Family Dynamics: Part One of Maybe a Million

10 Apr

Re-reading this story – it’s taken me a few days to get down – is very surreal for me. I have not once written it in one place, much less shared the experience somewhere so public. I think even my closest friends will likely find parts of this that surprise them. Or that they at least didn’t know for sure. In some ways it’s easier to write it. In some ways it’s harder. I had to make a real effort to be honest with my memories. There were a couple of times I’d catch myself typing some detail and think – that’s not true. Or, at least, you don’t remember if that’s true or not. However, I need to write these stories out because if I don’t I’m afraid I’ll forget and overflow with the changes in my current life. So I’m making room for the changes by documenting the past changes that have formed who I am in the process of becoming. I’m not sure how many posts it will turn into, but welcome to the last 12 years of my life…

I was 13 when my parents sat Frere and I down in the living room of our Chicago house and announced they were getting a divorce. I wore overalls and sat on the couch with my legs curled under me. It was a Sunday. Frere was probably in sweats; he was 11 and boycotted jeans for at least a couple more years. I only remember that my dad did the talking. My mom sat next to him, resigned, agreeing but not. Helpless. I know she was sad, although I can’t remember if she cried or not.

My dad talked but I have no idea for how long. I remember he said something along the lines of “I can’t be married to your mom anymore. I don’t love her anymore.” Frere sobbed into the couch cushions. I sat stoic, staring ahead, absorbing this alien information. My dad made sure to tell us that his non-love for my mom had nothing to do with his unconditional-love for the kids. Frere. Me.

Two weeks before I turned 14, my dad moved four blocks down the street to a one-bedroom apartment. We ordered Thai food a lot and watched Dawson’s Creek every Wednesday evening and every other weekend Frere and I stayed in bunk beds in my dad’s bedroom. The arrangement stayed this way through the next year and a half, during which my mom moved us to a smaller apartment in another neighborhood much more than four blocks away. At the end of ninth grade, my mom finally told us the news we knew had been coming: we had to move out of Chicago. See, my mom was half way through her PhD when my dad decided he couldn’t do it anymore. While competent and brilliant, my mom was also unemployed and waist-deep in education debt. Moving to the smaller place was supposed to offset that, but divorces are expensive and so are kids so after 18 months she needed a job. Not willing to give up her dream of becoming a college professor (something I don’t think I understood then, but have a great respect for now), she applied to all kinds of academic jobs all over the country. At one point, a university in North Dakota flew her out for an interview. Luckily, we ended up in Connecticut, where we have family nearby. I begged my dad to come with us. To move so he could be close to us. In what I interpreted as the greatest rejection of all, he refused. And so began my three years of split custody across state lines, flying to Chicago for 3 days each month and racking up a hell of a lot of miles on United.

When my dad moved out I was just beginning 8th grade. At nearly 14, I was in tumultuous state of mind on my own. In some kind of freakish defense mechanism, I actually don’t remember 8th grade very much. Most of it’s completely blank, though there are snippets of an attempted Thanksgiving here, a fight leaving me sobbing there. A similar thing happened with the visits from CT to Chicago. There are facts I know that fill in what must have taken place, but I actually can’t remember many of the actual events.

My dad never talked about dating other women. I asked, but he avoided the question, saying if anything was serious enough to introduce the kids he’d be happy to tell us about it. A huge divergence from my mom, who treated me as her confidant and best friend through an incredibly hard time for her, I once again interpreted this refusal to share information as a rejection of me. Wasn’t I good enough to hear about his life? The life he so rudely and abruptly separated from me? For most of 10th grade, I imagine we stayed in his small one-bedroom apartment. At some point in my junior year of high school, dad started dating Stepmom and eventually moved in with her. I liked this woman a lot. She made a huge effort. She took me shopping and bought me new makeup for prom. She let me have wine. She didn’t ask about my curfew. I was 17 and she respected the fact that I had a mom already, that I was a teenager and she didn’t try to fill shoes that weren’t empty. She just tried to be my friend. I didn’t like that I had to alternate sleeping in the guest room and the pullout couch, but I figured it was ok since at least I wasn’t in a bunk bed in dad’s room.

Within a year, they were married. At 36, Stepmom wanted kids and a couple of weeks after their wedding, she announced her pregnancy. Baby D was born in April 2003, less than five years after my dad originally announced the divorce. Suddenly, I was more than a visitor in my dad’s house. I was an intruder on his new life. I watched, sitting outside myself and picking fights – in retrospect, I just wanted to be noticed. Then 18, I still didn’t know how to gain the attention I thought I deserved from my dad. He’d moved on, made a new family, and I was part of the one he didn’t feel like fighting for. In retrospect, I wish more than anything that I had been able to articulate that all I wanted was a bigger place in his life. I wish he had been able to know that. Instead, it felt selfish wanting more than what he was willing to give.

They had Baby J when I was almost 20, a sophomore in college at that point. Not too long thereafter, during a visit over winter break for New Year’s 2006, Stepmom confirmed what I’d been feeling for years. After some argument with my dad, Stepmom reached a breaking point. I was invading her family, upsetting her babies, disrupting the peaceful married life she’d created. She refused to acknowledge me as a part of the family, I was invalid. And she told me the way she felt. With scathing words no one should ever speak to another person, she told me I was an ungrateful daughter, selfish, treating my dad terribly. I never appreciated anything they did for me. I never helped out when I visited. I never never never. I sat, stunned into silent tears, shaking with anger and shock, as my dad stood next to her and said nothing. At that point, I got my bags packed, had my best friend J pick me up and spent the rest of the time with her and her mom. I didn’t see Stepmom for over two years. I saw my dad a handful of times, always in public places and always resulting in him angry and me crushed.

Compounding this was the bitter custody and divorce proceedings that lasted till I was nearly 19. What had started as what looked to be a relatively amicable split had resulted in a lot of emotional growth on my mom’s part, which in turn made her demand more. It seems as though the women my dad turned out of his life kept asking for more and he kept refusing. Doctor’s bills, plane tickets, child support – it was all too much. While I knew intellectually that this is not a personal attack on me, it was hard to separate that knowledge from the distinct and constant feeling of rejection. I couldn’t help but wonder…if I’m not worth paying for, worth supporting, then of course I must not be worth my own bedroom in his house or his undivided attention. I got used to it and it became normal.

At some point after college graduation, I made a very conscious decision to let go of my anger. I know that anger is a manifestation of emotional pain, so I made a huge effort to stop being angry and allow myself to be hurt. I think what I managed to do was actually stop being angry and also stop feeling much at all, but it was better than wasting so much energy being mad. Now, I am starting to be able to let myself hurt little bits at a time. It’s all I can handle at the moment. But I’m worried that if I stop letting little bits of hurt in, I will forget – entirely – how to feel. And even after the emotional rollercoaster of my life, I still think hurting is, in the end, better than feeling nothing at all.

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One Response to “Family Dynamics: Part One of Maybe a Million”

  1. Paula April 19, 2010 at 6:45 am #

    Thank you. You are very brave to tell your story. It was sad and beautiful.

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