Monday, June 27, 2011

The Cliché Parade: Daddy's Little Girl, Grown

I had a real moment last night. A painful, paradigm-wrenching, eyes still swelled shut in the morning from crying the night before one.

When our son was two, my dad gave him an electric motorcycle on Christmas eve morning, the kind little kids motor around on at like 1.5 mph. I felt irritated by it, I thought, because it has several types of loud, working sirens, it's made in China, there's nothing creative or open-ended about it, you get the idea. I buy sort of Waldorf-inspired things for the kids, and books. Nothing even remotely like this. He didn't even mention he was thinking about getting it, because he didn't think about getting it - he bid on it at a charity auction.

When my son opened it, he lit up like the 4th of July. Within 5 minutes he was steering around the furniture way beyond what I knew him to be capable of, with a look of pleasure so deep he couldn't even crack a smile. I've only seen that expression a handful of times. That's a really special one, one I want tattooed on my brain. And so after that, I accommodated the motorcycle, because I thought it would be Grinch-y of me not to.


Last night, I realized that wasn't really the problem. The motorcycle, per se.

Monday, May 9, 2011

I'm still here!

My uncle passed away a couple of weeks ago, and my regular blogging had to get shelved for a bit. Lots of changes upcoming for my family. Just wanted to let you know I intend to fire up the blog again as soon as I get caught up around my own home.

More soon.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Emotional Incest & Identity, or How Divorce Can Undo An Adult Child Completely

The collection of posts I've written thus far are mostly concepts that I've already worked through, even if I still need those thoughts to be heard. They were  composed fairly rapidly. It's no coincidence then, that the therapist I saw a week ago (and again today) held up a new idea, and I haven't completed a post since. I'm digesting.

I have a good friend that I've known since we were 15, who always said when we were teenagers that I gave the best relationship advice of anybody she knew, even though I'd never been in a relationship. She said that to me again recently.

I'm realizing now, that idea that at the time I'd never been in a relationship, that's not entirely true. By the time I was 12, I felt strongly that I understood each of my parents better than they understood each other. Maybe I have a long way to go in working though this, or maybe it is just the facts; it sure feels like the truth. Both my parents used me as a confidant to the extent that an acquaintance of my mother's, not knowing that she was also using me in the same way, remarked that it looked like my dad made me "the other woman" in my parents' relationship.

And this is called Emotional Incest.

Rightly so, because now I'm seeing how much it has in common with Sexual Incest. I was being told all sorts of stuff I shouldn't have been told. And I was given opportunities to contribute insight in meaningful ways. My intelligence was complemented. I had such good perspective, wise beyond my years. I was really helping my parents' relationship. Kudos to me, because in the face of complete breeches of parent-child boundaries, I could be such a helper. I probably got more approval from my parents in and around those conversations than at any other time. In fact, I could count on receiving parental approval that way, even and maybe especially when I was being made aware of what a disappointment I was to my parents in most every other facet of my life.  

My ability to give my parents those insights, to be their shoulders to cry on, to be allowed to witness to their marriage in such an intimate way, to prop them up - my self concept really developed around those ideas. My emotional barometer rose and fell with the state of my parents' relationship. In discussions with my dad, I saw my mother as frigid and unsympathetic, while he was passionate and unfulfilled. Conversely when talking to my mom, she was the victim (though sometimes a martyr as well) and my dad was sick with narcissism and sex addiction. And all of that was true, I think. It's just that different parts of the truth "mattered" more than others depending on who I talked to; meanwhile, my sense of self was forming around all this.

One of the things I've read about children who are abused in this way is that we don't have a strong sense of self. And that's absolutely true about me. I've always been very impressionable. When there is discord in the lives of those around me, it's extremely difficult for me to stay level myself. And I have often felt that I can sort of change to fit in in lots of different environments. That's an asset when you're drawn to theatre. Maybe that's exactly why I''m drawn to theatre. Who knows.

Growing up, I surrounded myself with strong personalities because I wanted to be seen as one. And I think I fooled everyone, including myself.

Another attribute of children of emotional incest is that very often, they'll report that there wasn't any specific loss in their childhoods - they don't feel robbed of anything, their innocence for example, because they still process their parental burdens as some sort of honor, or as being so integral to their esteem or identity that they can't frame it as abuse. I sat in a therapist's office yesterday and said that myself: that I don't mourn my childhood because there was a lot of good, despite the difficulties in my parents' marriage.

I caught myself several hours later though; I know there was a loss.

And the loss was me.


If any of this sounds familiar to you, google Emotional Incest. There's quite a bit written on it. I am suddenly feeling like there is a path out of this vortex, in no small part because what felt like chaos in my life has a name and an order to it, when for most of my life I knew of neither. And if you have children, daughters particularly, you'll want to read this excellent blog post on the subject:

Princesses, Princes, Daughters and Dads: Against Emotional Incest

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Questions From a Parent Considering Gray Divorce

I commented on a No Fault Divorce article last month, because it had a breakdown of divorce's effects on children, listed by stage of their development, and it stopped at age 18 -  to most of society, the last accepted age of parental divorce's significant impact. I received a follow up comment from a still-married mother of adult children, who after reading some of my entries here, asked if I might address some questions, since she is unsure of the wisdom in continuing her marriage. It feels a little heavy to speak my mind in such a context, especially considering that the last 5 years have been characterized by a lack of consistency in the feelings my parents' divorce has elicited. Much of the time since my dad left has been absolute Emotional and Interpersonal Anarchy, not just in my relationships with my parents, but also spilling over into my relationship with my children's father. I have felt largely and categorically undone, and I will talk about my experiences openly, but I feel pretty unqualified to make sweeping, generalized statements.

I can tell you this: the questions I have been asked to answer have never been asked of me before. And if I were the grown child of a parent with enough compassion and perspective to wonder about these answers for her own children, I would feel hopeful about our relationship's potential.

Here's what she's asked me to address:

Friday, April 1, 2011

Finding A Therapist

I made a call this morning. This isn't my first time at the rodeo, but I've never sought help for such a specific issue like this either, so I'm not sure how exactly to proceed. It's not like there's an ACOD therapist directory. (Right? I'd love to find out I'm wrong.)

So I'm looking at:

Family of Origin issues
Divorce Issues
Grief and Loss therapy

I've really only found one name so far. I've met with a total of 4 therapists in my life: 1 was a great fit, 1 was okay, and 2 were definite mismatches. That chemistry issue is pretty huge.

Does anyone have any ideas or pointers here?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Eclipsed & Angry: Standing in their Shadow

Parents don't owe their grown children an intact family of origin, that's fine. I'm not suggesting that anyone martyr themselves here; in fact, please don't. If things are chronically disrespectful and dysfunctional do us all a favor and have the courage one way or another to do something about it.

But what in the HELL does it look like when your parents split as you're getting married? Or birthing their first grandchild? I've seen enough examples at this point to say for sure that if there's a point in your adult life when you're more at risk of becoming an Adult Child of Divorce, you're either engaged, newlywed, or expecting a baby.

We're not supposed to take that personally? It doesn't have anything to do with us? Care to explain that to me?

I'm angry. Frankly I've been stuffing my anger all this time, and it's a major reason why despite being over 5 years in now I'm still so consumed by my parents' split. Nearly every time I write here I fear that  anyone reading who's new to their own ACOD journey will find my current position and lack of progress either pathetic or terrifying. I often feel I should be more "healed" than I am. That's the truth, but this is where I am.

I've mentioned it in passing I think, but I was knocked up when I discovered my dad's affair with the woman he would eventually marry.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Grin and Bear It

I got so tired of hurting and being uncomfortable that all I could think of was the placard on the wall of my elementary school gymnasium: "As you think, so you become."

Seeing my mom hurting hurt me; it sometimes exasperated me. Consequently my lack of patience with her grief, even as I was in the thick of it myself, shamed me. Seeing my dad's girlfriend-now-wife was even worse. The discomfort was profound. But I have performance in my lineage. We put on a brave face professionally. I'm okay. I'm okay. I'm okay. I'm okay.

I guess I must be good at it, because I swear to God I blinked, just blinked, just for a second when my dad left, and when I opened my eyes there was the woman he cheated with, hugging me and telling me that she loved me. There she was, crying on my shoulder. There we were, serving the dinner we'd made in my mother's kitchen, on my mother's dishes, sitting at my mother's table. I'm okay. I'm okay. I just want to get along. 

When my dad told me he was going to propose to her a couple of weeks before the divorce finalized, all I could say was that it was obvious that she's crazy about him. He probably sought my blessing. I probably said, "Sure, fine." Let's just get this all over and behind us, right? New normal?

What a delusion.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Tip for the Day

Take all the family movies. Take any photo you might ever want to see again. Don't even ask. If anyone complains you can split the costs of having everything copied later. It's your history, too.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Divorce Marathon: The End as a Moving Target

The last picture, 14 months after their separation began.
Given that my dad left my mother for another woman, you'd think their divorce would have proceeded in short order. But they separated in the same manner as they navigated their marriage; the next 3.5 years were full of twists and turns. Slight hopes that the nightmare would end were repeatedly deflated.

I recently read an account of gray divorce where from separation to final papers was a space of three months. I'm sure the disorienting speed of that added greatly to their heartbreak. But the way it went for us was awful in the opposite way.

My mother had plugged away through other affairs - I mean, my dad was married to one of those women in between marriages to my mother, and yet even after that my parents managed to reunite.  It was an absolutely brutal time, but still, deep down I believed this could be overcome too.

I found out that my dad was leaving from my mother. It's taken me several days to recall that memory - I'd almost blocked it out. But I did finally dredge up the sight of her, shell-shocked on my couch, telling us that my dad had given her a pamphlet on mediation and that he was moving out. There was no conversation with my dad. He didn't want to witness our reactions, and for that act of cowardice, I didn't talk to him again for almost 4 months.

A full year into the separation, my parents still saw each other sporadically.

Monday, March 21, 2011

5 Things

It's one thing to feel like you should have been able to prevent your parents' divorce. Like that was your function in the family - to hold it together. Yes, as an adult I believed that: children are not the only ones who feel that way. When parents let kids into their problems and the children do actually seem to have some fresh understanding that sprouts even small successes, things become very entangled very quickly.

It's another thing to be the one that discovered and exposed the thing that ended it, to go with your sense of moral duty, even when it defeats the purpose you believed you were serving.

It's another thing then, to hear from your cheating father that it's your actions that have ruined your family, that have cost him his job and threatened your family's financial security.

It's another to be told by your mother, 3 years later, that you could have saved your family but apparently you just didn't want to. I was 29 and a mother of two, and my mom asked me to give my dad an ultimatum before he married his 3rd wife - "Choose me or her." She was sure that he would have chosen me. I refused. Looking back, it's the most unfair thing that anyone's ever said to me.

And it's another that she's brought up my refusal since then, and when I finally told her how hurt I felt from her request, she stood by it.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Parental Alienation Soundrack

Have you listened to "When Doves Cry" lately? There's something brilliantly therapeutic in dancing to such sad sentiments.

I am my father's daughter in more ways than I can count, temperament not the least among them; and yet I'm female and the oldest child, and I feel a strong kinship with my mother as well. We have lots of interests in common despite major differences in our outlooks. I've always felt that I was a blend of my parents, and even as I've alternately struggled with relationships with both of them, I love them deeply.

However, in times of discord my mother has attempted Parental Alienation. I'm confident that she would say given the circumstances, it was in my best interest and completely justifiable. My mother is a painfully honest person; her opinions are just that, but I don't argue when she says, "This happened," because her track record is pretty reliable. There's no denying that my dad was a terrible husband to her in very significant ways - even he has said so. But growing up and even now as an adult, the comparisons she makes between me and my father have rooted a deep struggle and hopelessness in me.

I've always known that my mother loved me - though mostly I felt her definition of love was "commitment," not love -  but since I was 12 I have also believed that she did not and probably would not ever like me. I am too much like my dad in her eyes. Now that he is gone from her presence, it has often felt as though she views me as his stand in.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Introducing the Amazing, Disappearing Community! Poof!

I ran across this guest blog entry while searching for others writing on the same topic. A Divorce Attorney and Mediator of  23 years writes about the differences in the divorce experience for older children.

" 'Written exclusively for Feeling Barefoot by guest blogger Diana Mercer:
It seems like older children take their parents’ divorce much harder than the younger ones do. As much as a divorce rocks the world of a child under 12 years old, mostly these kids are resilient and they adapt to the change in circumstances. And the younger they are, the better they adapt..."
"So what happens to the older kids is even more heartbreaking, because there’s less time and opportunity for repair. If you’re older and out of the house, you don’t have teachers and guidance counselors looking over your shoulder. You don’t see your folks every day. You’re busy with college or culinary school or work and unless you’re really fumbling nobody suggests you talk to a therapist.' "  
And if you happen to be a new mother when your parents break up, everyone will find it much easier to talk about your baby's sleeping habits. They'll have 300 product recommendations and 150 books to share on how to feed your kids, but no one will have a word for you about what's happened to your family of origin. And you yourself will stay awake during the precious moments your baby is asleep, because it's the only time you'll have to cry.

So this attorney seems to mostly be addressing the older teen, but the list she presents feels familiar. I would add two things:

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Wait, what am I?

That post last night took me forever to write. Looking it over now, maybe I have almost as much in common with Children of Divorce as Adult Children of Divorce. It's not like I grew up feeling that everything was okay and then it was suddenly shattered. Maybe the difficulty in all this is that I'm somewhat both - I didn't have to contend with a step family growing up, and my college fund wasn't spent on lawyers, but I did spend time going back and forth between them, both physically and emotionally. I did feel responsible for protecting my sister. I was the confidant that both my parents unloaded on. Granted, it was not to the same degree as when they split for good: for example I knew growing up that my dad was sexually unhappy, because he told me so. But as an adult child he thought it was be just fine to exclaim to me how much his new wife loves to "screw his brains out." Are kids hearing that from their parents? Are other adults even hearing stuff like that?

Typing that out, typing all this out... there's such a deep sense of shame. It sounds so trashy. Looking at us I'm sure no one would have guessed our family was capable of this. We had 3 houses growing up, private schools all the way through college, church twice a week, and two forks at each place setting every dinner. I guess that's proof that economic status and fluency in proper social etiquette don't mean anything at all about character.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Path to Separation is Paved with Separations - PART 2


A series of freak health incidences lead me to return home after college. Nothing had changed; my parents never talked to each other,  spent time alone together or spoke to each other in warm tones. But that's how it had always been, and they'd held on. The Poster Marriage for Commitment, even surviving infidelity. It wasn't functional, but it still existed. I'm sure that felt like quite a hard-won achievement, but I wonder at how they could have ever convinced themselves that was enough. Or even tolerable.

In early 2005 I told my parents I was pregnant with my son. It was not a planned pregnancy; I had not been with my boyfriend very long. On the surface they seemed to circle the wagons with such compassion as I'd never felt before. But it made my mother very very sad, and she couldn't hide it. It seemed to me that her sadness impossibly drove my dad even further away.

When she resurfaced, something odd happened: she went out and bought a bunch of new clothes. She got her hair done. She started courting my dad. The only memories I have of my parents being physically affectionate are from this time. I close my eyes and see my post-menopausal mother in a lacy tank top, sitting on my dad's lap at the dining room table. This time her instinct knew something that neither of our brains did.

The Path to Separation is Paved with Separations - PART 1

So here's what happened, the whole sordid history, the posts where I dump everything I'm tired of carrying and tell you how my parents wound up separating in 2005. I'll have to save the story of the 3.5 years between the separation and the divorce for another time, because this will be mammoth enough as it is, and I can only handle so much catharsis honestly.

When my parents met and subsequently married 4 months later, it was 1967. My mom had been a "stewardess" in the parlance of the day, my dad was her passenger. He asked for a pillow and she threw it at him. That's the story anyway. It was against company policy for flight attendants to be married,  so my mom gave up the job and globe-trotting she'd dreamt of and followed my dad to the other coast. Within weeks, if not days, of the wedding none of his family or friends attended, my dad told her their marriage was a mistake. My mom recently told me he was engaged to someone else when he proposed to her. Incredibly, somehow that ring was still around, and somehow, my mother got it in the divorce settlement. She's selling it and that's how that tidbit came to light.

At any rate, I believe my dad was seeing another woman while he was a newlywed in his marriage to my mother. I don't know that it was the same woman he was engaged to. I suspect not. But my parents soon divorced, and my dad remarried shortly thereafter.

Then that marriage ended. And then my parents started seeing each other again.

A longtime favorite

The first time I read this I was 19. I knew it was prophetic but I couldn't look away.
Do we become the things we love?


Tony Hoaglund

Maybe that is what he was after, 
my father, when he arranged, ten years ago, 
to be discovered in a mobile home
with a woman named Roxanne, an attractive, 
recently divorced masseuse. 

He sat there, he said later, in the middle 
of a red, imitation-leather sofa, 
with his shoes off and a whiskey in his hand, 
filling up with a joyful kind of dread--
like a swamp, filling up with night, 

--while my mother hammered on the trailer door
with a muddy, pried-up stone, 
then smashed the headlights of his car, 
drove home, 
and locked herself inside. 

He paid the piper, was how he put it, 
because he wanted to live, 
and at the time knew no other way 
than to behave like some blind and willful beast, 
--to make a huge mistake, like a giant leap

into space, as if following
a music that required dissonance
and a plunge into the dark. 
That is what he tried to tell me, 
the afternoon we talked, 
as he reclined in his black chair, 
divorced from the people in his story
by ten years and a heavy cloud of smoke. 
Trying to explain how a man could come 
to a place where he has nothing else to gain

unless he loses everything. So he 
louses up his work, his love, his own heart. 
He hails disaster like a cab. And years later, 
when the storm has descended 
and rubbed his face in the mud of himself, 

he stands again and looks around, 
strangely thankful just to be alive, 
oddly jubilant--as if he had been granted
the answer to his riddle, 
or as if the question 

had been taken back. Perhaps 
a wind is freshening the grass, 
and he can see now, as for the first time, 
the softness of the air between the blades. The pleasure 
built into a single bending leaf. 

Maybe then he calls it, in a low voice 
and only to himself, Sweet Ruin.
And maybe only because I am his son, 
I can hear just what he means. How 
even at this moment, even when the world

seems so perfectly arranged, I feel 
a force prepared to take it back. 
Like a smudge on the horizon. Like a black spot
on the heart. How one day soon, 
I might take this nervous paradise, 

bone and muscle of this extraordinary life, 
and with one deliberate gesture, 
like a man stepping on a stick, 
break it into halves. But less gracefully 

than that. I think there must be something wrong
with me, or wrong with strength, that I would 
break my happiness apart
simply for the pleasure of the sound. 
The sound the pieces make. What is wrong

with peace? I couldn't say. 
But, sweet ruin, I can hear you. 
There is always the desire. 
Always the cloud, suddenly present
and willing to oblige.

Sometimes you choose the art

and sometimes the art chooses you.

Susan Rothenberg
Blue U-Turn
, 1989
oil on canvas
91 x 112 inches

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Small Blue Flowers

I've had a revelation.

My mom got my childhood home in the divorce settlement, and my dad got our Lake Cabin. For the better part of 15 years (so 10 years prior to the separation), he's bandied around the idea of getting rid of it. I've always known that my dad likes to play "What If?" quite a bit, and rather than get upset every time he complained about not using it enough, or every time the mood struck him to start talking about selling, I just wrote it off as him venting. I don't think I've ever actually believed it might be lost.

At this point my younger sister is almost done with her undergraduate degree, and my dad's wife's youngest son is graduating from high school. ("Step brother" is not a word I'm comfortable using. That's for another post I guess.)

Here's what just clicked: my dad has told me over and over how growing up, his own father would say (to him directly? within earshot?) that as soon as my dad was 18, he'd leave my grandmother. And guess what? After all those years of saying that, my dad turned 18 and my grandfather divorced my grandmother. My dad is going to sell the cabin.

And now what?

It's been five and a half years since my dad moved out of my childhood home, two since my parents' divorce was final, and a year and a half since my dad married the woman he left my mother for. My parents   were first married (more on that later) in 1967. And now what?

Here is what I can say at this point in the process of grieving:

Almost no one understands how my parents' divorce continues to rip me apart, or how it has made me see myself differently; how I used to feel like a strong, confident person, but now I feel like I came out of the factory defective because I can't seem to stop grieving; how the hurt has lessened in frequency, but not intensity; how at this point I believe I won't ever escape from this.

A number of years back I joined a Yahoo group for Adult Kids of Divorce (AKODs, or alternately "adult children of divorce" - ACODs), but there's not much activity over there. Additionally, I've seen both of those terms used to reference adults whose experience of parental divorce occurred during their childhoods - and trust me, there are common elements, but it is not the same sort of experience.

There's exactly ONE scholarly book written on the subject. And it's out of print.

Searches for therapists well-versed in this situation have come up fruitless.

And over the years I have felt more and more alone. I have a sister who is 10 years my junior - she was still living at home when our dad left, and the extent to which both my parents protected her while simultaneously laying pretty heavy weights on me is remarkable. The hurt and implications of that discrepancy shattered my connection with the one person in the world who I thought was most likely to understand.

I lost my family, I've lost my dad completely, and to some extent I lost my sister.

So now I am reaching out.