By Esther Mann, LCSW
My parents divorced when I was young. From that moment on, my life became a nightmare. I never felt like I was standing on solid ground. My siblings and I were thrown around between my mother’s, my father’s, and my grandmother’s homes. I never knew, from day to day, where I would end up. I always had a change of clothing and pajamas in my knapsack, just in case. It was a very hard way for a child to live.
My mother was always sad. She suddenly had to start working full time and schlepping on the train to and from the city daily. She looked exhausted and depressed and didn’t seem to have time to worry about my problems.
Friends were a big problem for me. I wasn’t in one place long enough to really become part of a group, and wherever I went, I felt like the outsider. Also, no one else from my class came from a divorced home, so I felt enormous shame about the fact that my parents were divorced, and I tended to spend a lot of time by myself.
When it was time to start dating, I was very nervous about picking the right one. I never wanted to put children through what I went through as a child and therefore wanted to be certain that I was marrying someone who was the real deal, someone I could always count on. I didn’t marry until I was 27 years old, and by that time I had dated quite a bit. I was trying to be so careful about not making a mistake. I swore to myself that once I married, it would be forever.
When I met Sam, he seemed like a really kind, loyal, terrific young man. He had sterling qualities and everyone who met him agreed that he was a keeper. We didn’t rush into an engagement, we had a decent engagement period, and then we eventually married and had three children.
I thought our marriage was good. We didn’t fight much and we acted respectfully toward one another. We were a nice family. Nothing in the world could have prepared me for what happened several weeks ago.
Sam came home one evening and told me that he was in love with another woman. He’d known her for years through work, and he said that though he wasn’t looking for a relationship, it just developed and the two of them were meant to be. He is madly in love with this woman and wants a divorce. He started crying and telling me that he never meant to hurt me and that he will make sure the divorce goes peacefully and that the children and I will be taken care of financially.
Of course, I practically passed out. My head was spinning and I’m sure I didn’t even hear half of what he was saying. All I could think about were my children and how I promised myself I would never do to them what was done to me. I wanted to die in that moment.
Nothing I or anyone else could say or do since that evening has been able to change Sam’s mind. Apparently he has been planning this for quite some time and his mind is made up. I begged him to at least wait until our children were older, maybe another eight years, but Sam insisted that he didn’t want to go another day living this lie. He had to get out.
I feel like the worst mother in the world. Here I spent my life angry at my parents for putting me through the worst pain, and now I’m about to do the same thing to my own children. It’s unbearable to think about. I haven’t said anything to them yet and am not sure how to tell them. I know they will be devastated and completely surprised, since they’ve hardly ever even seen us fighting.
I don’t know where to begin and how I’ll be able to get through this devastation.
I’m so sorry to hear about your chilling story. When history repeats itself in such a heartbreaking way, it’s almost impossible to comprehend. The one thing that you felt more passionate about than anything else has become your reality. Life is often stranger than fiction.
To begin with, you need to be working closely with a therapist. Sam’s indecent behavior is not only unbearable for you to accept, but it is also triggering all of your old wounds that I suspect have never healed at all. Therefore, it’s too much for you to be expected to walk this walk alone. You need the help of a professional. Also, if you have one or more true friends whom you can trust and feel safe with, bring them into your life and your story now. I suspect that you are feeling a double dose of shame, but you need to put the shame away for now so that you can create a loving network of supportive people standing by your side.
Your children also need to be seeing a therapist, as this will feel like a drive-by to them, coming from left field, and completely incomprehensible. They will start going through a range of emotions that they won’t know what to do with and will need support and encouragement and ultimately some kind of clarity.
Though your children, as you did, will be assuming the status of being from a broken home, that should be where the similarities end, and that has to be your focus. Not every child of divorced parents grows up the way that you did. You and your siblings were always feeling insecure, which I’m sure left you all with tremendous stress. Not knowing from day to day where you would end up, being left out of the loop, and having to fend for yourself emotionally are all very damaging situations that your children will not have to experience.
And knowing what it feels like to be the child of a divorce can make you hypersensitive to what your children will need, thereby enabling you to be the very best of mothers. In other words, I’m encouraging you to take your painful history and turn it around so that you have the best tools possible for managing your children’s needs.
Probably one of the most painful parts of your story was watching your mother suffer so and knowing that you were unable to fix the situation. Therefore you must understand how important it is for you to stay healthy, physically and emotionally. You will set the tone for your children. If they see you getting through, dealing with disappointments, still able to laugh and live life fully, they will realize that they too have permission to be OK.
I also want to encourage you to not take on any guilt over marrying Sam. None of this was your fault, beginning with whom you selected to marry. It’s important for all of us to do our due diligence and try our best, but sometimes, despite the best research and intentions, bad things still happen. The best of people can suddenly turn on us, for no understandable reason. It sounds like you were cautious and wise when you selected Sam to be your husband. You married him for all the right reasons. Why Sam had some kind of meltdown in such a disgraceful way, you may never know. But this divorce is about Sam. It’s not about you.
So for now, it’s about taking one day at a time, putting one foot in front of the other, and, without guilt or even the slightest of beating yourself up, knowintg that you and your children will be all right. With proper support, you’ll get through this together and come out on the other side. And perhaps, through the process, you will finally work through some of your own old torments.
Best of luck to you and your children.
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.