Please Hold On To Me: Introduction

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Divorce is the tragedy that sits far too close, like a high bank waterfront house at the edge of a cliff. We can see what could happen with enough weather, but turn our heads to enjoy the exquisite view instead.

“The divorce rate is still fifty percent, yet I can’t think of one couple we know who looks to be at risk,” I said to my husband a year before I found out it was us, that we were the ones about to collapse under the weight of a beautiful life and smash into the rocks below. We never think the list of terrible things that happen to other people could actually happen to us. Just in case though, it’s sensible to properly insure ourselves against the most common things like losing a job without prospects for a new one, or our health, safety, or home. It’s not easy to live with the uncertainty of real life, but we do our best to insulate ourselves and our families by doing things like going to college, exercising and eating well, we keep batteries in the smoke detectors, and teach our children to look both ways before crossing the street, to not put random things in one’s mouth.

It feels like divorce is different, that we have less control in one of the most common and devastating life-altering events, after all it takes two willing hearts to hold a marriage together. You could follow all the rules, do everything in your power and your spouse could decide they want something different. What? And, of course, we could have a change of heart too. It’s much better for our peace of mind to not look too closely. And if there are children, the heart-wrenching threat of losing your marriage is compounded by what we know or learned about what happens to kids when a family splits apart.

For me, because I experienced my parent’s divorce and subsequent remarriages, I learned what divorce was before I learned to count, and in my mind divorce meant death — that’s what my nervous system told me. It meant the end of a happy childhood and my three kids were right in the middle of theirs at the ages of six, nine, and eleven.

Although I couldn’t prevent the divorce, I could look back to understand what happened, what I could have done differently, and take responsibility for my life and my kids’ childhoods going forward. I could sift through what happened to my original family in order to understand how to get my kids back on course. Most importantly, get my kids back to being kids, allowing them to grow and flourish just as they would have if their mom and dad stayed together.

My most vital questions were, “Will divorce ruin my kids’ childhood, thus setting them up for a life less than their potential?” And, “Is there anything I can do to make sure they are protected from the statistics that follow kids who grow up in divorced families?”

Based on my own childhood growing up with my dad through three divorces and a funeral, things looked bleak. I could see the ribbons of smoke and ashes drifting and following them throughout their most formative years. In fact, my experiences growing up and the idea that my girls’ lives would be turned upside down forever caused me PTSD during and after my husband and I ended our marriage.

For me, learning more is always the first step in understanding myself and others, including why people do the things they do and act in the ways they act. Books have always been where I’ve found the answers to my most heartfelt questions and so, I set out to understand the threats to my children, assimilating the lessons I learned growing up, and what I can do to make the impact of our family transition the least traumatic for my kids as I could.

 

This story begins with the generational times and its effects on how we live and what we expect from a good life. My parents grew up in an idyllic part of our history where the dad went to work, mom stayed home, and the kids were either in school or playing outside in the freshly mowed grass, wandering through the trees watching butterflies land on wildflowers. Things were peaceful until the 1960s, when a simple life turned tumultuous. Divorce was just one social change that would forever alter the nuclear family. The big change came in 1969, when the Divorce Reform Act was passed, allowing couples to divorce after they had been separated for two years (or five years if only one of them wanted a divorce.) A marriage could be ended if it was irretrievably broken, without either partner having to prove fault.

When Ronald Reagan signed the first No Fault Divorce Law for the State of California in September of that year, with most states following in the next handful of years, it was meant to help struggling couples and families in traumatic circumstances. But, it proved to be the last barrier in the dam holding back the social changes of the past decade. A couple no longer needed proof of a broken marriage, such as infidelity, addiction, mental health issues, or violence, and so moving on to someone new may have seemed easier than saying “I do” in the first place.

It didn’t take long to understand you can only see the top of the proverbial iceberg from the surface of the ocean. Instincts come from the depths of our origins to fight to stay in the tribe or fight against our enemy, even if they used to be a part of you. Divorce is difficult, stressful, and traumatic and that is especially true for children. The Seventies and Eighties became known as the Age of Divorce where over a million kids a year found themselves living in two homes in the best case scenario. Maybe they moved to new neighborhood, had their own keys because mom was now working long hours. Maybe they hardly saw their dads. Many of the statistics from the Seventies and Eighties are still true today, yet we do know more based on research and, sadly, experience.

Even though the divorce rate has declined slightly since the mid-Nineties, still over a million kids a year are expelled from their lives with two parents in the same home, to a life that looks vastly different. Three quarters of kids from divorced families live with their mother and almost a third are living below the poverty line. In the New York Times Bestseller, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, Judith Wallerstein, Julie Lewis, and Sandra Blakeslee documented the lives of 131 children and adolescents from sixty families living in Marin County, California whose parents separated or divorced in 1971. It is a landmark study that followed children in divorcing families, both parents, as well as a comparison group of twenty-seven families in the same middle to upper-middle socioeconomic status, kids from the same neighborhoods and schools. The children selected for the study had to be developmentally on track, never having been referred for emotional or developmental problems. These kids and families were the same as you and me.

Each child, 59 mothers, and 47 fathers were extensively studied the initial six weeks, and then at eighteen months, five years, and ten years post separation. A subset were interviewed after fifteen years and then a formal follow-up of forty-eight of the original 60 families was completed after twenty-five years.

Although once silent, these children of divorce are now adults, some in relationships, single, married, divorced, and some with families of their own and can now give a voice to the effects of what many didn’t want to believe. And that is, divorce is emotionally traumatic for children and adolescents and the stress, uncertainty, and damage doesn’t necessarily end when the financial and parenting plans are signed, when most adults feel initially freed from the ugliness of the process.

Some, like many in the study, would say that is where the trauma begins and a carefree childhood ends. Like the shot of a gun, chronic, unpredictable stress starts when one parent moves out of the family home and then it continues while the family is plunged into grief for what could have been, regardless of who initiated the ending. Even if life gets back to peaceful, the stress starts again when new relationships begin, when parents get remarried, when stepsiblings are introduced, when those marriages fail (because they are more likely to,) and the single parent starts the healing process once again. Half of American children will witness their parents divorce and half of those will also witness a parent’s second marriage end. The divorce rate for first marriages is closer to forty percent, second marriages is sixty percent, and third marriages have a seventy-three percent chance of failure.

The complexities of life do not get easier in a new marriage. It becomes much more difficult, especially when children are involved and the natural alignment of life is thrown into disarray. For most kids in the study, now adults, life was forever altered when their family split apart. The ramifications coming to full fruition in their adult lives, when they have difficulties in their own relationships whether a partner they truly love never materialized, they were petrified their marriage would fail, or it did fail and they are picking up the pieces, trying their best to hold their children above the raging rivers of life not going as planned.

As a kid, divorce is a Before and After, much like when Pearl Harbor was bombed or John F. Kennedy assassinated for our grandparents’ and parents’ generations, or when the Twin Towers collapsed on that crystal blue Tuesday morning in New York City. For me, it wasn’t my parent’s “Divorce” that was so terrible, it was the severing of my connection to my mom when she moved away, and then the slow poisoning of my attachment to my dad as he put life back together three more times.

Looking back on my childhood, it was like falling out of the nest over and over, with a lack of protection that cannot be seen, only felt by a child without words beyond their basic needs. For so many of my generation, divorce represents isolation, emptiness, and overwhelming grief throughout childhood and beyond for what was forever lost: a heart connection to one or both parents. Yet, as a child you don’t have the awareness of your own emotions so you make modifications to adapt to your surroundings, your patterns of how to love and be loved get solidified as the foundations of who you are setting you up for relationship problems later in life.

Like so many whose childhood has a before and after, the seeds of heartache were planted deep in the underground of my psyche. One of those seeds is that children who go through divorce are more likely to have relationship difficulties and to get divorced, despite it being the one thing they swear they will never do. How does this happen? There isn’t a statistic I wanted less to do with than this one, and in fact, I thought I had outrun that one in my thirteen year marriage that had all the right ingredients for success. The nuances of our relationship patterns are buried deep and no one wants to get the shovel out unless that’s the only option. I certainly didn’t.

But, you can’t will the seed of sunflower to grow tall and strong with exquisite petals, just as you can’t will the roots of a dandelion to wither and die without digging into the depths of the soil and remove it from the base. We can’t fix a problem unless we know it exists. Awareness is the first step and that is the basis of this book by example of my childhood growing up in the Age of Divorce. My experiences laid the foundation for me to know what to do for my girls when our life took a turn — despite all instincts that go along with being plunged into your worst nightmare.

When parents decide to part ways, it can be a single emotional trauma within a childhood or it can be the beginning of a cascade of adverse childhood experiences that cause lifelong emotional and physical consequences.

It’s about chronic emotional stress caused by the threat of a parent not being as available as they have been in the past either physically or emotionally — and both cause a child distress in a range of severity depending on the age of the child, temperament and other factors that can be out of the control of parents. For example, when a non-custodial parent (usually the dad) remarries their visitations drop in half the first year. Their kids from the failed marriage slowly lose their connection physically and emotionally to their father. The most devastating statistic of divorce is that twenty-eight percent of children in our country are being raised without their father in their life at all — they lost a parent to divorce whether the parents were married or not.

In 1995, physicians Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda launched a large-scale epidemiological study called The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study that looked at 17,421 child and adolescent histories of middle-aged, successful adults enrolled in Kaiser-Permanente for their healthcare. In this landmark study, The Center of Disease Control and Prevention compared the emotional childhood experiences of this mostly white, almost three-quarters college educated group to their later adult health records and found that nearly two-thirds had experienced at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE) or chronic, unpredictable, and traumatic period of stress. These included growing up with a depressed or alcoholic parent; losing a parent to divorce or other causes; or enduring chronic humiliation, emotional neglect, or sexual or physical abuse. The researchers identified ten areas of childhood chronic stress and trauma that point to family dysfunction and proved to be overwhelmingly correlated with adult disease.

The study found that children who are exposed to chaos, uncertainty, chronic stress, violence, loss, emotional/physical neglect, and abuse have significant increases in the biggest disease states as adults such as cardiovascular disease, auto-immune diseases, diabetes, migraines, multiple sclerosis, cancer, stroke, and mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and suicide. The reason is chronic, unpredictable toxic stress rewires the brain and nervous system to be more susceptible to all stress for a lifetime and stress is deadly.

When you have children, more is required of you. When you have children and you get divorced, an extraordinary amount is required. The stress for everyone in the family is overwhelming, instincts and fears rule behavior for the adults and their kids. Our world narrows to what is needed for surviving the day, the past and future nonexistent. Kids will reach out in tears, anger, needs for attention or behavior problems, and then they will shut down all feelings to survive the heartache of losing a parent. This is what overwhelming stress and trauma looks like for a child.

It is imperative for your child’s long-term health to limit that stress as much as possible, so they can go back to being a kid, worrying about where they will sit at lunch, games to play at recess, who their best friends are from year to year, working hard to make the basketball team, and not, what’s going to happen to their family or if and when they will see their parent again.

Divorce can be a minor emotional trauma in the lives of our children or it can be the beginning of a spiral of adverse childhood experiences with lifelong ramifications. Yes, even well-meaning, educated parents and families can harm their children — by having limited involvement in their child’s lives, emotionally harming their child’s other parent, or poisoning their child against the other parent — it happens every day, even when we know better.

There is nothing more important to a kid or teen than to be inextricably connected to the adults in their lives. Losing a secure emotional connection to an adult to whom a child has attached to causes real trauma. Sometimes this cannot be helped but to the degree that it can be, as is the case for so many couples going through a divorce, it is a parent’s absolute responsibility to foster the continuous loving connection first for the child to themselves and then to the other parent, even if it’s only in the kid’s mind and heart by speaking about the other parent with compassion.

Parents are supposed to hold the safety ropes, be the child’s witness through all their trials and tribulations, allow them to develop confidence to step out into the world, reflect the essence of their child. Kids are supposed to be the explorers, learning how things work, trusting the people in their lives will be there for them, eventually becoming a person who knows what it feels like to be loved so deeply they can feel their soul and in turn, they learn how to love themselves and others. This is what it means to grow a healthy, happy child into an adult who will attract kindness, compassion, understanding, success, and love. A child who is held onto by both parents, even in stressful times, will not become a negative statistic or repeat family traumas.

Despite our intentions, divorce cuts these healthy roots unless parents are purposeful in cultivating forgiveness and compassion for each other in marriage and in divorce. Kids can become defended and self-sufficient beyond their true self. Their emotional growth can be stunted and they become hardened to hurt much like an alpine tree weathered from winds and freezing temperatures. A child cannot grow as they are supposed to grow if they are continuously going through the storms of emotional trauma.

There are many ways children can lose their heart connection or secure attachment with their parents over the course of childhood, but divorce detonates the explosives setting the avalanche in motion, even if all other conditions are optimal. Divorce makes being a parent harder, much harder because you can no longer let the natural order of things carry your children down the trail, with the dad leading and the mom following, now you have to forge a new path to get them back to solid ground. And, although not intuitive, parents have to do this together, despite their feelings about each other. Holding on to your children through divorce is a hero’s journey that requires courage, fortitude, and forgiveness of yourself and your child’s other parent, so that they can become who they were meant to become.

What I didn’t know when my marriage unraveled is that divorce doesn’t ruin kids or childhoods, it’s the loss of a child’s attachment relationship with their parents. This means that even if your marriage cannot survive, your children can continue to thrive in a new family structure and will go on to become their best selves with the added character skills of authenticity, empathy, and resilience among others. This will require more understanding, communication, kindness, support, emotional maturity, compassion than probably occurred in the best of times in the marriage.

Family is the ecosystem in which children grow. Happy, healthy parents parent happy, healthy children and it goes the other way as well. You cannot have peaceful, content children who show up to learn at school, make and keep friendships, grow in their talents and gifts if one parent thrives and the other withers, it’s not possible. And it’s also not possible for a child to thrive without both parents in their lives on a regular basis. There will be consequences for everyone, including the parents — both of them. Growing up in a happy home (or homes as is the case post-divorce) protects children from mental, physical, educational, and social problems. We are forever connected by our beautiful children. Kindness, compassion and understanding matter.

As Jacquelyn Kennedy has been quoted, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much.” We have a choice: hold on to our kids and get them safely through a stressful time for the whole family together or allow sadness, grief, anger, guilt, blame, or even entitlement to a better life with a new partner to arrest the healthy development of our kids in body, mind and spirit. This is my story of choosing my kids based on what I learned from losing my parents to divorce.

Maya Angelou said it best when she said: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

 

 

 

Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post 10) “Are you and Dad getting a divorce?”

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I have gone way beyond what they wanted to know. Since their dad left, I hold nothing back. I’ve promised them to answer their questions as truthfully (and age appropriately) as I can. This was never so poignant as to when, after a hectic day and barely getting my girls into bed, Ryanne asked the question I’d been avoiding, “Are you and Dad getting a divorce?” It’s only been a month after Santa delivered presents that filled their stockings, five months after their dad moved out. Gut punch!

I never ever wanted to have this conversation with my kids—no one does. I never believed there was a chance this would happen—until it did. I used to tell them to give grace to kids whose families were in transition. We talked about how hard that was for those friends and that maybe that hardness is a reason they could have said or done things that were out of character. We were supposed to be the ones offering compassion and understanding. Never did any of us think it could happen in our family.

I called Kellie into Ryanne and Alex’s room. We all piled on Alex’s white, twin bed like getting into a magic sleigh in another world. “Ryanne asked me a question and I’ve told you that I will always answer you the best I can with what I know to be true. She asked me if your dad and I are getting divorced.” I pause to let us all take in that ugly word. I try to take a deep breath, but my lungs only go halfway. It’s all I can do to look at my three precious daughters without falling into the deep crevasse I’ve spent my life climbing out of.

Here we go… the nightmare has come true. Three pairs of big eyes implore me to tell them this is not what is happening to our family, that their dad will be back when he’s feeling more like himself, that life will go back to soccer games and birthday parties and weekends at our vacation house on the Peninsula. But, I can’t do that. I have to tell them the truth. Once again, I’m the one standing in the room delivering the devastating news. This makes me so, so sad and enraged simultaneously.

I pause like I’m looking over the cliff I’m about to jump off of into frigid waters below. “The answer is yes, we are getting a divorce.” I whisper the nonsensical words strung together referring to my marriage with their father. I can feel my whole body contract awaiting the fallout of such awful news. For every action there is a reaction and, unlike my five-year-old self who couldn’t take it in, my girls buckle from this news. Tears well and stream down their cheeks. We are in a pile on the baby blue, flowered duvet, all sobbing from me voicing what I thought they might have already known. They didn’t.

“You said you weren’t getting a divorce! You said he was just moving out for awhile,” one voice says in disbelief, desperate for this to have been only a very bad dream. Their dad has always traveled so much that it’s easy for them to forget what was happening when it’s the four of us.

I take a deep breath, try to collect myself. “I know I did, honey. I said that this summer and it was true at the time. There had been no discussions; your dad was just going to move to the condo so he could feel better. I’ve only known a handful of weeks and it was Christmas. We were going to Hawaii. I hoped it would change…”

“Why? Why can’t we go back to like it was before we lived in Sun Valley?” a sad voice says.

“I wish we could go back to the way it was. I had hoped that we could.”

“He broke his promise! All he does is work! I hate his job! He’s always gone and even when he’s home he just stays in his office,” an angry voice says.

“Yes, he did. Sometimes people break their promises even when that wasn’t their intention. He’s doing the best he can. A divorce is just the paperwork that your dad and I will take care of. This part doesn’t have anything to do with you girls. Things will look like it does right now. We live here, you’ll go to your school, you have your friends, play soccer and basketball and dance, you’ll go to you’re dad’s on weekends.” They are quiet looking down, at each other, and back at me, tears stream through lashes. “Things will be just as they are now. It’s going to be okay. We already have done the hard part. It’s only the paperwork .”

I will repeat this a hundred times before we get to the finish line of our family transition. They need to know what is coming in the future and that the past was absolutely real. This reminder helps my psyche as well. It’s one step at a time out of the darkness.

“And you know what?” I gather my resolve to stick up for the dad they love despite wanting to scratch his eyes out. “Your dad works really hard. His job pays for all of the things you get to do. His job allows us to live in this beautiful house, go on fun vacations like Hawaii, it pays for all your activities and your school. Most importantly, his job allows me to stay home with you so that I can pick you up and help you with homework and drive you to all the fun things you get to do. You don’t have to have a babysitter or go to after-school care. When I get to do those things for you, your dad is there with me. He loves you very much and this is hard for him too. It’s never what anyone wants, but it happens and you move forward.”

“I don’t want things to be different. I liked it how it was before. This…sucks!” a truthful voice says.

“You are absolutely right! Yes, THIS does suck. This right here, all of us crying on your bed in the dark because our family has changed, SUCKS! I think we need to say that as loud as we can. Ready?” Two sets of blue eyes the same color as their dad’s and one set of light brown eyes like mine look at each other, look at me. “Let’s say it together. Okay? On the count of three: One…Two…Three…THIS SUCKS!” We all scream this word I don’t let them say. It feels like balm to my soul. It is so very hard but it’s authentic and real. Finally, the storm clouds part for a moment. We all smile in spite of ourselves. They look at each other; giggle at hearing me say a “bad word.” It feels good to scream what we think about this outrageous situation. Acknowledging the truth directly, no matter how hard, feels far better than running from it, hiding from it, railing against it.

“This is not what’s supposed to happen, but it happens more than anyone would like it to. No one wants their family to live in two houses. But, families look different. We are a family still. We are a family with a mom, a dad, and three kids.”

“And a dog and a cat.”

“Yes, and a dog and a cat. That has not changed. Our family is going to look a little different than it did before. Life is just like that. Sometimes things are amazing and sometimes they are awful. You can feel angry and sad and want things to go back to the way they were, but at some point you realize you’re okay, pick yourself back up, and start again. We are okay. We are more than okay actually. We have a beautiful life here together. We will continue to have a beautiful life together.” I pull them all in for a silent family hug. I breathe in the love I have for my girls, breathe out a lifetime of heartache caused by divorce.

The conversation was terrible, but it actually wasn’t as terrible as I thought it would be. The anticipation of their reaction was far worse than when we faced it together, cried and laughed. It shined a light on what had been complete darkness for them. Kids know the truth whether it’s spoken or not. We may as well allow what is true and real be what binds us. And, feeling loved really is what holds families together, holds kids together. They need to know without any doubt they are absolutely loved and cherished by both their dad and me. I have the responsibility to fill in the cracks and crevices caused by their dad moving away, at least until life is back to peaceful. When they are okay, I am okay and when I am okay, they are okay. We walk out of the dark together. We are connected still—even after the D word was spoken in our home.

Divorce, Kids, and Stress

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I am writing a book about the impact of divorce on kids. When parents decide to part ways, it can be a single emotional trauma within a childhood or it can be the beginning of a cascade of adverse childhood experiences that cause lifelong emotional and physical consequences. It’s about chronic emotional stress, it’s about how a child’s brain and emotional system get wired, it’s about teaching our children how to live a purposeful, peaceful, connected life with others.

When you have children, more is required of you than ever. When you have children and you’re going through a divorce, an extraordinary amount is required. Your family now looks different than it did, but make no mistake you are one ecosystem. Happy parents parent happy kids and happy kids are parented by happy parents. It’s no longer about you. Your children need both parents. They need parents who put their own heartache aside and take the high road.

Life in this world is stressful enough for everyone. Be kind. Go out of your way to be kind to your child’s other parent. Understand that your kids need you both and they need you both healthy, happy, and successful in life.

Well-meaning, good people cause their ex-husband or wife chronic heartache. Do they know what they are doing to their children?

“In 1995, physicians Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda launched a large-scale epidemiological study that probed the child and adolescent histories of 17,000 subjects, comparing their childhood experiences to their later adult health records. The results were shocking: Nearly two-thirds of individuals had encountered one or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)—a term Felitti and Anda coined to encompass the chronic, unpredictable, and stress-inducing events that some children face. These included growing up with a depressed or alcoholic parent; losing a parent to divorce or other causes; or enduring chronic humiliation, emotional neglect, or sexual or physical abuse.”

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-last-best-cure/201508/7-ways-childhood-adversity-can-change-your-brain#_=_

 

The Life Reshuffle…

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Divorce was the nightmare I didn’t remember in the morning until I was shoved into the front seat of the big screen called my life. It felt like being kicked out of the tribe, it felt like death — the death of my husband, my own death, my family, my community of friends, my home, my life projection, of my family’s collective innocence; it’s the death of every single thing I understood about who I was and what my life consisted of past, present, and future. Every memory, experience, decision, conversation, and even thoughts had to be reshuffled through this new reality.

The world you thought you lived in crumbles before your eyes yet no one else can see it. There is nothing to hold on to. The ones who haven’t been there don’t know (just like I didn’t know) and the ones that have, well most can’t look too closely at something that caused complete destruction once upon a time. This is called the hero’s journey, a spiritual transformation where the person you thought you were is hurled into the abyss to disintegrate. You didn’t get to choose your path because who the hell would choose that?

But, once you accept this new reality, you allow yourself to feel your broken heart, you finally get some choices once again. You get to choose to stay there decimated by the aftermath or fly out from the ashes like the phoenix of Greek mythology. The one glitch in the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ argument is you get to choose how long to stay under the fray as well. It has been said that the phoenix can remain in the ashes for up to 1,400 years. It’s only been three years for me. It took forty-five years of layers to become the person I was before the earth spun off its axis, it might take some more time before I’m ready to fly once again.

You don’t realize those layers of certainty were holding you up until you are shaken to your core. It’s okay to start again. Grace and compassion and love for who you are, what you’ve been through, and the journey ahead is required. And, who knows, maybe at the end of this life there will be a special room with fancier snacks and a view for those who’ve had to fly through the abyss. Maybe. xo

“Divorce is far more than simply a change in family structure. It’s a reorganization of your entire life. Your entire self. It’s a massive transformation. A time when everything is called into question and nothing is certain. It’s also an opportunity. A crack in the bedrock allowing a change in course, an alteration of spirit. You can stay at rock bottom. Or you can choose to build.”

https://www.divorceforce.com/article/5-things-you-don-t-understand-about-divorce-until-you-ve-lived-through-it-by-lisa-arends

Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post5)

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Grief, loss, devastation can come from so many angles–the death of a partner or loved one, a medical diagnosis, divorce, job loss, an accident, natural disaster even the loss of a friend… Most of the time we don’t see it coming. One minute we are marveling at the beauty of the rhythmic waves and the next, swept under, choking, gasping, saltwater burning our lungs.

There is no better or worse when it comes to tragic turns in our lives. The world you know is turned upside down. You don’t know where you are or where you’re going but you can’t go back the way you came. The portal has been closed. No one you know is there and the ones you thought were by your side, can’t travel with you for so many reasons. You can ask them to and they might even want to, but they can’t step into this new place any more than you can go back to the familiar and safe. Everything has changed. You have to gather your shattered self up off the ground in your own time, hold on to those who were deported with you, and walk forward.

Sometimes you’re lucky enough to make it back; sometimes the people who love you will hold a place for you. And sometimes not, but either way memories of that far off land will remain forever. xo

Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post 3)

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It feels like I’ve barely survived a natural disaster of calamitous proportions, seeking refuge from bitter winds, torrential rain, plummeting temperatures. My house a shelter, the last safe place. Although I’ve never been directly affected by hurricane winds and flooding or had my house crumble in front of me, I imagine those shattering situations to be better than what’s happening right now, regardless of how soft my couch feels, how lovely the vacations, or beautiful the view. All I’ve ever wanted is to go through life’s ups and downs with the person I love. I imagine we could get through anything, even a natural disaster, holding on to each other and our children but that is no longer the case for me.

It’s supposed to be us taking on the world, not us taking on us, as it’s been all too often in my life. The person who promised to hold my heart, and I his, changed his mind and got on the last flight out. I am left holding onto everything we built together – except his business but he credits only himself in that endeavor. I am ever grateful for the life we chose together and all that has been bestowed to me but I would trade it all to joyously raise my girls with the man I love and who truly loves me.

My parents were divorced. It was my dad who got full custody of my younger brother and me when I was almost five. The actual event was barely a drizzle raining down from Seattle skies. It wasn’t their divorce per se, but the constant drip of stress and smaller traumas that slowly poisoned my childhood, eighteen years summed up with one word.

For my generation, whose childhood spanned the 1970s and 80s, divorce is hardly remarkable. It happens so often; forty to fifty percent of couples break apart, a number that rose exponentially from less than twenty percent in the 1950s. Divorce is old news, hardly worth mentioning anymore. From the outside it’s just a light dusting of snow on the lowland hills, only a change in seasons – short-lived and life resumes once everyone is settled. “When are you going to move on, Janna, it’s over,” said one of my closest friends at the time, like I had food poisoning six months ago and keep making myself sick for attention. What? Although well-meaning, I’m sure, my friend’s comment speaks to our collective naivety of what it means to be forcefully extricated from the life you live, and imagined you’d live until your time here on earth is done. In the game of Life, you go back at least twenty spaces. I don’t have to choose my career path again, thankfully I took the college route, and I already have three pink pegs in my blue car, but I do have to go back too many spaces to be counted as a mere setback.

To say divorce is unremarkable negates the impact it has on one million kids per year whose parents try to start life over, ending their connection to each other and often times to their family. If it’s your parents, your kids, your life, it’s shattering. Many times, the parent who doesn’t have custody feels the immediate heartbreak most acutely, the children not quite aware of what’s happening and the parent with custody can briefly forget within the routines of parenting, respite from the ache. A lack of awareness is a blessing and a curse. In my case, it was my mom who was pushed out and then gave up on being a parent to look for solace in new bonds and a new life free of guilt and shame and loneliness. But in most cases at that time and now, it’s the dad who is kicked out of the tribe – first in moving away from the family and then by emotional bitterness setting him up for failure in holding the connection to his children. Ultimately it’s the child, millions of kids, it was me, and now my three girls who lose the most.

We all have the one thing we say we will NEVER do, ever. We will do whatever it takes to avoid this horrible thing we experienced as a child. We will bound to the top of snow-covered mountains or crawl through a waterless desert, navigate the greatest storm in a rowboat but we will never let this one thing happen. This was my thing – never, never, never will I get divorced and put my kids in a situation where they question the love of either of their parents, where they have to grow up faster than they are supposed to. “Really, God? This is where I am going? This path right here despite it all?” I look up into the gray clouds to ask these questions daily. I am incredulous. My only solace is that maybe within our one tragic-awful-catastrophic-heart-shattering-calamitous-no-way-never thing is where we ultimately find wisdom, acceptance of life and ourselves, grace. Even so, it doesn’t seem fair but who am I to argue? I have to concede that this life is my life and, yes, I must move on as best as I can.

When I was young I felt responsible to hold onto my dad, my only available parent, but I was just a kid. Our deepest need is to be attached, to belong. The only power I had was to sit quietly and wait for him to hold on to me until I couldn’t wait anymore, I had to grow up despite the conditions. This one gut-wrenching year when my own marriage fell apart gave me the gift to go back in time to parent myself through my dad’s three divorces and loss of his fourth wife from cancer, to give myself what I’d desperately needed as a kid – to be held onto by both parents. This time I did have the power to change the trajectory for my girls. I had the power to hold them close so they didn’t have to choose to hold on to their parents or to grow up – two essential imperatives hardwired from the beginning and should never be mutually exclusive. It was my responsibility to hold onto my girls, and despite every raw instinct to keep them safe from the person who was hurting me more than I thought possible, it was my responsibility to keep them connected to their dad. No one, not even me, can replace a parent.

 

 

Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post 2)

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“Mommy? Where are you? Can I go outside?” I yell not knowing exactly where she is.

“Yes, Daddy is in the garage,” she yells back from my baby brother’s closet-like bedroom at the top of the stairs. “Make sure you tell him you’re out there.” I don’t stop for shoes or a coat and fly through the screen door holding Suzie by her black hair, eyes opening and closing as we go. Slam! The door’s springs stretch and contract behind me; our Doberman, Frieda with her taped up ears, is trapped inside, foiled again. She whines as she watches me run free. Outside is my favorite place. The sun makes me feel warm and safe on the inside. I skip over to my swingset I got for Christmas; I can feel the ends of my pigtails bounce on my ears to the rhythm of my steps. “You sit right here, Suzie. I’ll be right here on the swing. You watch me, okay?” Suzie sits in the grass and I sit on the swing’s white seat, hold on tight to the chains like my daddy told me, and start to pump my legs up and down, leaning back and then forward. The red and yellow striped poles blur as I go faster and higher into the puffy marshmallow clouds above me. I pump my legs straight and then bent as I lean my whole self back holding the chains as tight as I can, and then forward again. The swingset leans backward and forward with me, small mounds of dirt pop up with each sway of the swing until I’m going as high as the chains allow and then I pretend I’m flying, soaring between pink puffs of cotton candy until I’m dizzy. I hold my legs above the ground waiting for the swing to slow down to a gentle rock and I skid my feet to slow myself enough to jump off. I j-u-m-p and land in the worn grass. I grab Suzie to wander around the yard. What should we do next?

Our yard looks like a park, every shade of green and yellow in all the patches of grass, evergreen and maple trees, and the late-summer leaves, with a little white house dropped right into the middle like a cherry on top of pistachio ice cream. To my almost five-year-old self, the front of the house is a football field with a holly tree bigger than our house separating our yard from Benson Highway, where cars and trucks go by in streaks of color. Along each side of our little white house are fruit trees – apples, plums, cherries, and pears – perfect for climbing way up high or having a snack while admiring the view. I don’t know about any other kids or houses nearby because it seems to me, we live high on top of one of the white clouds I fly through when I’m on my swing.

I decide to find Daddy in the garage behind the house. I follow the rock path across the backyard to the little crumpled house overgrown with ivy and blackberries, where he works on his racing jeep and motorcycle. I walk carefully so I don’t step on a bee or a rock or a stick with my bare feet. Dandelions grow alongside the house and I stop to pick a bouquet – four bright yellow flowers and one wisp ready for my wish to come true. My nana likes to hold the sun-colored flowers under my chin and asks if I like butter. She says I do. The big door is open but I can’t see him in the sunlight flickering through the dirty window. “Daddy?”

“Yeah,” his deep voice grumbles from inside the engine of the navy blue jeep, his black, wavy hair hidden behind the propped-up hood. He likes it here. He comes to the garage when he’s not at work. I walk around and stand by his Levi’s so I can see what he’s looking at, but I can’t quite reach to see over the top.

“What are you doing?” I ask trying to get him to do something else, something with me.

“What?” he says buying some time. He flicks his cigarette and places it back between his lips, smoke drifts around him like a magical wall, translucent but I can’t bring myself to reach through it.

“What are you doing? I want to show you something,” I say again with more urgency.

“I’m busy right now, Janna,” he tells me still looking into the black hole with a tool in his hand, cigarette barely hanging on to its ashes. His hands are always dirty even though he tries to wash them. He has a scrubber but it doesn’t work very well. The jeep is his favorite, but I like it when he gives me rides on his motorcycle. He says that’s the only way I’d fall asleep when I was a baby. I really like to ride on the front, my hair whipping my face, going fast and then slowing down. My daddy can do anything, I think as I look all the way up to his shoulders.

“I have a bouquet for you,” I say handing him the buttery bouquet, but he doesn’t stop looking into the jeep.

“Go play,” he says. Suzie and I go back outside with the flowers. I hold up the wisp, make a wish, take a deep breath, and blow as hard as I can. All the seeds with their own small parachutes fly through the air to unknown destinations. I’m sure my wishes will come true.

We walk around to the front yard past the fruit trees to the holly tree. I sit next to the road and put my fingers on the pokey leaves, counting the cars going by, One…two…three…four. I remember I’m not supposed to go by the road, but I like to watch the cars and trucks go by. I’m not right next to the road like I was when I got in trouble last time. This makes me think I should do something else. I have an idea! I grab Suzie and I run as fast as I can to the sandbox my dad built for me in the shady part of the yard.

From inside my imaginary house in the sand, I can see the last rays of sun behind the garage where my dad is still bent over his jeep, the house, where my mom is busy with Jeffrey, in a full bright spotlight of the last of the afternoon sun; I can see my swingset, and even some of the fruit trees in the front yard. My toes squish into the cool sand and I scoop up big handfuls and let it sift through my fingers. Birds flit from one tree to the next calling out to each other in glee of the abundance of the season. I get a bucket to fill with water from the hose. The sound of the water as it hits the bucket, shhhhhhhhhh, makes me feel like I jumped into Nana and Papa’s swimming pool on a hot day; my daddy always there to catch me in the splash. I put my hand under the stream of cold water and lift the hose up so I can take a drink, water spraying all over my eyelashes and shorts and feet. I step through the mud and turn off the water spigot. The bucket, filled a little too much, is too heavy to pick up so I drag it back over to the sandbox, water sloshing out, watering the parched summer grass. I’m going to make mud pies for Suzie. It’s her birthday. I look up from the slopping bucket and spy big, juicy blackberries growing along the fence line; hundreds of them hanging off of spiky vines. The smell so sweet, mixed in with pine needles, over-ripened fruit fallen to the ground, and the dryness of the only couple months of the year with no rain. Those will be perfect! I’ll make a blackberry pie like Mommy and Grandma make. I get right to work picking (and eating) and picking for my pie plate. Once I have giant mound of berries, I start mashing and squishing and crushing them with my hands until they jiggle as one solid mass. I always choose blackberry pie for my birthday. I carefully take the pie to the base of the big tree with the giant leaves, the oven, and put the pie down to bake while I go back to playing in the sandy mud.

The sun is down and it’s getting dark. I get up and try to get the sand off. Uh Oh! Blackberry juice covers the entire front of my white t-shirt and daisy-printed shorts. I’m going to be in so much trouble, I think. The lights are on in the house; the quiet sounds of nighttime fill the air. I grab Suzie and walk carefully to the back door to see if I can safely make it inside to change my clothes before anyone notices. Frieda is at the door to greet me. I sneak in as quietly as I can but the door squeaks as always. I take off my shirt and shorts, and ball them up, blackberry stains hidden for now. I stuff them as far down in the hamper by the washing machine as I can get them and run upstairs to my bedroom as fast as I can, muddy footprints trail behind. My bed is really big and almost fills up the entire room; the dresser with my shirts and pajamas and pants folded neatly in the drawers is squeezed on the side. I made it! I take out one of my nightgowns to put it on and go to the mint-colored bathroom to wash my hands and face. I take out my pigtails to brush my hair and look in the mirror to inspect. Besides a few pieces of mud stuck in my light brown hair and my permanently purple hands, I look okay. I did it! I smile to myself, feeling proud. I pass my brother playing in his crib on my way downstairs to find Mommy. I hear her in the kitchen making dinner, the spoon scraping the bottom of the pot as she stirs. “What are you making?” I ask her hiding my fists behind me.

I don’t know my parent’s marriage is about to abruptly end or even what that meant. For the record, I don’t think they knew what it meant or where these decisions would take them either…