It was about 31 years ago that my parents split up; I was 11. I’m now married and the parent of an 11-year-old, a 9-year-old and a 7-year-old. I make no secrets about marriage being easy; divorce is no cakewalk either. What I’ve realized as I parent is that kids don’t work with a template of expectation like we sometimes assume. My kids aren’t pinning their idea of the perfect childhood. They certainly don’t have the montage of romanticized memories of some idyllic childhood that never really happened as a gauge for how we’re doing.
When my parents sat me down and told me that they were going to take a break, I didn’t consider my home broken—that was the language of adults. The truth is kids roll with what happens. They hurt and ask questions, yes, but the art of dwelling and regretting is way more of an adult pastime. When my dad moved out, he had an apartment; we had the house. It wasn’t broken; it was different.
1. Bad Behavior Gets Blamed on Divorce
The first thing I figured out in the weeks following my parents breakup was that behavior that would normally be attributed to being a brat is blamed on the divorce.
“Oh, Amanda is swearing again. It must be the separation.”
Nope, it was, is, and always will be that I have a deep and abiding appreciation for the catharsis of a good cuss word.
2. Divorce Breeds Guilt
The second thing I figured out was guilt. Every parent has guilt, but parents in the middle of a breakup have bigger guilt. This seems to be a uniquely adult thing, where we fret and hand-wring over things we’ve done, and decisions we’ve made, somehow believing that we can undo the aftermath by overcompensating with regret.
For a while my sister and I enjoyed a feast of guilt pizza, guilt skateboards, guilt rides at the fair and more, until quite frankly we tired of it. Kids can’t sustain gluttony like we adults can.
3. Family Is Family Regardless of Marriage or Divorce
The third thing I learned was that whether you call your parents by Mom and Dad or Bob and Jackie, or whether you have two sets of grandparents or four, your family is what it is. Moody, silly, embarrassing and there to stay.
We had different traditions merge and, at times, clash. There were extra birthday cards and empty chairs, belated celebrations and traded vacations.
There were times when I wondered what it might have been like if my parents stayed together, but just as many times I thought about the opportunities that came specifically because they didn’t stay together.
4. Love Doesn’t Wear a Veil
The fourth lesson, and I’d wager that kids of married parents figure this out too, is that the amount of love that you feel or the confidence that you have in yourself has nothing to do with who shares a last name with you or gets mail at the same address. Family, and in particular, the sense of bonding kids have, is when we drop our expectations and our guilt, set aside our need for appearances or keeping things even, and just get down to the business of being together.
My stepdad and I missed the “Dad” boat. He joined us too late, approached the dynamic too deferentially. There were times when the terms around stepparent frustrated me, maybe both of us. We developed an uncanny ability to operate as if we really had been together since the beginning. We had what he called breakfast talks. These were talks over breakfast, in public, to discuss my direction (or lack thereof) in life. I cried every single time; I also found my way.
Kids are shrewd and capricious, one year wanting home-baked cookies for a class party, the next store-bought, garishly decorated cupcakes. They are growing up and figuring stuff out. They respond to emotions much like we do, but without the added weight of guilt and what could’ve been.
When my 3-year-old broke her leg, there were approximately three minutes of fuss before she assumed a matter of fact, “I’m a 3-year-old with a broken leg, but I’m almost 4-inch attitude. My husband adapted the stairs on the tree fort he was building to accommodate her leg and cast. She never looked back, except to make sure that her big sister was keeping up.
I can’t wave a wand to make divorce go away, but I hope to take a bit of the sting out of a crappy thing, because in the end we all come out OK.