Just before my 17th birthday my parents separated. I remember the night well. I was sat in the dining room struggling my way through my sociology A-Level homework. I left the room to go for a break and as I passed the sitting room, where my parents were, I overheard my Mum say, “When are we going to tell the girls?”. I knew in that instance that my parent’s marriage was over.
Children are more aware of what is going on in their parent’s marriage then their parents might like to admit. Despite my father’s best efforts to hide his discontent, it had come into full glare when my mother was in hospital. I knew before he told my mother, that their marriage was on the rocks. It was a burden that was impossible to carry and I hinted to my mother, upon her return home from hospital, that I suspected that all was not well. It was this hint that led my mother to confront my father. What if I had not mentioned anything at all? Would my parents still be together? The answer is, no. They were never meant to be together long term.
On the night my parent’s marriage collapsed I was in the house on my own. I say on my own, but my 2 year old brother was asleep in his cot and not able to offer me any comfort. On the contrary, my role as his older sibling was to protect and comfort him. My older sister was working an evening shift at Sainsburys. I cannot articulate how much I wanted her to be there with me, to share the burden of the news I had learned that night, for us to offer one another comfort and support. She eventually came home and the monumental information was dispatched to her.
Our lives changed that night. Up until then some of my friends, from divorced families, had been jealous of our apparently perfect family and coveted what we appeared to have. Upon my parent’s separation it was they who truly understood how I felt as I entered, unwillingly, the children of separated parents club.
One of the most frightening aspects of my parent’s separation was suddenly seeing my parents totally exposed. They were not perfect, they could not always perform as the ‘perfect’ parent or role model they were supposed to be. My parents were like me, fumbling their way through life, making as many mistakes as they were achieving victories – they were, in summary – only human. Recognising them as vulnerable was destabilising but necessary in valuing them not only as parents but as imperfect human beings.
My sense of normality and stability at that time came from my 6th form college. I doubt the Head of the Sixth Form College will ever realise how much his kindness and humanity when dealing with me, when I entered his office in a tearful mess explaining that my parent’s separation would not stop my determination to get into university, meant to me. He believed in me and agreed to keep my predicted grades as they were. This gave me the distraction of something to aim for, so that my entire focus was not on what was happening at home. That is the key in dealing with grief; something to aim for, something to push towards to bring you out of the fog.
It is amazing that when things are bad that someone else’s kindness is what you remember – for we humans are much more wonderful than any of us probably realise and when the chips are down, human kindness is generally at its most generous. This is good to remember when you are going through bad times. Let that empower us and push us forward.
I am pleased to say that I enjoy very close and loving relationships with both of my parents. That is not to say it has been easy; trying to understand and deal with adult issues, when I was on the cusp of becoming an adult myself, was very hard. Nevertheless my parents did not draw me, or my siblings, into a war between them and never sought to alienate us or use us against the other parent. It resulted in our relationship with both parent’s remaining intact. It is that ongoing sense of stability that my parents provide to me, despite all that has happened, that has shaped who I am today. They give me strength.
So why do I recall this? Well, despite the obvious distress my parent’s separation caused me and my siblings, we came through it. Having said that, my siblings experience and way of dealing with the separation were different and are best left to a separate blog but the key message is that we all came through it. You cannot speed up time but time does heal and although we may carry scars with us, these are necessary so that we do not forget the lessons that our past teaches us as we move forward. Had my parents not managed their separation as well as they did, there is a good chance that my siblings and I would not have come through it as well as we did.
The other important point is that my parents also came through their separation. Despite the hurt caused at the time they recognised that were better off apart than together. They had 20 good years together and have three successful children as testament to those good years. They both have new partners and lead contented lives. I tell my friends and clients when they come to me in the first throws of separation and the inevitable grief that brings with it, that they will come through it but it will just take time. How long it will take, I cannot answer, but they will come through it, that I can promise.
So, if your parents are going through a divorce or have already divorced, I get it. Sure, I am not you but I can identify with you and that goes a long way in understanding what you are going through. Further, if your marriage is collapsing I am better placed than others to give you guidance on how to manage your children through that separation. This is not something you can learn in law books but from real life experience. The central message is, though, that if you manage your separation as best you can then you stand a better chance of guiding your children through it with significantly less damage done than if you use them as a pawn in your separation. The long term effects of such behaviour can be irreversible and potentially jeopardise, irrevocably, your long term relationship with your child.