Yesterday, I had the rare privilege of sitting down with one of my close friends from high school. After not seeing one another for years, we ran into each other in downtown Philly a few years ago and reconnected, and I feel so fortunate to have her in my life again.
When we sat down, we started talking about how strange it seems when we visit our old home town, with things seeming vaguely familiar, yet foreign and never quite like “home” in the classic sense. Our families have long ago moved out of the childhood homes we grew up in, so that sense of nostalgia doesn’t have a place to really root itself it might have otherwise.
As I get older, I’ve started to realize that home is where you make it. It’s about a feeling of belonging, and mastery over your environment and surrounds. It’s not only knowing where you are, but where you’re going, and a bit of security that we can rely on this foundation or home base as solid for the rest of our explorations.
Both Julie and I come from divorced families. Our folks weren’t always perfect, but they weren’t awful, Jerry Springer sorts by a long shot, either. Sometimes the parents were incredibly self-involved, doing what was best for them, and hoping it would be best for the kids in the process. For the most part, the end of open hostilities between the adults in the household was a very good thing. But in talking about that process and how we feel about it and the choices we’ve made as a result as adults was interesting and something I’ve rarely discussed with anyone.
I think the experience left both of us with similar feelings of wanting to make different and better choices for ourselves. We value things like stability over drama. We’ve both managed to make lives for ourselves that feel put together and secure. We’ve chosen partners who have complimentary skill sets and have a sense of patience and order to them. I’ve never thought of myself as a tragic figure, coming from a “broken home”, but I realize that much of the playing parents off each other that happened during my adolescence was about testing boundaries and testing their love for me in the process. Early on in my relationship with my now husband, I probably did a bit of that as well, and waited almost nine years before we got married in part to test the waters and make sure it was safe. This is an abundance of caution approach, to be sure, but it worked out okay in the end.
A bunch of folks I know with kids are going through what could be termed, almost as a cliche, a mid-life crisis. They hear the Talking Heads song, “Once in a Lifetime” and instead of being catchy and unusual, it takes on greater meaning. Your life is flowing by and you ask yourself “How did I get here?” It freaks them out, they worry about what they still haven’t accomplished so far, and decide they need to reboot their lives. For some, this Ctrl Alt Del leads to divorce, and a remaking of who they are in the eyes of themselves and in the eyes of others.
There’s a certain myopia that goes on during this process, where parents will say things like “my kids just need to understand that I need to do this for me.” Or “They have to understand how the real world works and I have needs to be met, too.” But to be honest, no, kids don’t have to understand that. They are not the parents, and your job, as parents, is to make sure their needs are met first. They need to know they are okay, and loved and will be cared for, even if you’re not. I get that divorce has to feel like failure. It feels pretty crappy to kids as well, who only know their life is changing and isn’t what they assumed it was all along, even if it was clearly imperfect.
For example, when my mom handled the “news” of her impending divorce when I was 12 or 13, she gave me the Judy Blume book about a kid’s parents getting divorced, to sort of soft sell the issue a week or two before she told me directly. I just looked at it as another tween novel that had no relevance in my life. Interesting, but I didn’t see myself in the book. In retrospect, the book would have had more impact if I read it afterwards, not before I knew I could be that girl. I still was totally blind sided by the news, and kind of felt manipulated by the whole process as a result. While I recognize my Mom was trying to do the right thing, it ended up not feeling like the right thing to me at all.
I spent a good part of my teen years being kind of bitchy to my parents. I didn’t trust them. I didn’t respect them. I didn’t understand them at all. From an adult perspective, I look back at that girl and see a lot of confusion, that bred a lot of self-reliance that can be a very good thing for me now. I never think there’s a problem I can’t help solve or make better. The buck stops with me, and I tend to be almost hyper responsible with a good dose of guilt added in for good measure.
I can also understand my parents better, from a more adult perspective. I get why my parents made the choices they did for themselves, and for us in the process. I believe they did what they thought was best at the time, and even if some of it was crappy, they tried. We can’t go back and redo any of it, so it hardly matters, but there’s a lot to be said about finding peace and forgiveness for any of that hurt that might still remain.
As I spoke to my friend yesterday, I realized how much our childhoods informed our current choices. How, for many years, the fear I felt was probably residual lack of trust that the folks in charge really knew what they were doing and not making it up as they went along. And as a parent, I have to admit that I do make up the rules as I go, and I don’t always know what I’m doing, either. I try to do the best I can to guide my kids and provide a firm base for them, so they can explore the world with less of the fear inside them that I had for a long time.
Divorce is not the end of the world for anyone- kids or adults. But it does make you question the basic assumptions on which you’ve built a life, and force you to figure out how to create a new normal for yourself. That’s not good or bad- it just is. But how you decide to react, how you decide to frame it, is all up to you.