My parents broke the news to me and my brothers when I was nearly 17, about five years ago. We kind of expected it, really; as my mom said, “We would argue over what shade of blue the sky was.” I’d spent plenty of car rides with my mother where she angrily ranted about my father, always apologizing at the end, and me saying that it was okay, I understood.
My father wasn’t, and isn’t, a bad man. I think he has problems coming to terms with that sometimes, but he isn’t. He’s strict, and he has high expectations. But I think he’s just as lost and confused as the rest of us, trying to do what he thinks is right for everyone, and until lately that meant to the exclusion of himself. His well-paying job kept us more than comfortable, but he loathed it; business trips every few months became once a month became twice a month became every week. He hated it, and he still hates it.
My mother was, is, more laid back, and prone to leaping without looking. Which, I think, is how they came to be married so quickly after their first failed marriages. I was born into the world with a half-sister already eight years older than me, and a half-brother legally adopted by my father who was only a little less than two years older than me. My little brother followed three years later. Then my mom became a nurse, and bounced from job to job, looking for what made her happy.
Nothing really did.
And so I sat in the kitchen with my brothers, listening to my parents going over the reasons I already knew, and I cried anyway. Because my mom was moving out, and my life turned upside down.
I was leaving for college soon, anyway, so my mom’s new apartment only had one room for my little brother. When I was there, I would sleep on the couch. Every time I went there, I felt guilt dragging me down, avoiding saying more than I had to, to my father. Every time I left there, I felt guilt that I couldn’t stay longer, even though there was no where for me to sleep.
I began walking a thin line. I know my parents tried not to put me in the middle, but they couldn’t help it. I’m sure it’s difficult. My older brother was already in college, and he lived with his girlfriend at the time. My younger brother had no car, and was dependent upon me and them for transport, so they set his schedule. I had to balance my own schedule and pray that it would be somewhat fair.
Every week I would have a chore list from each of them, and I would travel back and forth between houses, doing what I could. There were always arguments over “you do more for your Mom/Dad than you do for me.” Eventually, I broke down. I was trying. I really was. Maybe I could have tried harder, but I hated doing chores when they were together, and now I had two different places to do them in. Plus extra chores, like sorting out the boxes of photos so my heartbroken father didn’t stumble across pictures of my mother and sob over how she hadn’t wanted to go to couple’s therapy.
When I first knew, I allowed myself some time to grieve, and then I focused on what I would do. How I could handle this. I had seen the movies and the cartoons, of children rejecting step parents and acting comically like brats in order to somehow fix their parents back up together. I knew that was stupid. I was nearly an adult, nearly in college; I would handle it with grace and maturity.
I complained, sometimes. Sometimes I bawled about how unfair they were being to me, not by their divorce, but how they tore me between them. Home became uncomfortable, a constant trip back and forth, til I had two of everything, and even then there were forgotten cell phone chargers or shoes or books. I slowly lost my “place,” living in dorm rooms, couches, or spare rooms.
I was counselor, sympathizer, errand runner, schedule balancer. I assured my father that he would be okay, assured my mother she was doing the right thing for her, scolded the both of them when they tried to talk down about the other to me. I took my mother’s elopement in stride, as well as my father’s ease away from the Catholic faith and his decision never to remarry.
I found guilt. Guilt in accidentally letting slip the word “stepfather” around my own dad, when talking about Matt. Guilt for having to leave my mother’s early for dinner at my father’s. Guilt for working for my mother watching my stepfather’s kids when I couldn’t find a job. Guilt for hiding from one parent at another’s house. Guilt for not knowing the answers, for watching TV instead of doing some chores, for asking for money because my gas was almost gone and I needed to drive between houses more, guilt for not being able to evenly spread my time during spring breaks, guilt for trying to partition holidays, guilt for blaming my brothers for not “doing anything.”
My family has come back together, in a way. In pieces. Five years is too short a time to mend everything, but I can say I’m going to my mom’s without my father feeling hurt. I can talk about her dogs in his house without pain. I can discuss my father with my mother without there being insults. Everyone is calmer, and I’m drifting away. My father still won’t call the number at my stepfather’s cabin, and avoided them at my commencement, but…steps. Everything is in steps.
I just signed a lease to live in the basement of a woman’s house, so I will be moving out on my own. I won’t rely on their sofas or guest rooms for living, their money for my car, or even their judgment on how long my boyfriend can stay over. I won’t do their chores, and I’ll call once a week or so to check in and chat. Money will be tight, and I’ll be looking for a second job to fill hours and plan for my next big life step.
But I’ll have my own space, my own time, and I’ll begin the final process of unwrapping myself from the middle and moving on.