Many couples choose to stay in unhappy marriages, ostensibly for the sake of their children. But are kids better off in an environment of hostility and fear?
As I was putting my 7-year-old daughter to bed the other night, she ran through her usual litany of complaints. I said, “I know. Your life is so hard.” She knew I was kidding, poking gentle fun to help put her feelings into perspective. But this night Gigi sat up and said, “My life IS hard. You know why? Because my parents are divorced.”
I listen and empathize when she talks about her real struggles: weekly transitions from her father’s home to mine, missing one parent while she’s with the other, increasingly complicated interactions with kids at school. She remembers the words I use to validate her feelings, and she repeats them often. Her mimicry sometimes seems contrived or self-serving, but this time it was an invitation to talk.
My daughter was so young when her father and I separated, she doesn’t remember a time when we all lived together. She doesn’t remember the arguments or the tensions that led to our divorce. I wish I could say the same of my childhood, of my parents. I wish they hadn’t been determined to stay married at any cost. Still, by the time Gigi was born, I had accepted my parents’ limitations around raising their own children. I hoped their inability to love unconditionally might skip a generation, that they would lavish on their only grandchild the affection they were unable to show my brother and me.
Gigi loves the idea of her grandparents more than the reality. This mirrors how they feel about her, how I feel about them, how they feel about me. They are not loving, accepting people. They find fault with her behavior, with my parenting, with my very being, and express their disapproval with no filter.
The last time we visited my parents was about a year ago. They remarked on how much weight I had gained—repeatedly, in front of Gigi. They made fun of her thumb-sucking until she ran from the room crying, “I want to go home.” That was a small reminder of how unpleasant they could be, of what it was like to have them in my life as both a child and an adult. A sign of what it would be like for Gigi.
When I was growing up, my parents were rarely interested in my struggles. They were too busy with their own. They argued often and made no effort to hide it from my brother and me. These arguments weren’t the kind that teach children how to resolve conflict in a healthy way. My mother usually ended up screaming, swearing, and slamming things. My father called her crazy. I hid in my room.
I don’t remember a time when my childhood home felt safe or offered a sense of security, an emotional refuge. My mother was unpredictable in a way I didn’t suspect was mental illness until my early 30s. My father sometimes drank too much and, on rare occasions, lost his temper. My older brother was difficult—nothing major, but enough to cause conflict in the family. I was a straight-A student through high school and avoided getting into trouble (or getting caught). It seemed expected that I would be the easy child. I kept my head down and tried to stay beneath their radar.
One night when I was 12 or 13, my mother rousted my brother and me from our beds and told us we needed to get out of the house. The car wouldn’t start, so we crossed the street in our pajamas, sleepy and confused, and went to our neighbors’ house. I overheard my mother’s explanation to them: She’d been in the kitchen and was certain she’d heard my father in their bedroom, cocking his rifle. She thought he was going to kill us all.
In our neighbors’ house that night, I was put in a bedroom with a window facing our house. I could not imagine my father hurting us, no matter how angry he was with my mother. All I could think was that he was going to kill himself, which terrified me. I loved my father, even though he had stopped standing up to my mother’s rages, even though he never defended me against her craziness. So I lay awake all night, waiting to hear a rifle shot, waiting to lose my father. I heard nothing.
My mother let me stay home from school the next morning because I was tired. That day, while my father was at work and my brother was in class, she sat me on my parents’ bed, handed me his rifle, and showed me how to cock it. Then she ran down the hallway to the kitchen and yelled, “Okay, now!” I cocked the rifle a couple of times so she could decide if it was the sound she’d heard the night before. I didn’t think about what my mother was asking of me. Instead, I wondered if the gun was loaded, if my father had held it the night before, if he had been planning something awful but had changed his mind. I wondered if I should be afraid of my father.
My parents separated and filed for divorce, but reconciled within a month. I don’t know why; perhaps they believed it would be best for my brother and me. Maybe a true reconciliation, one that included a renewed commitment of love and respect, would have been best for everyone. Instead, they continued down the same combative path, which became even scarier for me once my brother left for college.
I know many couples choose to stay in unhappy marriages, ostensibly for the sake of their children. But are kids better off in an environment of hostility and fear? Does growing up in a parental war zone teach kids that a happy marriage is something attainable that they might someday enjoy? My answer would be no, unequivocally. I know that many grown children of divorce would probably disagree, but I can’t help but wonder if they grew up in a home where they rarely felt emotionally or physically safe.
My ex and I never reached the level of acrimony my parents did, but by the time our daughter was 3, we knew we were headed in a bad direction. I wanted my daughter to see healthy love. I wanted her to grow up knowing that, while commitment and loyalty are lovely ideals, so are joy and intimacy. A marriage without all of those things doesn’t help anyone, least of all the children.
Divorce gave me the opportunity to model for my daughter the pursuit of real fulfillment. I am happily remarried, and every day she experiences—whether or not she realizes it—how that happiness creates a security for her that she would not have enjoyed otherwise. Some people might believe that this is a selfish rationalization. I would argue that staying in my marriage would have been the easiest path for me—financially, socially, logistically. But it would have been the most damaging choice for my child.
I laid down next to my daughter the other night and took advantage of her invitation to talk. I asked her if she felt safe with me and her stepfather. She nodded. I asked if she would want to grow up with parents who argued all the time. She asked what I meant.
“When I was growing up my parents had awful fights. Like, a lot.”
“What was that like?”
“I remember feeling scared most of the time.”
“Your parents are pretty scary.” I smiled at that, mostly so she wouldn’t feel bad for saying it out loud.
I didn’t tell her that if her father and I were still married, she might think we were scary, too. She’s smart, and she got it. This understanding might not make her weekly transitions easier, or soothe her when she misses me or her father, but I hope she will someday benefit from growing up in two loving homes where she feels seen, and heard, and safe.
Role/Reboot contributor Laurel Hermanson is a freelance writer and editor in Portland, OR. Her first novel, Soft Landing, was published in 2009. She is currently working on her second novel, Mommune. She blogs about almost everything at Grace Under Pressure. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.