm a stickler about his homework. I also try to make him see how important athletics are. He could be a much better soccer player if he only tried harder. As for Lizzie, I chase her to practice the piano, but I know she'll thank me for that someday. She may not be the natural I was, but she could improve if she buckled down.
"My own mother was a strict disciplinarian. There were six of us kids and she kept us all in line. My father was also totally interested in his children, always putting an arm around one of us and asking how school was. He didn't make much money as a seasonal road-crew worker, but he was never stingy with his love or affection.
"In contrast, Jack's parents are very reserved. They were both university professors and worked long, irregular hours when Jack was young. He and his sister were latchkey kids. They made their own dinner many times and didn't have a curfew. When we were dating, Jack always said that he loved coming over to my house, having a big meal and then playing board games and talking for hours with my brothers and sisters. And he liked that my parents were so involved and that they had clear expectations for us when it came to discipline.
"Well, that must have been an act. Jack sure isn't like that now. The way I see it, I'm functioning like a single mother, so I might as well get out of this marriage."
"I don't think Kate ever loved me for who I am," said Jack, 46, a primary-care doctor. "I feel like she just wanted me to play the role of the father who brings home the bacon.
"Also, she expects me to be touchy-feely every free minute of the day. Kate never asks me how my day was, and she has no interest in the volunteer projects that mean so much to me. All she does is nag me about my 'obligations' as a family man.
"I admit that I spend a lot of time at the gym and on church projects (I particularly enjoy those that help the disadvantaged in the community). But that's what keeps me sane. It makes me sad not to be around my children, but I can't stand the way Kate tries to control them. Matt is a great kid, he's outgoing and has plenty of friends. But he's an average student. He tells me he'd like to be a construction worker when he grows up. He loves to build things, and he's good at it. But Kate flogs him about his homework until he's in tears. Also, while Matt does seem to enjoy soccer, he's not a star by any means. I can't handle listening to Kate dissect his performance during his games, so I stopped going.
"As for Lizzie, she's a tomboy. She hates dresses and loves to climb trees, and, in fact, she's the one who is dying to play soccer. But Kate forces Lizzie to take piano lessons, which she loathes. The one recital I did go to was a painful experience. Kate dressed Lizzie in a frilly pink dress with patent leather shoes and bows in her hair. And even though Lizzie played an easy piece, she hit all the wrong notes. I felt terrible for her. There was a time when I would have bucked Kate about pushing Lizzie to play the piano, but nothing I said seemed to do any good. I've just given up; I know that sounds awful. But Kate has such a rigid program, I can't get any time alone with the kids. If I do plan an outing, she has to come along — to supervise.
"Kate is fond of reminding me that when we got engaged, I told her that I wanted a family like hers growing up. I don't deny that; I did enjoy being with her family. It was a fascinating contrast to my own upbringing. My folks were totally laissez-faire, and my sister and I were on our own a lot. But I had no idea that Kate had this fixed idea of what our future family would be like, and that there was no room for input from anyone else — even me.
"I keep asking myself, What happened? I fell in love with a beautiful, talented musician. We met when I asked her for her autograph after a concert she played in. She was 19 and a student at Juilliard; I was 20 and a pre-med student at a nearby college. I got up the nerve to ask for her number, and I couldn't believe it when she gave it to me. We started dating immediately, and I fell head over heels. Now that I look back, I think Kate only saw me as "good husband" material. We were young, and our courtship was all about concerts and plays, picnics in the park, moonlight cruises on the river. How was I supposed to know that Kate would morph into the Stage Mom From Hell once we got married?
"Lately, she's been making noises about getting a divorce. Now that I think about it, that's not such a bad idea. If we split, at least I'd have mandated visitation and an opportunity to see my kids alone, on my own terms, without Kate's dictating everyone's move. I loved Kate once, and I hope there's a way to recapture that feeling. But I also love my kids and feel I need to save them from her. Maybe divorce is the only answer."
The Counselor's Turn
"I started by asking Kate and Jack whether Kate's giving up her music career was a joint decision," said the counselor. "They were both surprised by the question. Jack said that as far as he could remember, it was Kate's choice to quit. But Kate sat quietly for a long time. She finally burst into tears, saying, 'Music was my life. I always thought I'd go back to it someday, even if just as a hobby. But I didn't want to let it get in the way of marriage and motherhood.'
"She went on to say that her parents had always discouraged her from pursuing a music career and urged her instead to marry a man who could take care of her financially. They didn't want her to struggle as they had with six children to support on her father's unpredictable pay. When Kate started dating Jack and told her parents that he was going to medical school, they were overjoyed. They encouraged Kate to put all her energies into the future of the relationship, and that's exactly what she did.
"The news of this infuriated Jack. 'I knew it,' he said. 'Kate did always see me as just a good provider.'
"Kate was ashen. 'He's right to a certain extent,' she whispered. 'I was following my parents' dream for me. But I have always loved Jack. I'll never forget the moment we met, when he asked for my autograph. My hand was shaking while I signed his program. He was so handsome and he looked me right in the eye with the most amazing smile. I wasn't thinking then about his earning power; I was just falling in love. But when we got married, there was this tape in my head of my mother telling me that one of the reasons the match was a good one was that Jack would be a good provider.'
"In order for the healing process to begin, these two desperately needed to start talking again. I suggested that they spend two evenings a week together, away from the children. Reluctantly, Kate agreed to find a babysitter, and Jack said he'd cut back on his gym time and volunteer projects. During these meetings, Kate and Jack were to take turns honestly expressing a satisfying vision of the future. Each one was to talk for a full five minutes without interruption. Then the other was to summarize what he or she had heard. I told them that the goal was to uncover hidden agendas and be able to work toward mutually satisfying compromises and solutions.
"The results were wonderful. Kate was able to express how much she missed her music, and the fact that she had been trying to live vicariously through her daughter became clear. At the same time, Jack was able to let Kate know how much his volunteer work meant to him, and how rewarding it was for him to help the disadvantaged. He did agree, though, to limit the time he spent on his volunteer projects.
"At a session a few weeks later, I returned to the subject of Kate's music career. I suggested she take some time out for herself — by hiring a babysitter or giving Jack some alone time with the kids — to refocus on her piano playing.
"When they came for their next appointment, Kate and Jack were both in high spirits. 'Kate's been playing the piano every day,' Jack said, proudly. 'You should hear her. It's still there, for sure!'
"Kate blushed and said, 'Sitting down at the piano was terrifying. I was so rusty! But everything came back pretty quickly. I haven't felt this excited about my life in years.'
"Kate's return to her music also helped her let go of her unrealistic script for the rest of the family. Lizzie, to her immense relief, was allowed to stop taking piano lessons and try out for soccer. She made the team and turned out to be a valuable player. Kate and Jack started going to Lizzie's games together and having a wonderful time. Jack was all too willing to skip a workout at the gym to see his daughter doing something she loved.
"Meanwhile, with his mother's constant pressure off, Matt's grades improved. He kept playing soccer, which he enjoys, and since Kate was no longer on Jack's case, he started going to Matt's games again, too.
"Perhaps best of all, Kate and the kids got involved in the soup kitchen at the church where Jack volunteered, and they all felt good about the time they spent working together. And while Jack is never going to be as demonstrative as Kate's father, the happy and meaningful times Jack is now sharing with his family have made him much more likely to express his affection. I feel confident that their love and connection to each other will only improve with time. At one session, Jack put it this way: 'Kate is once again the woman I fell in love with. And now I know she's in love with me, too.'"
This case is based on interviews and information from the files of Flo Rosof, PhD, director of the Life Development Center in Huntington, New York. The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, November 2003.