When women leave home, however, the movies tell a different story. In Fatal Attraction, when the wife leaves for the weekend, all hell breaks loose. Her husband commits adultery with a woman so deranged that she stalks him, terrorizes his family, and finally ends up dead in their bathtub, murdered by the wife whose absence started it all. In Thelma and Louise, Thelma leaves her husband to go on a two-day road trip and ends up driving off the edge of the Grand Canyon. If women who leave home aren't punished, it's a sure thing they're not coming back. When the heroine of Shirley Valentine leaves her house in London for an island in Greece, she stays in Greece. Why wouldn't she? Her marriage is stifling, her husband both tyrant and bore. When Billy Crystal leaves home in City Slickers, however, he leaves a likable and sympathetic wife and two engaging children. He not only returns, he comes back with new energy for life, for love, for work. Why hasn't a movie been made about a ma! rried woman who leaves home and returns a stronger person to a loving family? The problem with these stereotyped images is that they shape our perceptions, and then they shape our lives.
Many of us grew up seeing our fathers go off — on hunting, fishing, golfing trips — but how many of us over forty have memories of our mothers leaving home for anything but a visit to relatives or a stay in the hospital? How many of us had a mother who went off for herself alone? Men have always had permission to leave, but of women's leaving we have two dominant images: Edna walking into the ocean in Kate Chopin's The Awakening, and Nora walking out the door in Ibsen's A Doll's House. A self submerged or a relationship severed. Either way, sinking or bailing, a permanent disconnect.
There is no paradigm for a married woman's leaving home for a while for personal growth. There is no paradigm for a married woman's returning at all, much less fulfilled, energized, maybe newly in love with her husband. If women lack role models, if women are suffering in marriage, if women are increasingly the ones choosing to dismantle in court what they once yearned to wreathe in ceremony, then it's women who need to write a new script.
Who are the women whose voices appear on these pages? When interviewed, the youngest was twenty-nine, the oldest seventy-four, married or in a committed relationship from five years to more than fifty. At the time of their sabbaticals, they ranged in age from twenty-eight to sixty-four. The women come from twenty-two states, the District of Columbia, Canada, and New Zealand, from towns of 500 to cities of 5 million. They represent diverse cultures and backgrounds, but they are all middle- and upper-class women with educations and professions. They are not a cross-section or a representative sample of married women who have left home. This book is not the result of clinical research or a sociological study. Many names came to me by word of mouth. I asked each woman if she knew of other married women "who left home to pursue their own growth and returned," and many did. I sent out inquiries over the Internet. I placed ads in regional newspapers.