If I’m not a married father, then who the hell am I?
Two weeks after I learned about my ex-wife’s affair, and soon after I realized that she had no intention of leaving her affair partner, I went hiking. By myself. To clear my mind.
Those first few weeks the issue of identity was one that I could not shake from my thoughts. I had been with my wife since college; 18 years together, 15 married. I had been raising kids with her for basically the same amount of time. And since she was diagnosed with cancer 10 years prior, with a recurrence the year prior, I was her primary caretaker. I was with her during appointments, surgeries, and late night ER visits. Taking care of her was a huge part of who I was.
Her infidelity took my identity from me. Or so the thought kept running through my head. In fact, in a moment of real cruelty, she had told me that I wasn’t that good of a caregiver anyway. I wondered, if I wasn’t taking care of her, then who the hell was I?
I went hiking. I chose a hike that I had not done since I was a teenager, when I had gone backpacking with my father. It was the Huntington Ravine trail, up Mt. Washington, in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Huntington is one of the hardest hikes up Mt. Washington, and although not particularly technical, it is a challenge for folks who are not too comfortable with heights.
After several hours of walking through the forest and running that question of identity through my mind, I got to the headwall. I have been a rock climber for almost 30 years, have a lot of experience in the mountains, and love open, exposed trails in the mountains. Huntington has it.
When I got to the headwall there were a number of groups beginning the most strenuous part of the climb. One couple argued about whether they should keep going or go back. As I rested before starting my ascent, I noticed a group of young men who also looked indecisive. As men are apt to do, one group was egging the others on, while the less confident two of the group of five tried to take a few steps before backing down.
I asked them if they wanted some help. They asked me if I knew the trail, and I described what awaited them. I offered to walk with them, and guide them up. They agreed. For the next two hours I hiked with this group, pointing out foot holds for their boots, and where to grab with their hands. I encouraged and congratulated. The last in the group happened to be a groom-to-be, and he kept repeating that he hoped he would survive and make it back for his wedding. I kept telling him he would.
After two hours we finally made it to the top of the headwall. We took photos. They thanked me, and invited me to have dinner with them that night. We parted ways, as the remaining mile of the trail to the summit was an easier hike over talus, and I was still going to hike the 4-5 hours down, while they were going to take a van down the autoroad.
As I left the group and continued the hike alone, I had a realization. I am a caregiver. It is what I do. At home, as a teacher with my students, and with people I meet along the way. It is who I am, and my ex didn’t take that from me. My ex did not define who I was.
Our identity does change when we go through the trauma of divorce, but it also stays the same. It is what we make it. Sometimes it takes a hike in the woods to be able to recommit to those things that matter to us, and reclaim our sense of self.