A Year without Divorced-Parent Juggling

Dad and me, many years ago

Felixstowe

It’s been just over a year since my father died. His birthday is coming up this month. We just returned from a visit to the U.S., where he lived.

Maybe because of those reasons, or maybe just because I miss him all the time, I’ve been thinking about one of the big — and unanticipated — changes in my life since he died.

For the past year, I’ve lived a life without divorced-parent juggling.

My parents divorced when I was seven and my brother Rob was three. I have very few memories of my parents living together. Most of the life I remember involves having divorced parents.  The break-up of my parents’ marriage is part of who I am. It shaped me in countless ways, as divorce shapes every child and adult whose parents or loved ones experience it.

Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about divorce and its impacts. My late husband Gary  was divorced when I met him, as was my second husband, Clive, whom I write about often on this blog. Clive’s parents also divorced, when he was very young.

Until my father’s death last year, I never appreciated the extent to which my parents’ divorce affected the practical, or — for lack of a better term — the ‘juggling’ aspects of my life.

Kids Learn to Juggle Divorced Parents

My father holding my brother, with me looking on

When Rob and I were growing up, we were the only kids in our town who had divorced parents.  We often overheard whispers that we came from ‘a broken home’. We developed staunch loyalties to each other, to our mother, and in a different way, to our father.

Dad encouraged us to do well in school, and we sought his praise.   Whenever I achieved a high test score, I held it in my mind to tell my father, when we went to dinner with him on Wednesday night or when he picked us up after Sunday school on the weekend.

It was normal. I became accustomed to ‘saving things up’ to tell Dad when we saw him. For a number of reasons, we never went to his new home, where he lived with his second wife, for whom he left my mother, nor did we telephone him at his home. Our interactions took place in his car, in a restaurant, and sometimes at the Club 300 bowling alley on Route 17, where he took us for a game or two after those Wednesday night dinners.

When I became old enough to attend summer camp, it was only natural to write two letters on letter-writing days:  one to Mom, and one to Dad.  In college, I didn’t really think twice about making two phone calls any time I had news to report: one call to Mom, one call to Dad. They both telephoned me regularly, too.  Letters to both of them from my dorm room. Postcards to both of them from spring break trips. Time spent with both of them when I went back to New Jersey for semester breaks.

When Life Changed Forever

In December of my senior year at university, my brother Rob and my Uncle Ted were killed in an automobile accident, an event that in many ways defined the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of my life. My parents grieved differently, but both wanted and needed me close by. I needed them, too. I’d always juggled time with my parents; I just did it a lot more frequently after Rob’s death.

When I began my first job, similar juggling occurred — Christmas Eve with Dad, Christmas Day with Mom. Two phone calls whenever I had news to report — raises and promotions at work, meeting a new guy. Visits to New Jersey on a Saturday — breakfast with Dad, lunch with Mom. Normal stuff.

Then I Got Married

Aaaahh, a wedding with either or both of the bride and groom’s parents divorced!

All the juggling that’s part of it — who will sit where, will they behave, will there be outbursts and arguments or will everyone remain calm for the sake of the couple? I worried about my father in particular — his second wife was not invited (I only met her once in 20+ years, before he divorced her and married his third wife), and one of my aunts was an anti-divorce loose cannon — but everything went well and I was proud when Dad walked me down the aisle.

Every couple and family juggles holidays and in-laws, with increasing permutations and combinations in blended families. Doing so was just more of what I considered normal:  two sets of duplicate photos from every occasion — one for Mom, one for Dad — two sets of phone calls when I had a miscarriage (several, as it turned out), two when I found out I was pregnant. Two separate visits every time we went to New Jersey.

I grumbled about it sometimes, about having always to run back and forth between my parents. But I didn’t really mind. It was the way it was, the only way I could remember.

A Move to Australia

My father and my son on Balmoral Beach, Sydney

When we moved to Sydney in 1995, I continued to double everything, albeit more intensely — double international phone calls, double overseas snail mail, double weekly faxes to both parents. Double the cost of everything, especially the endless duplicate sets of photographs sent to show my parents what our life was like Down Under.

Home leave — an event any expat will tell you is stressful at the best of times — became fraught with tension as I juggled both parents’ desires to see us. Since we were only back for a week or two each time, every interaction became more urgent knowing we’d soon be leaving again.

Life Changed Again (as it does)

In August 2010, my father fell and broke his hip. Two months later, after various horrendous complications, he died.

Life changed in many ways, including one I never anticipated. Only one phone call each time. Only one postcard. Only one extra photograph to print. Only one letter. Only one parental address. Only one parental phone number. Only one parent to see in New Jersey.  When Clive and I visit, our pace is totally different there now. No breakfasts at the Fireplace with Dad. No juggling phone calls. No coordinating schedules. No going back and forth. No holiday stress, with one parent calculating how much time I’m spending with the other parent.

I’ve wondered at times if the way it is now — only one of everything — is what life would have been like all along, if my parents had never divorced. However, I know from friends and colleagues that long-term married parents can come with their own sets of challenges.

Lucky

For all I complained about juggling, frantic schedules, and always having to run between my parents — as in a typical Four-Event Day last year — I learned something after my father’s death that I think I knew inside myself all along.

I learned how blessed I was, to have two parents who loved me and wanted to be part of my life. I learned how lucky I was, to have two parents who made time to be there for the big events of my life, from elementary school graduation to my wedding to the birth of my son. I learned how lucky I was, to have two parents who wanted to help me, and comfort me, after my first husband’s death.

My only suggestion — to anyone reading this whose parents are divorced and drive you crazy sometimes with all the juggling and conflict and duplication that requires — is to be thankful they both care.

I kept in frequent contact with my father, and believe he died knowing I loved him and was grateful for his involvement in my life.

With my father in New Jersey, late 2009

Thanks for that, Dad. I love you, and I miss you.

10 Responses

  1. What a lot you have been through. It seems to have made you a strong person.

  2. Hello Susie, and thanks for visiting! I don’t know that I’ve been through more than other people have with their own unique and sometimes painful journeys, but really appreciate your kind comment.

    Cheers and happy writing!

  3. I admire your willingness to write about issues in your life that caused you both stress and anxiety. I don’t know, but perhaps there are worse things growing up than living through the divorce of one’s parents and its often complicated aftermath. My brother and I have struggled a good deal with anxieties that date to childhood. At the time It never occurred to me that your home was in any way “broken.” It was always a haven for me, and I was grateful to you and your mother for that.

    Wow, Carol: “anti-divorce loose cannon.” That is impressive! Did it take you a while to think of that description?

  4. Eleanor, thanks for your comment.

    I’m sorry about the issues you and your brother faced as children, and am glad my home was a haven for you — my mother gets all the credit for that!

    And yes, you’re absolutely right I did choose carefully in the words I used to describe my aunt.

  5. I always appreciate the intimacy and depth of your posts, Carol.

  6. My parents did not divorce, but I suffered through their terrible arguments as a teenager and it gave me one desire – to put 20,000 kilometers between them and me. I divorced my first husband after 15 years of marriage but we never exposed our children to our disagreements. I truly think that a “good” divorce is better than a “bad” marriage. But of course, my children, being from another generation, did not suffer the stigma of divorce as you did. That, alone, must have been terrible for you.

  7. Paul, thank you! I appreciate your comment 🙂

    Fraussie, hello and welcome! Thanks for sharing your experience and insight — it sounds as if you and your first husband handled things as well as possible and I’m sure your children appreciated it.

    Cheers all.

  8. You are right, Carol. Your mother was always terrific, but you should give yourself credit too.

  9. This is a terrific post, Carolyn. I really related to it coming from a divorced family and having gone through two of my own. I like how you refer to it as a juggle — that’s exactly what it is. I learned to really dislike Thanksgiving as a result of the juggle: it was the one time where I really felt the pressures about which you write most keenly, and then once I was married and had in-laws in the mix, too, it just about became impossible. But I like how you bring it around to the upside! I know as a kid, I really liked Christmases and birthdays because it meant double the presents, lol. But I love the grown-up lessons you drew from coming out of a divorced family most of all. They are helpful for me to read as well.

    Thanks, as always. I have to echo what my husband says up there with regard to the depth and intimacy with which your posts are written! Good, good stuff. 🙂
    xx
    Karin

  10. Karin, thanks for your thoughtful comment – much appreciated.

    The holiday pressure on kids whose parents are divorced can be so intense. You’ve also seen mutliple sides of the picture – thanks for sharing your experience too! And good luck to everyone in this situation, whether on the parental side or the child side or both.

    Take care and cheers.

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