I came of age in the era of divorce and latchkey kids. There was much lamenting and hand-wringing about the state of these poor children who came from broken homes, and I did my part to exploit and take advantage of the things that came my way because of it. Hey, c’mon, it’s the American Way, right? Opportunists are rewarded! As I got older, though, I began to realize that even though I had certainly suffered some evils due to the breakup of my parents’ marriage, all in all, their divorce was a good thing. A fantastic thing, even. Perhaps even the thing that saved my life and the fate of countless others. I realize I have a penchant for exaggeration, but I truly believe that my parents did me a huge favor by getting divorced. Mom, let your guilt fly away like the fluff from a dandelion, caught on the wind and spirited away to land in a nearby puddle and die, never to spawn another weed.
I was eight years old when my father moved out of the house, and, by all accounts, it was a very rough time. I followed the predictable pattern of believing that their divorce was somehow my fault. Had I only been a better kid and not fought with my siblings and if I hadn't lied about stealing that extra cookie, they would have stayed together, right? Sounds reasonable when you’re eight and the world revolves around you.
I’m certain I also had some fears that if my mom could move my dad out so easily that my walking papers would arrive some day soon, too. I imagine my behavior in the weeks following was beyond reproach in order to avoid that.
But, being a latchkey kid was actually pretty cool. I learned a lot in those after school hours. My older brother taught me to make s’mores in the microwave and we learned that if you left the jet puffed marshmallow in there too long, it would eventually grow so big that it would explode and leave stalagtites hanging down that needed to be chipped off the following day with a putty knife. COOL!
I learned to operate the oven and bake cookies so that the house would smell wonderful when my mom came home from work. [On a related note, I learned the hard way that when you’re reading a recipe, you must pay close attention or you will add a cup of salt instead of a teaspoon and then when you taste the dough you will gag and choke and feel really guilty about wasting the ingredients and money it took to make the cookies.]
I learned that my little sister could find the best hiding places and loved to freak me out, but that I could coax her out of anywhere with the promise of some chocolate. I learned that chasing the cat could be fun unless she was “hiding” in the litterbox when you finally caught her and, when your brother convinced you she was just testing you, picking her up would result in getting covered in cat pee.
Then there were the lessons that I didn’t realize I was learning until I was much older. I learned to be self-reliant and independent when it came to a myriad of things, both personal and social. I watched my mother work her tail off to support her children, regardless of the fact that my father didn't pay a dime of child support. She had been miserable in her marriage, and even though she was no longer able to greet us at the door after school with a snack and a hug, she was doing what she needed to do in order to be happy, and she was doing it for herself. She didn’t choose to keep the marriage intact “for the children”. Instead she chose to prioritize herself and make an excruciating choice that would lead to her emotional freedom and strength.
I learned that a woman doesn’t need to be supported by a man and that no matter how young I was, I was an integral part of my family. I was expected to help out in any way I could and my siblings and I watched each other’s backs like a mother bear guarding her cubs.
I learned that you can’t always believe what people say, even if you think they love you. You have to have a back-up plan in case someone promises you something and doesn’t follow through. That was a tough one. I spent many, many years counting on my father and giving him the benefit of the doubt when he didn’t come through for me, and countless years after that being bitter and angry about his lies. I think I was 29 years old when I finally realized that it was my responsibility to be flexible and responsible for adapting to someone else’s lack of follow through. I had to learn that there are some people who you can never trust, and that I should never pin my own happiness on someone else’s actions. I am responsible for my own successes and when I choose to trust others, I am putting myself at risk. Most of the time that risk is worth it, but sometimes it hurts.
I learned that including myself in my list of priorities is imperative to my success as a wife and mother to my own children. Divorce is not something that will make or break a child’s ability to achieve their own victories, but watching how their parents handle it brings important lessons. I never doubted my mother’s love for us because I watched her work hard every day to provide for us.
It was my mother’s dream to have a house full of children to stay home with. When that didn’t happen, she adjusted her goals accordingly. Given the choice, I don’t think she would have done the job she ended up with, but it was the one that worked best and paid the best at the time. Over time, I watched my mother remarry, relocate, and eventually start her own business at the age of 50. She has since reinvented herself many times and is still going strong. She has found satisfaction in her job and her personal life and never stopped believing that all it would take was some adaptability and hard work. That is perhaps the strongest moral that came from my parents’ divorce.
As a mother, I am heartened by the example my mother set for me. I grew up relying on myself a great deal and now know that I am capable of supporting myself and my children financially and emotionally if I have to. I know that showing them that I value myself and my happiness more than the institution of marriage or the false notion of “stability” is integral to their ability to grow up to value themselves as well.
Watching my parents fight and eventually split up was traumatic for me at the time. I no doubt missed out on many things due to the reduced income and my mother’s lack of energy for several years following their divorce, but what I learned has far outlasted any of those experiences and is infinitely more important to me as a person. Thanks, Mom and Dad!