I will never, ever forget the first eighteen hours of the event that changed my life forever. Late one Sunday evening in September my mother got my sister and me out of our beds and brought us into the dimly lit living room. I had just started first grade and wondered what was happening. My father was sitting on the sofa and some things were packed and stacked near the front door. My mother, crying, turned to my father and said “Go ahead, tell them.”
He tried to explain the why but it all came down to one thing – he was moving out. He did his best to assure my sister and me that he was not moving far away and that we would see each other a lot, but despite his assurances I knew that the family I had known from birth had crumbled and broken and this was not going to get fixed.
I knew that I had to say something, anything, that might change this. At age 7, I was the oldest of we two children and it was up to me. Through tears all I could muster was “I don’t want to see you go.” Dad’s reply (which I now know must have been equally painful for him) was “Don’t worry, I won’t leave until after you are back in bed.” I was both hurt and angry because that wasn’t what I had meant at all, but I knew that I could not summon the strength to try again.
I woke up the next morning and it was a normal, bright day with the strong eastern sunlight forcing its way through the curtains. Within a few seconds, however, I remembered the events of the evening prior and felt the most tremendous ache, one that seemed to consume my insides. I tried to beg off from school but my mother would not hear of that. I did not understand then that she probably needed desperately to have the day to herself.
I walked to school, amazed that nobody else could see the big hole where my insides used to be. There was nobody at school who could help me because this was a middle class neighborhood school in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1966 and divorce just wasn’t something that happened there. All I could do was to fake my way through a normal day. I made it through the walk to school and morning recess on the playground, where I felt like I wore a great big sandwich board proclaiming “My Parents Are Getting Divorced And I Am A Freak!”. By afternoon I had become numb and bumbled through the rest of the day. And I have made it through every day since. Over fifty years later the scars remain from that still-healing hole inside of me.
I bring this up because some time back I finished reading a book entitled Primal Loss – the Now-Adult Children Of Divorce Speak. Leila Miller, who edited the book, assembled a sample of adults who were willing to share how their parents’ divorces affected them. Reading their stories made me realize that those feelings of loss that I had papered over long ago are still there.
I learned to keep things inside. I knew that my mother was devastated and in many ways never really recovered from the rejection that she experienced. I knew that my father, who had been tremendously unhappy, felt guilty and I had no desire to add to his burden. I had a younger sister and I needed to be strong. I now know that this was a horrible burden for a seven year old kid. But it is one that I have never been able to put down.
I learned to seek my parents’ approval, often at the expense of my own happiness. I learned to avoid sharing my feelings for fear of how others might react. I learned to accept what is rather than to hope too much for what can be, even when accepting the “what is” turns out to be avoiding change. Change can be good, but change can also be bad and bad change has to be avoided at all costs. So I take what I have and try to be satisfied with it.
As an adult, I have come to understand that while we all have flaws, my parents had a unique combination of them which made it impossible for them to have continued living together over the long term without some sort of drastic adjustment. My mother had a strong need to control and an unshakable certainty that there was one and only one way in which to view almost any situation. My father had a need to be the man of the family and to be respected by his wife. I understand that he found himself in a “fight or flight” situation, and that he had to choose from a bad set of outcomes. I can still remember the sounds of them arguing and my mother crying after they thought that I was asleep. I remember wondering why my father was sleeping on the family room hide-a-bed and recall my mother telling us that they might build another room onto the back of the house where Dad might stay. But I was not prepared for what actually happened.
And none of this made any difference to the kid who had no cause in making the situation and no say in how it played out.
Both of my parents were raised in intact marriages, but each of those marriages had their own difficulties and failures. Still, they were marriages and it is certain that my parents had no firsthand experience in how a divorce would unfold. Should they have stayed together? I don’t know.
The terrible irony is that I see my parents’ choice being re-played in my own generation – kids who were raised in intact families who have themselves divorced. I realize that each of their situations was unique and that I am unaware of the intricacies of their relationships. But something deep within me makes me want to grab them by the shoulders and shake them, shouting “You have no idea what you are doing!” To my parents this was new, uncharted terrain. It isn’t any more.
I know many, many people who have divorced as adults. Good people. Some of them saw divorce as the only way out of an impossible situation. Others had it done to them just as it was done to their children. And there will always be situations where there is physical abuse, substance abuse or other factors which really do make divorce better and safer than a list of worse alternatives. I do not judge these people. And I do not judge my own parents. See, this is what children of divorce experience: I am afraid to tell you how I feel for fear of how it is going to affect you. This is not about blame. And if you are one of those divorced adults, this is not about you. It is, however, about expressing an idea that is highly discouraged in our modern society: that divorce really does affect the children.
Since my days on the bleeding edge of divorce in middle America, the path taken in my family all those years ago has become distressingly common. Parents, family, counselors, teachers, clergy and almost all of society tell us that “the kids will be fine. They are resilient. They will adapt. It’s for the best.” It is what I was told (expressly and by implication) and it is what kids are still being told today. Oh I adapted, all right. And kids adapt now. But should they have to? And does adapting make things better?
The book is nothing more than the sharings by ordinary people whose parents divorced. Each respondent answered a series of questions and the book’s author did nothing more than to anonymize the participants and group those responses under each of the questions. There is no attempt to craft a narrative or to make anyone adhere to a theme.
One respondent’s analogy has stuck with me. A family after a divorce is like each parent taking one of two separate, diverging paths. Each of those parents rarely needs to navigate the rough, ever widening terrain between those paths. Each continues along his or her path living life according to whatever choices he or she makes. The children, however, will spend the rest of their lives hacking their way back and forth across those inhospitable landscapes, forced to do so because not doing so would cause great hurt to at least one of the parents whose love is so desperately needed. Their childrens’ children will have to navigate that wilderness as well.
Holidays, births, deaths, and milestones in the lives of children and grandchildren all involve big decisions. Even as I approached the age of sixty years, I suffered tremendous anxiety about situations where my mother and my stepmother would have to interact. Both of them have been wonderful people whom I love deeply. But my mother was mostly unable to move beyond deep hurts, hurts that showed themselves in unfortunate ways. I felt a need to shield both of these dear women from being placed in a situation that must have been terribly uncomfortable for each of them in differing ways. How horrible is it that I feel a sense of relief that my mother’s decline and death has eliminated the angst that always accompanied family celebrations?
This post has taken multiple months and sittings to write because I could never stay at it long enough to finish. Years, actually, because I read the book shortly after its publication in mid 2017. Like a diver starved of air after surfacing from underwater, I could only say submerged in these feelings for so long before needing to break away from them and breathe deeply of the fresh air that accompanies virtually any other person, place or thing. Even after finishing the piece it has sat among many half-developed drafts because I have been afraid to share these deeply personal feelings. Perhaps this is because of that one single, frightening message that still rings out in my head as it does in the heads of so many other victims of divorce: “This would never have happened if there wasn’t something wrong with you”.
To be clear, nobody ever told me that any of it was my fault. Nobody even so much as hinted at it. I am quite sure that nobody in my family ever harbored such a belief for even a moment. But it’s still there. And even though I have always known in my conscious, deliberative mind that none of it was about me, something from somewhere deep inside has never stopped making the accusation. At least I now know that I am not alone in this, and that it is really quite common.
I have two final thoughts. First, about the book. The author is clear that there was no attempt at assembling a scientific sample. These were people who responded to a request to share their stories. It is possible that those who have shared their stories are simply a self-selecting sample of malcontents, people who would have been messed-up, unhappy people no matter what their family situation. There is surely some of this but much of what I read rings very true within my own experience. If divorce has been a part of your life or the lives of those you love I cannot recommend this book strongly enough.
Second is about how I have responded in my own life. I had a very difficult time being married in the early years. Being married requires opening up and sharing yourself with someone. I had to learn on my own how to do this – and it was not at all easy. I was, however, extremely motivated to avoid a repeat of the failures of my own parents. I have seen many failures and disappointments in my life but I am extremely proud of the way my wife and I have forged a strong marriage. Whatever issues my own children may have absorbed from our family life, those issues will not include those that come from divorcing parents. If I accomplish nothing else of permanence in my life I will have accomplished this. And this is no small thing.