Warrior Women: When Life Turns Upside Down, There’s Safety—And Strength—In Numbers

Illustration by Verónica Grech
Illustration by Verónica Grech

I belong to a secret club. It has no clubhouse. No fees. No secret handshake. Yet all of its members instantly recognize one another.

You do not have to go through an exhaustive series of interviews nor a hazing process to join this club. You do not even have to put forward your best self in order to be accepted. In fact, the whitewashed you required by so many other clubs—the successful you, the confident you, the you who knows everything and is the life of the party—is welcome if you want to bring her, but you’re just as welcome to leave her at home and show up battered and bleeding. The only version of you required for membership in this club, in fact, is the you that emerges from the chrysalis of your former marriage.

The Council of Warrior Women, I call us, because we have been both strengthened by our battles and transformed by them to the point where sharing our stories across flickering candles becomes both balm and necessity. In many ways, we are not unlike the group of war journalists I used to hang with, back in my pre-married days. Minus the penises, alcohol abuse and bragging.

Take the other night. Six of us were gathered around the table to celebrate singer Sasha Lazard’s birthday. I met Sasha back in the ’90s, when she was dating a good friend. She later married another friend. Recently, they divorced. We were still acquaintances more than friends until the night I sought her out in the midst of my marital turmoil, before I’d pulled the plug, and she opened her home, heart and mind. “What do I do?” I said. We were sitting on her couch, our knees tucked underneath us. I was alternating between hyperventilating, laughing and crying.

She and her ex are still good friends, the perfect model of how to divorce if you must. “I can’t tell you,” she said, wisely. “But I will be here whatever you decide.” I told her about a book that had just been published by a fellow warrior, my old friend, Katie Roiphe, whose advice, love and friendship I’ve counted on for a quarter of a century. Sasha went out and bought In Praise of Messy Lives the next day and called gushing after she read it. We spent an hour discussing and dissecting that book on the phone, two Talmudic scholars parsing a radicalized Torah. I promised Sasha I’d introduce her to Katie.

I kept that promise, at the home of another warrior, a pediatrician with whom I not only bonded over our exes both living 3,000 miles away from the seven kids we have between us (I have three, she has four), but also over similar health threats that erupted simultaneous to our breakups. The pediatrician’s condition was more dire and further along than mine. When she was going through one of her rougher patches, a bunch of us arrived at her apartment armed with the heavy artillery: copper pans, chicken thighs, wine and conversation.

That’s who we’ve become: fighters, realists, foot soldiers of the matriarchy who’ve put up with so much at this point that when we see or smell bullshit, we call it by its name and say, “No more.” Not one minute more.

But back to Sasha’s birthday, to which her friend Mary Alice Stephenson, fashion doyenne and founder of Glam4Good, showed up with her right ankle swollen beyond recognition. “What happened?” we all gasped.

“Oh, you know,” she said, shaking her head and rolling her eyes. “I was just walking along, minding my own business and then boom. My ankle collapsed. Nothing more dramatic than that.”

Yes, of course we knew. That’s how bad things happen, including partnerships, marriages and love affairs that implode. You’re just walking along, minding your business and then boom. Something shifts. A crack appears. A leg gives out. The pain shoots through you until you can take it no longer.

“Sit down,” I urged my fellow soldier, as if we’d known one another for years instead of seconds. I sat her down. We stole some of the ice our sons were using to make homemade ice cream and propped up her leg on a bunch of throw pillows. They were second nature, these actions, just like in battle: you take stock of your injured; dress the wounds; leave no (wo)man behind.

Later, after we’d eaten and laughed and compared notes on post-marital dating, the conversation took a turn for the serious. Two words—“Kelly Rutherford”—were whispered solemnly, as if in a church, with the same inflection my late grandmother used whenever she uttered the word cancer, but without the Bronx accent.

Rutherford, the actress best known for playing Lily van der Woodsen, Blake Lively and Connor Paolo’s mother on Gossip Girl, had just lost custody of her actual children, Hermes and Helena, after the judge ordered them shipped back to Monaco with their father.

“The whole system’s corrupt,” said another woman at the table, who’d spent time in the same judge’s chambers as well, losing the right, therein, to stay in her home. Judges, she said, rely on donors for reelection, and her ex-husband’s lawyer had made a sizable contribution to the judge’s kitty. “Also?” she said. “She hates women.”

Whether this was true or not, we all sighed. It was awful to be reminded of the real damage women can and do inflict on other women, especially in this environment of mutual support. Warriors we may be, but we use our newfound strength and aggression to right wrongs, not to punish, manipulate, or otherwise cause harm. 

“You have to watch Divorce Corp on Netflix,” I urged them. My ex and I are doing mediation, and I have had full custody of my children for over two years, but still: We’re at the beginning of our proceedings, and that documentary haunted me. Especially the idea that potentially dubious “forensics” experts could hold the fate of one’s children’s lives in their hands.

“We should all move to Sweden,” I said. It was not the first time I’ve said so. Scandinavian countries are markedly better than ours at so many family- and child-related matters, including maternity leave policies, childcare and early childhood education. Of course they do divorce better and more humanely than us, too. What else is new?

All the warriors took out their iPhones and jotted down the name of the documentary. “We have to do something,” said one of the women at the table, who was fighting her own battles with a narcissist ex with unlimited funds to crush her in court. “The way it is now, everyone loses, particularly the kids.” The six of us made plans to meet again and create a new army to take on the U.S. family court system.

I have no doubt we’ll try. Because that’s who we’ve become: fighters, realists, foot soldiers of the matriarchy who’ve put up with so much at this point that when we see or smell bullshit, we call it by its name and say, “No more.” Not one minute more.

If you’d asked me back in my married days if I would have wanted to join this particular sorority of soldiers, I would have said no. Are you nuts? Absolutely not. But now that I’m firmly in it and of it, I am surprisingly grateful to count myself among their ranks.

When the plans you’ve made for happily ever after get foiled—a fate that will befall all of us, being mortal—you are given the early gift of understanding the futility of stressing out over what was or might be.

These women, by virtue of what they’ve been through, are some of the most no-nonsense, honest, empathic, humble, kind and openhearted women I know. None of us, as far as I know, are practicing Buddhists, but we might as well be. We’ve all learned how to live in the moment. It’s the only moment that makes sense. When the plans you’ve made for happily ever after get foiled—a fate that will befall all of us, being mortal—you are given the early gift of understanding the futility of stressing out over what was or might be. The past is done, the future is uncertain, it would be ludicrous, we’ve all realized, to live in any other moment but the present.

There’s a shorthand we find, too, within minutes of meeting one another, a disintegration of all those extraneous, silly rules of society and propriety. Mary Alice, for example, invited me, my son, my then-current beau, and my dinner guests she’d never met to her place in Brooklyn for dinner the following Saturday, when she realized her ankle would keep her from traveling north.

Yes. Of course. I had an excellent sisterhood when I was married, too, the best of which have stuck with me through this new, untethered phase. But when you’re hanging out with a group of female friends one weekend, their spouses or partners the next, there’s a line you don’t cross. Ultimately, in any partnership worth keeping, however flawed, one’s allegiance is to one’s partner. You keep his secrets. You hide his flaws. You discuss the real issues with your confidantes, but only up to a point. It’s unkind, wrong and damaging to the dyad to do otherwise.

In fact, it was only when I realized I could no longer keep the secrets of my marriage—that what was happening therein was too painful and damaging to hold inside any longer—that I finally realized I could no longer stay in it.

A few days after dinner at Mary Alice’s, I went over to Erika Repola’s to try on the dresses she’d started designing after her marriage had fallen apart. I’d met her at a party, but like all warriors who meet for the first time, we’d instantly bonded. Her response to her rupture—and to the lack of pretty frocks available to her and to other women of our age—was to take a leap from her day job, start from scratch and create the kind of dress she desperately wanted but couldn’t find, particularly as she re-entered the dating scene.

“I wanted to feel sexy and pretty but still comfortable and not matronly, and there was nothing out there like that for me,” she said. “Nothing. What I needed was really a next-generation wrap dress, but with an elastic waist, so I can still feel O.K. in it at work after I eat lunch or on a date after dinner. Plus I wanted looser arms.” Her mother, the designer Reiko, had also started designing dresses and fabrics in her mid-40s, first for Halston, then for her own company, Ernst-Reiko, which she co-founded with Erika’s father. In other words, Erika had seen that personal transformation was possible for a middle-aged woman, both workwise and fashion-wise.

I told her I’d been feeling a similar need, for a costume for my new body and new battles: learning to love again, to trust again, to feel sexy again. A soldier, after all, needs her uniform. But I’m the village idiot when it comes to fashion.

“Here,” said Erika, “try this one.”

I slipped on one of the samples, a kimono-inspired dress—Erika is half-Japanese, half-Jewish—made of sheer blue silk and velvet. I looked in the mirror. The fabric draped perfectly, revealing neither too much nor too little. The woman staring back at me looked put-together, cool, even pretty. Erika added a necklace, one of her own creations from several years ago, when she was trying to figure out who she was and what mattered to her after the chaos of her children’s early years. “Wow,” I said, tearing up.

I walked down the hallway. Then back. The dress walked with me. I pivoted on the catwalk of my own imagination, feeling an epiphany rising up inside.

Erika beamed. “How do you feel?” she said.

How did I feel? I felt liberated! Sexy! An alpha woman armed for battle! I felt—no exaggeration—ready to take on the world. “Like a warrior,” I said.  Warrior Women: When Life Turns Upside Down, There’s Safety—And Strength—In Numbers