Don’t get me wrong, no matter the circumstances, divorce is a tangled knot of losses for everyone involved. But there are gains (sometimes enormous) in divorce as well, and maybe we don’t talk enough about those.
Self-discovery is at the top of my list of gains from my own divorce (as is getting to paint my kitchen pink) and my dad is at the top of my list in gains from my parents’ divorce.
This isn’t a study I have run, yet — just my own story. My parents divorced when I was seven. I spent the first two years hoping that what I was living was a bad dream and that I would wake up, to my formerly married parents and our family of four, and to dad’s waffles and mom’s poached eggs. By the time I was a teenager, my own self-absorption and emerging social life overwhelmed my thoughts of my parents’ divorce (and that’s a good thing.)
Even during the bad dream phase, I look back now and realize how lucky I was. My parents didn’t rage against each other, didn’t poison me with passive aggressive barbs towards the other parent, and always supported me in loving the other parent. When I look at some of the divorces today I am really saddened to see how parents burden their children with the unresolved anger they have towards the other parent.
But that’s not my childhood story.
Another way that I was lucky is that my dad was different. And those differences allowed me to discover that my parents’ divorce actually had an upside for me.
I noticed those differences at the time, but I notice them even more now as I look back on that time in my life. By the time I was a teenager my parents were once again living in the same town. I spent time at both of their homes, though most of my time was at the mall, trying on prom dresses I was never going to buy, and at sleepovers, crank calling our crushes (maybe we were immature teenagers.)
My dad was the only dad I knew who would come to my high school almost every week and pick me up for lunch. Even though I spent time at his home, this time with him was different, because this time was just me and my dad — no distracting brother and no dad’s needy girlfriend.
We would usually eat at the fish place one block away from the high school. My dad would ask me all about ME. I hope I found out about him back then, but my guess is that I probably didn’t ask. What I did find out about him was the kind of dad he was.
My teenage friends were all slipping away from their parents and seeking independence, as was I. But when my friends needed someone to lean on, when Becky got stranded drunk at a party or when Stacey, god forbid, thought she might be pregnant, the calls went to their moms.
The dads let the moms handle it. Because we all know our daughters’ emerging adult selves, including their sexuality, is a psychological minefield, especially for fathers. Sometimes it is easier for parents to designate that sticky emotional goop to the moms. I think it happens all of the time, but I hope that’s changing.
When I got to college my phone calls home went to both parents’ houses. There is that stereotype we all know — college kid calls home and dad answers, a few niceties are exchanged and the phone is passed: “Here, your mother wants to talk to you.”
Hopefully that is antiquated silliness these days, but I gotta say it, when I was in college, my girlfriends were not calling home to their dads like I was. Maybe that was just because of my special relationship with my dad, but maybe that special relationship was an upside of my parent’s divorce.
The upside of dropping your smartphone in the toilet is that maybe you pay a different kind of attention to your child that day. Maybe you’re not checking your phone as you pick her up from school or walk through the store together.
The upside of divorce is that you get a window, a big window, as a single parent. Maybe you take advantage of that and start to do the work you once leaned on the other parent to do. As a single mom, it crossed my mind that my daughters never played in a physical way with me like they did with their dad. So we started playing tag at the park as part of our weekly time together. They probably won’t be writing a little essay about it when they’re 40, but hey, who knows?
Today, I am 41, and my dad is one of my closest friends. When I found out my husband was cheating on me and I couldn’t see the road for the tears in my eyes, it was my dad’s house I drove to.
So this is a shout-out first to my formerly single dad, but also to all dads, single and otherwise, saying hey, keep up the good work. Keep walking towards that teen girl who is walking away. She needs you.
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