This afternoon, I got to leave work early.
I put on mascara in the bathroom at my office – I don’t wear makeup to work, but for my upcoming appointment, I definitely wanted to have my face on.
This afternoon, I spoke in front of a room full of judge, magistrates, family court facilitators, and sherlocks (…that sounds cool, what do they do?) about what it’s like being a child of divorce and how the court-mandated custody agreements affected me and my life.
it’s not something I think about often anymore, but for a long time, divorce was the center of my world. I sat with four other panelists in front of the room and we all watched a short documentary called “Split” which is heartbreaking and beautiful and so insightful – it’s just divorce as told through interviews and artwork. It’s entirely children featured in the film, so it’s honest and adorable and gut-wrenching.
Then we dove in.
I’m actually great at public speaking. I have a natural humor about me, so even when I’m talking about horrible things, they generally turn out to be slightly humorous. At least, that’ the plan. I introduced myself and I was shaking. I hate that I’m so pale, because I naturally blush so very easily. Ugh. So I’m blushing and shaking and of course, my mouth is so dry. I’m trying to sip water like a lady, but I could have easily overturned the pitcher and just drank the whole thing.
The first question was about how we were protected from the collapse of the marriage. I laughed, not at all. When my parents used to fight, Mike and I would huddle together and whisper about whether or not this one was going to result in the “D” word. We never harbored any hope that our parents would stay together. (I guess, except for like three months after mom’s first brain surgery….everything was so calm for a minute there.) I also told them that the first thing my dad said when he got served the papers was that it was my fault. They laughed then, because I explained that I was pretty sure it wasn’t me.
The next question was about the difficulties that arose when traveling between two homes. We used to have duffel bags…mine was green. I explained how the cleaners worked and how if you didn’t get it before they closed, you were out of luck until after the weekend. I explained how hard that was and then recounted the one time that the police came, and I thought I was going to be arrested at twelve. (For a brilliant twelve year old, I should have known better — what could I possibly have been arrested for??)
After that, it was what resources were made available to us. I told them about the time we went to therapy with that therapist and she told us to draw a family tree and use the colors that we were feeling…and I told her that this wasn’t worth $200 an hour and called her a monkey butt and walked out. That got another laugh. The therapist was the first person I was ever openly rude to…I’m impressed, and appalled, and so aware that I needed therapy all at the same time. I did tell them that later, when I was 23, I found a real therapist who doesn’t make me describe anything using colors for feelings and that that’s gone a long way.
Then came the parenting plan. I told them how complicated it was, and then told them that when I was 16, I moved in with my mom and ignored it. And how I regret leaving my little brother. And how he did the same thing when he was 16.
The next question was how did your day to day change? Like, college, friends, school, etc. I told them that it all came down to money; that my mom was a wizard with tuition expense management, and that I went to school as far away as I could get. I also told them that it was hard to want to do things because I didn’t want my mom to have to pay for the stuff, like shoes and whatnot if it was sports or whatever accoutrements go along with whatever you’re doing.
Then they asked about new partners, and I told them that since my parents divorced at the advent of internet dating, my dad went crazy for it. I then told them that I’ve been meaning to get my mom online to find a companion. The way I phrased it was cute. I told them thank you for the reminder. Good laughs there. I told them how grateful I am for my stepmom and how a relationship with my dad wouldn’t be possible without her and how she’s made him a better person and how much I love her. I almost teared up then.
The last question they asked was about whether or not we had gotten to talk to the judge or whether we’d wanted to talk to the judge. I told them that it was interesting, because I’d never thought about it but that I probably would have wanted to talk (I love talking….), but that it would have been nothing more than a regurgitation of what my dad had been telling us at the time, which in hindsight, was not an accurate reflection of the situation.
One question that wasn’t planned that came up was whether or not we’d lost family or culture as a result of the divorce….I almost cried then too. I answered that yes, I’d lost my dad’s family. I told them about how hurt I was when we were disinvited from Christmas at 7pm on Christmas Eve one year, and how when I confronted my uncle about it, he told me how much they’d had to accommodate us over the years, and how powerless I felt, because I was a child. I didn’t get to choose that we were at my dad’s at 4pm one Christmas and 8 am the next…I didn’t get a say, and to have him throw that back at me cut me so deeply. I told them that I still don’t know why, but that I think it’s because they assumed that I was closer with my dad? Or that there had been some falling out that I don’t know about? I did tell them that many of my own tears have been shed over it. That was raw for me.
My parting words were that divorce custody agreements are already arduous enough — all of the panelists agreed that it’s better to get them over quickly — but I urged the judges to really look at the situation and to think of the things that might not be so obvious (duffel bags…..never should have happened). I also reminded them that nothing is as it seems and that each party is presenting their best selves, and that it’s often a lot more complicated than they realize. And then I assured them that I understand that they realize it, since they deal with it every day.
Overall, it was a super emotional experience. I was supposed to see my friend Jacob tonight, but I’m worn out. I’m just grateful for the supportive family that I’ve had over the years. I am so grateful that I was able to go to college and that I’ve been lucky enough to get to bond with my brother. The divorce made us an inseparable pair — of course we still fight, all the time, but he’s my best friend and the first person I’d call if I needed help.
Divorce is a horrible thing. Watching families torn apart by anger and greed is horrible. I so badly want to have a happy, lasting marriage/relationship like some of my uncles and aunts do, but honestly, I’m terrified that I’m never going to be able to do it. What if I make the wrong decision? What if I can’t keep us happy? What if kids tear us apart? What if we can’t do it? The what ifs are never-ending.
I was finally able to have an honest conversation with my dad a couple of months ago about how much I’m affected by how he was when we were children. How my relationships are horrible, how my self-esteem is shot, how I feel like I was let down in so many ways. It was really beautiful, because instead of being defensive about it, he was open to it and receptive and he apologized. It was really healing. I told him that no matter what our relationship is like now, I can’t make that somehow change how the past is, and that the wounds I carry from childhood are the wounds I’ll carry forever. I told him that I”m so glad that we have both done the therapy thing and that we’re both able to enjoy each other’s company, and I told him how grateful I was to have him in my life.
When boyfriend and I broke up in January, my dad showed up that day with a flower for me from the fancy flower shop where they got their wedding flowers done. I was so grateful and I felt so loved in that moment. I know my dad cares and I know that he always has, and I’m just glad that now is the time when I get to have both parents….not together, not anything like that, but just both parents…people who love me and support me and want what’s best for me. And people who I can honestly trust and respect.
Divorce is a horrible, awful, life-changing/destroying thing….but in this case, it was one of the best/worst things that ever happened to us. In her intro this afternoon, the moderator said that she understands that no decision can ever be as good as the original home, but that she wanted them to make the best decision possible. I wanted to stop and correct her, because the decision we had may not have been perfect, but it was definitely better than the original home. And honestly, we’re all stronger for it. I may have been acting too old for my age at 12, but I have had my fun, done my wild (with some semblance of restraint) adventures, and grown and become resilient in ways I never knew possible.
Mom, we used to make fun of you for that book called “Raising Resilient Children,” but you did just that, and I’m eternally grateful for your enduring love and support and compassion.