I am a wildfire of curls and freckles, sitting in the backseat of my mother’s broken-down station wagon. We are parked by the side of the road heading east, somewhere between California and New Jersey, and all I know is that I am three years old and on a terrific adventure. I watch as one of our tires bounds down a ravine, a skittish jackrabbit. Heat and fumes are rising from our hood, making the skyline tremble ahead. My sister, two years my senior and already in charge, is sitting in the front seat.
My mother is outside the car, frantic; she is looking for a spare she knows she doesn’t have, but she is looking just the same. She and my father have just divorced, and now she has two daughters to raise and a car to push to the other side of the country.
Five years later, the chaos has subsided in a rare and curious way. I am on a family vacation at Universal Studios with my mom, my sister, and my dad. My sister and I are biting the bottoms of sugar cones and sucking out the soft ice cream. We are all waiting on line for an Alfred Hitchcock ride, when the attendant asks for a male participant. My mom immediately volunteers my father. Twenty minutes later my father stands on stage wide-eyed in a dress, playing the mother’s role in “Psycho.” When he’s asked to introduce his family, we proudly stand up from the audience and wave. To onlookers in the park, we might look like your typical nuclear family, but if someone asked me for the low-down, I would have to explain I come from a happy divorce.
Growing up, my divorced family was unusual. My parents made a decision to make our family still act as a “family.” While my friends in “intact” families hung out with both parents, and my friends of divorce had strict separate time with each parent, we fell into an uncharted no-man’s land. Since my two parents lived with an entire country dividing them, this resulted in a lot of family vacations. My mother and father planned lobster dinners in Connecticut, swimming with dolphins in Key West, skiing in the Catskills, and endless Amtrak trips to Florida to my paternal grandparents. With my mom, sister, and me all in a king-sized bed in one hotel room and my dad snoring next door in another, I felt my family all around me. Despite my having no recollection of their marriage together, I have a lot of memories of my parents, well, together. And our arrangement didn’t end when my mother remarried.
Once we became a blended family, my dad would not only call on the phone for my sister, mom, and me, but would often ask to speak to his “husband-in-law, “my step-dad. They would chat about business, cars, and exchange jokes. One Thanksgiving on the East Coast, my father and step-dad took my sister, step-siblings, and me to the Macy’s parade in New York City. When my dad got remarried, during my first year of college, his new wife became yet another addition to the family. I remember my dad and step-mom staying at our home in New Jersey (with my mom and step-dad); in the mornings, we would all swarm around the table like fruit flies for lox-and bagel breakfasts.
My college graduation this past spring was the real clincher. There was an option for parents to stay in the college dormitories, so my mother secured two rooms next door to each other. While friends maneuvered social plans to minimize their divorced parents’ interactions, my four parents were coordinating theirs. My mom and step-mom were fussing over hors d’oevres parties between the two rooms, while my step-dad helped my father reconfigure the single dorm beds in his room to make up a larger one. Sunday morning, when I checked in with all of my parents in the dorm, I saw my step-dad watching a baseball game and my dad writing out bills at a study table, tufts of white hair flying out behind each ear and in one of his striped long t-shirts that my mother called his “nightgowns.” My mom and step-mother were kibbitzing, making fun of my father together.
Walking out of the elevator, my family memories hit me like flashcards turning over: the time we drove in my grandparents’ car in Florida, my grandpa stubborn, lost, and nearly deaf in the front seat, my mom and dad laughing hysterically in the back; or the time my mom threw pillows at my dad, hollering to him, ‘T hate men!” after an especially bad date. I think of my family holding hands, walking in to the song “We are Family!” at the reception after my bat mitzvah. And then I think back to my father taking me to my JCC nursery school classroom to say goodbye to my friends before my post-divorce journey east. I remember my father was a giant then, and I reached my hand up to hold his thick fingers and watch his peppery moustache, and I felt small and uncertain. Are all these memories, then, what comprise my definition of a happy divorce?
I know I’m simplifying a complex process. Every moment didn’t sparkle with Brady-Bunch zing. I missed my father at soccer games and summer school plays. On vacations, when both parents tucked me into bed, I felt a pinch of that childhood gingerbread dream that maybe, just maybe my parents would fall back in love. And I imagine that in my own absorbed and eager youth, it was difficult in quiet ways for them both, especially my mother, the sensitive one who single-handedly raised my sister and me. But I believe my parents sustained our family unit in a unique and inventive way.
When I ask my father about it, he remembers how difficult it was when the divorce first happened. Apparently it never occurred to him that by separating from my mother he might live 3,000 miles away from his children. He feared we wouldn’t remain close. That didn’t happen. When I questioned my parents recently, he had great memories of fun times with my sister and me. On winter break from college, the three of us driving down the Baja peninsula in Mexico to drink pina coladas and set off fireworks (“Girls, don’t tell your mother”). The time he helped me catch a six-foot sailfish. Or how my dad would give us the same lecture at the beginning of every summer to Be Nice to his long-term girlfriend (“She loves you very much, girls”). Meanwhile, we plotted like devilish twins, buying whoopee cushions and black soap, all for a woman who, in truth, did appear to love us even though we seemed to need to play tricks on her to keep solidarity with our mother. In a way, while my mother dealt with the less-glamorous tasks of raising us during the school year, my father was able to reap the benefits of having smart, well-adjusted little daughters fly out to him every summer.
Perhaps it was because my parents had a great expanse of geography between them that helped to cool the landscape of hostility inherent in divorce. Maybe it was that they divorced when I was an infant, and neither remarried until I was a teen, enabling them to free up time for vacations. Or maybe, by living with distance between them, my sister and I could easily adopt the lifestyle and values of my mother, which may have conflicted with my father’s and caused confusion if we were all located in the same town. Whatever the ease, my parents shared a love for large mishpocha gatherings and—most importantly—for their children. When my mom calls me now in Manhattan for Saturday morning “Plan Ahead” lectures or my dad calls late at night to mimic impressions of my mother fretting, “‘Your father…,” both calls make me sigh and laugh.
I shared my perspective of my parents‘ divorce with my mother the other evening in a phone call. Turns out that her reality was less sugar-coated than I’d perceived it. In interest of full disclosure, I share with you the e-mail I got the next morning from my Mom:
Was thinking about our conversation…! guess it changed your idea of a “happy” divorce a little and I’m. sorry, but the truth is that no divorce is painless or easy. I’m glad your perception of it was happy. That shows that despite ray stress, you still perceived things between Dad and me as not too bad. Guess that was good for your development.
Divorced people go through the same stages as grief loss people do: shock, denial, anger, sadness, and finally resolution. It can take many years to get through, particularly if one person is at a financial disadvantage. Also it’s a loss of dreams and hopes. When you marry you think it is forever, and then it’s not. The way I answered you last night was purely honest, and maybe you are now old enough to hear the truth. When I was a single-parent, I was in survival mode, both financially and emotionally. I sometimes acted in ways that were not always sincere, but I did it to survive. When I met your stepfather, some of the survival mode left, and then it didn’t matter. Does this all make sense to a 22-year old? Don’t know. Well, you asked.
Again, let me know your plans for Friday. I have a 3 pm. nail appt. but will be done by 4.
A Guide for the Perplexed
Ilana Kramer’s mother, Deena Kramer Newman, a parent of two daughters and two step-children, a school counselor, divorce mediator, and parent educator, has some suggestions for parents on what children facing divorce really need:
Create opportunities for contact with all relatives that the kids have been close to, including them in graduations, bar/bat mitzvahs, holidays, and casual visits. The Jewish calendar provides plenty of possibilities. While each situation is unique, most children of divorce wish for amiable relations with both parents, and don’t want to lose a sense of “family.”
Try to be sensitive to the child’s need to love both parents. This may sound trite, but many parents in their anger about the divorce don’t realize that their child experiences loss too, and may even be in mourning.
Don’t ask too many questions about the other parent, but try to allow the child to express any frustrations without feeling you have to “fix” things. Let children work out visitation glitches directly with each parent as they get older and then own activities become more important.
Be honest about financial wallowing in them.
Try to laugh and have fun together. These are the memories that fill up the mental or actual family scrapbook children take with them into adulthood.