My parents separated and divorced when I was three years old. In many ways this was one of the defining events of my life. We are shaped by our experiences and our interpretation of those events and it has taken me many years to arrive at the place where I can look back on this experience as something positive.
Growing up in a single parent household at a time when divorce was not accepted as nonchalantly as it is now, made me look at reality in a certain way. I grew up with a sense that I was missing out on what other children took for granted. I felt envious of my friends whose parents were “together” and I often wondered if they knew how lucky they were. And yet, this perception of reality led to something good in my life (but more of that later).
My mom did her best to raise her two daughters in a Christian home and worked long and hard, sometimes doing two jobs at once, to make sure that we lacked for nothing. The toll this took on her wellbeing was huge and, looking back now, I can only marvel at her perseverance. I saw her suffer with migraines, battle depression, fight the stigma of being a divorcee, cope with the loneliness that is the lot of many single mothers, and still come out on top. Much to her credit, my sister and I grew up to have families of our own and both of us are still married to our original partners. Here are some of the life skills I learned through observation.
building the B-R-I-D-G-E
Buttress the sense of family. Even though my mom and dad were not on good speaking terms, we still saw our dad regularly and knew that we had a father. We went on holidays with him as we grew older and met many of our paternal family members, giving us roots of belonging. In time, I came to value my father and thank him for his contribution to my life. We were also fortunate to have a strong bond with our maternal grandparents and this served to fill many gaps in our perception of “family.”
Re-invent your life. I saw my mother take courses and enhance her skills, enabling her to achieve success in her work at a time when most other moms stayed at home. I loved watching her get ready to go to work and admired her style and sense of competence. It was a reminder to fight back when life does not work out as you planned and to take charge of your destiny. I saw my mom doing the best with what she had.
Invest in friendship. One of the great life lessons I learned from my mother was to cultivate friendships. Some of my happiest childhood memories were made in the homes of kind friends who embraced my mom and her children and made us feel at home. This would not have happened if she had not put thought and effort into making and maintaining an active friendship circle. The outcome of this important life skill was that my mom eventually met someone who suited her very well and who added love and joy to the latter part of her life.
Dilute the negativity. Although it was not possible to shield us from all the negative effects of the divorce, there were enough other positive factors in our lives to balance out the unpleasant backwash of parents in conflict. My mom bought a piano when I was nine years old and, despite the effort it would have taken to shift it between the various places we called home, it became a symbol of beauty and grace for me and a way in which I could soothe many a heartache.
Go for gold. We may not have been the quintessential family of the ‘60s but my mother held us to a high standard of behavior and achievement. Holding her head high in a less-than-affirming environment gave us courage to follow our dreams and aim high, too. Just because we were different to the families around us did not give us licence to feel sorry for ourselves or to expect special treatment. And, as often happens when you aim high, you get much further than you could ever have imagined.
Embrace the present. In my childhood home we had certain family traditions that made an indelible mark on me. On a Sunday afternoon, for example, there would often be the smell of baking in the house. My mom had a friend who lived close by and she would come and sit in the kitchen while my mother made something delicious for the Sunday night meal. The smell of good food in the house invariably reminds me of my mother. I remember those times and when Sunday afternoon arrives and the day begins to settle into night, I often think of my mom and long to replicate the sense of family that small traditions can engender. In this, and other ways, she invested the present not only with good food but also with good feelings and left behind a residue of tradition that will always remind me of the power of focusing on the positive.
Looking back on my childhood, I can now see some positive things that grew out my parents’ divorce. My choice of psychology as a career, for example, was heavily influenced by my desire to understand others and myself more deeply. Being able to sit with people in emotional pain is a direct result of having my own spirit deepened by pain. Less visible, perhaps, has been the development of a deep compassion within me for those who might feel excluded. I treasure this value that has taken root in my life and I know it may not have happened had I not experienced the alienation that divorce brings. I find myself wanting others to know that they belong, that they are valued, and that there is a place for them at the table. Last, but not least, having lived though the pain of divorce has made me treasure my own marriage and the togetherness it brings. It has made me conscious of the fact that a good marriage requires constant tending and a great deal of prayer.
Divorce is unlikely to be in the thoughts of those contemplating marriage, but, should this be the way your life unfolds, do not despair. You, and your children, can survive this negative event. Children are resilient and, with at least one constant caregiver and the input of family and friends, life can still be good for them. You can model resilience to your children, create traditions that they treasure, help them find positive aspects in every situation, and in that way give them the invaluable gift of skills to face life. You can bridge the great divide. And in doing so you, too, might again find happiness on the other side.
Deanna Pitchford is a clinical psychologist based in Brisbane. She works with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) counselling centre.