My parents’ divorce was the first, then, like zygotes, they kept splitting until they landed on their third and fourth spouses, where they seem to be very well matched. I think it’s safe to say that they both have settled in for their golden years with partners for life. Thank God!
I was seven when my parents separated, my brother was 10. By the time the divorce was final and the papers signed, my dad was just weeks away from his second marriage and my mom had moved clear across the country, from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, to pursue her next union.
When my parents split in 1979, it was highly unusual for children to remain in the custody of their fathers but my dad sought custody of my brother and me. In between the separation and next marriage, we went through a series of caregivers. I like to refer to this period as the beginning of my “diplomatic training.”
Had I really been on the ball, I would have pursued a career in foreign affairs but I think you have to be a pretty straight walking, upstanding citizen for such a career and the ensuing turmoil in my teens and early twenties precluded me from such lofty pursuits.
The first time I became a step child, I was a real novice. Step children are notorious for feeling inadequate, abandoned and insignificant. They react to a step parent either by displaying a desperate desire to be loved and accepted or by completely shutting the newcomer out and putting up a wall of defense and attitude.
I was young enough that I sought the former survival tactic while my brother applied the latter. We were both promptly bundled up and sent off to boarding school by our step-mother, whose sights were initially set on somewhere in Switzerland but who,graciously settled for two in Connecticut instead.
Step-mother #1 was an upper-class socialite. Their marriage spanned five boom-years in the ’80′s, resulting in three boats, two houses and one child, my half-brother, Bee.
There were many things wrong with my dad’s second marriage but #2 unknowingly delivered the fatal blow when she opted out of my boarding school’s fall parents weekend, which is precisely where my dad met wife #3, standing behind her in a parent/teacher conference line.
Wife #3 was a successful fashion designer. A single-mom living in Midtown Manhattan, right across from Central Park. Her daughter was a grade ahead of me at school but other than that, we had nothing in common. Once our parents forged a friendship, however, we quickly formed our alliance.
Our parents’ relationship had a fairytale start and appeared to continue along that course for the five years they were married. Or at least that’s how they wanted others to see it. #3 came with three children of her own. After their wedding, my father legally adopted my step-sister, further complicating family lines.
In fact, our family grew so complicated that it made me a very popular freshman during sorority rush in college. Sorority girls sought me out during mixers just to ask me about my complicated family, a conversation that could easily take five-ten minutes to explain.
Before #3, I only had a full-brother and a half-brother, now I also had a step-sister converted to a full-sister, and by merit, her full-brother converted to a half-brother and her half-brother to a quarter-brother. We had no idea if these labels were accurate but we had few points of reference.
Modern families are complicated no matter what label you give them.
Ironically, now both of my parents have settled down with childless spouses. Go figure. On the one-hand, this has greatly simplified things; on the other-hand, some things are now far more complicated.
For example, my father, ever the model of dedicated and doting dad, once available at all times and especially times of need, fun-loving, exuberant and exceedingly generous, is now merely a grandparent by convenience.
Because his much younger wife never had (and really never wanted) children of her own, she doesn’t really want someone else’s kids either. Of course she knew that my dad came as a package deal but she’s worked pretty steadily to maintain distance from all of us for the better part of the past 12 years they’ve been married. It seems to be more extreme now that young grandchildren have entered the mix.
Over the past decade, my father and wife #4 have carefully selected friends who are either 1) estranged from their children, 2) have no children, or 3) live far away from their children/grandchildren.
This makes things easy for them.
They travel in adult-only circles and live a life guided by self-indulgence rather than family sacrifice. On rare occasions, when my father remembers how nice it is to be surrounded by an adoring family, like Father’s Day, we get invited to spend time with them. But on occasions when the focus could be on just their friends and a good party—like birthdays—we are persona non grata.
Processing the ramifications of divorce, the impact it has had on my own life and how life-experience surfaces in my own marriage is the constant war I wage.
We are all products of our upbringing. Some of us walk through the fight unscathed or with just surface scratches, others suffer severed limbs, crippled for life.
It’s hard not to be resentful, to hold grudges , wish things had turned out different. It feels easy to be a victim, leaning on our pasts like a crutch. But what’s even harder is to rise above. To show resilience. To become a product greater than the fragmented sums of our parts.
Forgiveness, acceptance, reconciliation and strength. This is what overcoming requires. It’s all about proving that a broken home does not have to break us too. It’s a worthwhile journey and so far I’m 32 years in but haven’t covered much ground. Writing about it is all part of the process. Talking about it with friends and especially working through it with a spouse helps to get me further on my way.
As the Chinese proverb goes: even a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.
Are you the product of a broken home? How has it impacted your life? Your relationships? Do you think your parents ultimately made the right decision?