When people consider the impact of divorce on children, they typically focus on minor children. Is this because they somehow believe that once children reach the age of majority, their parents' divorce doesn't affect them? Those who know me are very aware that I distinguish between minor children, dependent adult children and independent adult children. In this segment from my series, I am going to discuss how my parents' divorce shaped my perspective in this regard.
Anyone who looks at my resume, will notice that I attended three different undergraduate schools and ultimately graduated from UCLA in 1987. What is unclear, however, is the reasoning behind my having moved from school to school. My mother told me that if I attended UCLA, I would continue living in the "family residence." When I decided to attend Brandeis University, it was because we lived in Los Angeles, California and I did not want to be anywhere near my parents, as they were going through what I knew would be a very destructive divorce. My father generously offered to pay for me to attend Brandies University. I cannot begin to describe how wonderful it felt to live away from conflict for the first time in my life. Don't misunderstand - even though I was on the other side of the country, my parents, siblings and extended family were always gracious enough to keep me informed with regard to all of the family drama. I heard about my parents' ongoing custody battles regarding my younger siblings. I learned that my mother was living in the family residence without any electricity because my father apparently didn't feel any obligation to pay his court-ordered support and my mother had no way of supporting herself. Of course, we mustn't forget the way in which our father's relationship with our mother's childhood friend played out. I very clearly recall just how upset I was when I learned that my father had married my mother's friend the day after the divorce from my mother was finalized. He said that he didn't tell us because he and his new wife feared that my mother and/or his children might ruin the special occasion. Nevertheless, there is a big difference between hearing about such things while living on the other side of the country and actually witnessing them first hand.
My belief that distance somehow shielded me from the impact of the divorce proved to be false over spring break of my freshman year in college. I had decided to visit my paternal grandmother in Miami, Florida over the break. When I arrived, I was caught by surprise to learn that my father and his new wife were there. My first thought was that their presence would put a big damper on any possibility of my enjoying my vacation. After all, I was still very angry over their relationship and the fact that they had married without even telling me. Unfortunately, that turned out to be the least of my worries. I had to listen to my paternal grandmother tell me how much she preferred my father's new wife to my mother. Apparently, she was unaware of the fact that the only reason my father ever called her while my parents were married was because my mother forced him to do so. It's true - my grandmother always complained about everything and he therefore never wanted to call her. I used to witness the weekly ritual involved in my mother convincing my father to call his mother every Sunday evening. Seriously, it was like pulling teeth. I don't know what my father told his mother about my mother, but she was clearly misinformed. I have no doubt that had it not been for my mother, my father would not have had a relationship with his mother. It was a rude awakening to learn just how significantly a person's feelings could be shaped because they were fed false or partial information. In any event, there was a reason behind their surprise visit and my father wanted to explain it to me in private, so he asked me to walk along the beach with him. What I learned during that walk so traumatized me that I cannot recall anything else that occurred that week.
My father told me that he and his wife did not feel that I was appreciative enough of the fact that they were paying for me to attend Brandeis University. I told him that I was very appreciative and asked him what he was expecting. He told me that they would continue paying for my tuition and living expenses on the condition that I permanently and completely severed all ties with my mother. Although my mother would have had ample reason to interfere in my relationship with my father and his new wife, she didn't. She knew that he was my father and she did not believe that I should have to choose sides. When I told him that I would not choose one parent over the other, he told me that my decision was a choice and that they would no longer be supporting me or paying my college tuition. Never in a million years would I have believed that he would make good on his word, especially since it was too late for me to transfer to another school for the following school year. However, when I returned to school, he would no longer take my calls. Since his wife had taken on the role of secretary at his office, I was unsure if she was even advising him of my calls. When I returned home for the summer, I was hopeful that he would change his mind. To my dismay, that was wishful thinking. In fact, he had not only cut me off financially, but he actually "divorced" me as his son.
It is a mistake to believe that my experience is an anomaly. As mentioned in my prior articles in this series, I had the pleasure of reading a book titled "Broken Circle -- Children of Divorce and Separation," Photography by Karen Klein and Commentary by Broken Circle participants. "The Broken Circle project gives voice to young adults talking about how their parents' divorce or separation impacted their lives then and now." In a number of the stories, the now young adults also mentioned that they had been "divorced" by one of their parents. Nyssa stated, "It is harder for me to trust male figures in my life because of my dad leaving. The one man that was supposed to be there for me through thick and thin has never been there." Robin described her experience as follows: "My dad left us to be with his new wife and unborn baby.... I was very unprepared for the sense of abandonment that I felt.... I felt embarrassed and ashamed - like I wasn't good enough. It took me a really long time before I stopped taking the situation so personally.... I am definitely conscious of the fact that I am not quick to trust and I am scared to make myself vulnerable." Josephyne wisely states, "Children are not asked to be born. The fact that parents are separated doesn't mean that they have to separate themselves from the children. The parenting role doesn't finish with a divorce order, it is for life." Whitney's description is as follows: "My father eventually decided that he no longer wanted any contact with me, which hurt the most as we had been very close. This became real for me when my father would not return my calls on Father's Day and did not acknowledge my birthday.... As a result of this I know I have put up an emotional wall.... It is hard from me to trust others and I consider relationships to be very fragile." By the way, Whitney was 23 years old when her parents separated.
Like other children who have been abandoned by a parent following their divorce, I took it very personally and built my own emotional wall. For a very long time, I had very serious trust issues and was afraid to make myself vulnerable to others. The following quote from Lexi resonated deeply with me: "It took me many years to forgive my dad for walking out on us, but now I can honestly say I am thankful because it provided me with the insight that I can use to help others who are suffering."
In any event, since I had mentioned that I attended three different undergraduate schools, I guess I should explain how and why I ended up attending the other two schools. It was only through the help of my mother's connections, that I managed not to lose any time from school. She miraculously got me into UC San Diego and told me that my college tuition and living expenses would be covered by her and my maternal grandparents. As if the loss of my relationship with my father were not enough for me to deal with, during that summer, my mother learned that she had breast cancer. Since I had known a number of women who had died from breast cancer, including my favorite grade school teacher, I was terribly distraught. Every weekend, I travelled to Los Angeles to visit with my mother because I was so worried about her health. In fact, my concern over her condition caused me to transfer to UCLA for my junior year and return to live in the "family residence." Sadly, her cancer kept returning and finally took her on September 21, 2005.
The lesson my father taught me was that parents are ready, willing and able to use their adult children as pawns, just as they do with minor children. As Anthony Aloia, Ph.D. says, "Children need parents who are bigger than their problems." Any parents who have ever worked with me know that I do not disregard the adult children of divorce, especially if they are still financially dependent. Children are children, and ignoring the things divorcing parents do to their adult children is a travesty.