Unexpected Life Lessons from My Parents’ Divorce
From an outsider’s perspective as well as from within, everything seemed normal enough.
My dad was nicknamed Ned Flanders because of his sometimes over-exuberant neighborhood policing. And, well, he looked just like him, thanks to a head of poofy brown hair and a matching vacuum-cleaner-style moustache. Meanwhile, my mom would have been a perennial finalist for Church Lady of the Year, had they given out such an award.
It might have even looked as if my three siblings and I were living a bit of an idealist suburban childhood in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, U.S.A. Until, that is, my parents separated in February of my senior year of high school after 24 years of marriage. More than a decade later, I’m still learning just how *not ideal* things were, and how their marital dysfunction and eventual separation has affected me.
At the same time, it seems with every passing year I’m in a better place with their divorce and the impact it’s had on my life. I’m also now enjoying a better relationship with both than I’ve had in my adult life, if not my entire life — even as I’m now more aware of their imperfections than ever before. For better or for worse, here’s my story of finding peace, hope, and even joy and beauty through the brokenness.
It was a sleepy Monday evening in early February when my dad called my brother, sister, and me into our parents’ bedroom and sat us down on the bed. He then told us that he had decided to move out, because the issues between him and our mom had reached a tipping point.
I asked him when he was moving, and he said Saturday. “This Saturday?” I asked. He said yes. At that, I couldn’t contain a sardonic laugh, although I’m not sure how much I tried to hold it in. Our parents had fought plenty, no doubt. But they hadn’t had any blowups in recent memory, and it seemed like everything was business as usual. So this news, while not completely surprising, did still come as quite a shock to the system.
In my uninformed,
unbiased, teenaged opinion, it was a bad decision, and the swiftness with which it was carried out only emphasized that fact. In hindsight, his moving couldn’t have come sooner, at least from my perspective. You want to leave? I thought. Sure. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
From what I could tell, my dad quit on his marriage, and by extension our entire family.
We must have left the room looking like we had witnessed a murder or something because my mom could tell something was up. “Oh, he told you?” she said. Not only did they did not decide to tell us together, they hadn’t even bothered to communicate with each other when they were going to tell us, separately. Which served as quite the fitting image for their marriage in general — and my experience of it.
I never considered my mom to be blameless in the deterioration and ultimate destruction of their marriage, but it was hard not to see my dad as the immediate perpetrator of the familial fracture. We didn’t see eye-to-eye before then, but his departure obliterated whatever relationship we had. My younger siblings would meet up with him, even go hang out at his new apartment, but I wanted nothing to do with him.
I didn’t speak with him for months, until the time came to take some senior photos. He was a freelance photographer, so I used it as an excuse to talk with him again, but it had as much to do with not wanting to pay for the photos as anything. I otherwise mostly avoided him the rest of the spring and summer before I left town after graduation.
Meanwhile, my mom and I weren’t exactly BFFs, but we were able to bond over our Catholic faith. She was the one who took us to Mass every Sunday, come hell or high water — while our dad stayed home. She was the one who somehow got the pastor to give us a discount on Catholic school tuition even though we didn’t qualify as low-income. She was the happy, filled-with-joy-and-hope one, even as her marriage was crumbling, and my dad was the grouchy loner with seemingly nothing else to live for but himself.
In my house growing up, I was offered two paths: one of faith, modeled by my happy (if flawed) mother, and one without, modeled by my miserable-enough-to-move-out father. Even at a fairly young age, I chose the path of faith, however naive, and I never looked back.
A weird thing happened, however, when I went to college: I started to appreciate more and more what my dad gave me. As I began to take my faith more seriously in high school, I very much saw my dad and his secular perspective in opposition to my mom’s faith-based perspective. But as I dove into my philosophy and Catholic studies classes at the university, I came to realize that my dad’s perspective on life had provided a great balance to my mom’s.
The Catholic faith that I came to love thanks to my mom actually has a great historical legacy of balancing faith and reason. My mom did a great job of passing on the faith part to us, but she wasn’t always so great at the reason part of things. My dad had a sort of dual education: he learned a fair amount of street smarts being raised dirt-poor by a single mother in pre-hipster northeast Minneapolis, then honed his intellect while getting two psychology degrees at the University of Minnesota.
As a result, my dad had a not-insignificant understanding of people and human nature. And from an early age, he instilled in me a sense that there was a right and a wrong way of doing things, whether you were taking marching orders from the Bible or not.
And, if you’re familiar with the Bible at all, you know that while it is the Word of God, it doesn’t exactly have a cut-and-dry, black-and-white answer to every moment of every day. For quite a while I had resented my dad for his non-Catholic perspective. But it was his perspective that was most helpful for navigating some of the more difficult decisions in life, big and small, thanks to some good old-fashioned common sense.
The other interesting thing that happens as you get older is you realize your parents are, well, human. And once you realize that your parents aren’t superhuman, not only do they become more relatable, they become more easily forgivable as well.
As time has passed, I’ve matured, gotten to know them better (yes, that’s still happening), gained perspective, and maybe even grown in compassion. I’ve been more willing to forgive them for their failings and limitations, even as I haven’t forgotten the fact that they’re divorced.
Because that certainly hasn’t gone away. I still lament the fact that I have to explain to people that my parents both still live in my hometown (my mom in the same childhood home), but not in the same house. It still hurts at times to have to plan separate holiday celebrations or to have to think about who will be and won’t be invited to what.
I still mourn the loss of the sense of wholeness that existed when my parents were married and united under one roof, even as there existed significant division and strife in their relationship. It’s not lost on me that there is plenty of collateral damage that persists years and years later. If I could, I would undo the divorce 100 times out of 100.
Even so, some fruit has grown up from among the ashes. My siblings and I have grown closer and closer over the years, and I’m not sure we’d be as close if we hadn’t shared the experience of going through our parents’ divorce together.
As the older of two sons, and the eldest local sibling, I’ve had to care for my mom in a way I never would have had to, and that’s certainly stretched me and challenged me to be more selfless and generous. And my dad moving out was most definitely the first time I really experienced any sort of real suffering in my life, which I was able to then offer up and unite with Christ’s suffering. I’m convinced that continues to bear real fruit in my maturation as a man, both spiritually and otherwise.
I’m also better able to relate to other people who experience suffering in their own lives, whether it’s related to similar familial issues or not. I believe people can better relate to me once they find out where I’m coming from. For whatever reason, there’s something of a deeper bond you can feel with someone else when you know that you’ve experienced some of the same sh*t — even more than you can if you’ve experienced some of the same not-so-sh*tty things.
There’s something about the experience of suffering in our lives that indelibly marks us and opens within us more room to appreciate depth and richness and beauty. It’s kind of like a tattoo — there’s something about the pain and permanence that makes its beauty more significant.
Even something as painful — and seemingly avoidable — as divorce can have the same effect. I rarely can get through a wedding these days without welling up with emotion, and not because I’m mourning any divorce. No, I now cry at weddings — sometimes like a babe — because I know how hard, how costly real love is, and how beautiful it is when people choose it anyway.