I wasn’t looking for a self-help book (ugh) as I wandered aimlessly through the bookstore that day, but somehow ended up perusing paperbacks about surviving and thriving after divorce. That’s when I found Happily Ever After Marriage: A Reinvention in Mid-Life by Sarah Hampson, creator of The Globe and Mail’s hugely popular divorce column Generation Ex.
The book immediately appealed to me – the author telling her own story of being a bride in her twenties and divorced with children in her forties, along with a balance of storytelling and reporting on the realities of what Hampson called “a new rite of passage in mid-life.” A few pages in and I realized this was no self-help book; it was a find-yourself book.
Sarah Hampson’s insightfulness meant the world when mine had fallen apart. I related so much to what she candidly, warmly, humorously and wisely wrote about embracing the traditions and the transitions of life. Happily Ever After was my go-to read the summer my marriage ended and the inspiration, comfort and camaraderie I received within its pages will always be with me. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
I was thrilled to interview Sarah (@hampsonwrites) about her column, her book, and about how embracing change at mid-life, no matter how difficult, can lead to inspired reinvention and all exciting new pathways to emerge.
Where did the idea for the Generation Ex column come from?
Sarah Hampson: I had been writing interview profiles for the Globe a long time. A new life section was starting and I remember sitting at my kitchen table thinking I should write about divorce because it seemed everyone around me was going through the same thing. That was in 2007, so six years had passed since I left my marriage and five years since the divorce was finalized.
I pitched the idea for Generation Ex, a column that would explore the social phenomenon of divorce and how it’s changed from being taboo to being a contemporary rite of passage to maturity for women. I wanted to use my own experience and the experiences of others to write about divorce in a way that I thought would be helpful. The column was initially supposed to run every two weeks, but it immediately became so popular with readers that we did it weekly.
And Happily Ever After Marriage came out of that?
The book deal arrived one year after Generation Ex debuted. Because the column went through the roof, literary agents came out of the woodwork saying I should write a book since the topic obviously resonated with so many. Although it was a different creative exercise than knocking off a column every week, the research I’d previously done very much helped in terms of putting the book together.
Was it difficult to put your personal experience out there for so many people to read?
When I started writing the column, people would say, “How can you write about your personal life in such a public forum?” I mean, gee, it was only Canada’s leading national newspaper. At first, I received quite a bit of criticism in the online comments along the lines of “What’s wrong with this woman?” and “Thank God she’s not MY ex!”
I felt that I’d already worked through a lot of my feelings about being divorced by the time I pitched that column in 2007. I’d gotten through it, survived it, and taken the time to explore my own emotions – and I think that this served me well in trying to be graceful and fair about it. I never thought that I was writing the column to be vengeful; that would’ve been too easy. I was simply writing out of the knowledge that I’d gained with the purpose of trying to better understand the emotional archaeology of what underlies our decisions to marry, to divorce and then to survive the divorce.
It’s interesting that you use the term “survive” – as if some don’t make it out alive.
In the immediate aftermath of my divorce, there were some crazy difficult years where things were up and down. My ex-husband was not terribly helpful financially or in his parental responsibilities for our three boys. But I refused to let an unhappy marriage – and of course, not all 18 years were unhappy – dictate how I would go forward with the rest of my life. I didn’t want to be poisoned by my own difficult experience. I think it was an innate survivor tactic. It didn’t make sense to go forward for the next part of my life always feeling resentful or angry or disappointed. In a way, I think that saved me and allowed me to transcend that difficult period, to make sense of it by writing about it.
What role has your now-grown sons had in helping you to move forward?
When I think back to the decision-making process that went on in terms of leaving that marriage, I remember feeling that I didn’t want my boys to think that’s what marriage was. Not to suggest there was anything horrible going on, but it certainly wasn’t harmonious. There was a lot of controlling, a lot of emotional manipulation in the marriage and it wasn’t what I wanted them to think it was supposed to be like. I didn’t want them to think that a mother who was slightly depressed or upset was normal.
Now my boys say they learned a great deal from watching me, seeing how strong I became as a single parent, stabilizing our lives and my career. In a way that’s a good thing. But I also wanted them to them to believe in marriage and see how family matters. One of them is married and one of them is engaged to be married in the fall so I’m pleased about that.
How do you feel toward your ex-husband now?
There are times I get upset when he doesn’t do things you’d expect a father to do for his sons, but I no longer feel anger at him. If anything, it’s revisited upset. It’s doesn’t last long, because it really doesn’t have much to do with anything anymore. The boys are doing well and getting on with their lives.
Sometimes, I feel a little badly that my ex made the precipitous decisions that he did. He’s had a tumultuous life; he remarried someone 23 years younger, started another family and now he’s divorced for a third time. I feel a degree of sadness for him. He hasn’t taken the time to know what great kids he has and doesn’t benefit from having good relationships with them. That’s unfortunate. It’s hard to look at someone who was once your whole world and see that they haven’t made a success of their life.
I hadn’t seen him in years until he came to my son’s wedding last year. It was cordial. My son had asked if I would be okay with him being invited and I said of course it is, he’s your father. Their relationship really has nothing to do with me anymore.
What did you learn most from your divorce?
I married young. I’d always worked outside the home and was a working mom, so it wasn’t like I depended solely on my husband but still, I had to come to terms with my worries, my ambitions and my ability as a parent. Those are the things I had to learn about myself and focus on in the aftermath of the divorce. It’s made me who I am, it’s made me so much stronger and it’s made me a more interesting person – even to myself. I think that if you want to be happy, you have to be willing to make difficult decisions like getting divorced. But then you need to learn to live with your decisions and learn how to survive them too.
Your book helped set the tone for me post-divorce, especially the importance of being gracious and taking the high road when it comes to your ex. How did you manage it?
Choosing to take the “high road” is partially about being a parent and wanting to protect your kids from the harsh reality about their dad. There have been times I may have crossed that line, and I think it came from the hostility I felt towards him for not stepping up and doing what he was supposed to do. But I think generally, I’m the type of person who’d rather be thoughtful about relationships than vengeful.
There’s a part of me that wanted to view my marriage and divorce on a higher level. That comes from a place of knowing that life is such a beautiful thing and you can choose to see the beauty in life or focus on the hard things. I don’t want to be on the lowest common denominator. I don’t want to be angry. I don’t want to be confrontational. I want the motif of my life to be generosity of spirit.
We all know people who were divorced in mid-life and just never got over it. The truth is, we only sabotage ourselves by holding on to that anger and we risk missing out on the good things that are around the corner. Just as there are unexpected bad things that make you think “how the hell did this happen to me?” so too are there unexpected good things. You just have to remain open to that possibility.
NEXT: “Life has a way of offering surprises you could never have predicted.” Sarah Hampson talks about finding love over 40 and giving marriage another try.