Amelia was technically an adult when her parents told her they were splitting up, but that doesn’t mean it was any easier. Here is what it’s really like to be an adult child of divorce…
I was 18 when my parents sat me down at the dining table and told me they were splitting up. They awkwardly stumbled over the words in the way that people who are never serious do when they’re suddenly forced to be incredibly serious.
My first thought was that the poor table had not ever been used for anything fun. It had been the setting of a far too delayed sex talk; the reason why I’d initially thought I was about to receive 2.0: The Post-post Puberty Edition.
There was no custody battle. No heated arguments divvying up Christmases and Easters. No more raising for their new partners to half-heartedly participate in. I was the one who would pick-up and drop-off my dad for our weekly dinners. My age, that ostensibly made the break-up easier for them, made it significantly more complicated for me. I had to cope, to manage and keep on moving. After all, I was an adult now.
I was entirely aware that I wasn’t privy to a child-size serving of anger, tears and grief. Yet the idea that my reactions weren’t valid, because I was technically an adult when the family unit went kaput, only compounded those feelings. I was angry that I was angry and I was sad that I was sad. Surely this meant I was a stunted, maladjusted and just a bit of a nostalgic sap. And unlike the blissful ignorance of childhood, I was old enough to understand that this might in turn affect how I function in relationships. I was old enough to be afraid of this unknown, and be aware of just how strange it was. The contrast felt starker as I’d had 18 years to get comfortable.
I had gotten used to the sense of moral superiority that comes from believing your family is the exception to the rule. I’d thought because we’d made it so far that meant we’d make it the whole way. Regardless of its functionality, their relationship was the model I based my own understanding of love and commitment on; what do you do when that foundation dissolves beneath your feet? I’m not sure that I pictured them dying within minutes of each other Notebook-style, but I definitely didn’t foresee the potential of an hour-long ferry commute between drooling geriatric parents.
My dad was eight when his parents separated. I’d heard him speak about it with a banality that I now know to assign to someone who doesn’t really remember the ‘before’ part. Those to whom the contrast is less obvious. He seemed to totally understand why it had been necessary and had welcomed new partners warmly. Both of these he did with the ease of a kid who isn’t yet capable of getting too introspective about the whole thing.
I, on the other hand, had the pre-existing neurosis of emerging adulthood and ate up this ‘personal crisis’ as fuel for a long overdue angst phase.
This hit its peak when I moved away for university. There is a funny difficulty in trying to really lean into your first bout of parental wrath from 700 kilometres away. I didn’t have the visceral assistance of slammed doors and middle fingers to get my point across. There were the far less satisfying teary phone calls to two different homes and unheard screams into pillows so as to not disturb the other kids in my college. There were no old friends who understood the before, and the after – of both myself, and my family.
In the years when I thought I would think about my parents the least, I was thinking about them more than ever. For my friends, parents were only background noise, who occasionally made for a good anecdote. Their relationships with them consisted of one phone call a week with lies about attending every lecture and a healthy relationship with alcohol.
My relationship with my parents was my preoccupation. Not only was I coming to terms with it being a relationship from a distance, but one that was now splintered down the centre. When I cried, was I crying because I missed them or because I missed them? Was I homesick for my room, my house or for an entirely figurative structure that didn’t even exist anymore?
About a year later, as I drove my dad home from a particularly passive aggressive filled Indian meal, he said, “I think I thought it would be easier, you know, because you were older.”
“You don’t get it,” I cried, furious at how the adults in my life could have underestimated their decisions in such a huge way, “It was harder because I was older!” My loss felt two-fold: I had lost my parents, as they existed jointly in my mind but this had become blurred with the loss of my childhood and of feeling looked after. The idea that children ever stop needing their parents is, I think, perhaps a myth. I may no longer have been a child, but I desperately needed to feel like I would always be their child.
I remember, with perfect clarity, what my parents being together was like. I’m not talking about foggy, childhood half-rememberings of a picnic in the park that may or may not have simply been fashioned from a photo of that day. I have fully-formed, crystal-clear memories of what it was like to be a part of that family. I know exactly what it is I occasionally ache for with the lucidity that comes from maturity.
Six years on and my parents’ break-up is still the ‘moment’ of my life. It’s the signpost that categorises every other event as either a ‘before’ or an ‘after’. Yet, I’m finally able to appreciate the 18 years I had with my parents. It took time, but the slow realisation that not everything had shifted – they were still there, just as two entities. I would be okay. I’m also glad that I’ve had the opportunity to get to know them as individuals— as mum and dad, as Michaela and Matt. These are two people who are now distinctly separate in my mind, two relationships to look after and always two phone calls.
Follow Amelia on Instagram: @ameliatili