By Esther Mann, LCSW
When my parents divorced 12 years ago, I was 15 years old. It was very hard on me and my siblings. Even though I knew that they didn’t get along, often fought, and were generally in two different worlds, there was still something safer about being in a “pretend family” than coming from an obviously broken home.
I was very lucky to have many people in my life to turn to for support. I was close to certain teachers in my school, a neighborhood rabbi, and my grandmother, who was amazing. She understood everything I went through and was always there for me. I credit how emotionally healthy I think I am to the tremendous amount of support that was available to me.
It was my mother who wanted the divorce. I can’t say I blame her. She was miserable with my father, who was bossy, arrogant, and very selfish. She put up with a lot and I often wondered how she could remain his wife. My mother was smart enough to go back to school, find a career, and become financially independent. Once that happened, she left my father. She no longer needed him and was finally able to break free.
I think my father was totally shocked that my mother up and left him. Despite how awful he was to her, I don’t think he ever believed that she would actually leave. He still can’t believe it. Which brings me to my question.
At this stage of my life, I would love to see my parents learn how to finally tolerate being in the same room together. When they first got divorced, there was so much anger on my father’s part, we all knew they could never see one another. We were literally afraid a fistfight would break out.
To give you an example of how extreme this was, when I graduated from high school, they divided up the time of my graduation and each showed up for half of it. Holidays there was nothing to talk about. But even extended family celebrations had to be so carefully planned and executed, so that neither of them would see one another. I’m embarrassed to tell you that he didn’t even stick around for my son’s bris, when he saw my mother enter the shul.
Right now I am married and the mother of two. As a mother, my life is about protecting my children and making sure they are happy. Therefore, I’ve started thinking a lot about the fact that my happiness was maybe not paramount for my parents. I know I’m sounding a little childish, and the grown-up part of me knows that my mother really didn’t have much choice but to divorce my father, but I’m still starting to feel very resentful. Why should I and my family keep suffering for their mistake?
So this is how it’s playing out. My mother has since remarried and is very happy. She would have no problem sitting across a table from my father, if that were possible. In fact, even before she remarried, I think she would have been fine being in the same space with him. She moved on emotionally a long time ago—long before she remarried. My father, on the other hand, is still filled with anger, maybe even rage. He hates my mother today every bit as much as he hated her the day she served him with divorce papers. If possible, maybe even more. He hasn’t moved on. He hasn’t remarried.
So now, when I’m planning a birthday party for one of my children or some other celebration, I no longer want to accommodate him and create schedules for when each of my parents will show up. My life has been so complicated with all that arranging for so long, and now that I have a family of my own, my life is busier than ever. I don’t want to accommodate my father anymore.
But I can predict what will happen. If I call my father to invite him to something and he asks me what time my mother will be there, and I answer him that the party is from 2:00 to 4:00 and they can both show up whenever they want, he will have a fit and tell me he isn’t coming. At this point, I really don’t care. Is that a bad thing?
Taking it one step further, if I decide to make a Purim seudah and invite both of them, rather than worrying about schedules and rotating years, and my father decides not to show up, should I feel guilty about that? Do I have to care about his reactions?
More and more I’m feeling as though, as the child of a divorced couple, I got the short end of the stick. I don’t want to feel that way anymore. I want to feel free to live my life and stop worrying about how they will manage. Have I earned that right?
Divorce can be like an insidious disease that continues to travel through a person, without any relief in sight. It may manifest itself in different ways at certain times, but when no cure is available, the suffering is sometimes never-ending.
I have no doubt that the time of your parents’ divorce was extremely challenging for your entire family. At some point, I would imagine you came to accept the fact that you were no longer living the life of a child from an intact home. It’s not a pretty reality, but it’s amazing how much we can learn how to tolerate and ultimately make peace with.
But, of course, the occasional bleeding didn’t end when the divorce papers were signed. Most people, who haven’t been down that road, can’t possibly know how a divorce can affect so many major and even minor events and rites of passage in a family. For instance, as you mentioned, your high-school graduation was marred by the fact that clearly one of your parents had to miss watching you walk up on stage to receive your diploma in order for the other parent to be there.
Though your parents most likely didn’t set out to bring this sort of ugliness into your life and the lives of your siblings, their mistakes became your problems. For whatever reason, their inability to choose the right spouse to marry, or maybe to some degree their poor mazel, spilled out onto you and your siblings. And you’ve carried this burden for many years now, through no fault of your own.
Frankly, I feel that it is your parents’ responsibility to find a way to not burden you further with their inability to get along. Actually, it’s really only your father who is creating this conflict. Your mother sounds grounded and mature. Thank goodness you can count on her to refrain from adding to your challenges. Your father, it seems, it quite another story.
From the way you describe his behavior during his marriage and after the divorce, he sounds like someone with a lot of problems. He is stuck in anger and, sadly, has not been able to move forward with his life in all this time. Anger will do that to people. It keeps individuals in a prison of their own making, a prison that lacks a key to unlock its door.
I have to even wonder whether you and everyone else who has participated in your father’s systematic crazy rules and expectations are doing him any favors. You’ve all made it possible for him to create difficult standards for all of you to adhere to. You’ve all been jumping through his hoops and allowing the show to go on his way.
To answer your main question, if you decide to create your own boundaries that work for you and your family, I don’t think you have anything to feel guilty about. After 12 years, I don’t think you should still be paying a price for your parents’ divorce. Ideally, you never should have been paying the price in the first place. If your parents couldn’t get along, they should have at least figured out how to protect you and your siblings from further hardships and done everything in their power to offer you as much normalcy as possible.
Moving forward, I encourage you to live your life in a way that works best for you and your family. The fact that you continue to invite your father is actually quite generous of you. But no more schedules or accommodating. If he feels he can never join you because your mother will be present, maybe the awfulness of that reality will inspire him to finally seek help from a mental-health professional. Should that happen, you will actually be gifting him with something precious.
Should your father show up and create a scene, you’ll let him know that until he can show up and act properly, he will no longer be welcome to attend these meaningful events in your life.
Unfortunately, with divorce, it can feel as though the story never ends. And in many way, it never does. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t take back some of your power and celebrate life in a way that feels most right for you.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.