My parents divorced when I was two years old. I was told their breakup was acrimonious. The marriage had likely been doomed from the start. Knocked up at a young age while still living at home, my mother was thrilled to find out she was pregnant; her parents, not so much. My parents married a few months after I was conceived and settled down to play house.
Whenever I inquired about the brief marriage I would get different answers from my mother and father. When you come from a broken home, each parent clutches on tightly to his or her own viewpoints about why the marriage failed. They usually blame each other for what went wrong and will use their kid (or kids) to inflict more emotional pain on one another. Worst of all, they attempt to pit the child against the other parent: “I can’t afford to buy you new work clothes for your after-school job! Call your father and ask him for the money.” Or, “Your mother wanted the divorce, not me!” No wonder kids from broken homes are often so confused. It’s practically a miracle if these people can grow up to have a stable romantic relationship at all.
When my parents divorced in the early 1970s, coming from a broken home was the exception. At the time divorce wasn’t exactly scandalous, and by the 1980s it was commonplace. Many parents of the neighborhood children would discourage their offspring from playing with me because they didn’t want them spending time in an unstable single-parent home. Some of my childhood friends were told to stay away because I was a bad influence. This psychologically isolated me from many other families in the neighborhood—the nuclear families that I began to form a subtle grudge against for being so damned happy and so normal.
When I was six years old my parents attempted to reconcile. I was thrilled! It felt like we were a real family when we went to the beach or out to dinner. For the first and only time in my life I formed a close relationship with my dad. He’d come get me on Friday afternoons and we’d spend the weekend together doing things such as fishing, swimming, or building models. I felt like I had a real father that loved me, and I was the happiest I’d ever been in my young life.
But it was not to be. One Saturday at the swimming pool in my father’s apartment complex, a third wheel appeared in the form of a new lady friend. I still remember the long cold look she gave me that day and how I began to sense an encroaching distance between my dad and me. The visits became fewer and farther between…then they stopped altogether. His phone calls stopped. Calls to his home were forbidden. After a while the only way we could reach him was by calling his office, and that was only if he’d take my call. I was too young to understand why, but he began to cut me out of his life. And even though years later he would try to lay some of the blame on my mother for our estrangement, I knew at the time that it was his choice. He had a new life with his new woman, and I was not part of it.
Then one day I got sick with a bad fever. My mother tried to take care of me, but my fever grew worse and I became so dehydrated that I had to be taken to the hospital. Mother was unemployed and we were so desperately poor at the time that we couldn’t afford to keep food in the house, let alone a doctor’s visit. Finding herself out of all other options, my mom called my father for help. He arrived after I’d admitted to the emergency room, and my parents immediately began loudly arguing in the hallway outside. As I started falling into unconsciousness, I saw my father’s new wife pull him away from my mother and physically drag him out of the hospital—and out of my life. With that miserable display seared into my mind, I fell into the deepest, darkest sleep of my life.
I didn’t see him again until I was in my early twenties. We had only spoken a few times in over 13 years. But he was newly divorced from the woman who hated me and was curious to see how I turned out. I was keen to see him, too, as I wanted to attend college, which neither my mother nor I could afford, and for which he was obliged to pay by court order. We warily met one afternoon and attempted to build some kind of relationship. It was awkward, and we both fumbled for the right words to say to one another. He was cold and quiet.
I had a lifetime of emotional baggage I wanted to unload on him, but I didn’t know where to start. Things got heated when I told him he owed me for a childhood of neglect. I wanted to tell him how painful it was for me to wait around on my birthday for a card or gift that never came. I was bitter that having no male role model growing up made me somewhat of an outcast. (“You don’t like cars and sports!? What’re ya—a homo?”) He rarely paid the court-ordered child support, and we could’ve really used it.
Finally, I confronted him with an issue that seemed to encompass all the hurt and anger I felt toward him. Perhaps thinking it would break down his defenses and lead to an emotional breakthrough, I said, “With the indifference that you showed me growing up, it seems obvious that you wished I never existed.”
“That’s true,” he responded. “I began a new life with a new family and just pretended that you never existed.”
At least he was honest. But what do you do when your worst fears are confirmed? He then offered to let me punch him in the face if that would make me feel better. I declined. Sending him to the hospital wouldn’t have begun to ease my pain.