“Girls, we need to talk.” Her face was red, and she looked more nervous than I had ever seen her.
“Are we in trouble?” my sister asked. Mom shook her head, and we waited for her to speak again. We must have looked like statues, unable to blink and fixed on each quiver of her lips. The words that came out of her mouth next would change not only her life forever, but ours as well.
In March of 2003, my sister and I were packing to go to Virginia when my mom told us there would be an extra person coming. Her friend wanted a vacation and had offered to pay his way. Two weeks later, we were confronted with the truth.
“Girls, we need to talk. Your father and I have grown to be like brother and sister over the past few years. We don’t love each other like we used to. We’re getting a divorce.” My sister and I stared at her, thinking this couldn’t be happening. A few nights later she told us she had met someone with whom she felt she could get serious.
“Get serious? It’s been two weeks. Serious is out of the question!” my sister and I screamed in horror. It turned out it was her friend from our Virginia trip. But, despite what we said, nothing was going to change.
Soon after, I left for two weeks in Spain with my soccer team. Going away was a good escape and gave me time to think about everything and do what I love most. Halfway through the trip, I called home to see what was new. When I asked my mom what she was doing, she said she was painting.
“Painting, what are you painting?” I asked. She was painting my sister’s new room. She had moved in with her “serious boyfriend,” whom I had met twice. My trip was officially ruined, and when I came home, I had to face moving in and painting my new room, too.
Our lives have totally changed and I have become more mature, independent, reliable and much more interested in succeeding in school and soccer. When I was first told about the divorce, my grades dropped, my level of soccer play went down, and I was depressed. Junior year began, and I wasn’t going to let anything keep me from getting into the college of my choice. I stayed in shape, going to the gym every day so my soccer would be at my previous level. I studied and did my homework every night, raising my GPA. I turned my life around because I wanted to succeed for me.
My sister took this change a lot harder because she had no escape. She was 13 when it happened, and she felt vulnerable and trapped. Nights when I wasn’t home with her, she would go to her room, close the door and only come out for food. She decided to take the path of rebellion and get in as much trouble as she could to show my mom how much she was hurting. It hurt me to see her pain. The nights I was home alone with her, I would make her dinner and make sure her homework was done. I had to become responsible for her and tell her right from wrong.
In the beginning, she didn’t want to listen. She went to her friend’s house, a friend who was caught up with an older, drug-addicted crowd. My sister didn’t have the strength to say no or stand up for herself. One of those Saturday nights when she called I could tell she had been drinking. She had gotten sick and wanted to come home, but she couldn’t call my parents because she would be in the worst trouble of her life. I picked her up and told her this was the last time this was going to happen. It took almost eight months but she finally realized her mistakes and moved in with my father, which might make her happier and willing to make better decisions.
My parents’ divorce was the best and worst thing that ever happened to me. Sure, our family holidays and dinners will never be the same, but now instead of one family, I have two. In both families I’m a daughter, but I am also a responsible 16-year-old who has gotten past the initial pain and am ready to take whatever comes my way.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
I never understood why my parents decided to divorce, and it haunted me for years. Why did I suddenly have a 'broken' home? Why couldn't I have two parents like everyone else?
When I began to build my own home, I stopped asking why. I realized that I still have two parents, and that the way my parents handled their divorce was a real blessing. When they decided to share custody, they really meant it.
They went together to every parent-teacher conference. They made our bar and bat mitzvahs together. They sat next to each other at graduations and holiday tables and in the bleachers at my basketball games. They both attended parents' weekend at my university, and they walked me down the aisle together at my wedding. When their first grandchild was born, they traveled across the world to be there. Over the years, they have taken grandchildren to the zoo together and shared Seder tables in our home.
I once spoke about my childhood in my class as part of my Masters in Family Therapy. Afterwards, a colleague said to me, "Wow, that is extremely rare. You are so lucky." I was shocked that she used the word "lucky." Lucky was for children who grew up in 'normal' homes. Lucky was for kids who didn't have a 'father's house' and a 'mother's house.' But then I realized that it was true. I was lucky.
I was lucky that my parents walked me down the aisle together at my wedding. I was lucky that they could enjoy their grandchildren together. And I was lucky to learn these lessons from my parents' divorce.
An Ordinary Marriage Doesn't Exist
Since my parents' divorce all I wanted was to build a family. Though I poured much of my time and effort into my professional development, I dreamed of a house full of children and a marriage made of steel. In the silent, soft light of the Ivy League library, I wondered how I would find a spouse who would insure that my own future marriage would be forever. And then I realized that I knew better than that. There are no guarantees that a marriage will last no matter who you marry. I would have to make my marriage and my home my first priority. And each day I knew that I would have to make a conscious, ongoing investment in it. Because I had learned that there is no such thing as an ordinary marriage. A marriage is either going up or going down. If a marriage feels like it is on a plateau, it is at risk.
A Child Needs Both Parents
I have seen too many cases where a mother or father only becomes an active parent after a divorce. Until then, they did not have a 'his' or 'her' slot with the kids and didn't feel a need to spend quality time with them. After parents separate, they often feel guilty and try to make it up to their children somehow. But children need both parents' love and attention, even when there is no divorce and no need to compensate.
A mother can't take the place of a father, and vice versa. When I was growing up, there were times when I was at my father's house, but I really needed my mother. And there were times when I was at my mother's house when I really needed my father. I can recognize this need in my own children. They need me, but sometimes they need my husband just as much, and sometimes more. We can help children build strong relationships with both parents by setting aside some time with each parent and complimenting each other in front of them.
Brokenness Can Make You Stronger
Children of divorce never forget the pain of the day that their parents separate. It doesn’t heal. That’s the day that they lose their basic sense of security. That’s the day they realize that the walls of their home are not as strong as they had always believed them to be. They lose a part of their innocence, no matter how young they are. They learn early on that some stories do not have happy endings. And they carry this sense of brokenness with them everywhere.
But when I was little and still confused about my parents' divorce, I began to see that the brokenness could also make me stronger. It could help me see others' pain. It could lead me to search for wholeness and truth in a place where others weren't searching at all. But most importantly, the loss could teach me to be resilient. As I grew up and faced the inevitable obstacles in life, I had a secret. I knew I could survive. I had learned that pain is a powerful teacher, and that I could choose to use it to succeed.
The greatest lesson I learned was this: If you have the genuine love of one parent, you’ll be okay. If you have two parents who love you, you are fortunate. And if you have two parents who love you and love each other, you’ve won the jackpot.