When I Heard “Divorce”

Some things can’t be fixed. Some never needed fixing.

One evening, when I was ten years-old, my mother walked into our cozy den, where I was watching television. She looked calm, and her voice was even, but when she asked me to come into my parents’ room, I could tell that something was wrong. It wasn’t that she never asked me to come into their room. It was simply that my radar for emotion, the same ultra-sensitive radar that most kids have, was pinging like crazy. I slowly got to my feet and followed her to the back of the house. We passed through the dining room and went down the short hallway to the two bedrooms. My brother and I shared the cheerful one straight ahead, the one with bunk beds and model airplanes and Legos and scores of children’s books. My parents’ room was on the right. As I walked to it, I kept my eyes on the floor.

When we entered the room, my dad and my three-year-old brother were sitting on the bed. My mom joined them, but I hovered near the door, reluctant. “Come sit,” my mom said, and I did. “Dad and I have something we want to talk to you about.”

I don’t remember exactly what my parents said next, but it was about troubles in their relationship. They emphasized that they loved my brother and me very much and always would, and that none of what was happening between them was our fault. There was talk of “grown-up problems,” but all I could think was, “Now we kids will have problems, too.” I recall listening to each of them saying the things that parents are supposed to say at times like these. They made it sound so simple, but my life was getting more complicated with every word they said. The bottom line was that they were getting divorced.

When they were finished, I looked at each of them, then at my brother. He was such a serious kid, somber and seemingly older than his years, and his little brow was furrowed under his crazy curls. I wanted so badly to protect him from what was happening.

“OK,” I said to my parents as matter-of-factly as I could, “now that we know what the problem is, let’s fix it.” My budding analytical mind combined with my childhood optimism: where there was a problem, there must be a solution, just as surely as “what went up must come down.”

My mom tilted her head to one side and looked at me with eyes filled with love and sadness. She said something like, “There’s no way to fix this.”

My brother started to cry. I followed. It felt like pieces of me were flying off and spinning away, and I couldn’t catch them fast enough.

At the time, I was in a private school in Los Angeles. Though my parents didn’t talk to me much about it, I had the impression that they could barely afford to send me there and perhaps only did so with help from my grandparents. At my school, the boys wore navy corduroy pants and white or sky blue polo shirts with the school name emblazoned in an arc over the left breast, and the girls wore light blue or navy jumper dresses with button-down, white blouses. The headmaster was a former US Navy man who whistled like a boatswain over the intercom to get our attention. Every morning, after his ear-splitting, three-tone squeal and gruff announcements, the whole school marched out onto the blacktop playground in lines to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. There was a monied, mainstream feel about the place. Intact, rich, Protestant families were the norm, and I was a Jewish kid with divorcing parents. Looking back now, I am aware that there were other kids who fell outside the usual student profile, too, but we were the exceptions that proved the rule.

Like a chameleon, I worked to fit in, generally well-liked, involved in student council, a reporter and then editor-in-chief of the school paper. While all of these efforts served as cover, they actually accentuated my feeling of “otherness.” I had become part of the school establishment in a place that felt foreign to me, part of a club I was pretty sure I didn’t really want to join, even if part of me desperately wanted to be a member. I thought that any day, my peers would realize that I’m not really one of them and send me packing. Now, with the news that my parents were getting divorced, the sense of difference was joined by shame. There was no one at school that I was willing to talk to about what was going on at home. The day after my parents told me they were splitting up, I remember sitting in Miss Cooley’s fifth grade class and feeling numb and distant. With my school friends, I kept quiet about my family.

Holding in my feelings, I started to experience anxiety, and I developed an angry edge. By all accounts, I had been a very mellow, sweet kid. My anxiety and anger were new, and I neither understood nor knew how to handle them. And while I remained a “good boy,” not getting into trouble or misbehaving, my insides squirmed and I started to worry about things. Most of all, I worried about my brother. I stepped into more of a parenting role, and I felt like he needed me to take care of him and that something might happen to him if I didn’t.

It was a hard time, but it also spurred growth in me and in my family. My mother gained strength and independence. She started to search for a job, figuring out what she wanted to do, what would work for her and for us. She went on interviews, and she got some offers. Her confidence grew, and after she worked at a job for awhile and decided it wasn’t for her, she got another, and then another, as she found her way. Her newfound strength made her a better mother to us, more able to give us guidance and support.

My family’s challenges made it necessary for me to do more around the house. I learned how to do laundry, ironing, housecleaning, and cooking and became independent at doing all of them. Perhaps this sounds minor, but these are wonderfully practical skills, and I like being able to do them proficiently without thinking much about it.

Eventually, I also learned how to maintain a home. A couple of years after the divorce, my mom met the man who would become my stepfather. I hadn’t been able to fix what was going on in my house when my parents split up, but my stepdad actually could fix the house itself. He was a patient, inviting, and straightforward teacher, helping me to develop a handiness that I probably would not have gained otherwise. Just as important, he was also my first guitar teacher, guiding my initial, tentative steps into making music on six strings.

There was a lot that was hard. Blending families as each of my parents remarried, seeing my dad on a schedule, and struggling with a sense of shame and increasing anxiety were all difficult. Yet I cannot imagine my life any different, and I am grateful for what I gained. My mother met her challenges head on and became a stronger, more complete and independent person and parent. I learned how to take care of a household. My stepfather has been a powerful influence on me, as instrumental as anyone has been in building my confidence, because he saw me as fundamentally capable and took the time to teach me everything from home maintenance to folk, rock, and blues tunes on the guitar.

The night that I heard “divorce,” my first reaction was to try to figure out how to fix the situation. But now, if I could talk to my ten-year-old self that night sitting on my parents’ bed, as he felt overwhelmed by the news and his own sense of responsibility, I would tell him not just that he can’t fix it, but that he doesn’t need to. It never needed fixing at all. As he dealt with sadness and shame and anger and anxiety, I’d want him to know that the experience would be part of what would make him a good husband, father, friend, and teacher. I’m glad I know that now. I wish I knew it then.