Like many children of divorce, I was torn between two homes. My mom had full custody of me and my sister, but we visited my dad on a regular basis. He lived less than 10 miles away. I looked forward to seeing him, but I had learned with experience that it wouldn’t be easy. I always left with a sense of loss and hurt. Here’s a breakdown of the feelings I expressed in my last post.
Some good things happened at my dad’s house. I wanted to see Daddy. He was fun; he let my sister and I eat more junk food than Mom did. He took us to activities we enjoyed, such as the Ice Capades and local fairs. He told us silly stories and tickled us. He taught me how to ride my bike in the alley behind his house. I craved his attention, and I enjoyed every moment of our time just with him. I never doubted his love for me.
But the bad outweighed the good. Dad had a worldly lifestyle. He was less discerning about media choices, and I felt confused and uncomfortable. He and his wife used harsher language than I was used to hearing at Mom’s house, which was upsetting to me. I didn’t feel free to complain about these things because I felt that would be disrespectful. I had to hold my opinions inside even at a young age.
Dealing with his wife was my biggest challenge. Her cigarette smoke became a symbol for her negativity: impossible to avoid and invasive on my personal property. I hated returning home with my hair, clothes, and stuffed animals smelling like her smoke. I think she resented the fact that when my sister and I visited, everything revolved around us. She never was the nurturing kind. I felt like I was an intrusion in their home. I was an obligation, not a treasure.
When Dad wasn’t there, I stayed out of the house to escape her negativity. That drove me straight back into loneliness, and I asked myself, “Why am I even here? If I’m going to be alone, I may as well be back at my house.” His wife prodded me to make friends with the neighborhood kids. But I wanted to see Daddy, not put forth effort to make friends with kids I’d see maybe once a month.
I felt like a pawn, not a person, when I was forced to give the kiss at the party. Once, she said mean things about my family members. I overheard it and reported it to Mom. She told Dad, and he made his wife apologize to me and my sister. I saw right through the fake apology. These negative events—the party kiss and the fake apology—probably pushed me over the edge. That’s when I started wishing to go back home.
I want to be very clear: I have forgiven her for these things and harbor no ill will toward her now. Yet, I can see how they were major roadblocks in my relationship with her then.
I am thankful that my sister was my first counselor during those tough times. She and I would lay in our beds and rehash the irritations of our visit, affirming each other’s feelings. Research shows that siblings often help each other in divorce situations:
Siblings after divorce often form small subcultures within the family, creating a united front vis-à-vis their parents and the adult world. They lie awake at night discussing their parents and trying to make sense out of what they observe.
We debated if our pain was heavy enough to risk hurting Dad by asking him to take us home. Most of the time, we simply decided to share a bed to comfort each other through the long night. We hid it from Dad though—I remember getting back into my own bed at sunrise, so Dad wouldn’t know, just like I would change back into my own pajamas to protect his feelings.
When the hurt got too strong, pain was my friend. It pushed me to seek relief. Deep down I knew it wasn’t my fault that his wife was unloving. I knew it wasn’t bad to want to go home. My primary concern was trying not to hurt my dad, even though the divorce he caused was the source of all this pain. I didn’t want anything to be my fault.
This quote from The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce sums up my struggle:
Young children have a limited capacity to understand cause and effect. They try hard to understand what they see, but they tend to think in terms of blame—specifically who is to blame…the young child feels she is to blame if her mother or father is suffering and that it’s her responsibility to rescue that unhappy parent. She would much rather blame herself than get angry at her parents.
I was torn in two: wanting to see Daddy, but not feeling safe at his house. At my own house, I felt lonely most of the time, so I didn’t feel 100% safe there either. My main coping mechanism was withdrawal into private worlds. Decades later, I still struggle with that temptation on a daily basis. I desire to shut everyone out and create a world where no one can hurt me. A world under my complete control.
In my next post, I will address how I’m changing that coping mechanism, and how I’ve found healing in my faith.
Did you grow up visiting a parent in another home? What feelings did those visits stir up in you as a child?
Both quotes taken from The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, written by Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis, and Sandra Blakeslee. New York: Hyperion, 2000.
Copyright 2016 Sarah Geringer.