When I first learned the word “divorce,” at around the age of 7, I knew it was something my parents needed. I knew they were unhappy being married — made clear by their lack of time spent in the same place. My dad’s work carried him across the country for weeks at a time. The fleeting moments of togetherness shared by my parents were sad, loud, tumultuous. They would yell at each other across our living room with the vaulted ceiling, causing an echo to move about the house. In these moments, my brother and I would seek comfort in his room and wait for the storm to pass.
My childhood came and went under the same roof. I grew up in the house my dad still lives in — up north in Traverse City, Michigan. It is easy to call this place my home, having lived there for 18 years and been cooped up there during pandemic-induced quarantine. The walls of my bedroom cycled from pale lilac to bubblegum to a deep sea blue. I spent the long winters lying under my piled blankets — the poor insulation in our walls required an effort to stay warm.
Despite my high school depression, during which I painted my cheerful pink walls a dark, shadowed azure, I still think fondly of that place. My adolescence in this dreary home gave me much to look forward to when I moved away for college. At 18, I moved away to a bigger city and left behind those days of waiting for my parents to split.
Six months before the onset of my parents’ divorce, my junior year of college, my mother moved to Manhattan. It was during the first August of the pandemic that she realized the brevity of life and followed her lifelong dream of moving to New York City. My father had always admired this goal of hers. He was happy to see her doing what she had meant to long before. In her youth, she told her family she would live in New York one day. Years of living in a small town to raise me and my brother kept her from actualizing this aspiration. She selflessly stayed in this tiny town to be there for us and raise us together in a single home. For this I am grateful, but her sadness in these years nonetheless left its mark on me. She was meant for the city.
In a sense, moving away was the best thing to happen to her marriage. My father supported this dream and would visit her frequently in the months after the move. I would tag along to visit her because school was entirely remote at the time. She lives in a cozy studio apartment near the East River, its walls covered in colorful New Yorker magazine covers and her favorite paintings from the Met. Her dog, Hugo, accompanies her on long walks around Central Park. She was different after the move; her cheeks were rosy and stretched with a permanent smile, her heels bounced when she walked down the dirty sidewalk. But I noticed that this distance between my parents did not fix their relationship.
My mother is happy in New York. I think if it weren’t for societal pressures, she would have never married. Maybe she would’ve moved to the city earlier and flourished sooner than she did. But I cannot dwell on what could have been; she is happy there now.
As the years of my youth marched on, the conflict of my parents’ marriage grew more turbulent. I saw the marriages of friends’ parents end abruptly and quickly realized this would be the case for my family, too. But it wasn’t. They remained together, albeit constantly in disagreements and distanced. They must have done it for me and my brother, so that we could grow up in a single house. But we grew up with unhappy parents, and as a result, we grew up unhappy.
I have had diagnosed depression for as long as I can remember. Every day I would return from school to lay down in my deep blue room and sleep until maybe I would grow restless later in the evening. This was a common occurrence, reflected in my terrible attention at school and spaciness in social situations — it caused my adolescence to blur. There’s no singular cause or circumstance to be blamed for my childhood depression, but my parents’ unhappiness was certainly difficult to be around in the midst of my medically-diagnosed despair.
According to Dr. Bessel van der Kolk in “The Body Keeps the Score,” depression can often be traced back to a difficult home life in childhood. As lucky as I was living under one roof with both parents, I often wonder about the truth behind this “luck.” I think being stuck in one home with two unhappy parents wasn’t necessarily favorable to having my parents living apart and flourishing because of it. This is not to discount the even-more-concrete effects of one’s parents divorcing during their childhood. I experienced no physical separation of my parents and, as a result, I was never fought over or expected to move between homes on a regularly scheduled basis. I enjoyed the privileges of having mom and dad in one house, part of one family.
My friends and I grew up and realized our lives were not the same as some began to divide their time between their parents’ respective houses. My parents would sit me down and explain that divorce was something my friends were experiencing — they’d tell me to be supportive and caring.
But neither I nor my friends knew what this truly meant; why would two people who loved each other enough to marry and have children suddenly split apart? Moreover, why would the couple do this to their kids if they loved them? I was watching my friends cope with their parents’ divorces without the ability to comprehend what was happening. We did not yet have the vocabulary or understanding to know that love is not concrete; it can grow, it can die, it can tear a household in two.
The slow death of my parents’ marriage was compounded with the northern gray that painted our life in an off-season tourist town. They rarely laughed at one another’s jokes, and it was hard for them to have a disagreement without a fight. I knew what was coming, and from the age of 9, I would always tell them they would be happier if they divorced. I think they both secretly knew I was right, but did not want to admit to themselves — or each other — that their 9 year old was prophetic.
This is not to say that they didn’t do the best they could. I always understood that they loved me and my brother, and even each other to an extent. They just weren’t meant to stay married.
I am of course grateful that my parents waited to initiate this process until after my brother and I had flown the nest. By the time they called off their marriage, I was old enough to understand the difficult divorce process and its fallout. I was not forced to watch this play out in my everyday life; I had college classes and my newfound adulthood to focus on.
Two years after I had left them to be empty nesters, my parents began to realize that they would not be together forever. Their divorce began last February and stayed unresolved until October. Due to COVID-19 and the unfortunately long process of divorce, their final day in court was much later than when they began the process of legal separation. That meant that my brother and I spent many months acting as emotional support, messengers and friends for our parents to rely on.
Because of our adulthood, my brother and I were made an active part of the divorce. We were the independent third party, so to speak. Since we would not experience our parents’ separation in our formative years, my mother and father felt it was acceptable to tell us their issues with one another throughout the months-long process. Despite my adulthood, I was never ready to know the ins and outs of my own parents’ fateful disagreements. They raised me themselves. They taught me the word “divorce.” I was never ready to know what they thought of one another during this divisive process.
In the past few months, they’ve started talking again. The dynamic of my family is far from what it used to be; my parents are happy for each other. They share the news of their lives to one another over phone calls each month. They can laugh at each other’s jokes. They are better as friends than as married people.
But the few times that I see my parents each year during school breaks and holidays look different than they used to. Each time I have a long weekend, I have to decide which parent to visit. Since I grew so used to the same, albeit conflict-ridden, home of my youth, I am always a bit saddened when I think that the four of us will never spend a normal day together.
I saw more than I wanted to of my parents during their divorce, playing witness to their deepest resentments and nastiest vengeances. Yet I see them now, happier than they were before, happier than I expected them to be and happier for each other than they were when they were married.
Statement Columnist Martha Starkel can be reached at email@example.com.