Divorce: A Blessing in Disguise
My parents told me they were divorcing a few weeks after I left California for college in Colorado, a week before my 18th birthday, and a week after the World Trade Towers collapsed in 2001. I still have the memory of waving goodbye to them outside my dorm etched into my brain and the ominous feeling of uncertainty. It was a really confusing time to be a young adult, and those who knew me at that point of my life could remember that I didn’t take the news of the impending divorce very well. I was beyond angry and upset, horrified that my parents made this decision and devastated that when I flew back home for Thanksgiving, my home and my family as I knew it would be no more.
I never thought my parents would get divorced but oddly, it was always one of my biggest fears. I probably picked up on relationship tensions and marriage difficulties, but didn’t understand the complexities of what was really going on. As a child, I hated change, inconsistency, loved traditions, and relied heavily on the support of my tight immediate family. My sense of safety came from routine and control. I was the stubborn baby of the family and leveraged my emotions for attention (still do from time to time when I have a bit too many vodkas...) My parent’s decision to divorce forced me to analyze how my life was going to be in the future and what it meant to be 18 and basically on my own in the world after a couple weeks earlier, just being a very sheltered kid in the Bay Area suburbs. No matter how much upset I hurled at my parents, the decision stood as it was and there was nothing I could do. I detested so much of my freshman year of college, but in retrospect, that experience was the catalyst to understanding the triggers of my happiness and personal growth.
This was before I used a cellphone, and I remember sitting in the hallway of my dorm on the cordless landline, screaming and crying at my parents on a daily basis, trying to understand their decisions and how this happened. I wrote essays about the identities of women in my Freshman writing class and started reading the Dalai Lama’s Art of Happiness. I played tennis and displaced my anger into the ball. I wrote poetry and songs. This was not like me whatsoever (nor can I relate to writing poetry at this stage in my life), but I absolutely couldn’t bury the anger and grief that I felt and had to release it. I also really got into the Blues and Black Sabbath (weird but no judgement 18 year old me). It’s not up to you by Bjork had become my anthem, recommended to me by hip, sophomore sister as she tried to help me let go of the pain:
If you wake up
And the day feels a-broken
Just lean into the crack
And it will tremble ever so nicely
How it sparkles
I can decide what I give
But it’s not up to me
What I get given
About to happen
But what they are
It’s not up to you
Well, it never really was
As time moved on, my parents seemed happier, more settled in their own individual lives, but I remained grief stricken and sometimes inconsolable. I put my parents through an emotional hell and they were caring and understanding and respectful of my boundaries. I refused to meet their new partners until I was comfortable and they never pressured me to do anything that didn’t feel right for me. I couldn’t stomach the thought of my parents being with other people and I was furious with them trying to move on so quickly. I became filled with anger when anyone tried to look at the divorce from a positive angle, I just couldn’t see it as anything but destruction. I would have hated this article if I read this during that period.
Until one day, I remember sitting in my dorm, crying to my dad on the phone, saying, “our family is over.” His response brought me to a place of understanding and empathy. He lost his dad from cancer at age 25 and his mother/my grandma remarried the only man I knew as my grandpa on my paternal side. He said, “When my dad died, I felt the same. Yes, my family as I knew it was over, but it was time for me to reframe what family meant. Your family is always there, the structure just changes through time.”
This was incredibly powerful, especially in my volatile, emotional state. It soothed me. It hit me like a lightening bolt to think that family doesn’t have to be mom, dad, child, sibling, etc. It can mean best friends, a grandparent, your pets, in laws. Some people think their cars are their babies, whatever works for you, it’s ok (within reason). As a child, I always wanted to fit in and be cookie cutter like everyone else, but this statement from my dad, kind of threw the cookie cutters into the fire. He was explaining the psychology of positive reframing and It became a relief to stop pretending to be like everyone else and just do what felt right for me. I used the restructure of my family unit to let go of being a sheep and following the “shoulds.”
I always thank my parents for doing what they felt right even though they knew how emotionally volatile I was. They did what they needed to do for themselves, for the future of our new family structure and I am so grateful for how everything is now despite the blow it caused in 2001. The people they’ve been for the last 15 years are different than the people I knew when I was a child and I am so proud of them for taking care of their own happiness. They sacrificed a lot of be our parents (not to mention, spent a lot of money) and it makes me feel so comforted knowing that they are living their best lives with new partners who complement and support them.
I learned the pain of grief and the comfort of acceptance through my parent’s divorce, and I would not change a thing if I could. To learn the art of letting go of control is an invaluable thing, but you have to be prepared to feel the pain and sadness until the acceptance can kick in. I learned to listen to my intuition and take risks knowing that I always had support, even if it just meant a lot of repeated phone conversations with each member of my family separately. I grew surprisingly independent (especially to my present self) and decided to take the roads less traveled throughout my whole adulthood including moving to London following college with no job, no housing, and a bank account full of summer camp counselor wages. I learned that you can’t really rely on anyone but yourself, but that’s actually ok because, who’s better than yourself?
I speak to my parents on the phone every day and have done since I was 18. We may only speak for a few minutes, but it’s a comforting ritual, especially during tough times. My friends make fun of me for this, a 32 year old who calls her parents constantly, but I can’t imagine my family any other way. We may all live far away from each other, but we’ve grown closer at this point in our lives than I’ve ever felt even when we all lived under one roof. I learned that when you live your life for you, and let go of the fear of the bottom dropping out, you become a better friend, sibling, wife, daughter, parent, and everything just falls into place a bit better.