The Fragments of Divorce

I’m the product of divorce. Not one, not two…FIVE.

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?

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15 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. -M
    Feb 23, 2012 @ 09:40:35

    Kai,
    I think we are all broken in some ways. My parents are still married, but lemme tell you, there were ISSUES. And look who’s still single now! ME. For some reason I seem incapable of forming a lifetime-lasting relationship. So far at least. But at 43 I’m not holding out a super amount of hope 😦 So cherish the family you have, as complicated as it may be — I’m trying to do the same, despite the scars….
    -M

    Reply

    • growingmuses
      Feb 23, 2012 @ 22:29:49

      How very true, M, we are all broken in some way. I believe you when you say sometimes an “unbroken” home can be a worse reality than a broken one. I often hear that there’s no time for grudges. To rise above and forgive but boy is that hard. I imagine you must hold your own family/parents culpable for the way you interpret relationships today. Based on the brokenness, do you aim someday to make things right in your own marriage?

      Reply

  2. Wanderlustress
    Feb 23, 2012 @ 11:40:22

    My heart ached in empathy when I read this, and if we had started talking about this when we met, I think we would have stayed up all night. We would have laughed, and we would have cried. I want to give you a big hug right now. My family history is broken and complicated, too, and I married to someone whose broken family mirrors my own, which is why, when we agreed to marry we also agreed never to have step-families for our future children. I have to take solace in believing that my parents made the right decision because I am happy where I am now, and I wouldn’t be here if they had made different choices for their lives, but yet I resent the scars left by the absence of a cohesive family. I managed to hide them well throughout most of my life, but now that I have children, the void of having a cohesive family is made so evident that old wounds lay open and I fall into the emotional perils of needing a ‘family’ for my children. Old expectations remain wanting and disappointment looms over every family visit. On the bright side, it hasn’t broken us and we are growing families of our own, ones with love and commitment that WILL rise above and become greater than our fragmented past. Much love to you Kyla.

    Reply

    • growingmuses
      Feb 23, 2012 @ 22:35:53

      What a shame there wasn’t more time in that case. I could tell you had a story just from our short time together and no doubt you are writing a different one for the twins today. The best we can do is learn from our pasts and try to apply our knowledge to our futures. What a big conversation that must have been, promising not to subject your future children to future step-families. May you never have to revisit that oath. It’s so interesting to hear that you were attracted to and married someone whose family was as broken as yours. Throughout my life my closest friends and best relationships have all been with people from rock-solid families (but maybe that was just surface appearances).

      I’ll take your great comment and the fact that you read my post as a virtual hug and I’ll hold you t the real thing someday when I make it over to Laos (or where ever life finds you then).

      Reply

  3. thirdeyemom
    Feb 23, 2012 @ 13:54:57

    Wow Kyla! I had no idea you came from such a complicated family history. My dearest friend has a similar story and still can’t seem to figure out the best way to deal with it. Both my parents and Paul’s parents are still together after all these years. It is very nice.

    Reply

    • growingmuses
      Feb 23, 2012 @ 22:37:57

      yes, listening to how close you are with your parents and how much mutual family support exists for you guys made me ache but also filled me with hope. I hope that someday I will be a grandparent just like your dad (‘cuz, come on, there ain’t no way I’ll be the one staying home with the grandkids while my husband goes globetrotting!)

      Reply

      • thirdeyemom
        Feb 24, 2012 @ 08:36:56

        Oh…Kyla! Well, we did have some family struggles growing up…lots! Lots of really hard things happened like cancer, drug addition, and others. But we survived and it made our family stronger. We do have times we we don’t get along. All families are that way. Yet I am glad I grew up in a solid home as I agree with you that it helps create a sense of belonging, love and commitment that lasts a lifetime! Miss ya!

  4. slightlywonky
    Feb 23, 2012 @ 14:01:53

    Such a great post!!! When you think of how much heartache has been in your family’s past…it’s amazing that you are one of the most dependable people that I know…and that you are working hard (as we ALL have to) to sustain a good marriage.

    Growing up…I felt that my parents were bickering all the time. I’d even ask why they didn’t get a divorce. Can you imagine??? I was obviously totally clueless…but it seemed the answer to an often stressful household. I bring this up only to say that families that do stay together, are not without their flaws. Do I think that my parents should have gotten divorced? No way. Now that I have an ex-wife and stepkids in my life…I know the pain of trying to forge a “new” family. But, I am not un-scarred from the particulars of my own homelife.

    We all have scars, as you mention…it matters most what we do about them. I’d say you’ve been pretty thoughtful and brave in your examination of yourself and your childhood. 🙂

    Reply

    • growingmuses
      Feb 23, 2012 @ 22:41:40

      DH’s grandparents bickered all the time too and I wondered what on earth kept them together all those years but when his grandfather died two years ago, his grandmother (though I never heard a kind word uttered to him from her lips) nearly died of heartache. Isn’t it funny how comforting some people find misery? I’m glad your parents didn’t get divorced. I wonder if it would have changed the course of your life and your own marriage. Yes, step children are complicated but on the flip side, they also find step parents a real drag (no offense). Just like nothing can take the place of our own children, so too no one can proxy a child’s parent. Ironically, step-father’s are so much less a problem…I wonder why that is?

      Reply

  5. Heather Kelly
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 16:58:38

    I have had the opposite experience with my father and his desire to be around children of any age.

    My dad was always distant, and not able to put himself in the shoes of us kids, or even do what was best for us on the weekly basis that we were on his clock. Christmas and other holidays would be cancelled at the last moment, and he would beg off when we didn’t fit into his new life. I think that he maintained a relationship with us as best as he could after the divorce, but he wasn’t good at it, and our step-mother was too immature and crazy to foster a positive nurturing relationship.

    The only great things that came out of that 2nd marriage was our step sister and half brother. And I was astonished to see my dad as the better parent in that mess of a family. That’s saying something. 🙂

    Now my father has settled down with a woman (his own age!) who never had children of her own, but who is very nurturing to all her nieces and nephews. She is a wonderful influence on my father, and he is embracing not only his own children, but his grandchildren–to a point, anyway. And, this late in the game, I will take what I can get.

    I imagine that it is harder to go the other way–toward diminishing affection–and I hope that you can figure out a way to help your father see the value of having his family front and center in his life.

    The one common thread which I see in most children of divorce, is a desire to have a different kind of family than the one in which they were raised. All four of my siblings have strong family compasses, and even though I think I am blessed to have all my siblings in my life, I’d prefer to forgo the whole idea of divorce, and blended families in my grown up life.

    Good luck–family stuff is hard!

    Reply

    • growingmuses
      Mar 26, 2012 @ 22:55:55

      Wow, thanks for sharing that Heather. Your story breaks my heart in all sorts of ways. I can’t imagine not knowing the love of a father. I just read an essay on forgiveness and I’m processing it in interesting ways. It talked about how forgiveness can be liberating, start chain reactions, infectious. You sound like you’ve never really begrudged your dad his shortcomings or maybe you have and you’ve since forgiven him. I wonder if your father is going through a rebirth, having been freed from his own shortcomings by your Christ-like forgiveness of them.
      venture on my friend.

      Reply

  6. I Want This Badly
    Feb 27, 2012 @ 02:43:45

    Mine is kinda different, my dad was all around me when i was in school but not so much when in college.

    Many of my friends comes from broken home family, the weird thing is most of them are succeed in life (life+carrer). Maybe the “bad experience” has taught them to be more tough in “competition”

    Reply

    • growingmuses
      Mar 26, 2012 @ 22:50:45

      I think kids that grow up in broken homes definitely grow thicker skin, meaning they develop more resilience to life’s hardships. I’m sorry your dad went MIA when you were in college. I hope he’s back in your life now.

      Reply

  7. Elizabeth
    Mar 07, 2012 @ 21:56:00

    Baggage. Unavoidable, eh? My parents are still together, but I still feel like a 7 year old when I hear them bicker and fight (which they do, all the time–and always have and probably always will). And then I see my 4 year old’s face when I yell… and I realize what you so beautifully wrote, that we have to become greater than the sum of our parts. So hard…

    Reply

    • growingmuses
      Mar 26, 2012 @ 22:55:08

      So hard indeed. And go easy on yourself on the yelling, it’s really tough to avoid around young kids when your the sole caregiver most of the time…some relationships function better with a degree of disfunction. I know E’s grandparents hardly had a kind word to say to one another and rarely in a calm voice yet when his grandfather died last year, his grandmother withdrew and didn’t know what to do without someone to always be managing and yelling at…and by the way, you are greater than the sum of your parts, fear not!

      Reply

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