Mothering As A Child Of Divorce

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
sculpies / Shutterstock

sculpies / Shutterstock

My parents broke up when I was 5. After that, the next few years included moving across the country, switching schools a million times, my parents getting back together, breaking up again, and finally divorcing.

When I was 8, my dad remarried. He was always involved in our lives after that, but I think of myself as having been raised by a single mom—especially when my mom moved back across the country, and I only saw my dad during summers and school breaks.

My parents were good people, and I always felt loved, but my childhood was filled with turmoil, fear and endless dashed hopes. In the end, I believe divorce was the best choice for my parents (as it is for many couples), but I can’t deny the fact that my image of marriage and family will always be tainted by the brokenness of my childhood.

I am grateful to be in a marriage that is entirely different from my parents’ marriage. My husband and I are high school sweethearts and have been together 22 years now, married for 14. Barring some unforeseen catastrophe, I don’t see our marriage coming to an end—not anytime soon, not ever. We have two beautiful sons who are the focus of our every breath and heartbeat, and we co-parent well together.

I know all of that, and I believe in it. Yet there is always a part of me that believes everything will come crashing down, like it did when I was a child. It’s completely irrational, but it’s there inside me, like an itch that won’t be scratched, a wound that won’t heal. You’d think that after all these years, it would, but I’m not sure life is as simple and clear-cut as that.

Most days, I’m a normal wife and mother. Motherhood is hard—that’s to be expected—but some days something triggers me, and I morph into the child I once was, all of the heartbreak I held inside suddenly spilling out. Mornings when I have to get my sons ready for school, I feel it. My husband is out of the house before we wake up, and the darkness of the morning and the long day ahead envelops me in a cloud of doom. No one listens to me. I have a headache from lack of sleep. I am afraid my kid will be late for school again, and I’ll look like the worst mother in the world.

I close the door to the bathroom and hear my sons’ shrieking. I sit on the toilet and think, “I am entirely alone. I do everything for everyone. No one cares about me.” I feel helpless when they won’t put on their shoes, when my son complains that his backpack is too heavy and that he will not go to school, when the clock is ticking down the minutes until we’re late. Then, I am my own mother, with the whole world on her shoulders, no one there to help her. I can’t hold it all together. I can’t do it anymore.

When my husband comes home, we fight about the most mundane things on earth. He forgot to take out the trash that morning. He never remembers a thing, I tell him. He says I don’t listen to a word he says. The fights go around in circles and loops, accusations flying through the air.

But instead of focusing on the details of our fight and how to calm things down and end it, I start wondering if this means the beginning of the end. What if our marriage isn’t as stable as I thought it was? Have I been deluding myself? I begin to imagine our future as a divorced family. I start to believe it will happen.

When you are a child of divorce, the little things worry you more than they should. Feelings of loneliness and helplessness get blown out of proportion. There is a sense that the goodness bestowed upon you in this life—whatever it is—is always about to be pulled out from under you.

As the years go by, I have learned to see when I am doing this, when I am living in the past instead of the present. Each day, I am settling deeper into adulthood. I am trusting my role in my grown-up family and seeing that it is entirely separate from my childhood family. Each day is a new chance to begin again and to be grateful for all that I have, to sink into it, to have faith.

But my childhood will always be present somewhere in my heart. All I can do is acknowledge that fact and try my best to let it go. And more and more, I have been nurturing that little broken-hearted girl I once was, mothering her as I mother my own children. I am showing her that there is more to life than what happened in childhood. There are second chances and more riches than she can imagine awaiting her.

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