My earliest memory is having my tonsils removed aged 4, my next memory is when my parents called my sister and I into the lounge to tell us that they were getting a divorce, I was 9 years old and my sister was 16. It is common that memories from before the divorce become a blur. I remember sobbing on my father’s lap asking when I would get to see him, when I let myself think about it I still feel the pain today just as much as it hurt me all that time ago. My father soon moved out and on with his “new family”, I became to feel like not much more than a chore of his on a Saturday. My mother had to find a job, having previously been a stay-at-home-mum. Our lives changed forever, I didn’t realise the full extent of it at the time but my family fell apart that day.
I understand that everything changed for my mother, suddenly she had so much on her plate, she was engrossed in rebuilding her life, her attention averted elsewhere. But I don’t recall her ever sitting down with me afterwards, to explain what was going on. My sister was staying at her boyfriends a lot, and there is no two ways about it; I was left to feel unimportant. Everything I had ever known disappeared, it was like my security blanket had been violently ripped from around me. My mother and I grew apart, it only got worse from then on.
Fast forward 8 years to one night when I returned home after having stayed at my now husband’s house for a few nights in a row, my mother told me that she had informed the council tax that there was only 1 person living at our house now. I don’t know if she found it too painful to see me besotted in my new relationship, maybe it was a constant reminder of her failed marriage to my father, or was I indeed just the leftovers after Dad had walked away, no more than a financial burden she could do without. Either way, I moved out and she never asked me to return home, a few months passed and as I realised they did not bring anything but negative feelings to my life I made the decision to cut ties with them, via a letter, to which they never replied, neither of my parents fought my decision or came running round to try and make amends, they just accepted it.
When my parents split I didn’t know of anyone else who had gone through divorce, all of my relatives and friend’s parents were still together. Today however it feels like such a common occurrence, in fact in 2016 statistics showed that 42% of marriages end in divorce! I am by no means against divorce, I am sure there is good reason behind most of them, and it could be even more detrimental to children if their parents stay together unhappily. But what does concern me is the long-term effects a divorce can have on the children, I think they are seriously underestimated.
Whether it came about unexpectedly because of an affair, or the parents knew they were heading for it for a long time because they had simply drifted apart, once the decision is made to divorce, everything that had ever been up until that point is suddenly up the air. The parent’s minds are now overflowing with financial uncertainties, divorce solicitors and custody arrangements, who will get what, and future plans are out the window, all whilst suffering the emotional side effects of their relationship breaking down. The child’s life long routine of Mum picking them up from school and having dinner on the table ready for when Dad got home from work, all sitting down as a family and discussing the day’s events, spending happy quality time together, comes to an abrupt halt, regardless of how amicable the divorce may or may not be. With everything the parents are now trying to deal with, the children are no longer at the forefront of their minds.
The family dynamics in which a child is raised moulds them into the adult they will become, it is like part of the programming of your basic settings which stay with you for life. A child looks to their parents for almost everything; love, affection, security and guidance, a child’s morals and values are passed down from their parents and instilled within them. Most importantly, the development of a child’s self-esteem is heavily reliant on their upbringing, so when their parents get divorced and things become unsettled and uncertain no wonder their self-esteem takes a hit. The younger a child is the more damaging it can be, as I said before life from their former intact family days becomes a blur, I often feel like the divorce was day 1 of my life, everything before it has been erased, and so it makes sense that children become shaped by the post-divorce family life.
For 26 years I had been going about life thinking that my reactions and perspectives were normal, I always knew I was a serial worrier, I’d avoid conflict like the plague and I couldn’t help but go into panic mode at the slightest difficult situation, I had no control of it and that was just me, in my genes maybe I thought. I convinced myself I was boring with no substance, I struggled to understand what my husband saw in me, I would never ever dream of speaking up in any situation because I just thought why would anyone want to hear what I have to say, I just agreed with everyone, never begging to differ. My self-value was non-existent, I didn’t acknowledge this, I didn’t even realise “self-value” was a thing. In my day to day life I became obsessed with perfectionism, it got to the point where I was driving myself crazy with it, everything had to go to the plans I concocted in my head and if something faltered then I would go into meltdown and saw this as a reflection on me and I must be a failure. I could not take the slightest bit of criticism, I would take everything so personally.
Little did I know that everything I have just listed above had a link to how I was left to feel after my parents’ divorce. I have to highlight the book – The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce by Judith Wallerstein – reading this has brought me to tears as things have finally made sense to me. The reason I worried so much and dreaded conflict or difficult situations was because I catastrophised, a common trait in children of divorce, look at it this way – your parents being together is your most basic expectation in life, it created you, nurtured you, provided strength and warmth from the day you were born, they are your providers of everything and it is in our instincts to look up to them and make them proud, so when they break up, your most basic expectation in life just shattered before you, then you think anything can happen, as I said before everything is uncertain, so now you think that every single situation could go terribly wrong just as your parents relationship did. For example, if my husband didn’t pick up his phone my mind would wonder and come to the conclusion that he isn’t coming home, he’s either left me because I don’t even know why he is with me in the first place, or he’s had an accident – my mind would default to the worst possible outcome. As far-fetched as this may sound to you, it was very real for me and I’m sure many more children of divorce can relate. The reason I could not take criticism was because I was afraid of people finding fault with me, because I felt unloved as a child I continued into adult life still trying to find this love and approval I was missing, I would try to gain this in any way I could, but it was all in vain, desperately trying so hard at everything, because I was petrified of not being enough, of feeling unloved, unwanted, essentially abandoned again. If I was criticised or in a difficult situation I would feel overwhelmingly vulnerable, I’d get this knot in my stomach and it would take me back to being a child where everything was uncertain.
I never questioned my inner thoughts and feelings until it all became too much and I turned to a counsellor, it took 17 years to finally put 2 and 2 together and to work through the damage it left me with. So if you are an adult child of divorce, I would highly recommend looking into the research out there or reading the book – The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce. If you are going through divorce as a parent, I urge you to look into the effects it has on your children, there is lots of information available online. Adults like to think children are adaptable, or too young to understand, but whilst things may appear okay on the exterior for now it could be later in life that the effects really take hold. Children are more aware of what is going on around them than we realise, and whilst you might think that as long as you are amicable in front of the children everything will be okay, the truth is that it goes so very much deeper than that.