My red notebook from junior high holds one recurring theme—a wish to go back in time. Sure, it details the requisite girl drama, secret crushes, and bad poetry. But over and over again a lament sounds: “I wish I could be five years old again, when life wasn’t so complicated.”
Until I reread this notebook as an adult, I didn’t realize I was longing for the ideal of my original family, before my parents’ divorce. The divorce happened the year I turned five. And I filled that red notebook in a time of upheaval and confusion, soon after my mother’s remarriage and during my transition from private to public school. No wonder I felt life was complicated. No wonder I wanted to return to a time of relative peace and stability, as I wrote in my previous post.
In her landmark study on children of divorce, Judith Wallerstein states:
The family home is a symbol for both children of divorce and children raised in intact families—but for different reasons. For one it’s a symbol of continuity. For the other it’s a symbol of what has been lost…
For children of divorce, especially those in their teens or older, the family home also carries great meaning and they mourn its loss for years after the breakup. The home is the repository of the family they lost and the sense of continuity with their childhood that ended with the divorce.
Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis, and Sandra Blakeslee. The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce. Hyperion, 2000.
I remember feeling like I wasn’t part of a “real” family, one with an original mom, dad, and children. Since I knew I could never return to my original family unit, I searched for other examples. I wanted to learn how “real” families lived, and what made them different from my experience.
For years, my sister and I went to a family friend’s house after school. The mom stayed at home, and we played with the kids, who felt like our siblings. The mom had fresh cookies or hot popcorn ready when we got off the bus. She washed dishes and cooked supper while I read or did homework. I watched her sometimes as she worked in the kitchen and listened to Christian radio. I thought, “This is what my mom would do if she could stay home with us. This is what she did before the divorce.” I stored those memories in my “real mom” mental file.
Around the time I wrote in my red notebook, I began observing my best friend’s family. When I had supper at her house, her dad (our pastor) led the prayer. At the end of the meal, we took turns reading and discussing a short Bible passage. The feelings of peace, stability, and spiritual harmony were overwhelming for me there. Even though I knew my own experience would never be like that, and I didn’t expect it to be, I stored it in my “real dad” file.
Once I began college, I cleaned house for a lawyer’s family. I worked in the afternoons when the kids came home from school and the mom was preparing dinner or helping with homework. Their home was warm, positive, and connected. As I dusted their photo frames, I thought, “This is what a real family looks like.” A glimmer of hope flickered inside me. For the first time, I thought it may be possible for me to have my own “real” family.
Today I am living out my hope as a wife and mother of three. Are we an “ideal” family? No, we are far from perfect. But my husband and I agree, both of us children of divorce, that our children have had a much better start than we did. They have a much healthier image of what a “real” family is.
As a child, what were your pictures of an ideal family? If you grew up as a child of divorce, did you also look for models of how other families lived?