Stronger Divided: How My Family Became More Functional Post Divorce
In many ways, my childhood was idyllic.
I spent most of it in a beautiful, white-washed brick, historic home in Laurel, Maryland. I lived with my parents and my little sister, Samantha.
Dad worked as an attorney at his own practice in Washington D.C. He’s a wicked smart Yale Law graduate with a goofy, if not childish, sense of humor. If you need an enemy, or heck, even some poor unsuspecting soul spit-balled in the middle of a crowded restaurant, he’s your man.
My mom is an artist. She ran her own business creating spectacular custom murals and faux finishes. She’s incredibly talented, funny, and smart in her own right. My mother was undoubtedly the disciplinarian, but she was also the hair-braider, cheerleader, and the “mommy-mom” who made certain my sister and I never went without a homemade birthday cake.
My sister is two years and two weeks my junior, and just like me except different in every way possible.
We ate dinner together as a family nearly every evening. Movie night was a weekly ritual…Austin Powers, Big Mama’s House, Mean Girls…perhaps unconventional choices for children, but hey, it made for stimulating conversation. We cleaned up our act at the local Catholic Church on Sunday’s followed by breakfast at our favorite retro diner. My sister and I rarely wanted for anything, you might say we were spoiled. We were loved.
Then one night I watched my sweet, gorgeous mother stroll out the front door with her 9-iron golf club and swing that baby into my father’s shiny Toyota Celica convertible. In my mind, the scene played out pretty much exactly like Beyoncé’s video for “Hold Up.” My mom is basically Beyoncé. I’m sure you’re wondering, but no, I’m not nearly as chic or interesting as Blue Ivy.
12-year-old me looked on all at once terrified, captivated, and positive that life as I knew it was over. I was right. Everything changed.
For additional context, I guess I should mention that my Dad is an alcoholic. In the throes of a mid-life crisis, he made some poor decisions, which my mom discovered and confronted him about. Dad didn’t feel much like discussing the matter and Mom took her grievances outside. I know this because I'm a nosy woman who was once a nosy child. While my parents thought I was sleeping on the sofa, I was actually very much awake, listening to their disagreement, and quietly crying.
Oh, and sometime either just before or just after this incident- the timeline is a bit of a blur- our family dog, Smokey, mauled Samantha. The attack was completely unprovoked and out of the blue. Samantha survived and thanks to modern medicine, has a just a few facial scars that you really have to be looking for to even see. Smokey went to "live on a farm."
My world wasn’t just changing, it was disintegrating before my eyes.
Admittedly, the next c̶o̶u̶p̶l̶e̶ ten years were rough. Dad stayed in Maryland for a year or two and later moved to California. Mom, Sam, and I picked up and relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina. There was A LOT of yelling. A lot of tears. Police were called on certain occasions. Hurtful words exchanged, anger was misdirected, there were several moves, financial hardship, failed attempts at reconciliation, and eventually divorce.
But dear reader, this isn’t a doom and gloom story. In fact, I’m taking the opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the friggin’ COME UP. Though we are now divided legally and geographically, we have remained a family and grown into one that is stronger than ever.
My father currently resides in Southern California, where he was born and raised. Though he has not chosen the path of sobriety, he appears to be living the life he’s always wanted. He’s married to a great woman, Audry; a strong, down to earth, person of faith who has shown me nothing but kindness. He's retired from law and writes for pleasure. Most of his days start at the gym, followed by caring for his ailing mother, later he might cook, nap, and then catch whatever sporting event is on TV.
My mom is so happy! She eventually moved back to Maryland and married John, a quiet engineer with seemingly endless patience. It’s been said that if you don’t like John, it’s you, and I couldn’t agree more with that statement. In large part due to the stability of her new home life, Mom’s been able to shift her work to more completely fulfill her creative desires. She’s doing her thing and killing it!
Samantha currently lives with Mom and John in Maryland. She works at Target and does photography on the side. She recently started seeing her first “real” boyfriend, Patrick. By all appearances, she and Patrick are sickeningly happy and very much in love.
Rebuilding our relationships with each other has been a long process filled with trial and error. I can't speak for the rest of my family, but for me, being strong has meant choosing forgiveness. Letting go of the past and what "should have been" and not waiting for some special, perfect harmony in the future. Realizing that I'd be waiting forever, when really, everything I want from my family, I already have. It's meant living and loving in the moment.
Our lives changed suddenly and without warning. There was no instruction manual. I wish someone had sent me a "How to set Healthy Boundaries for Dummies" book. At age 27, I'm just beginning to see the compassion in saying "no" when I need to and in taking care of myself.
If I could talk to 12-year old me, I'd tell her that it's OK to hurt. I would tell her it's OK to be confused. It's OK to miss your Dad even though he hurt your mom deeply. I would remind her that she's her mother's daughter, not her friend.
I miss my family. We visit each other; they’ve come to North Carolina, I’ve made many trips to Maryland and California. We talk on the phone. We text. But on a deeper level, I’m comforted by the knowledge that we all have each other, no matter what. In my own personal times of need, I’ve witnessed my mom and dad put aside their differences and come together for me in ways I thought no longer possible 15 years ago.
I've lied to my parents. About little stuff, sure, but also big things...like, oh I don't know, that I was secretly married for example. They forgave me. Later, when grieving the loss of my husband, they came together to help me pick up the pieces of my broken life. They've stood by me despite my massive errors in judgement and they've been present to celebrate my successes. Through it all, their love has been unwavering.
On that fateful I night, I wasn’t just afraid of change, I was scared that my family had died.
Our life as a 4-person unit obviously didn't play out as we'd expected. Despite change of plan, when I stand back and look at where we are now, I can’t help but think that we are exactly where we should be. We went through an incredibly hard time, but we've emerged strong! Perhaps stronger than ever before.
I’m not going to sit here and give that tired “everything happens for a reason” BS. There’s a tragedy everyday that pokes holes in that statement faster than I could scratch it out. I believe struggle and pain and plans that go awry are all part of the human experience, however difficult to comprehend.
The thing is, happiness doesn’t just fall in your lap and it isn’t a circumstance. It's a choice. It's a perspective.
The choice is the light at the end of the tunnel that is divorce, my friends! It's hope. Yes, things got screwy there for a bit, but we're OK.