After her parents painful divorce Priscilla Gilman was terrified of suffering the same, but then it came time to split from her husband.
The night my parents locked themselves in the kitchen and spoke in alternately hushed and heated tones, I knew that what I had most feared for years was imminent. I sat on my yellow bedspread and wrote over and over in my little Holly Hobby journal: “Please don’t let this happen. Please don’t let them get divorced. I’ll do anything if they’ll just stay together.” In the bewildering months that followed, my sister and I lost our dog, our family house, our father’s daily presence, and, in a sense, our childhood. I saw my father plunged into a nearly suicidal depression, shuttling around from one temporary living situation to another, struggling financially, suffering from writer’s block. Divorce meant one person’s unraveling, the loss of an intact family, instability and disorientation. It meant exposing children to their parents’ grief and the end of any vestige of friendship between the parents.
Years later, I lived with deep unhappiness and a sense of unfitness in my marriage because I so feared the disastrous effects divorce might have on my very young and very vulnerable children (our older son is on the autism spectrum) and on my husband. I feared that I would be abandoning my husband and harming my children. But I knew that if my husband, Richard, and I were ever to be able to love and appreciate each other again and be the parents, and the people, we wanted and needed to be for our beloved children, we needed a dramatic change, a reconfiguration of our relationship.
We did everything possible to make the process amicable. Where my parents spent eight years post separation locked in legal battle over assets before finally divorcing and only were in the same room three times in the twenty years after their divorce, Richard and I did six months of mediation with a social worker, psychologist, and lawyer, wrote a parenting plan that covered everything from financial arrangements to our parenting philosophy, did a nesting custody arrangement (where the kids stay in one place and the parents move in and out of the apartment). We each saw a therapist individually, and worked collaboratively in all decisions regarding the children.
It took time, humility, and a lot of hard work, but Richard and I now have a beautifully supportive co-parenting relationship and a true and rewarding friendship. We spend our holidays and lots of time together with the boys, and I’m so grateful for the contributions he makes to our family. He uncomplainingly schleps the boys to and from school; he’s given them every haircut they’ve ever had; he plays ball or board games with them for hours on end. He happily helped our older son build a monochord out of wood for a science project about math and music and spent a week making an Odysseus outfit for our younger son’s Halloween costume.
We are passionate co-nurturers of and committed co-advocates for our children. We attend every conference together, stand side by side at school events, discuss our children’s progress, challenges, triumphs, and setbacks daily. Together we brainstorm cognitive behavioral techniques to help our older son with anxiety and ways to support our dyslexic son with spelling and reading. As devoted parents of our beloved boys, we are still together, in the words of the Robert Frost poem we printed on our wedding program, “wing to wing, and oar to oar.”
Good divorce for us doesn’t mean no conflict. Every article on good divorce that I looked at sternly warned: “never disagree or argue in front of the children.” That’s both idealized and judgmental, it seems to me, an unrealistic bar to set. Richard and I sometimes disagree, and sometimes it’s in front of the children. We get frustrated with each other. But beneath it all, we trust, admire, and are fond of each other, and we work out our disagreements. What was most painful about my parents’ split was that the two people I loved most in the world actively disliked and resented each other; Richard’s and my mutual appreciation and respect are palpable to our boys.
But wrenching as it was, my parents’ ostensibly “bad” divorce was in some ways ultimately a good thing for all involved. Their split, and the soul-searching it sparked in my parents, helped me build stronger individual relationships with them; I got to know my parents as flawed, complicated, vulnerable people and to forgive them. My sister says that the divorce removed from her daily life two major sources of anxiety—our parents’ fighting and her own tension with my father—and this allowed her to “gain confidence and come into my own.” My mother, who had been a relatively remote figure during my early childhood, became much more emotionally available to me, much happier, and more vibrant after the split. And my father, who had been so devastated, ultimately confronted his most powerful demons, wrote two searching and poignant books, married and found deep joy with a woman who was right for him. My parents weren’t able to repair their relationship with each other before he died several years ago, but individually they both ended up happier and better people, and that was a powerful lesson for me about the conditions under which people can flourish, do their best work, and be their best selves.
So my parents’ divorce taught me two important things: first, as a cautionary tale, to foster as much good will between the parents as possible in order to lessen the burden on the children, and second, that sometimes a split can be positive because some people just aren’t meant to be married to each other—they bring out the worst in each other, they polarize each other somehow. When the marital dynamic activates each person’s most problematic tendencies and keeps them stuck in outdated and immature versions of themselves, they can be better parents and people when split. And they and their children can still be a family.
In the early days of my divorce, I wrote my mom an email that ended:
The biggest thing I’m struggling with is how to define family. Are Richard, the kids, and I still a family? Or are Benj, James, and I a family and Benj, James and Richard a family? For some reason the word family gives me the most difficulty.
Very simple. One family with many branches including me and the aunts and uncles. Much love, Mom
That family has just gained another branch; a few months ago, I got remarried to the father of a nine-year-old girl. My new husband and Richard have a warm friendship, my boys adore their step-father and step-sister, Rafaella, and she likes having Richard, another interested and interesting grownup, in her life. One night recently, as the three parents were supervising the three children’s homework, Rafaella chose to read William Steig’s Amos and Boris, the story of a whale and a mouse who become “the closest possible friends” until “ the time came to say goodbye” because one must live on land and one in the sea. Years later, when Boris lies beached on the sand, Amos saves his old friend’s life. I’d loved this book as a child, and in the early days of my romance with Richard, I’d given it to him. As Rafa read aloud Boris’ words to Amos: “We will be friends forever, but we can’t be together. I’ll never forget you, though,” I looked at Richard and smiled. Boris and Amos never forget the others good qualities; they care for each other and have each others backs; they come through for each other at crucial times in meaningful ways. Richard and I were Amos and Boris, and we still are.