My parents’ divorce showed me they’re only human too
By Holly Smith
Holly became an “adult child of divorce”, when she still felt like a kid herself.
For the best of quarterlifers at the best of times, we know we can expect a tricky transition period during the lost year after we leave university. We become a semi-adult when we still feel like a child. My parents’ divorce was an unexpected event that marked my move from childhood naivety to the real, adult world.
My dad told me that he was leaving my mum, after 32 years together, approximately 15 hours after I finished my final third year-exam at university.
We had spent the previous evening together watching TV, as I sat there, mildly dazed by the three pivotal years of my life that had now come to an end. By midday he was gone and it was in his exit that he dropped the news. It fell like a spear that fell straight through my life, puncturing it to its heart.
At 22, I had become an “adult child of divorce” without yet feeling like an adult myself.
In the early days after this news, the hardest thing I had to deal with was the loss of the solid foundation that I’d always assumed would be there. I had to face the dissolution of the idealised view I had always had of my parent’s marriage. It was a togetherness that, after two decades, was suddenly gone. It was a huge pillar holding up the firm platform beneath my feet that gave me a sense of grounding, security and reassurance that everything would be ok in the end, which was now crumbling away. In one conversation I had to readjust to the fact that my parent’s relationship wasn’t ideal - it wasn’t perfect, straightforward and unbreakable, but rather hideously multifaceted. As a family, it had always seemed to me that we were happy.
My parents (together since they were teenagers) seemed to be deeply in love; they laughed and held hands and spent hours and hours on end together. So there was of course some shock when I realised that they both had lived lives I was unaware of.
This left me questioning which other aspects of life and my own reality were actually not as they seemed. I was questioning everything.
When you are old enough to understand the full extent of the meaning of divorce, it is impossible to align your idyllic childhood memories with the affairs and lies that you know now. Family is a reflection of who you are - it defines you as a person, a sister, a daughter. This identity cannot hold when your parents tell you they have decided to divorce, once you have lived all the way to adulthood building and building on that family identity - on that unshakable belief in the family structure and the institution of marriage.
As a daughter, I was also expected to be more of an adult than I was ready to be, as I was drawn into my parent’s marriage/divorce with disorientating velocity. The level of emotional support you are expected to provide both of your parents when they decide to get a divorce and you are old enough to understand that, can be tough to take. At the best of times, growing out of parental dependency and into a relationship with your parents which is instead rooted in mutual reliance and friendship will have its teething problems.
No longer are you the burden and they, the support system. You have to be there for each other. Parents will begin to offload things on you that they never would before. This was sharply exaggerated for me, and a much harsher, more immediate, more dramatic transition.
My relationship with my parents shifted practically overnight.
Many adult children of divorce speak of the pressure they feel to be a shoulder to cry on for both parents. On the day that my dad left, both of my parents told me that I was their best friend. Those words, though sweet and well-intentioned, put me under an overwhelming amount of pressure to deal with them both equally and generously, especially as my youngest brother was only three days away from starting his A-levels.
I was the one who had to keep it all together. Though it is understandable in such a difficult situation that both parents want you to feel their pain, to mould you to how they want the situation to play out, it isn’t easy to cope with. For a little while, it felt a lot like having children of my own. This pressure can, and did, lead to contentious conversations rooted in blame. There is an odd feeling that, because you are no longer a child, divorce should not affect you that much. That it should not incite a visceral reaction as it might in children. Divorce expert Karen Holden, founder of A City Law Firm, in fact advises that: “you are now an adult and can decide how you wish to manage it all to ensure that you don’t lose out on a relationship with one parent.”
Whilst this is elegant advice, it is easier said than done. Forgiveness is one thing, forgetting pain is brutal. I can only hope for me that it will come with time. The ‘comfort’ that your parent’s 25-year-marriage was ‘a decent innings’ and that they are better apart did not and does not make it easier to come to terms with their divorce. An era of family and idealism and support and love ended, and that is always going to be painful. In the immediate aftermath of my dad leaving her, my mum had shared with me the details of his copious affairs that equally made me question the values of the man that I had always idolised. He and I currently, through cruelty and blame, have a strained relationship at best.
Having said all this, if you are going through something similar right now, or have been through it in the past, there is good to come from all of this.
The main thing I learnt from dealing with my parents’ divorce during my lost year after uni was that my parents are human. Who’d have thought it?
Many childhoods are characterised by a reliance and aspiration to authority figures who we idealised. For me those figures were my parents. They were perfect things. They were beings who held the keys to life and the world I didn’t yet know. They had the answer to everything, and shared between them the most wonderful, unique and impenetrable relationship. And in the same way, many lost years, or transitions into adulthood are characterised by the unravelling of this ideal - by the realisation that those figures are not infallible, they are not, and do not owe it to us to be, right, perfect or moral in every situation.
It is a year on and I am still struggling with it all to be honest, but you do begin to acclimatise to the new. Life goes on and daily life soon becomes routine again. There are moments when everything will become loud and overwhelming once more. Still I would say, on a day to day basis, the divorce remains a hum in the background - something that can be tuned into and out of.
Aligning your life pre- and post-divorce is perhaps the hardest thing to do - especially when it falls at a time of such huge transition as in the lost year after leaving uni.
My advice to anyone in this situation is don’t feel the pressure to do it all in one go. Don’t feel like you have to force anything. Instead, let life settle. We were once a family of five. Now, after my older brother left to study abroad and my dad left to start a new life too, we are three. We are a nuclear family that keeps shrinking but remains strong. In fact, the silver lining of this all is that we are closer now than we have ever been. Soon it will be the one year anniversary since my dad’s leaving. To reclaim the day,
we (my youngest brother, mum and I) have booked a weekend by the seaside to give ourselves the chance to make some new memories. Reclaiming days, spaces and relationships is something that I have had to do a lot of in the past year.
When someone else makes a conscious decision that affects your life, I have learnt that it is important to reclaim situations for yourself.
There is a beautiful quote from Yanagihara’s A Little Life: “Things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”
I say to anyone going through this, and to the me who was sat in sweats watching TV a year ago, about to receive the news: know that life will get worse for a while but that it will settle. As an adult child of divorce it is not going to be easy. It will be as bizarre as it is painful that your foundation is gone, relationships strained and others strengthened. But, you can always withstand more than you think and hopefully one day, you’ll be compensated wonderfully for your tenacity. I am waiting, full of hope and belief, for this to be true.
Image by OakleyOriginals.