On Affairs and How They Don’t Have to Mean the End of the World

My mom and dad at Igoda, 15kms outside of East London, 1975.
My mom and dad with me at Igoda, 15kms outside of East London, 1975.

During a wintry season in my parents’ nearly 50-year-old marriage, my dad took it upon himself to have an affair. As a man incapable of telling a lie, it was conducted very openly with a pony-tailed, bottle-blonde ‘friend’ of the family, and while I was protected from knowing the details of what was going on, my memory is of him coming home from work, showering and leaving again, and of his uneaten plate of dinner which my mother would leave, covered in foil, on the Formica kitchen counter. When I was both old and young enough to adopt an attitude of protective indignation, I was angry at what I perceived to be the spinelessness of my beautiful, green-eyed, flawless-skinned mother. Why did she allow this to happen? Why did she meekly, weakly stand by while he came and went as he pleased?

It took me being married myself to appreciate the courage and strength it must have taken her to watch her husband’s car reverse out the driveway and hold it together enough that her young daughter remained oblivious to her pain, even while the scent of his Old Spice lingered in the hallway. And also to understand enough about the frustration and quiet dismay which is the flip side of the image we’re presented about marriage not to presume to judge him. And what she did, which I understand now, was also extremely clever. She didn’t make a scene and throw his clothes out the front door or show up where they were, demanding justice. She simply waited it out. In typically pragmatic Capricorn-style, she understood – like most affairs – that this one would more than likely run its course, and that by creating a fuss she would only make his mistress more appealing.

So, she left his plate of supper ready for him when he got home and carried on as normal. She also told his entire (large) family, who have always adored her, exactly where he was and what he was up to when they phoned for him. They were horrified and furious, and froze him out one by one. It was due to her single-minded determination not to lose her husband, the love of her life, that he came back before long and their marriage resumed as if none of it had ever happened. But it could have gone a different way. She did what she needed to do to hold on in that moment, and ultimately she got what she wanted. And the reason all of this has been on my mind is because I had a dream a month or so ago, while on holiday in Sweden, that my husband was having an affair and I remember, even through the deep emotional pain, having a distinct dream-thought: if you want him you can have him, you just have to wait this out. And the immediate follow-up question: but, do I have what it takes to do that?

Do I possess the emotional wherewithal; the purpose of mind, the mettle to stand by and watch and wait? When I was younger I believed I was a one-strike-and-you’re-out kind of girl. Now, 15 years into my relationship, I see the world as a much greyer kind of place. I know what marriage is and what it can do. That, while it’s wonderful and fulfilling on all the levels they promise, it also has the propensity for a loneliness more vast than any amount of singledom can match. That sometimes it’s unkind and deeply disappointing. That there’ll be moments where you’ll reel at the horrified realisation of what you got yourself into and how impossibly difficult it will be to get yourself out. And this is the kind of marriage where friends say, ‘how do you guys manage to stay so happy?’ And we are, very. Not a day goes by where I’m not grateful that I chose him as my life partner because he’s so many kinds of amazing. But that is the nature of the beast.

And it’s why I think I’ve amended my position on affairs. I don’t know that I would leave. I’m not convinced, anymore, that these moments of desperate connection with another human being are not entirely understandable, given our deep desire to be heard and seen and how much gets in the way of married people doing that for each other. Would some relatively meaningless dalliance on his part be sufficient reason for me to break up our children’s home? To put us all through the mind-boggling suffering and turmoil that comes with divorce? Is my ego really that big?

I don’t know the answer and, mercifully, I’ve not been put in that position. While I don’t think I could be the wife who covers a plate of savoury mince with foil, tucks her young daughter in bed and then waits by the window for his headlights to swing into view (unfortunately for my husband I suspect I’m more the throwing-the-clothes, stalking, psycho kind), what I realise now is that my mom is made of some strong stuff and that, ultimately, we are not all that different. I’m grateful she made the choice she did, and I’m sure my dad is, too. 30 years later they are happier and more in love than they’ve ever been, and my sister and I enjoyed the privilege of growing up in an unbroken home. I hope, if this ship ever veers off course, that one of us will be brave enough to grab the wheel and hold on tight till we’ve steered ourselves back to safety.

Love, the Karoo and Route 62

Surely one of the prettiest places in the world, the Koo Valley outside Montagu.
Surely one of the prettiest places in the world, the Koo Valley outside Montagu.

My 80-year-old mother-in-law is visiting us from Denmark. In her softly-spoken, white-haired five-foot-nothingness this small, unassuming woman is the unmitigated matriarch and warm, beating heart of the large Rehn family. And spending long periods of time with her as we have been doing has reminded me of how much my daughters need to know these people who’ve been around for a long time and have lived in different worlds from the one we do now – worlds where things were scarce and times were tough and the fact that life was a series of hardships was nothing anyone bothered commenting on; it’s just the way it was.

On her first evening with us I went downstairs to hang up the clothes of hers that needed hanging, and as I carefully arranged the handful of outfits she’d packed to wear on her visit to Africa – each item having been washed a lot of times and smelling faintly of meadows but still good as new because, while frugality is second nature to her, everything she buys is of the best quality and made to last (nothing like my wardrobe which is full of things I wore once and lost interest in because it was too ‘fashion’/cheap/impractical) – I thought how different our disposable world must feel to her compared to her day where, if you wanted something, you worked and saved and waited and then, when you finally got it, understood its value and took care of it accordingly.

She tells a story about her own mother who fell in love with a set of candlesticks which she couldn’t afford so she made a deal with the owner of the shop that she would pay them off over 12 months. Knowing her family and their reputation, he urged her to take them right away, but she refused until she had paid off every last cent. People were different back then. And I was especially reminded of this fact when I found myself alone in Sweden with a toddler and a newborn and, despite our comfortable apartment and every convenience a new mother could want, flailing and struggling to cope in this challenging new role which was much, much harder than any job I’d ever performed and expecting, as I did, that life would always be fun. And my mind boggled at how this tiny woman managed to have five children in six years in a two-roomed flat with no help and no convenience anything, and cloth nappies which you washed by boiling them in a pot on the stove. I still don’t know how she did it.

Since my mom-in-law’s visit coincided with the start of the school holidays, we decided to go away for a few days, and – after much deliberation – opted for a cabin in the mountains on a farm outside of Montagu because we’ve been there before and know it’s nice. And it’s a bit special for us because it’s where we went on our first weekend away together when we barely knew one another but were starting to like what we saw. Driving up the steep, winding Burger Pass I remembered doing that drive 15 years back, tragically hungover from the previous night’s wild shenanigans in some hotel in Joburg with a mad music journalist and the members of a local band, trying to disguise the fact that I was dry-heaving all the way, having neither slept nor eaten since I got on the plane two days before.

How can you not stop here? We bought everything they had.
How can you not stop here? We bought everything they had.

And that weekend (once I got some sleep and had a proper meal) we went for walks and looked up at the stars, but we ourselves were the brightest stars of all – young, educated, ambitious, and the future was as endless as the vistas of that valley. And while this time around the valley was every bit as beautiful as it was when we first visited it, the spaces of ourselves have narrowed to become what we need to be for the people we love. We are no longer a young couple holding hands and gazing out onto a landscape of opportunity and wonderfulness, we are two very important pillars holding up the sanctified structure of our family. Its ability to protect our children from life’s earthquakes depends on our ability to protect one another, and there is more invested in that seemingly casual brushing of a hand against a shoulder in passing than meets the eye. Being the pillars is about having the mettle to hold the inevitable frustrations which are part of married life – and life, generally – and the maturity to be kind and forgiving in the face of disappointment. Because we are now the people whose job it is to keep it all together.

And it’s not not fun and wonderful, it’s big fun, and a different kind of wonderful. It’s not escaping a function to run around a mad city in the middle of the night with interesting strangers, it’s making a chicken potjie with dried peaches and muscadel and slicing the burnt bottom off the pot bread and bumping into each other on the way out of the door with one of you holding a salad and stopping and taking a moment to exchange a look while the kids run around underfoot and then lying in bed too early because you’re so full you can’t speak and watching the firelight flicker on the ceiling and smiling because you might be high on a mountain-top miles away from where you live, but you’ve never been so at home in all of your life.

The ancientness of the Great Karoo was a good place to remember these things and think these thoughts – its tiny, forgotten train stations with names like ‘Rietfontein’ and ‘Draai’; signs against the koppies assuring us that we were ‘Karoo Befok’; dusty tea shops decorated with plastic flowers where the butter is hand-churned and cooled into the shape of hearts. And I wonder, sometimes, what people belong to when they don’t make the kind of choices I did; or when they made the choice and then stuff happened that made them unmake it. If they miss that sense of place, or just find other ways of being. My world is so that, so full of children and family and busyness it’s hard to imagine a different way.

Even though she still cycles to the market, keeps her large garden perfectly manicured and single-handedly hosts three-course dinner parties for her entire extended family, I’m not sure Kirsten Rehn will make it back to South Africa. We’ve been lucky to have her with us.

Scones with hand-churned butter in the middle of totally nowhere. The sign read 'Angora Rabbit Farm' but we only found hens and a cow.
Scones with hand-churned butter somewhere outside Ladismith. The sign read ‘Angora Rabbit Farm’ but we only found hens and a cow.

5 Things you Need to Know to Live Happily Ever After

It takes having been married for a long time and making some big mistakes along the way to learn what works in a marriage and what, just, doesn’t. If you’d like to be with this guy for the long haul (and I hope you do, because it’s not better on the other side), here are some truisms you’re better off knowing sooner rather than later.

1. Your partner is not going to make you happy

He’s just a guy with skidmarks who loves you very much but is also trying to negotiate his way through this thing called life. He doesn’t have all the answers, and even if he did, it’s not possible for one human being to make another human being happy. Of course you can enjoy a good relationship which adds value and joy to your life, but that’s only part of the deal. The rest is up to you. If you don’t like your job and you have problematic friendships and you’re frustrated in whatever capacity, he could be Adonis spewing slabs of Lindt while he vacuums the lounge – you’re still going to be miserable. So, here’s the thing – you need to officially and mindfully absolve him of the mammoth responsibility of being the sunshine in your life. He is just a star – not enough to light your whole world. Figure out what it is you need to do to make your life a sunnier place and stop making the problem his.

2. If you don’t have respect, you have nothing

Remember your first date together when you looked every part of amazing, were the most delightfully attentive listener and nothing was too much effort? Over time this hallowed, romantic space changes to unwashed hair and farting in front of each other. While keeping the same level of mystery up as when you first met is impossible, it’s really kinda important not to relax too much into the comfort of your togetherness. Just because he’s made a commitment to you doesn’t give you license to whine, nag and nitpick. Or be self-centred or on his case or mean or hit below the belt. Your partner is as deserving of your respect as he was when you first fell in love. He’s a human being and he’s doing his best. Be nice, look nice, and don’t tell him to pull your finger. It’s just not sexy, and sexy counts for a lot.

3. Stop seeing him and he’ll cease to exist

The reason why people have affairs is not about the sex. You hear all the time about men who visit prostitutes just to talk and be heard. Affairs happen when people feel lonely and unappreciated. He might be as familiar to you as your favourite pair of granny panties, but try to remind yourself of how cool he actually is, and how many other women would give their left boob to have a kind, affectionate, honest, good-looking guy like him to call their own. He’s the business, and you’re lucky. And of course this goes both ways. Women look to other men when they feel like they’ve become invisible. We find ways to fill the holes in our lives, sometimes to devastating effect. If you can, somehow, keep seeing each other like you did when you first met you’ll automatically introduce a special kind of magic into your relationship. He hasn’t changed since that first day. Look past the familiar and get the person he is in the world.

4. Being attracted to somebody else doesn’t mean you have to have an affair

Forever is a long time, and when you exchange rings you don’t die or go blind. You’re still a separate human being, and it’s inevitable that, along the way, you’re going to meet at least one person you’d really, rather like very much to shag. Don’t do it. Being attracted to another person doesn’t mean you have to act on these feelings. And don’t, for the love of god, encourage the attention, irresistible as the affirmation might be – you’re just going to make things difficult for yourself and worse, incur pain on a number of people. A wise friend (who learnt this the hard way) said to me the other night, ‘I’ve revised my opinion on infidelity. It isn’t shades of grey. It’s black and white, pure and simple. You make a choice not to go there, and you don’t.’ Because if you do, even if the relationship survives, you create terrible cracks that never, ever go away. If you want to do this thing right you have to honour the trust between you. Look, imagine if you must, but don’t touch. You will get burnt, and it won’t be worth it.

5. Keep your eyes on the prize

A lot of people get divorced for a lot of reasons, but that doesn’t make it an easy option. A psychologist friend of mine talks about how divorce brings out the most primal feelings and the rawest kind of pain human beings virtually ever experience. Whatever you might think from the comfort of your so-so marriage, you’re not going to get out of it unscathed. It will hurt you, hurt your friends and families, and worst of all, devastate your children. The prize is this: a partner who loves you above all; who will be there for you no matter what; who (probably) fathered your children and therefore has only their best interests at heart; who knows you and accepts you; who sees your flaws and loves you regardless. In this world of loneliness, broken dreams and heartache, this is not a bad deal. Love him back. Be good partners to one another. Fight well and constructively, and remember how much you loved each other once. Accept that he’s going to infuriate you and that you’ll infuriate him right back. Watch your tongue and the words you use when you argue. Make kindness the default mode. What you have is special and might not come around again, so guard it with your life.

On marriage, and how it sometimes feels really, really crap

A very real marriage in summer.
A very real marriage in summer.

There’s a lot of bollocks we’re taught about relationships, but to my mind the cruelest assumption we’re allowed to nurture is that when you’re married things are nearly always going to go great. Yes, there’ll be arguments about who sees whose friends more and which of you didn’t unpack the dishwasher, and maybe even fights about bigger, more important stuff like money and religion, but nothing that won’t blow over within a few hours or, at worst, a few days. And the danger in not telling couples the truth – that, when the bad times come, they don’t always go away quickly; sometimes, they settle in and hang around for quite a while – is that people panic. They didn’t expect this. Why is it so hard? We ask ourselves. It shouldn’t feel like this. Did I marry the wrong person? Maybe we shouldn’t be together?

If only we got warned early on, we wouldn’t feel quite so bewildered when the day comes that you sit across a dinner table from your partner and the distance between you is so immense you’d need an aeroplane to traverse it. You look over at each other over dinner plates and you simply have nothing to say. You see these couples in restaurants all the time – scanning the menu after they’ve ordered; looking up at the ceiling. Because somehow amidst the maelstrom of life and the pressures of raising children, earning money, owning a house, going on holiday, getting to gym, paying parking fines, buying the groceries and doing what needs to be done to survive, you can lose one another. And, with that, the map to find your way back.

An older, wiser divorcee I worked with when I was in my twenties once said to me, ‘there’s nothing quite as lonely as the loneliness you can feel in a relationship,’ and I had no reference at the time, but later I remembered her words and understood exactly what she meant. But, here’s the rub. Barring serious problems where there is no other solution but to part company, if you can muster the courage, the mettle and the good, old-fashioned self-discipline not to bring up the ‘d’ word too often; not to succumb to easy ways out (they’re not easy in reality) and the next hopeful singleton who promises to ‘understand’ you – if you can just take a deep breath and wait this shitty time out – and it can go on foreeeeeever – I promise you with all my heart that the love almost always comes back again, better than it was before.

I’m not saying things can’t get beyond the point of no return, or that there aren’t people who try really hard not to separate and for whom parting ways is the absolute last resort, but I encounter too many who make this move without understanding the ramifications and how painful and devastating this process really is. The end of a marriage isn’t the end of the world, but you have to earn your way out of the relationship, especially when there are children involved. You are allowed to make this move only when there is no other conceivable solution. Because marriage is not going to make you happy; it’s just going to make you married. The happy thing is your responsibility, and all about how much you’re prepared to work at stuff and stick around when times get rough. As they will, without a shadow of a doubt.

Marriages have seasons, and sometimes winter stretches on. But time will pass, things will change, and stuff will happen that will bring you closer to where you were before. And, often without even trying, one day you’ll find yourselves sitting across from each other at that same table with loads of things to say. And your bond will be better and you’ll feel safer and more solid than you ever have because you survived, and you’re a team and in the end it’s the two of you against the world. It’s not better on the other side. It’s a battle of a different kind; plus you have the added complications of blended families, less money, pissed off exes and other peoples’ children. Suffice to say, that grass might look a bit different, but it aint any greener. There are enough divorced people around to testify to this. Just ask them how they’re doing.

That guy you hate with such venom at 9am on an arb Saturday morning that you’d happily put an axe in his head before going out for brunch with your friends? There was a time you wanted him so badly you could barely breathe. That feeling was real, and it hasn’t gone away, it’s just got gotten a buried beneath the crap of everyday life. Wait this period out because, more often than not, what comes at the end of it will be richer and more rewarding than you imagine now. Plus, it’s the best gift you can ever give your children. Ever. Trust me on this. Hanging in there is the better option.

War of the Rice and Other Stupid Things Married People Fight About

My husband is a good cook and I’ve learnt a few tricks from Jamie Oliver over the years, and if we were on TV this would translate to a happy, busy kitchen where he and I wear matching aprons and amazing dishes get churned out like on a little cartoon conveyor belt. Except, the fact that we are married and this is real life means that it’s not quite the case. What we learnt early on in our relationship (as in, the first time we ever cooked dinner together) is that as we both have strong opinions on how things should be done, it’s better for everyone if, at any given time, there is one designated chef, while the other one stays the hell out of the kitchen. Or, at least maintains a safe and respectful distance. And, if one has an opinion on what’s going on in the other one’s pan they do not, under any circumstances, offer it. And we stick to this agreement, and therefore stay married.

But sometimes something happens which throws a spanner in the works of our domestic solution, and that thing is being in someone else’s house who has asked us, as a couple, to perform some sort of culinary task. In this particular instance, that task was to cook the rice which was to accompany a very delicious lamb potjie. Now rice, of all things, should be child’s play, and is – except for the fact that my husband insists on cooking it this really weird way. He boils it and then turns off the heat with the notion that it will stay hot long enough to absorb the remaining water and be perfect when served. Which is great in theory, but anyone who knows anything KNOWS that rice is to be cooked gently on a low heat till all the water is gone. Because that’s the way my mom did it and therefore it must be right.

So, I break the golden rule and point this out to him because our friends have spent the whole day cooking this nice dish and now it’s going to be ruined by silly rice. When it becomes obvious that our little disagreement is not going to reach resolution anytime soon, I elicit the help of the other guests to explain to him the error of his ways. Unfortunately, the person standing closest happens to be another guy and, in accordance with Guy Law, there is no way this dude – while he agrees with me TOTALLY, I can see it in his eyes – is going to backstab another dude and let me, the chick, win.

So, the guy pretends to agree with him which naturally makes my husband very pleased. And though I try to pull my girlfriends into our little tiff, they’re being all diplomatic and not wanting to take sides. So, I take it upon myself, when nobody is looking, to turn the rice back on and try and salvage his swampy carb. Unfortunately, by this stage I have put away a good portion of Shiraz and when my girlfriends start sharing rude stories about their sex lives, I kind of get distracted and forget I’ve turned the gas on high. Nothing terrible happens – I don’t destroy the kitchen or anything – but the bottom of the pot is a little black by the time I stop shrieking and notice something is burning. Which kind of messes up my smug sense of righteousness.

ANYHOW, the food was all delicious and even if it hadn’t been, nobody would have noticed because we were laughing so hard and having so much fun that night, and I felt a bit silly the next day for going on and on about it. It’s weird how combative you can get when you’re married and how being right can become the most important thing. I wish I could say I’d learnt a lesson, and that the next time I don’t agree with something trivial he does – like cook rice the wrong way – I’ll shut the hell up and mind my manners. But, what are the chances of that?

How married people start sounding like Rainman

rainman pic

This is a conversation recorded verbatim a few hours after it happened. It’s sad. It’s really, really sad.

Me: Where is the pie?
Him: The pie?
Me: The pie. The pie.
Him: In the fridge.
Me: In the fridge? Why is it in the fridge? You don’t put pies in the fridge.
Him: It’s chicken.
Me: You don’t put pies in the fridge. It was warm. It was still warm. It didn’t need the fridge.
Him: It’s chicken.
Me: Now it’s cold.
Him: So, heat it.
Me: You can’t put pies in the microwave, they go soggy. Why did you put it in the fridge?
Him: Just heat it.
Me: THEY GO SOGGY.
Him: Silence.
Me: Pastry goes soggy. Why don’t you know that?
Him: I always put pies in the microwave.
Me: You also put bread in the microwave. Who does that? Bread.
Him: Silence, during which the pie goes into the microwave.
(2 minutes later)
Me: It’s not that soggy. It’s actually not soggy. Do you want some?
Him: Silence.
Me: Do you want some?
Him: Silence.
Me: Tell me now or it’s going back in the fridge.
Him: There’s nothing wrong with putting bread in the microwave.
Me: Right now, I’m serious.
Him: Yes, I want pie.

THE END.

Why it’s imperative to get the hell away from your children every now and then.

Holidaying without our children. See how miserable we don't look.
On holiday without our children. See how miserable we don’t look.

Before Per and I had the girls, we travelled a lot together and had a bunch of fun doing it. We’re perfect travel companions – I talk incessantly and he doesn’t utter a word, and while I have extremely fixed ideas about what I want to see, eat and drink, he doesn’t care and is happy to go with the flow. It’s a travel match made in heaven. But when you have kids, the stuff you like doing together and the things you enjoy most about each other get buried under the morass of things you HAVE to do and ways you HAVE to be to get your children through childhood without anybody dying or getting arrested along the way.

And children, let’s be honest, can be self-centred little bastards who will watch you in the death throes of exhaustion and tactile sensory overload and ask for a glass of juice. They’re sweet as pie and they write you adorable notes but until they reach 35 they simply don’t have the cognitive skills to understand how desperately hard the job is of raising them. And that’s not their fault, they’ll get it eventually, but in the interim, it’s you guys against them and you have to save yourselves.

I have to disagree when people say having a career and raising kids is a balancing act. Balancing act? That sounds like carrying a tray of tequila shots from the bar to your table in stripper heels. This is juggling, people, of the kind that would get you a job with Cirque du Soleil. That guy who balances a thin girl on his feet while handling twenty burning spears? He’s got nothing on you. It’s demented, what we’re expected to accomplish on a daily basis – and, by the by, look amazing while we do it.

And it’s only natural – I mean, this is a battle, mothers of the world – that you and your life partner, The Dude, the one you dug above all others and still (hopefully) would rather collapse into bed with after another day in the trenches will start taking all of these frustrations out on each other, and that your conversations will be about whose turn it is to do stuff and why the other one didn’t do that other stuff they were supposed to do. It’s boring, relentless and it murders the love.

Here’s the thing: before you can say varsity fees, these kids are going to be off on gap years, living in digs, finding weird friends and avoiding you as much as they can get away with. And when this happens all you’re going to have is each other. But it’s really difficult, if not impossible, relating to one another like before because the second you walk through the door of your home you enter parenting mode – it’s the new, default way of being, and there’s nothing you can do to escape it.

Except, that is, to go away for a while. Drag him by the short and curlies if you have to. Get as far away from home and your children as you can manage and you know what? Without even realising it you’ll find yourselves slowly reverting back to the way you were when you were best buddies and in love. You’ll talk about different things, have real conversations again and be reminded of why, amongst all those other people, you chose each other. And at the end of the day the best thing you guys can ever do for your kids is be happy, and together. Try it – you’ll see.