Last Tuesday I was enjoying a late lunch of organic quinoa with micro greens and ginger kombucha with my new friend Gisele. We figured out that we had an incredible amount in common: We married handsome men from the Bay Area, athletes who grew up with media attention and adoration from family and fans who eventually played in the NFL for many years. We both have three kids (one of hers is a step-child). She is a supermodel and I once walked the “runway” at a local wedding convention, bedazzled headpiece and all. Of course our most immediate and urgent commonality: marital troubles.
That actually didn’t happen. The lunch, I mean. The rest is true including the part where I strut the catwalk in a $99 wedding dress through a stinky, crowded convention center. But I wish I could have had lunch with Gisele because I have so much half-baked marital wisdom and unsolicited advice for her.
My husband played in the NFL for more than 12 years. He was no Tom Brady with every record in the book and seven super bowl rings; Doug was just a lonely kicker with one crummy ring. We were college sweethearts and after graduation he got drafted and I went to law school. We graduated from UC Berkeley and being the feminist poet that he naturally was, he promised me a egalitarian marriage with shared parental responsibilities; he would take a turn playing in the NFL and I would work but make sacrifices in my career until someday when it would be “my turn.” I read somewhere that Gisele wanted her “turn,” too; she put her supermodel career on hold to focus on Tom and the kiddos. (See how we are practically the same person!?)
When Doug and I got married I moved from California, where I had lived my entire life, to Louisiana which smells rotten most of the time. I had planned to be a criminal defense attorney but landed in a boring law firm job. When I gave birth to our first child, I easily quit that same job. Someday, my turn would come, I told myself. He couldn’t play in the NFL, forever, right? Afterall, at that time, the average career in the NFL was a little less than three years.
When Doug got cut by the Saints and we returned to California, we essentially couch surfed through our moms’ guest bedrooms and crappy rentals. He scored a couple of temp jobs and we spent two weeks in an Extended Stay America in Indianapolis. The next season, Minneapolis: not aromatically challenged, just cold. I had no job, no friends, two babies and it snowed on October 11. I’ll never forget that date–the date marking the depth of my misery–because my only purpose was to walk around Lake Calhoun pushing my double stroller and the irrationally early snow kept me locked down in an apartment with rented furniture and not enough toys. When he got cut from the Vikings, he had played for five teams in nine years. That tripled the average! Surely, it would be my turn.
I remember the night Doug told me the New York Jets were interested in him. We sat in our cozy orange dining room having a make-shift date night after the kids went to sleep. When he said he wanted to go and play again, inside my head I screamed, “It’s supposed to be MY TURN!” Instead, I calmly said, “I don’t think I can go.” I imagine Gisele having the same calm thought when Tom broke the news over dinner one night that he wanted to “un-retire.” She thought, “I just can’t do this.”
I didn’t go to New York. We didn’t get a divorce but Doug revealed almost 15 years later that it broke something in our relationship. It meant I didn’t support him. In fact, I meant to undermine him, he thought. Of course I didn’t mean to undermine him, I just wanted my damn turn.
So what I mean to say is, for many, many, many years, I did not take my turn. I stayed home from New York and although I was lonely, I had finally met friends (not named Gisele) and I decided to make my turn happen. I put myself into the stream of commerce, trying out ridiculous stints as a pro-bono divorce attorney, a volunteer at a shelter for women and children, even a kitchen designer. I landed as an appellate attorney for people convicted of crimes. It resembled the job I had dreamt about in law school, plus it provided flexibility to raise kids and travel to football games. The next year, while Doug played for the Jets again, we lived together in New York and I did my appellate thing from afar. I did the same the next year when the Jets cut him and the Chicago Bears picked him up.
When the Chicago season took a turn for the worse, Doug retreated into himself. He kept inside the fear, stress, and torture of daily media coverage of his mistakes. Though he was working himself to death, he was failing at “being a kicker,” his most precious of all identities. I felt an emotional loneliness well-worse than when I stayed home alone two seasons before.
I imagine my friend Gisele felt that way: alone. Tom is a football player. That is him. To leave the NFL is to leave himself (and the attention, adoration, confidence and glory that it brings). In his retirement I imagine he retreated into himself. There was no one left for her to be married to. And divorce might have been an option for us, too, if Doug had not retired that year. But finally, he did.
I think you may have guessed by now what took me ten years into my marriage to realize: Doug’s not the type of person to retire. He would never stay home with the kiddos while I went and killed it as a partner in some top firm or tried to make it to the federal bench. I realized when he founded a real estate company, which grew rapidly into a publicly-traded company, that 1.) he was a workaholic and 2.) he did not determine my happiness, my purpose or my professional satisfaction.
Eventually I got my turn because I made my professional life happen. It developed in a different way than I had expected, it involved a lot more diapers and carpooling than I thought I would ever experience, but it happened. And Gisele, if you are listening, you still look damn good, I’m sure there are some modeling gigs still out there for you.
But a funny thing can happen when you finally get what you want; you realize you were really searching for something else all along. What I really meant by “my turn” wasn’t just about my job or career; it was about my marriage. I wanted it to be my turn to be Doug’s priority. I wanted the NFL and then his role as CEO to slide back into second or third place. I wanted his identity as the star, the football player, the adored one, the one in the newspaper all the time, to loosen and free up some space for an identity that included husband, partner, father, adorer. Attention and emotional connection was what I truly wanted and needed. I wanted to feel important. I wanted our family to feel precious, sacred and even fun.
It seems clear to me that Gisele wanted that too. I imagine that she needed to be adored more than another ring. But it appears Tom was not ready for the challenge, at least during the first attempt at retirement. Maybe he will be now that his insatiable pursuit for the next super-sized accomplishment appears stalled. And so I feel badly for Gisele and Tom. I know that’s a ridiculous thing to say — she’s the world’s most beautiful woman and he’s the most accomplished football player of all time and they have loads of money–but they couldn’t figure it out in time.
If only I were friends with Gisele, if only we could have had lunch awhile back, maybe it would have turned out differently.