Breaking Tradition

My parents get divorced every 11 years. It’s a tradition.

When I was two, my mom and dad split up. When I was 13, my dad and stepmom did it. And now, at age 24, it’s round three – with my mom and stepdad.

I’ve never felt like a divorce child. I’m an atonement child. As I’ve grown up, I’ve felt the thoughts of family members – felt them hoping I will be the success they wished they could be, praying I won’t make the same mistakes, secretly cheering them on.

Two homes

Most people grow up with a place to call home. I’ve always had two. When I was little, I considered myself lucky. I had two dads, two moms, two rooms, two fishtanks – and when I got sick of one home I could go to the other.

Divorce paid dividends at Christmas. My little brother was always jealous that I came home from my dad’s with more presents than I could carry, before Santa even came to my mom’s house.

Divorce also had its benefits in summer. My families each went on one vacation every year, sometimes more – so I always had at least double the fun.

I’ve grown comfortable with having two homes. My grandma called me her ‘little wanderer’ – a badge I’ve worn proudly. I am a grand explorer. What might be a traumatic experience to some has been an adventure for me.

First broken heart

When divorce two came around, I started thinking this wasn’t so great anymore. I had a recurring nightmare about my dad and stepmom, fighting to the death – leaving me to choose who survived. When they started screaming at each other in the kitchen, I would pick up my three year old sister, cover her ears and hide in our bedroom – or we’d run away to the park until things cooled down.

I think I held my dad largely responsible. He should have been able to fix it somehow. He was my dad, and that’s what dads do. They make everything okay. You can always trust your dad, right?

When dad and my stepmom split up, it was that trust I lost. Maybe he broke her heart or maybe she broke his, I’m not sure. But I know he broke mine.

My first heartbreak experience, as a 13 year old girl, wasn’t from an unreciprocated crush; but given the alternative, I would have preferred it were. The day I found out they were separating, my heart was torn open.

Shock often results in delayed reactions, and for me the realization hit in my middle school’s sweaty gym-sock-scented locker room, where I crumpled to the floor – overcome by an agony no amount of dodgeball bruises ever could have prepared me for.

A decade has passed, and my wound has healed – though not without scarring. I’ve never felt as close to dad as I did before that painful event. I still love him a lot, though. I’ve grown up enough to know he’s not perfect – and that’s okay: he’s still my dad.

Last October, dad got married for the third time. Stepmom Two is from Zimbabwe, and he met her on the internet shortly after she immigrated to Canada.

I’m not sure whether I believe this story, however. I think she came by Express Post from heaven. She puts up with his annoying habits – like guilt trips, for example. In gentle ways, she encourages him to change. Now, at least, he prefaces his guilt trips with: “I don’t want to guilt trip you, but…”

I didn’t know if I would ever be okay with having another stepmom, but I am. I want to move on and see my dad happy again.

Emergency landing

Growing up, I lived primarily with mom, and visited dad on weekends and holidays. My mom and stepdad have been together 20 years. It hasn’t always been easy. They’ve had financial troubles, and have never really learned to communicate; but I think they’ve always loved each other.

My stepdad has to work a lot, and mom is finishing a degree. Once she graduates, life will be easier. They’ll relax a little and move to B.C.’s interior, as they’ve often dreamed of doing.

I’ve always been pretty sure they’ll live happily ever after, I’m thinking, as I fly back to B.C. after months of living on the other side of the country. I’m going home to live with them again.

In that exhausted state between sleep and awake, I am content. My wandering spirit can relax; I’m used to going back and forth between homes.

I reunite with my boyfriend Jordan at the airport. He picks me up and spins me around; we laugh and cry and hug, and our eyes say a million things we can’t express with words. We have been together three years. It’s been a grand adventure.

Unlike my parents, we know how to communicate – in serious conversation, uncontrolled laughter or reflective silence. We discuss the future, mortgages and grad school tuition; and we share dreams of shiny new motorcycles and living in Asia.

Soon after my return, I find out that my mom, on the verge of a mental breakdown, is planning on leaving my stepdad. I start bringing home boxes to pack up my life. I’ll have to make an emergency landing in a basement suite on the other side of the city.

Shattered pieces

I try to talk to my mom, but she has turned into North Korea. She won’t negotiate, she won’t even discuss it, unless the other party encourages her stance. She is an isolationist state, closed off to the world of rationality. “This is between me and dad,” she says, “it’s none of your business.”

Like hell, I think. “This is my family too,” I say, “and I have a right to know what’s going on.”

When I tell her I’m moving out, she is immediately defensive. “Why are you doing that?” she challenges, her words lined with blame. “Why now?” As if I am back from school just in time to hold the family together again.

My stepdad has a more sombre reaction to my moving. “You’re abandoning me?” he asks, not quite jokingly. “But you’re the rational one.” His words aren’t blaming, but pleading.

He has never been a touch-feely guy, and he’s probably not the best husband by modern standards. But he works ridiculously hard to make mom happy. I know he fears that if he loses her, he is cut off from his whole family.

I know mom is hurting too, but for reasons I can’t understand as easily. Maybe she’s trying to find the life she’s never had. Maybe she feels empowered by her success and wants to bring change in other areas of her life. She’s probably hurt that her only daughter didn’t take her side.

13 again

But how can I? I feel like I’m 13 again, when my heart first got broken. But this time is different. I see the shards of my stepdad’s heart shatter to the floor, and feel his world go cold. I hear the delicate fibres of my mended wound tear wide open again.

Recently I told a friend what happened this summer. His parents have never been divorced, and he wonders what it’s like. “Does it weaken you, or make you stronger?” he asks.

Shaped by challenges

“I’m not sure yet,” I answer, “It’s hard to know when I’m in it.” It’s not events that make you weak or strong, I tell him, but how you respond to them. Challenges will inevitably shape you, but it’s up to you if they will define you.

I’m still figuring out how to respond; but I need to face it head on. If I have some reparative or redemptive purpose to fulfill, I need my heart made whole again.

Maybe Jordan will break my heart one day, or I’ll break his. But I don’t think so. We have other things to break…

…like tradition.

Diamond-free zone

We’re both going to have engagement rings, which will also become our wedding rings. They will be diamond-free, because from what I’ve seen, a diamond is definitely not forever.

There is a lot of brokenness in my family. Someone needs to live happily ever after. If I let it defeat me, then someday it might be my turn to get a divorce – not a tradition I want to carry on.

On my wedding day, I’ll have two dads walk me down the aisle. And for the first time in my life, I will have simply one place to go home to… and stay.

me and all my parents
The most recent (as of 2013) picture of me and all my parents, left to right: dad, stepmom 2, me, mom, stepdad 2. Here’s to hoping this family picture remains accurate for many years to come.

This piece originally appeared in Options Magazine, in Fall 2009.

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