by Alysse ElHage
My divorce story begins with an image of my father, curled up underneath my baby bed while I slept, whispering a tearful goodbye. Later that night, he would beg my mother, “Please, don’t take her away.” Because I was only two when my parents divorced, I have no actual memory of this moment. But my mother has shared it with me enough times that it feels like a real memory. I clung to this image as a child, and in some ways it fed my fantasy that my parents might have stayed married, if only she had allowed him to stay.
Whenever I heard this story, it always struck me that my father did not say, “Don’t leave me,” but only, “Don’t take her away.” My Lebanese father viewed their troubled marriage through the eyes of a culture where family ties are strong and divorce is rare. He believed they could find a way to work things out so that I could stay in his home, even if the marriage was bad. But that was not enough for my American mother, who had grown up in a turbulent home where her own mother had stayed too long in an unhealthy marriage “for the children.” After all, it was 1976, and the culture was shouting that getting out was the best thing to do—that she deserved better. What my parents did not realize at the time is that divorce never works out for the better—especially not for the children.
Nearly 38 years later, I am still grieving the loss of my parents’ marriage. The divorce left me fragmented, vulnerable, angry, and, in some ways, homeless. I am always half empty—longing for the family I will never have. When they divorced, my mother and father broke up our little family, but what neither of them realized at that time is that they also broke me in two.
Tug of War. Both my parents love me dearly. Even after the divorce, I never doubted their love for me, not even for a moment. But that love was a double edged sword in some ways because they were always competing for me. For most of my childhood, I felt torn between my them, and their two worlds.
Because my mother had primary custody, I saw my father on weekends and holidays. I always felt guilty when I spent time with one, or like I had to hide my feelings of love for the other. I would miss my mother when I was at my father’s house, and when my father would drop me off after a visit, I would feel like my heart was being torn from my chest every time we said goodbye (I still feel that way to this day!). At a school event, I would be so happy to see my father in the audience, but when he came backstage to give me a hug, if my mother and her new husband were nearby, I would hang back, fearful of showing too much emotion, and perhaps hurting my mother’s feelings. That tug of war feeling has never gone away.
My parents’ divorce also robbed me of precious time with my father that I will never get back. Growing up, my father always tried to squeeze as much time as he could into our summer visits, and the every other weekend I saw him during the year. Once he had a new family, our time together was more limited.
Nearly every visit, we would have one “date night,” where we could just be by ourselves. As much as I treasured these moments, they were never enough.
In addition to lost time with my father, I lost someone to protect me from the men my mother mistakenly brought into our lives in her (understandable) search for love; I lost someone to affirm me as a woman during the awkward and painful pre-teen years; I lost someone to greet and grill my potential boyfriends; I lost someone to comfort me when my heart was broken; and I lost strong arms to hold me when I fell and to encourage me to try again. Today, when I see my little girl run to greet my husband at the door, when I see her smile as he picks her up and twirls her around, I grieve for all the moments I lost with my father that I can never get back.
Homeless. The divorce of my parents also robbed me of a real home. Sure, I have my mother’s house or my father’s house. But I mean “home” as that one place where you feel safe and you truly belong.
Growing up with my single mother and two siblings, life was chaotic most of the time. There always seemed to be some kind of traumatic event happening, either with us or other family members. My mother did her best to provide a safe and stable home for us, but on and off throughout my life, there was a man in the house who was not my father. Some of these men were married to my mother and others were not. A few were decent guys, but at least one—the one who stayed the longest—left me fearful and distrustful of any other man who walked through our door. During these years, I experienced a lack of control over my world that left me always anxious and eventually bitter. That changed my perception of home, and limited my ability to feel safe (and relaxed) there.
In some ways, my father’s home was different—more stable. Although I never felt unsafe, I always felt like an outsider. While he and my siblings from his second marriage always welcomed me with open hearts, it was my stepmother’s domain, where I was reminded that I was “the other child,” the outsider from his first marriage, not really part of his new and forever family. This feeling was reinforced for me a few Christmases ago, when my stepmother asked everyone to gather for a family picture. When my father beckoned us over to get in the shot, she said quickly, “Not them!” I remember my father’s face turning red with rage, as he hissed, “What is wrong with you!” On one hand, I can’t really blame my stepmother for wanting to have one picture of just their family. But where does that leave me? It is impossible to forget these moments, which happened throughout my childhood, but this one stung even more because it involved my children.
Broken Family Ties. Divorce also means that my two children will never experience my mother and father as Grandpa and Grandma. Nearly nine years after the birth of my first child, my parents have never been in the same room together with my children. My kids will never know what it is like to have their real grandparents, enjoying them, as a couple. And I will never be able to witness even a moment of them doting on my children as only biological grandparents can. Instead, I get broken bits and pieces—my dad with the kids, my dad and my stepmom with kids, or my mom by herself.
The reality of this loss hit me like a brick one Christmas, when we were driving home from staying at my father and stepmother’s home. I was on the phone with mom, sobbing about the emptiness I felt from the visit. It reminded me of the way I often felt as a child during summers with my dad—half empty, jealous, unsatisfied, and longing for more. As I talked with my mother, I looked over at my daughter sitting beside me in the backseat, and it dawned on me how much I desired something I would never have—to spend a holiday with just my parents and their grandchildren. “It breaks my heart,” I told her through tears, “that our children will never have you and Baba (my father) together—they will never know what that feels like!”
Longing. When I was about four years old, my father and mother briefly considered getting back together, mainly because I was having a “hard time” with the divorce. During this period, we spent one glorious day together at a local park—just the three of us. I can still see my parents smiling and holding hands. That was probably the happiest day of my life. They eventually decided against reconciling, and my father married my stepmother shortly thereafter. I was not invited to the wedding, and I later learned that it was because she did not want him to be reminded of his “old life.”
Today, I still treasure that brief moment of family togetherness. My parents’ divorce left me with an unresolved longing for their reconciliation, even though as an adult I understand what drove them apart. Their marriage was probably doomed from the start, mainly due to cultural differences, unfaithfulness, neglect, and traumatic circumstances (the first six months of my life, we were trapped in Lebanon during the beginning of the civil war). Even though I cannot imagine them still married, I will never get over my natural longing for them to have stayed together.
Lifelong Grief. Once, when I was complaining about my parents’ divorce to a friend (who comes from an intact family), she responded, “You are always talking about your mom and dad getting a divorce!” Maybe it was the way she said it, but it was like she was saying, “Why don’t you just get over it?” At the time, I was too stung by her words to answer, but if I could go back, I would tell her that my parents’ divorce is the worst thing that ever happened to me.
Divorce is the end of a child’s family. My family—the biological mother-father family that God used to make me—ended the day my parents said, “I don’t.” Yes, I have a family, and new and lasting relationships with my siblings from my parents’ second (or third) marriages, and for these things I am thankful.
But I do not have the two people who created me. No alternative or additional family, no matter how loving, will ever replace what I lost. Nothing will repair the broken cord that was my parents’ marriage and now is not, and nothing can change the fact that my children will never know their grandparents as a married couple. I am all that is left of their marriage, and like their marriage, I am broken.
For me, the legacy of divorce for children is lifelong grief. It comes back in waves throughout your life, and it impacts your own children in ways you do not expect. And no, you never get over it.