This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to we talk to people who have experienced interesting/challenging/amazing things. This is the story of Sara her parents’ ‘gray divorce’.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
Hi. My name is Sara and I’m 29. I recently moved to San Francisco from Montreal with my husband and 18-month-old daughter. Before becoming a stay-at-home mom, I worked as a nurse in pediatric critical care. When my family and I aren’t exploring our new city, I love to knit, TV binge on Netflix, and thrift.
What was your parents’ relationship like? How did you view their relationship as a child?
My parents’ relationship was pretty ordinary. My mom stayed at home with the kids until the youngest started grade school and reentered the workforce. My dad was always the primary breadwinner.I think like a lot of busy families they didn’t have much time for each other and certainly didn’t go out much.
They went on their first kids-free vacation when I was 14. I didn’t give a lot of thought to their relationship because they never argued in front of me or seemed to be having problems. They were just simply Mom and Dad.
What about their relationship made you think it was a happy one?
To tell you the truth I thought they were happy because they were so boring. Like I said, they never argued in front of me so it would have been difficult to think otherwise.
Can you tell us about the day that your parents told you they were getting divorced?
My mom called me to make sure I was coming over for dinner. It was Sunday, so nothing out of the ordinary. I said yes, of course, but didn’t think that my husband would come since he was busy. She asked to talk to him. What I didn’t know was that she told him that “something terrible” had happened and that he should really be there that evening.
Thinking back to that day I can’t imagine what my husband was feeling all afternoon. Poor him. He later told me that he thought someone was sick. Something like stage 4 cancer or something. I often wish he had been right. Does that make me a terrible person..?
Anyways, we went over for dinner and before it was served my father said “So I have some sad news. Your mother and I are separating.” (At this point I tune out and only catch spinets of what he has next to say.)
He says something about another woman. My mother starts to cry and I just sit there in total shock, rocking back and forth on the stool I’m sitting on. My husband is standing in the corner of the kitchen, silent. Most of that evening is a blur of crying and my father repeating over and over “I will always be your dad.”
How did you react? How did the other people in your family and life react to the news?
Since all my siblings were out of town at the time they asked me how I thought they should all be told. I vividly remember thinking to myself “What?! Are you serious?! You dump this load of shit on me and I’m supposed to help you ruin their lives?!”
That was the only time I was ever mad at my mom during this whole ordeal. But really how could that request have been her fault? There’s no chapter in the parenting book on telling your adult children your marriage is falling apart.
They felt like they should wait until everyone returned from out of town and not tell them over the phone. That meant a whole week of keeping this to myself. I needed someone else to know. So I said that we had to go over to my brother’s girlfriend’s place and tell her. Then at least I wouldn’t be the only one who knew. I would be able to talk to her about it as the reality of the situation set in.
As the week went on, the news spread to my siblings and I began the grieving process. I was incredibly hurt by my father’s behavior. I was so mad at him. I was embarrassed to be his daughter. What he had done was so cliché, so tacky. I was also 14 weeks pregnant at the time and often worried about how all this stress would affect my baby. The whole situation was just terrible.
Initially, my siblings all took it the same way. Shock, sadness, anger, embarrassment. Our family friends were in total disbelief. No one saw it coming. We were the happy, functional family that held huge holiday dinners. Not the family that falls apart.
What reasons did they give for the divorce?
My father had fallen in love with another woman and my mother didn’t want to be married to a man who slept with other women. She was the one who said it was over. Pretty straight forward. No chance of reconciliation. To this day my father states that the separation was her idea (yes, literally it was, but only because he wasn’t brave enough to suggest it).
He also admitted to being unhappy for 15 years. He stayed in the marriage to raise the kids. Now that we were all out of the house and on our own he just didn’t see the point of staying married to my mother.
Looking back, were there any clues that their marriage was struggling?
No. I keep playing back different family events in my mind and just don’t see any unhappiness. I think that’s the worst part. I figured since they had been married for so long nothing like this would ever happen.
I think it’s a generally held assumption that when parents of adult children divorce, it doesn’t affect the children. Have you found that to be true?
I think it’s often believed that adult children will “get over it” because they’ve mostly left the family home and may have spouses and children of their own. Their parents are no longer the most important people in their lives.
But when your parents divorce when you are in your 20s or 30s you understand the trust and commitment that has been broken. Your entire life is put into question, especially when the unhappy parent stays in the marriage for the sake of the kids.
My father had been unhappy for 15 years. That’s almost half my life. I have a hard time looking through old pictures because I think to myself, was he unhappy here? We all had such a great time on this vacation… It also makes you reevaluate the life decisions you’ve made based on their family model.
If he was unhappy, was my seemingly happy life a lie?
Has their divorce affected the way you feel about marriage and relationships?
Definitely. I often think to myself “Well at least they weren’t married for 30 years with kids” when breakups are announced. I look at marriage much more seriously now and am relieved when two people realize they shouldn’t be together before they get married.W
hen my husband and I got married I knew it was forever. I’m not one of those people who stays married until they get divorced. Now I see our relationship even more seriously. I’ve experienced the pain and sadness of divorce firsthand and promised my daughter that I would never put her through it.
My relationship with my husband has always been founded on honesty. We make sure to tell one another when we are unhappy and most importantly make sure that the message is actually received. I realize now that that last part was something overlooked by my parents.
(Now don’t get me wrong, I am certainly not advocating for couples to stay together when things like violence are involved, but in my mind you just don’t let yourself fall in love with someone else when you are already married.)
What books/resources/coping mechanisms have helped you get through this?
During internet searches for resources on the matter I discovered that there was a term for what my parents were going through. Grey divorce. Older (gray-haired) couples in long lasting marriages who get divorced.Despite it having its own term there has been very little published about it and adult children of divorce.
One book I found however was very helpful. A Grief Out of Season is part a collection of stories from different families and part advice on coping. It was comforting to read about others’ experiences and know that I wasn’t alone.
They were going through the same process of grieving that I was. One likened it to a death in the family, many spoke about being embarrassed and not sharing the news with friends. These were all things going through my mind. I wasn’t crazy!! I was like everyone else.
Not surprisingly, I found it most helpful to talk my husband and close friends about the situation. Since I wasn’t trying to solve a problem, just make some sort of sense of it, talking about it and having someone be there to listen was very freeing.
What advice would you give to someone going through something similar?
Don’t bottle up your emotions. Find someone to talk to about it, professional or not. It’s ok to be embarrassed, heartbroken, crushed… It’s also ok to not be sure if you love your mom or dad anymore. It’s even ok to hate them sometimes. Yes, time is a great healer but don’t put a deadline on it. It will take however long it takes to feel normal again.
I still sometimes have dreams about my family where my parents are together. I feel incredibly sad when I wake up from these dreams. I would give anything to have my family back. I’m not sure if I’ll ever feel “normal” again, so instead I’m just trying to redefine what normal means.
Thanks so much for sharing your story, Sara. Have any of you guys experienced something similar – either as the parents or the kids?