I spilled the beans with one, seemingly innocent text message. “Hey, Dad, how are you?” He knew it then. He knew that something was about to happen. That something was the dreaded “D” word, an event my parents had been dancing around for the past couple of years. Divorce. I didn’t mean for him to hear it from me and not in that way, of course, but I felt bad for him. I kept picturing him all alone, receiving the letter that would begin the end of his marriage. My dad had recently moved to Billings, Montana, for a job while my mom was still living in my hometown in South Dakota. The plan had been for her to join him once he had gotten settled and she had found a new job in Billings, packed up our home, and said goodbye to family and friends.
My mom was afraid to tell me when she had made the decision to have the papers drawn up. As I sat on my bed, Skyping with her, my boyfriend in the next room, she said that she didn’t want to disappoint me. I lied and said that I wasn’t disappointed. It was hard seeing her face on my laptop screen as she said this and even harder to not allow my face to deceive me. How could I not be disappointed? It was the end of something, of so many things, but my disappointment wasn’t and never will be in my mom or dad. So I said, “I want you both to be happy and if that isn’t together, that’s okay.” That wasn’t a lie.
It feels strange now to say the words, “My parents are divorced.” It’s hard to wrap my brain around and even harder to tell other people. When someone asks me where my parents live, I almost choke on the words, “My mom lives in Sioux Falls and my dad lives in Billings.” This reaction seems driven more by confusion and newness than emotion. It shouldn’t be new to me though. Ever since I can remember, classmates or teammates had openly spoken about the three or four Christmas’s they got to attend or the stepparents they had. Perhaps it’s the inclusion of my family in with those remembered friends that feels so alien, so unreal and so new.
Most of the time saying something out loud makes me feel better – it’s a cathartic act. However, saying that my parents are divorced makes me feel small, childlike again, as if I don’t have control over anything. Before, I thought I had reached a point in my life where I might have control. As adults, we’re supposed to have the answers and know what to do, at least more so than we do as children. Lesson learned though – no one can really have that kind of control.
Their 28th anniversary was, or would have been, a couple of weeks ago. My mom texted me and mentioned it and even though this situation makes me feel like a child, I was reminded in that message that I’m not. I was reminded that I am now needed and can offer the stability and support to them that have for me in the past.
As I come to terms with my new family situation, I’ve come to realize that there are certain advantages of divorcing when your children are adults – no custody battle, no child support, and no question of who has the kids this weekend or on the next holiday. Somehow, though, there has to be an effect on how we children of divorce will now view relationships. I can recall a close friend of mine, months before her very own wedding, saying that she would never get a divorce. At the time I thought this to be an incredibly naïve statement. I thought it unrealistic. Divorces happen every day but with this declaration of hers, I was also able to see how her parents’ divorce had affected her. The pain she felt at a very young age and the chaos it caused in her life when her parents split up was still very real. What I thought naïve at the time, I can now relate to. I find myself sometimes thinking the same sentiment, repeating it like a mantra. I never want to get a divorce. I never want to get a divorce. A bit premature, I know, because I’m not married – not even engaged. I can’t help but not think about it.
I don’t believe that simply because my siblings and I are adults we have avoided the storm. My family still has many obstacles to face. My sister, brother, and I will have to decide which parent to visit on which holiday – an adult sort of custody battle. My parents will someday have to come together, in the same room again, for birthdays or graduations or to witness any of their three children vow to love someone for the rest of their lives. We may all have to meet a new boyfriend of my mom’s or girlfriend of my dad’s. There are things that wait for us in the future that I’m not ready to deal with yet. I can only hope that when the time comes, I can still be an adult and say, “I want you both to be happy.”
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Ashley Portra is the author of Our Chapters: Celebrating 50 Years of Leadership, Scholarship, Service and Friendship. She lives in Mandan, North Dakota, and is the Director of Communications at Ruth Meiers Hospitality House.