Divorce can be one of the ugliest moments in a couple's relationship. When kids are in the picture, it's even (arguably) worse. People don't go into a relationship believing separation is inevitable, but sometimes people grow a part and staying together is no longer feasible. A "broken family" isn't ideal, but having come from one made me into the strong, resolute woman I am today. There's some things I learned from my parent's divorce that I know have made me a better mom because I didn't — don't— want a relationship like the ones my parents had and ended. Actually, my desire to learn form my parents' collective mistakes is the greatest driving force throughout my marriage and in my parenting.
My mom and dad never had the ideal relationship. Pregnant with me by another man at such a young age, my easily-influenced mother accepted my father's proposal with hopes I would turn out to be his and that, maybe, they could have a secure, reliable future together. He's a loud, opinionated man, 10 years her senior, but he somehow managed to woo her. With an established job and already divorced from a previous marriage, my mom had many qualms about whether or not they were right for one another. It turns out, they weren't.
My first seven years on this planet were the equivalent of me trying to claw my way out of their volatile fishing net. Caught between nasty, sometimes abusive fights, I never felt safe or believed things could ever be OK in any way. Even after the arrival of my younger brother, the arguing escalated. About money. About my mom working. About where she worked. About daycare where we were sometimes left with incapable people who abused and mistreated us. About infidelity. Those times were filled with such disdain, it's a wonder I'd ever want to be in a relationship of my own.
When they finally divorced (thankfully), my brother and I were forced into an all-out custody war with my dad's tearfully asking us to choose him and my mom's sporadic boyfriends. Things were better when they were a apart and yet, at the same time, also worse. These memories feel only like drifting clouds. They hover, then they pass without ever going too far away. They're always with me, just beyond the surface, and truthfully, I'm grateful for that. Without these experiences, I'd be a whole different person with different world views, and different hopes and dreams. A lot of this formed my opinion of most everything. From men to work, and body image to feminism paving the path for how I'd raise my own children; all I knew was, if I were to ever become a parent, it'd contrast my parents in every way possible.
Now that I'm a mother of two beautiful children, I think back on those times with a sort of stinging, choked-up feeling. Part of me wishes I could've had it differently but the other part can't fathom who I'd be without the childhood I experienced. Some children of divorce go through an easier version of what I've described, but this is my truth. I know I'm a better mother for all the things my parents did and didn't do.
Communication Is Important
When my mom and dad went through all those turbulent times, I never really knew exactly what was happening until it happened. To be in the same house, surrounded by the vitriol, and have no idea what was happening was frightening. Even at seven, I wish one of them had sat me down and explained, rationally, that their separation wouldn't take away from how much they loved me. Not hearing that only added to the mounting stress no child should have to carry.
I've learned with my own children that, when something big is going on, I owe it to them to tell them (when necessary and in an age-appropriate way). It's not to worry them or make them paranoid, but to prepare them so it doesn't feel like the earth's been pulled from beneath their feet.
Never Underestimate Your Child's Feelings
Children feel very deeply. Probably more than we sometimes give them credit for. When I was small, I was often overlooked and overshadowed as if my fear was irrational or unimportant at a time is was supremely valid.
Watching my parents tread through their divorce taught me to stop and think about my children long before I think of my own feelings. As an adult, I can figure out how to navigate rough waters, but they don't have such tools. If my daughter is upset about something, I know not to dismiss it. Instead, I'll take a moment to ask where it stems from because, chances are, it's something deeper.
If Something Isn't Working, Start Anew
Of course I primarily mean when you're in a relationship, it's never too late to get out of it if you're not happy. However, this applies with my children as well. While I don't want to encourage them to quit something they've committed to, if homework has gone awry or a project didn't turn out, I want them to feel empowered to take a breath and begin again. A fresh start is sometimes the difference between success and failure. In terms of my parents, their decision to end the marriage eventually led to more fulfilling lives apart. Sometimes, it's the only way to move forward.
Compassion And Empathy Go A Long Way
Do you remember being young, looking up to a parent or parental figure? While my mom and dad argued every which way, I found my strength in my grandmother. She taught me how to rise when all I felt capable of was disappearing. Compassion and empathy was lacking from my parents at the time, because they were caught up in figuring out their own lives. I'm thankful for my Gram, because without her I might not know how to hug my children when I'm still angry with them or how to take those few moments to step back and ask myself what they might be feeling when life is crumbling around us.
Security Is Everything
Those years awaiting where the judge would tell my brother and I to go were unsettling. My mom moved us into an apartment while my dad stayed at the house and week by week, I didn't know where I belonged. It had never been explained to me everything would be OK so how could I feel otherwise? My partner and I have been together for almost 13 years now and while we don't know what the future holds, we know the most important thing we can do for our children is to make sure, everyday, they feel secure in their place. They know where their home is, the unconditional love we have for them, and mostly, no matter what, where they belong.
I Can't Change Everything
Yes there have been (and still will be) times I'll want to fix things for my kids. A lot of that is based on my upbringing. I want them to have the best lives possible and to be truly, deeply happy. Seeing my past for what it is now — an important piece of my history — I can't change the way things happened and after years of begrudging the choices made on all levels, I'm at peace with it. Now, when I make a mistake with my children, I have to accept the fact that I can try to make it better but might not succeed. It's humbling, but just part of the journey now.
People Make Mistakes, So Forgive And Move On
My parents made some mistakes during that whole divorce period (and before, and after) but I'm an adult now with children of my own to think about. I've made tons of mistakes and will probably make many more. It's part of the gig. Parenting isn't easy and there's no instructions so I see that part of my story for what it really is: a lesson in forgiveness. As the primary role model in our household, I can only hope when I mess up, they'll utilize their own powers of forgiveness towards me. There's probably no better lesson I could learn from all my parents went through.
In the grand scheme, I look back on that period of my life as merely a blip. Sure, their divorce changed parts of me they may have been different otherwise but we all got through it and what emerged from my once meek, introverted shell is this fiercely loyal badass determined to give my children better than what I ever had. And so far, I think I'm winning.