Searching for a “real” family

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.

“Real” Mom

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.

“Real” Dad

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.

“Real” Family

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.

Reflection:

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?

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  • I looked all the time for the ‘perfect’ family but now I look to see if just at least one parent loves their children. When my parents split up I was relieved because of the abuse and was used as a scapegoat even in this. I used to go to a friends house and it had a much warmer feeling than my own and they talked to each other, whereas mine did not. It had soft red lights in the house and the couple although not Christian, as I did not come from a Christian background, laughed with each other and I could see they cared for each other. This left a big footprint on my life. Although a single parent myself, my daughter now grown up I still search just to be part of a family even within the Christian church but it never happens. Thank you for sharing Sarah I do love to read of some happy endings although not perfect. I know God has something wonderful in store I’m sure for my life but it has been broken and broken so many times. Love your blog jacqui x

    • Thanks Jacqui! Your thoughts are appreciated and I’m glad what I wrote resonated with you. Blessings on your day!

    • I share an experience similar to Jacqui’s. I was the scapegoat daughter and after my parent’s split, it got worse. I didn’t look for how other families lived, but I did look for love–the one thing I didn’t have at home. Like you, my children became my family. I think I identify more with Wallerstein’s study of a house being “…a symbol of what has been lost.” For a long time, until just a few years ago, actually, home was a place that I ate and slept. Like Jacqui, I’ve been looking for a “complete” family where I can fit in, but I’ve never found one, not even at church… As I read your post and remember my own divorce, I can see my middle child. His father and I got divorced when he was eight, and he’s been seeking a family unit (mother and father together) ever since that time. Thank you for sharing this post. It’s given me insight into my middle son’s psyche. Blessings.

      • Lynette, I am so glad this piece gave you understanding. I am glad you visited because I checked out your blog, and it looks like a wonderful resource for a memoir writer like me. I look forward to exploring it more in coming days. If you are willing to have a guest post, I’m interested. Thank you, and blessings to you also!

        • Yes, I found your piece very insightful, especially with respect to my middle son. Memoir is one of my passions. Yes, yes. If you are willing to do a guest post, I am certainly willing to have you. Thank you for considering my blog. Blessings.

          • Wonderful, Lynette! Thank you for following me, and for this comment. I will be in touch.