It was the first time that I’d ever seen my father cry. It was the moment my parents explained to my sister and I that their marriage was over, that our family life would never be the same and that for the rest of our lives their divorce would color many of our family experiences and expectations.
It happened in my freshman year of high school, nearly 30 years ago. Yet, every year during the holidays their divorce remains as fresh and relevant as if it happened yesterday.
I’ve long ago dealt with the “hows” and “whys” that led to that sad moment. There’s no bitterness on my part, only melancholy. That’s because for the children of divorce there’s no finality to it. No matter how hard we try, the pain and effect of divorce lingers and it weighs most heavily on most of us during the holidays.
For Christmas, my wife and I load up the kids and travel to visit one of our family’s. Mine lives in the northeast; hers lives in Florida. Both of our parents are divorced so that means our holidays are even busier than normal as we have large families with lots of people to see and spend time with. We are blessed that our families love us, our children and are determined to squeeze every ounce out of our journey home. But that demand on our time is exhausting, persistent and, on rare occasions, selfish.
For a child of divorce whose parents are still in the picture, there is a constant and unrelenting tug of war that occurs. Sometimes it’s spoken and sometimes it’s implied. “You spent last Christmas with your mother, so it’s my turn this year.” “I’m putting in dibs on your birthday this year.” “We want you to come spend vacation with us.” I completely understand where these feelings emanate from, because as a parent I, too, feel the desire to spend as much quality time with my children as possible. It’s human nature.
However, it’s my contention that the one thing our parents seem to forget about their divorce is that this wasn’t a choice that we made. We didn’t decide — rightly or wrongly — to move on from our marriage. Therefore, we shouldn’t continue to pay the price for decades to come by being split in two for every holiday, birthday or special family event. We shouldn’t be made to feel that we are “choosing” to be with one side of the family over the other. This is the fallout of a decision made long ago and long before we were able to comprehend the complexities of the dissolution of a once-loving union.
I’m not saying that couples should stay together for the sake of their children. That’s unrealistic and unhealthy for many parents and children who, in some cases, might suffer abuse — emotional, physical or sexual — in a dysfunctional or violent relationship. Clearly, the correct course of action is for the children and injured spouse to get out of that scenario and heal.
Plus, there is a silver lining. If my parents hadn’t gotten divorced my wife, children and I would never have experienced the overwhelming love and affection from my stepmother. She has been a bright, shining light in our lives.
What I’m advocating for is greater understanding of the burden placed on the children of divorce. Sure, we grow up, become adults, struggle with interpersonal relationships and, hopefully, become fully-formed spouses and parents. We strive to make sure that our children grow up in a more stable, permanent relationship than we had. But that doesn’t mean that we ever stop dealing with the ramifications of a divorce that occurred decades ago.
The pain of the end of our parents’ marriage is always heightened during special occasions because it’s a reminder of how our family split apart. We are not whole in these moments, as infrequent as they are and when there are demands placed on us to play favorites or decide who to spend time with and how often, it refreshes the agony of one of the worst moments of our lives.