I watched my family fall apart when I was 22.
My parents had been married for 24 years, but I was under no illusions that they’d all been happy ones. I remember the arguments behind closed doors and a handful of shouting matches when they thought I was asleep. If I braved a knock, I’d hear this response: “Mommy and Daddy are talking. We’ll be out later.” I knew not to knock again.
I would picture them on the other side of that door, pacing and then sitting on the bed and then pacing again. Their brass headboard was the backdrop of their marriage, their fights, and even the Sunday mornings when all five of us would cuddle in bed and watch Bozo the clown.
After these fights, my mom would always walk out with a tear-marred face, and I’d try to pretend I didn’t see, feeling embarrassed and confused that my parents were capable of hurting each other so deeply.
Though I’d sensed that my parents’ marriage was not perfect, I also perceived it to be perfectly normal, since it was the only marriage I had witnessed up close. My dad’s father died when my dad was only five, and my mom’s parents divorced a few years before I was born.
For all I knew, my parents treated one another the way any other married couple would. I didn’t think twice about the way my mom spoke to my dad on the phone each night when he was traveling for work. She sounded exasperated and annoyed, and I remember asking her one time why she was always mad at him. It also never occurred to me that some men take their wives on dates more than once a year. My mom and dad were the two most constant forces in my life, and I believed with a childlike naivete that their marriage was unshakeable and their presence in my life unalterable.
As I grew into adulthood during college, I began to see evidence that my parents’ marriage was getting stronger. They became leaders at our church, went on vacation without us kids, and found community with other married couples. So it came as a blunt trauma that summer afternoon when they announced their divorce to my siblings and me. The words tumbled out of my dad’s mouth as he avoided our eyes while my mom wept quietly on the couch next to him—just a few feet away, but it might as well have been miles. I later learned that I’d been reading the signs wrong; they were not evidence of increasing strength but of a last-ditch effort to save their marriage.
The years that followed were marked by a gut-wrenching pain like I’d never experienced before, and through it all, I believed myself to be weak and overly sensitive. After all, young children experience this all the time—surely as an adult woman, I should be able to walk through this fire unscathed. What no one tells you about watching your parents divorce each other—whether you’re a five-year-old or a 25-year-old—is that it’s remarkably similar to experiencing a death. Both of my parents were still living, yes, but with the death of their marriage came the death of my security, my belief in love, and my deep trust in the goodness of God.
There was the vacuum of emptiness I felt on that first Christmas without my dad in the house, and the dissonance when my siblings and I awkwardly exchanged gifts with him in his new apartment.
There were times when my anxiety would become so debilitating that I’d throw up on my way to work and in the middle of my lunch break and at night before I went to bed.
There were many nights when I would weep uncontrollably, my sobs turning into hiccups until I fell into a fitful sleep.
There were countless moments when I couldn’t make anyone understand how badly I was bleeding, hemorrhaging memories and promises that we’d always be a family.
You can read the rest of this post over at Coffee + Crumbs, where I share more about how my parents’ divorce has impacted my own marriage and parenting. I promise that the ending is both hopeful and honest.