Growing Pains: Adjusting to my Parents’ Divorce as an Adult

It's going to take a while.

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It’s 2009, and my parents are having an argument. I know this not because they’ve been arguing in front of me, but because the air in our home is heavy, like right before a thunderstorm.

It was one of those arguments that wasn’t even about anything in particular – these were the most explosive ones, because there were never any tangible start and end points, or even a goal. It was just rage. I knew something was wrong because my dad slammed the garage door when he got home, and then he slammed the basement door, and didn’t talk to anyone except to swear at the empty rooms.

He comes back upstairs wondering why dinner isn’t ready yet. He calls her. They yell. More slamming: cabinets, doors, the phone.

My brother and I sit in his bedroom, dejected. We know not to interfere. To our horror, the phone rings again. My dad answers, and a second later, barks, “What the fuck? Are you fucking kidding me?

My soul sinks deeper – the saga was going to continue. But this was different: “Hey! Turn on the TV! Michael Jackson is dead!”

Michael Jackson had to die for my parents to stop fighting.

When I was a kid, I remember hearing that divorce was difficult on children because they were likely to understand it as meaning their parents didn’t love them anymore. I never understood that. I felt like my parents’ staying together was the worst thing. I envied my friends who’d gone through it – not because they had two bedrooms or double the holidays or received tons of guilt gifts, but because they would never again be subject to having to watch their parents try talking to each other. I just wanted one day where no one would be mad. It always started the same way. One would sigh. One would sigh louder. The other would slam their glass on the table, and I knew the ship had sailed. There was no hope. It was like watching kids trying to fit puzzle pieces together that didn’t even come from the same box. It was impossible from the start.

And when everything was over, and all the doors had been slammed and the bags had been pretend-packed and everyone had gone to their unsatisfying, angry sleeps, I would go back and survey the damage. If someone’s lunch hadn’t been packed, I packed it. If a shoe had been left in the middle of the hallway, I moved it. Anything to avoid conflict. I un-slammed every door and closed it carefully, silently. It was futile every time, but I tried my best to rearrange everything back to the way it was. If the doors were un-slammed and the shoes were rearranged and the lunches were packed and the socks went back in their drawers and no one was packing a bag, no one was leaving me, it would be almost okay.

It’s 2017, and no one’s spoken to each other for days. I can’t concentrate. Working in silence is one thing – but the kind of silence created when we’re all upset at each other is louder than anything. It’s deafening. I can’t take it anymore. I beg my mother to apologize.

“No,” she snaps. “I have nothing to apologize for.”

“Please,” I cajole, a frantic whisper in the bathroom. “I can’t concentrate on anything when you’re like this.”

Her facial expression alters just barely – this is her expressing guilt. Oh, other people are involved. She agrees and follows me down the stairs, reluctance personified.

I’m horrified and uncomfortable, as if I’m trespassing into dangerous and unknown territory: the basement where my angry father sits and seethes. I go first. She stops three quarters of the way down, body half turned, one foot already set to run back up.

I tell him mommy is going to apologize. I will never see anyone look more unimpressed than he does in this moment.

“Sorry,” she blurts out, almost a giggle.

It doesn’t go over well. “This is your apology?”

He turns and goes back into his office. She scowls and goes in the opposite direction, and I’m left alone at the foot of the staircase in between two adults who are just as fed up with each other as ever, and I just made it worse.

I didn’t know it then, but this would be one of the last major fights of their marriage. It was the hallmark of their explosive arguments: retreating to different corners of a giant house that no one wanted anymore and ignoring each other for days.

I read somewhere that it’s harder to watch your parents divorce each other after your childhood is over because it only emphasizes how dysfunctional the last 20+ years were. For me, it’s as if I’ve been tossed into a strange new adulthood I could never have prepared for. And of course, there’s the unfairness of it all: it wasn’t all bad. We did have fun together. It just wasn’t enough.

It happened on a Thursday in February 2018, and we are all still healing. Still trying. It hasn’t been easy and it might not get any easier, but we are slowly getting used to each other again. Our family will slowly rebuild. 

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