Migraines, Motherhood and Marriage: On the Challenges of Managing an Open Relationship
Molly Roden Winter Explores the Dynamics of Multiple Simultaneous Partnerships
I am nothing if not a diligent student, so when my therapist, Mitchell asks me to track my headaches, think about what I hope to gain from an open marriage, and talk to my mother about the one she had, I take my homework seriously.
I track my migraines, but it’s hard to find a pattern. I can get a headache while dropping Nate off in his classroom, during lunch duty or my last-period class, picking Daniel up from Afterschool, getting the boys into bed at night. Or at four a.m., I might wake up from a dream in which my head is being crushed by boulders. I might find myself downing Excedrin before a date night with Stewart, trying to keep the pain at bay so I can maintain a compartment of myself for marital bliss and carefree sex. I might think about Matt, and the nausea will rise as light flashes behind my eyeballs. I’ll be forced into bed and will cry under the covers, hoping I can purge my tears as well as my headache before the kids find me. And my last surefire way to enter the migraine zone? Thinking about my other two assignments.
Why do I want an open marriage?
And do I really have to talk to my mother?
I ask Stewart to take the boys to the playground on a Saturday so I can call her. Earlier in the week, I sent an email asking if we could make time to talk. My mother and I speak on the phone regularly. So my request is designed to forewarn her: this won’t be a typical chat.
Of course, she writes back. How intriguing!
I rack my brain for days, trying to think of where to begin. And I silently rehearse as she answers the phone, fumbling the receiver, reminding me again of her new physical reality.
“Hi, Mom!” I say, summoning my best cheerful voice.
“Hello, sweetie,” she says, sounding like she’s far away. “I’m sorry. Just give me one moment while I get the phone in the right spot.”
It takes me back to phone calls with my grandmother in the months before she died. As often as not, the phone was upside down in her hand, and we’d have to shout at her to turn it around. At least my mother is aware of her issues.
“That’s better!” Her voice is slower than it used to be but chipper as ever. “So what’s going on? Your email got me so curious.”
I take a deep breath, and before I lose my nerve, I spout the opening I’ve practiced: “Well, I’m seeing a therapist now, and he gave me homework to do. One of my assignments is to talk to you about something. But I’m not sure how to say it.”
“I see!” she says. Sometimes I think my mother must be from central casting—she could have auditioned for the role of June Cleaver. “Well in that case, I suggest you just say it!”
While I’d guessed that my mother would respond like this, I’d never managed to script my next line. I take a deep breath and out tumbles an avalanche of unplanned words.
“Um, okay. So Stew wanted me to sleep with somebody else a few years ago like Dad told you that you should have an affair and so I did it his name is Matt and it went on for a while but now he doesn’t want to talk to me anymore and I think Stewart and I are still fine but I’m worried that I might have ruined my marriage and I don’t think I should ever do anything like this again except there were parts of it that were really nice and I miss Matt a lot but I don’t know if I really miss him or if I just miss the way he made me feel and I still love Stewart but I don’t think I can handle him being with other women and now I’m a mess and I have migraines all the time and I don’t know what to do.”
The moment I come up for air, I begin to sob. I’m not sure how much my mother has been able to decipher, but I can no longer speak. I cradle the phone between my left shoulder and ear and reach for the box of tissues by my bed.
“Oh, sweetie,” my mother begins. “You’ve been holding this in for a long time. I’m so glad you’re talking to me about it now.”
“You are?” I snuffle. “I was afraid to tell you. The last time I brought up, you know, you and Jim, you seemed really…uncomfortable.” I avoid calling it shame. Over a decade later, that conversation is still wrapped in the haze of postpartum exhaustion. But when I peel away the gauze that covers my own memory, I see my mother’s stiff shoulders. I hear her halting words: I was a virgin when we married. Your father thought an affair would give me confidence. It was a long time ago.
“I suppose I was,” she says. “And I’m still not eager to share intimate details about myself. But if you need to talk about it—well, that’s different.”
“Okay,” I say. “I guess I don’t really want to discuss details either. But I have a couple of questions. Just in general.”
“All right,” she says. “Ask away.”
“Do you think sleeping with other people will ruin my marriage?”
“Definitely not,” my mother says with such certainty that I laugh. She laughs, too. I’m reminded again of the sound of her laughter—like a ringing bell—when she used to talk to Jim on the phone. This is my real mother. Not the goody-two-shoes persona I tried to emulate throughout my childhood, but a whole person, one who defied the rules, is urging her daughter to do the same, and is laughing about it to boot.
“But how can you be so sure?” I say when we settle down.
“Because you and Stewart have the two magic ingredients,” she says. “You talk to each other, and you love each other. If you keep doing those two things, opening yourself up to new experiences can only make your marriage richer and stronger.”
“You make it sound so easy. Was it easy for you and Dad? Didn’t you get jealous?” I ask, fishing for information. “I mean, I’m assuming he had your permission to sleep with other people, too.”
“I’m not going to talk about your father’s experience,” my mother says, always the vault. Her words come out deliberately, with little pauses in between as she works to control the muscles of her mouth. “That’s a conversation you’ll need to have with him yourself.” I cringe at the mere thought of asking my father about his sex life or sharing even a shred of information about my own. “I’ll just say this: it was not easy. Not one little bit. We sometimes stayed up all night talking things through. But if I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
A little lump of sadness rises in my throat as she says this. “But, Mom,” I say, “you had a real connection with Jim. And you’re still friends with him. Maybe that’s why you don’t have any regrets. Matt and I barely ever saw each other. And I’m wondering now if it was all just—I don’t know—superficial.”
“Oh, sweetheart,” says my mother. “Don’t you worry. There will be more.”
It doesn’t hit me until I’m hanging up the phone: there must have been more for my mother as well.
That night, after the kids are in bed, Stewart sits me down on the couch and asks me about the conversation.
“How did it go?” he says, looking like he just scored backstage passes at a Van Halen concert. “What did you find out? Anything scandalous?”
“Not really,” I say. “My mother always keeps it pretty vague.”
He sighs and shakes his head in disappointment. “So what did you talk about?”
“We just talked about open marriage in general, although she never calls it that. I doubt she even knows the term.” I pause, thinking of what else to say. I can’t tell Stew I asked my mother whether she thought our marriage was in trouble. It would reveal my own fear. The irony is not wasted on me when I choose to focus on something else: “She did say you and I are good communicators. That’s what’s most important.”
“Aw, that’s sweet,” says Stewart. “And I happen to agree.” He squeezes my knee and kisses me. “I’m going to get some work done. Good night, my sexy Suitcase.” Suitcase is his nickname for me. Maleta is one of the few words he remembers from high school Spanish, and to Stew, it sounds like Molly. My husband’s mind is an interesting place.
“Good night, baby. I love you.”
Later, I lie in our bed and think about my parents in theirs, during the years of my childhood. We sometimes stayed up all night talking, my mother had said. I remember overhearing at least some of these conversations. I could never make out the words, but the tone of their blended voices—my father’s baritone and my mother’s alto—was always a comfort to me. And now my mom believes that I have learned, through osmosis perhaps, the importance of communication in my own marriage.
But an unformed thought hovers at the edge of my mind. I’m starting to believe that this is the real source of my migraines— unspoken truths that I refuse to acknowledge, even to myself. The thought is starting to take shape now. It’s about what my mother said to me, in the early days of her ataxia symptoms, as she began to slow down and stumble, to garble her words and drool.
Maybe it’s all my repressed rage, she’d said.I’m starting to believe that this is the real source of my migraines— unspoken truths that I refuse to acknowledge, even to myself.
How does that rage fit into the picture of marital harmony she’s painted for me? A life in which she and my father gave each other freedom and talked through all their difficult feelings? Where did that rage come from?
And what does my mother’s rage mean for me?
I bring these questions to my next session with Mitchell. “What do you think is the source of your mother’s rage?” he asks me.
And I’m back in 1979. My father comes home from a trip with his students. He leads an experiential education program for high school seniors. My mom is a teacher, too, but the “normal” kind, with classes to teach and papers to grade. The kind who is also a mother and has to pick up her kids and shop for groceries and make dinner and wash the dishes. My mother sighs heavily when my dad announces he’s dropping off his laundry and leaving again the next day.
“That’s the only way my mom ever expressed her anger,” I tell Mitchell. “She sighed. I mean, how fucked up is that?”
“And how do you express your anger, Molly?” Mitchell asks. Suddenly it clicks.
“I don’t! That’s why I get migraines!”
“Ahh,” says Mitchell. “I think we’re onto something. Did you track your headaches like I asked you to?”
“Yeah,” I say. I’ve never been so excited to think about my headaches. I’ve taken notes on my phone. I open the document and start to read aloud. Nearly everything on my list—taking care of the kids, teaching, even sex with Stewart—has to do with a feeling of obligation. The only other item—thinking about Matt—relates to the disappearance of one thing in my life that didn’t feel obligatory. “I know men have obligations, too,” I say, “but I’m pretty sure that being a mother feels different than being a dad. It’s not just the duty to provide for your family. It’s like, as a mother, you’re supposed to give up your whole self, like you’re not allowed to have a self at all.”
“That’s not an uncommon way for women to feel. And it sounds like your mother modeled this type of femininity for you— with one exception.”
“Right! It’s like sexual freedom was her only outlet,” I say. “But she still blames her illness on repressed rage. So clearly that outlet wasn’t enough.”
“Molly,” says Mitchell, leaning in with his elbows on his knees. “It seems you have an opportunity here. What can you learn from your mother’s journey? Repressed emotion may have contributed to her illness. And repressed emotion seems very connected to illness in you as well—these debilitating migraines.”
I meet his gaze and nod furiously, tears filling my eyes. It’s such a relief to have someone spell out what the hell is going on with me. “I’m going to give a name to the part of you that feels these obligations and represses anger—let’s call her Straight-A Molly.” I laugh. “That definitely fits.”
“And since Straight-A Molly loves homework, let’s give her some. Our theme today is freedom. So I’d like you to fill out three lists.”
He tears a fresh piece of paper from his notebook and writes at the top “reassigning straight-a molly.” Below the heading, he creates three columns. I love this assignment already. The block letters, the straight lines. This is my jam.
“The first column,” Mitchell continues to narrate, “is ‘freedom from.’…What does Straight-A Molly need to free herself from? Next is ‘freedom to be.’ …And finally, ‘freedom to do.’ ” He finishes writing and gives the paper to me. It feels like he’s handing me an actual piece of freedom.
“Great work today, Molly,” Mitchell says. “I’ll see you in two weeks.”
From More: A Memoir of Open Marriage by Molly Roden Winter. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2024.