One ordinary day, the summer I was sixteen and a rising high school senior, my parents told my younger sister and me they were separating.
I don’t talk much about my parents’ divorce. For one thing, it’s been almost twenty-five years since my parents separated. My parents have been divorced longer than they were married. This is my normal. And divorce is so common that it, also, hardly seems worth discussing. But maybe that’s precisely why I should talk about how it affected me – how it still affects me – because being a child of divorce is an experience so many of us share.
Recently, my friend Julie posted a beautiful piece about divorce that left me in tears, as fresh pain from an old wound resurfaced. I knew I needed to share my experiences to help me – and, I hope, others – continue to work through this hurt. I do this with much trepidation, as I don’t want to hurt my parents, whom I love and who were, undoubtedly, doing the best they could.
These insights are born solely of my journey, so some may resonate with you, friends, others may not, and you may feel like I’ve missed big ones that are important to you. That’s okay. Divorce may unite many of us, but everyone’s experience is unique. This is my story…
1. Being eased into the separation was brutal. After the big announcement, my father moved out of the bedroom to the couch in the den and slept there for a few nights while he looked for an apartment. It was excruciating to have my father in the house, knowing it was no longer his home, aching both to rewind to the blissful ignorance of a few days prior and to fast forward to my new normal. There is no perfect, easy, painless way to make the transition out of one’s home, but being in limbo was agonizing for me. I wish my parents had taken a firm hold of the Band-Aid and ripped it off in one swift motion.
2. I didn’t want to be asked to do anything that made me feel complicit in the separation. During those painful days while the Band-Aid was ever so slowly being peeled back, my father asked my sister and me to go furniture shopping with him. I have a vivid memory of sitting on an ugly, blue sofa in the furniture section of a department store while my father chatted casually with us about the pros and cons of various pieces of living room furniture. I imagine my father felt free in a way that he hadn’t in a long time, but I felt physically ill. I wanted nothing to do with furniture shopping, packing boxes, apartment hunting, or anything at all that might have been construed as my aiding a parent in leaving the home and family. Please, no.
3. Things weren’t better post-separation, no matter what anyone said. Parents, like children, may be feeling crushed and may be trying to convince themselves, as much as their children, that things will be okay, or parents may be feeling the newfound freedom of being unencumbered by a dying marriage. Family friends may mean well with comments like, “It’s for the best.” But witnessing my parents’ separation was devastating, and there was no way to put a positive spin on that. Trying to just made me angry. I wanted people to respect me and honor my feelings by fully allowing me to feel heartbroken. However, comments like, “It will get better,” would have been welcome, especially from those who knew, firsthand, the pain of divorce.
Similarly, nothing my father could have said would have made his new apartment anything different from/better than what it was: the embodiment of the demise of my parents’ marriage. He could have moved into the actual Taj Mahal, and his home wouldn’t have been any less ugly or inadequate. I’m grateful my father didn’t try to sell me on the merits of his new home.
4. I desperately needed acknowledgement of how crappy the situation was (and is). I have one parent who excels at this and another who I felt never fully acknowledged the enormity of my loss. Maybe the latter is a coping mechanism; maybe the pain one’s child is experiencing feels too close; or maybe the parent feels blamed and doesn’t want to throw fuel on that fire. But it just added to my pain to feel unseen by a parent and, in fact, made healing even harder. A long, fancy speech was never required. Something as simple as, “I know this is hard. Thanks for muddling through with me,” would have sufficed. Early in my grieving process, I needed the crappiness of the situation acknowledged often. Now, I don’t. But it still helps when someone – anyone – recognizes my loss. Twenty-five years after my parents’ separation, I still feel an ache when I think about the family I lost, the childhood I deserved and should have had. I even still occasionally cry.
Like right now.
5. Sometimes I needed my parents to back off, and other times, I needed a gentle push. The day after my parents announced their separation, I stayed in bed for much of the day. I called in sick to my summer job at the pool. I didn’t eat much. I know now that I was depressed. But the next morning, my mother walked into my bedroom, opened the shades, and told me I was going to work. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do less, but she was right. There is comfort in routine. My routine, my foundation, had been ripped from me, so I had to find tiny fragments of it wherever I could. Going to work was hard, but good and necessary. There are times to be sad and angry and times to pick oneself up and carry on. I’m grateful my mother knew me well enough to help me navigate this tricky balance in those earliest days.
6. Shame is an insidious enemy. The first time I told anyone my parents were separated was in a tearful confession to two friends fourteen months later. Fourteen months. In the interim, when I talked about my family, I carefully chose words that didn’t reveal my secret. Yes, my secret, revealed in a confession. I wasn’t being private. I wasn’t merely embarrassed. I was filled with shame. I could have told you it wasn’t my fault, that I had nothing to do with my parents’ separation, that the end of their marriage wasn’t a reflection of my worth; but I didn’t live like I understood that.
The day after my parents announced their separation, my mother offered to call the mother of my best friend and break the news. I was so grateful for that gesture, so relieved that I didn’t have to speak the unspeakable, that I agreed. In hindsight, I suspect it would have been better for my grief and healing to do this myself. Because my mother (unwittingly, of course) had given me tacit approval to say nothing, to remain hidden.
But shame lurks and grows in the shadows, in the secrecy. Even after that tearful confession to my friends, for many years, I still choked out the words when revealing that my parents are divorced. It never should have been like that. I never should have felt shame, and I wish my parents had known how to help me talk openly about their separation. Because shame can’t survive being out in the open. It can’t survive the light.
7. I had mixed feelings about my parents’ second marriages. My father remarried less than a year after the divorce was final, and I was not in a particularly celebratory mood. Yes, I wanted my father to be happy. Yes, I dearly love my stepmother. But I was still actively grieving the loss of my parents’ marriage. My life still felt like it was in turmoil. So what, surely, felt like a new beginning to my father felt like an ending to me. Witnessing my father marry someone else felt final in a way that his moving out or my learning that the divorce was final did not. I’m not suggesting that anyone needed to do anything different to accommodate me, but I wish someone had simply acknowledged how crappy this time, in particular, was for me.
My mother, on the other hand, got married eight years after the divorce. I was in an entirely different place in my grieving process and in my life in general (I had gotten married earlier the same year), and I could whole-heartedly celebrate with her and my wonderful stepfather.
Similarly, watching my parents begin to date again was difficult, at its worst, and awkward, at its best. I’m grateful that my parents waited to introduce me to their significant others only after it was clear relationships were serious.
8. At sixteen, I was just a child. My parents’ separation and divorce would have been hard at any age, but being a teenager brought with it special difficulties. I was sixteen when my parents separated, eighteen when they divorced, and nineteen when my father remarried. I looked liked an adult. I felt like an adult. I was definitely NOT an adult. And as such, I should never have been expected to handle all that was thrown at me as if I had been one.
As far as teenagers go, I was incredibly responsible and levelheaded. That actually may have made it even harder to understand why I sometimes reacted more like a child than an adult to circumstances surrounding the divorce. I’m not suggesting that my parents should have excused any blatantly rude behavior, but there were times when I suspected my parents thought I was acting in an intentionally cold and callous manner when my actions were born of something else entirely.
The most painful example of this came when I missed my father and stepmother’s rehearsal dinner. I was at college an hour away from home. I had to leave choir rehearsal early to drive home and catch the bus that was driving all the dinner guests to an out-of-town restaurant. My beloved choir was a haven from the storms that swirled around me during my sophomore year (and there were many, not just related to the divorce). I waited until the last possible moment to duck out of rehearsal, lost a few minutes in some unexpected traffic, and arrived to a deserted home. I felt sick. I didn’t know the name of the restaurant, no one had left me directions, and this was long before everyone had cell phones. I gladly would have driven to dinner, but I had no idea where to go. I learned later that the bus left thirty minutes earlier than I thought it was supposed to, but I hadn’t left myself a sufficient buffer to compensate for that miscommunication. No number of apologies or explanations (not justifications) seemed to ease the hurt I had caused, which compounded the pain of an already crappy weekend. I so desperately needed to feel that I was being met with some measure of grace and compassion – if not possible in the moment, then later when feelings settled.
That said, I still needed to be approached in conversation as an adult. Lecturing me was a strategy that always backfired; it always made me angry.
9. I love you. Sometimes – often – “I love you” was the very last thing I wanted to say to my parents when I felt like they’d forever destroyed my world. But I did love them. I do love them. I know this if for no other reason than because, if I didn’t, their divorce would have been painless.
And when I couldn’t tell them, I desperately needed them to tell me. Better yet, to show me. All the while remembering that I have always loved them.
I loved you during that first painful, post-separation holiday when everyone felt shortchanged. I loved you when you remembered to say, “I’m sorry,” and when you forgot. I loved you when you left. I loved you when you attempted that first awkward vacation as a single parent. I loved you when I just wanted to be left alone. I loved you when you were too spent to make dinner. I loved you when I remembered you were doing the best you could and when I was certain you were doing it all wrong. I loved you when you dragged me to counseling. I loved you when you gave me exactly what I needed and when you didn’t. I loved you even when I was thinking, “I hate you!”
I’d love to know what you think of My Story. What resonated? What didn’t? What did I miss that is part of Your Story?