How My Parents’ Divorce Almost Destroyed Me
Splitting up was the right decision, but the way they did it damaged everything around them.
Trigger alert: There is brief mention of suicidal depression in this article.
Last summer, I wrote a blog post about my dad (reprinted here) and his health problems. I was drowning in hopelessness over his condition and had basically been drowning since he’d had his stroke in 2010.
I tried to express my feelings of guilt over his situation and how I struggled to think of myself as a good person because, as I implied in the piece…I didn’t always want to take care of him. I wanted to take care of my own life — my dog, my house, and the partner that I had thought I would marry, just like my siblings were doing, not involving themselves in my dad’s care.
I decided to share the piece on Facebook and it was nice to start a conversation with so many friends and cousins who applauded me for the honesty of the piece. I knew my mom wouldn’t be crazy about me posting anything regarding my dad on social media, but since she doesn’t use Facebook, I didn’t think she’d notice or care about the blog post.
I was drowning in hopelessness over his condition and had basically been drowning since he’d had his stroke in 2010.
A few days later, my mom and I made plans to meet up when I found out my friend Nisha was coming for a visit. I was so excited for them to meet. But just before Nisha arrived, my mother abruptly cancelled our plans. “I don’t want you to come over,” she said, flatly. “You just humiliated me in front of all my friends and family members and I don’t want to see you for a while.”
“Wait. What?” I was stunned, even though we’ve had conversations like this a million times. “What did I do?”
She informed me her friends had not only told her that I’d posted a story about Dad, but they’d sent her the link, too, and she’d read it.
“You talked about me like I was a villain. You blamed the entire divorce on me. People think I’m a monster now.”
I didn’t know what to say — as far as I could remember, I’d only mentioned her once in the story, saying something like, “when my parents got divorced.”
“You’ve always blamed me for the divorce and everything that happened afterwards,” she went on, a statement she has made more times than I can count. (For the record, I do not, though yes, I have issues with how both of my parents behaved in regards to the divorce.)
“I don’t want to see you for a while,” she repeated, then hung up.
I cried. We had had so many plans mapped out for the next two weeks — Nisha’s visit, taking care of my sister’s kids while Baby Alex was in the hospital for a few days…and my birthday. Now that was all over.
My dad was hospitalized in February 2010 after a stroke left him partially paralyzed. He never came home after that. He and my mom were done.
It was as horrible as you can imagine. I felt such intense, deep guilt that my dad had lost so much mobility and at the same time, had lost his home, marriage, and life as he knew it. I’m deeply empathetic and when the people close to me suffer, I can find it hard to function normally.
What made it worse was that my parents’ shadow sides seemed to be running the show during that first year after the stroke when they separated and were working on unstitching their lives and officially divorcing. At my mom’s worst, she can be an emotionally abusive, controlling bulldozer who will flatten anyone who gets in her way. At my dad’s worst, he can be a doormat, lacking any boundaries, passive to the extreme, in ways that hurt himself and those around him.
He never came home after that. He and my mom were done.
My mom had asked for a divorce the night of the stroke, before they went to bed. She was done. And so after the stroke, which happened a few hours later, there was no turning back for her, despite his health problems.
Though she allowed him to come to a few family parties in that first year after the stroke, she barely talked to or looked at him, which caused me even more pain than if he hadn’t been there, at all. My dad did his doormat thing and just sat quietly in the corner.
After a few of those encounters, Mom decided he wasn’t welcome back at the house anymore. She was so angry at him. She felt he had not lived up to the promises he had made to her when they’d gotten married.
She also decided that he didn’t deserve half of their assets. Admittedly, much of what they had accumulated had been paid for by my mother’s father, so there was some fairness in that, but in my view, my father had also been a faithful, hardworking husband and father, who despite his flaws, deserved to leave the marriage in a way that would allow him to take care of himself as he navigated his new (and severe) health problems.
But as my dad tends to do, he relented entirely, letting her take the wheel throughout the divorce process. He wasn’t allowed to come home to go through his own stuff. Over the course of a year, she slowly boxed up his possessions, then gave them to me to deliver to him. She also gave him an old car that her father had bought us a decade before.
Throughout it all, my dad just shrugged and said it was fine.
I was furious with both of them for being so stubborn and selfish.
Once the divorce was over, that was that for my dad. He just went on with his life, moving from one apartment to another, trying to find a situation that would work for him.
Moving him once, twice, sometimes three times a year was a grueling process. Because of his weakness, he wasn’t able to pack anything, and my siblings were always busy with their kids, so I’d spend weeks with him packing all his belongings for each move, then my brother and brother-in-law would spend a quick Saturday loading up a truck and moving him, then I’d spend another three weeks unpacking his possessions and setting up his new apartment.
To be honest, I hated and resented it after the first two moves. My dad wasn’t great at long-term planning, and was constantly getting into living situations that clearly would not be sustainable. But if I tried to intervene, to press for a pause so we could make a choice that would be more helpful in the long run, he wouldn’t have it.
But things were far worse with my mother. In the five years that followed the divorce, she descended into a full-on meltdown that I thought would never end. She seemed to hate my father so much — so violently, so passionately. She wanted to perform an in-depth postmortem on her relationship, and she wanted to do it with me.
She seemed to hate my father so much — so violently, so passionately.
In the beginning, I’d let her, sitting on the phone with her for two or more hours a day, listening to her tell me all the ways that my father had failed her. My partner at the time would come home, see me sitting on the couch, crying, the phone pressed against my ear and he’d make desperate gestures to try to get me to hang up.
“You have to tell her no,” he insisted a few weeks later. “Look at you. This is destroying you. Your depression is back and you’ve got enough to deal with without listening to your mother tell you what an asshole she thinks your dad is.”
I knew he was right, but I also knew that putting up this boundary would be like casually lobbing an A-bomb at my mother. And I’d be within range of that mushroom cloud.
Sure enough when I screwed up my courage and put up that boundary, she exploded. “You vent to me all the time when you have issues with your relationship. I can’t believe you’re being so selfish that you won’t let me do the same.”
“Mom…this is about my father. My relationship is not connected to you like that. It’s not the same thing. Not even close.”
“I don’t have anyone else I can talk to about this,” she went on. “You’re the only one!”
“I can’t be that person, Mom. I cannot emotionally handle this anymore.”
Though I didn’t have any plan when I told my mother I couldn’t listen to her vent about Dad anymore, that moment turned into a long period of estrangement between us. It didn’t happen right away. We continued to talk and she continued to insist that I listen to her vent about Dad. Further, she was now bent on getting me to agree with her perception of how this all went down — that it was entirely Dad’s fault.
I insisted again and again that I didn’t want to get involved. I became increasingly depressed and began struggling with suicidal thoughts. I was so overwhelmed that once, when my mother dropped by to say hello to me and then launched into another tirade about the divorce and how selfish I was that I wouldn’t see things her way, I literally retreated into my closet, closed the door and sat there in the dark crying, while my mother screamed at me from the other side of the door.
Finally, thankfully, she left when she realized I wasn’t going to come out, and an hour later, my boyfriend found me in there, curled into a ball.
I insisted again and again that I didn’t want to get involved.
I stopped taking her calls after that. I stopped answering her texts. After a while, she stopped trying to get a hold of me.
I was struggling financially at that point, but I was fully in the grip of suicidal fantasies, so I forced myself to go to a doctor and ask for help. I explained everything I was going through, and that I wanted to kill myself, and the doctor dispassionately nodded, wrote me a prescription for an antidepressant and told me I could ask the nurse to have it filled at the pharmacy of my choice.
That was it. No suggestions for mental health support for someone who couldn’t afford therapy. No concern about my suicidal thoughts. No mention of a follow-up appointment to make sure I was okay.
I didn’t have my mother in my life anymore, my family had been destroyed, my brother Levi had stopped talking to my mother, my brother Jack had stopped talking to my father, and I was suicidal and no one fucking cared.
I don’t remember how long the estrangement lasted. Months, for sure. A full year? Possibly.
By the time my mom reached out to me to ask if we could meet and talk, my sister had also stopped speaking to her. Mom texted me and asked if we could meet at a coffee shop and try to work things out.
I was immediately receptive, though I emphasized that I was not willing to talk about Dad or the divorce. That hadn’t changed.
She said that was okay.
We met — she brought Jack with her, who had been the collateral damage in all of this, strongly taking Mom’s side in everything to the point where he wouldn’t speak to us when we weren’t speaking to her. Losing my baby brother during that time had hurt in ways that were just too much to bear. I could endure the process of divorce grief, even in the wildly dysfunctional way it had played out in our family, but the fact that it affected my relationships with my siblings — sometimes in horrible ways — that seemed unbelievably unfair and cruel.
At the coffee shop, I was both so relieved to see them, but also terrified. I’d felt so bullied by my mother’s behavior after the divorce that I literally had to sit with my legs and arms crossed, as if anticipating another punch.
And sure enough, it came. She was still furious, I could see — with my father, with my brother Levi, with my sister Tegan, and with me. And she still wanted me to agree with her perspective of the situation.
I could endure the process of divorce grief, even in the wildly dysfunctional way it had played out in our family, but the fact that it affected my relationships with my siblings — sometimes in horrible ways — that seemed unbelievably unfair and cruel.
I went from hopeful to pissed in about two seconds and told her I would leave if that’s what we were there to talk about. I was still on antidepressants, I had severe insomnia, I hadn’t had sex in months because my libido had been destroyed by the situation, and I barely had the strength to prepare meals, let alone actually eat them. I knew I was still in a dangerous place and I was determined to protect myself.
She somewhat relented and we ended up just talking, catching up about the past months. Of course, she got a few digs in about what an asshole my dad was, or how much her children supposedly hated her since three of us had “dumped” her in order to take Dad’s side after the divorce (not true).
I ignored her, though it pissed me off to no end that she was still behaving so badly after all that time, even knowing the mental and emotional toll it had taken on me. Her argument, though, was that the damage she had endured from having no one but Jack agree with her perspective about the divorce had been even more hurtful.
We met again a few more times after that, always with her making jabs and passive-aggressive comments, but overall, it went well. And one day, she asked, “What do you think would happen if I reached out to Tegan? I miss her so much and I miss the kids. But I started with you for a reason. You’re the nicest person in this family and I knew you would agree to meet and would be kind to me. But Tegan…she can be cruel. I’m afraid if I ask to meet her, she’ll say no and then scream at me for half an hour.”
I wanted to laugh at that. Tegan and my mother are exactly alike. They each think the other is a total bitch, neither one of them realizing how much they have in common. Nevertheless, they both had great love for one another.
“You should definitely call her. I know she’d like to put this behind her and the kids miss you like crazy.”
She pursed her lips together as she so often did, and said, “Okay.”
And just like that, the feud was over. (Well, sort of.)
Last year, when my mom canceled our plans with Nisha, it was 2019 — nine years since the divorce. My dad now lives with his girlfriend on the other end of town and though he asks me about mom every time I visit and is still trying to figure her out to this day, he’s mostly moved on.
My mother, though, often seems to be trapped in 2010.
Don’t get me wrong — she has grown and changed in ways that I never would have expected back then. There are ways in which she has transformed that would make any therapist proud.
Yet something deep inside won’t let her budge from this idea that my dad destroyed her entire life. She still brings that up every now and then, that if my dad hadn’t _____ (fill in the blank with her grievance du jour), she would be in a totally different place today.
And yes, as I discovered, if I share something about the divorce in public, where friends and family members will see it, my mother will blow her top. Almost a decade later. Because, she said, no one believed her side of the story.
Yet something deep inside won’t let her budge from this idea that my dad destroyed her entire life.
The funny thing is, I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think anyone outside the family cares enough to worry about who’s story was “right” and whose story was “wrong.” It’s a divorce. It’s messy. People get that. I doubt our friends and family members were ever sitting around trying to figure out what exactly happened between my parents. They have their own lives and their own problems. Why would they waste time dissecting someone else’s problems?
Further, what my mom seems to miss, time after time, is that everyone has their own version of a story. I look at my sister’s life right now, with her six kids all home during the coronavirus quarantine and all six of them will come out of this with six different stories about what happened even though they are living in the same house and are often within 10 feet of one another.
I think this is terrifying for my mother to digest, and it always has been. She was always trying to lead the family narrative throughout my life. It seemed to scare and even enrage her when people went “off script.”
But that has been my journey since I turned 40. To claim my perspectives of what happened in my life. To tell my stories and my truth.
I wish I had understood that ten years ago, when my parents first split up. I wish I could have dared to take up the space I deserved to inhabit. Dared to speak my own truth, dared to hold on to my own story.
And now, I’m doing it, piece by piece, in my own way, filled with guilt, but also hopeful that I will find myself in the process once again — the person I lost in the squabble of everyone else’s narrative. I’m doing my best to listen carefully for my own, inimitable voice, and to hear and honor it.
© Yael Wolfe 2020