3 Tough Transitions as a child of divorce

sunflower web

My parents’ divorce ushered in many tough transitions in my childhood years.  After much thought, I have grouped them in three categories:  new responsibilities, new relationships, and new home life. Each area became a testing ground for my emotions, and I have gained much insight from looking back and making observations.  Here is what I’ve learned.

New responsibilities

In my previous post, I described the process of getting dressed before school.  Like all five-year-olds, I was still developing small motor skills needed for buttoning and tying.  Without an adult present in the morning, the situation became overwhelming and pressured, rather than a normal learning task.  I am a firstborn, prone to perfectionistic tendencies.  But the pressure to behave more like adult seemed to walk through the door as soon as my dad walked out.  Like many others, I agree with this sentiment:

The day my parents divorced is the day my childhood ended.

As my own children reached the age of five, I felt fresh pain.  I saw their innocence and carefree happiness, their freedom from deep anxiety.  I thank God for the opportunity to stay at home with them when they were very young, providing the nurture and care that I couldn’t have.

Another way this has affected my parenting is to not overwhelm my children with too many responsibilities.  At the age of ten I was performing every household task I have now as an adult.  Yes, this made me very independent and domestically self-sufficient.  But I felt valued mainly for my performance.  One of my major struggles today is regular housework.  I believe that’s partly due to the fact I was overburdened as a child.  In therapy I learned that the norm for children in single-parent homes is to have too much responsibility too soon.  I have to work on these issues, intentionally enlisting my children’s help while chipping away at my tendency to procrastinate.  Who could have known that this aspect of the divorce would still affect me today, decades later.

New relationships

My parents divorced in the spring, and by early fall, my dad remarried.  I had an incredibly difficult time accepting his new wife because I knew her to be instrumental in the breakup.  I have vivid memories of the night he didn’t come home when we had plans to go out for dinner.  My mom feared for his life and sent friends to search for him, but he was with the other woman instead.  In my five-year-old mind, it was almost impossible not to see her as a real-life enemy.

Dad’s wedding was very painful.  My sister and I were chosen as the flower girls.  I remember walking up the aisle, chin quivering, trying to hold back tears, and everyone staring at us with the clear message in their eyes:  “Those poor little girls.”  It brings tears to my eyes now as I write this and remember.  My grandparents and aunt comforted us, telling us beforehand that they knew the day would be hard, but they would be waiting for us in the pew.  I am so glad they were there in the midst of our pain and confusion, and I know God was watching over me too.

I also remember feeling confused and anxious when my mom went out on dates.  I just wasn’t ready to accept any new people in our lives.  I watched her put on her makeup and spray on her perfume, and I would ask, “Do you have to go this time?”  I didn’t understand her need to move forward, and I can see that better now as an adult.  But for me, the prospect of another person vying for my mom’s affection was intolerable.  The night my dad left, I told myself I could handle the new situation if it was just me, my mom, and my sister.  Anyone else coming into the picture was too overwhelming and painful in those early years.

New home life

Before the divorce my mom was a stay-at-home mom.  I had a sense of security and stability, a peace that everything was okay because someone was always there for me.  That abruptly changed with the divorce.  Mom had to return to work, but she also spent much of her free time volunteering at church. I have struggled with loneliness most of my life, and this is where it began.  Dad was unavailable because he was out of the home, and Mom was unavailable because of work and ministry.   These quotes resonate with me:

Children who are very young when their parents divorce remember one thing most: a vast, unsoothable sense of loneliness.  They’re angry about being left so much to themselves.  They know that their parents were overwhelmed by their own changed circumstances, but that’s not grounds for forgiveness.

The youngest looked the worst off and had the hardest time growing up.  Nearly all lost their mothers to the workplace and the stresses of single parenthood. Their feelings of loneliness and anger at both parents carried over into later school years and adolescence. 

As an adult I have worked hard at processing anger, forgiving my parents, and dealing with loneliness.  I have tried to provide a healthier environment in my own family.  But I have accepted that the chaotic changes in my childhood introduced a world of sorrow that I may never fully overcome.

To use my favorite sunflower metaphor, I grew in poor to average soil.  Soil that was not enriched with nurture and attention, but good enough for a towering, beautiful flower to grow.  Sunflowers grow best in less-than-favorable conditions, and apparently that’s the kind of soil God chose for me.

If you are an adult child of divorce, how did you handle the tough transitions?  How does that affect you today?

Quotes from “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce” by Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis, and Sandra Blakeslee.  Hyperion, New York:  2000.

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