Your Kids are Watching, Remember? Divorce and Co-Parenting

I’m going to take this opportunity to give my parents a break, first of all. Our circumstances were just shitty. Nobody ever wrote a training manual on marriage or parenting that was a perfect science and I can’t say I’ve ever found one that throws a spinal cord injury and a divorce into the mix. I’m sure single parenting is exactly what they had in mind the day they said, “I do.” Probably not, actually.

My parents did a lot of things right. I mean, over the top right, if I reflect on how it impacted me later. We all have our demons and fall on our faces but at the heart of it, they were 2 really wonderful, loving people who didn’t always do the right thing. They always wanted to. They always intended to. Life kicked their ass and they didn’t win the fight back then.

Divorce. Nobody wants to think about it, let alone go through it. Divorce with children? Unbearable to think about. Do you know what is even more unbearable? Watching adults who were in love at one time and had children together be completely awful to one another.

How can people use their children as ammunition? Why is child support a fight and a condition of playing nice in the sandbox? Child support is a no brainer. Your kids are expensive and it’s up to both of you to work out how to pay for all of that. Why the fighting? Don’t you want to write a check to the parent feeding your child this week to make sure there is food in the refrigerator? I’m sure you do. Why be greedy? If you demand more money than your ex can afford to pay, it takes away from the household your child will be visiting when they stay with your former spouse. Being awful to one another really only hurts your children. Separating with children doesn’t have to mean a war zone.

My dad broke his neck when I was 4 ½. I was very young but I can’t express how grateful I am to have memories prior to his accident. It devastates me just the same that my sister was robbed of that opportunity. She never met the man I knew. His accident changed him. In fairness, she always had my mother. Those two were like glue from the time my sister moved in with her until the day she passed away. Some might think that would bother me. It really doesn’t at all. It makes me happy that she did have that relationship. I would be crazy selfish not to want that for her. It makes me sad that I did not have that but that doesn’t mean she didn’t deserve it. She definitely did. Our childhoods were very different with many similarities. We have the same parents, same story, two different perspectives and that’s because of our age gap, I believe.

My memories of my dad are of a tall man who was playful with a booming voice. He still has that booming voice and when he is in a room, everyone knows it. It’s not obnoxious. It’s pretty uplifting, actually. My dad is a social bee and his personality is larger than life. He always had a house full of people and plenty of food to go around. My mom was the same way with food. The woman could cook. My grandma (paternal) taught her because she could not cook at all when she met my dad. I learned to cook from both of them and added my own flare over the years.

My dad used to put me on his motorcycle and take short rides. He danced. He fished. He loved to camp. We had a boat on Lake Shasta where I almost drown. He was definitely stoned that day but he also saved my life after I slipped between the dock and the boat and got trapped. I could swim but that was a sticky situation and I remember it well. He did, in fact, save my little freckle faced life. Then, he bought me ice cream at the marina gas station. Did I mention that I like food?

My dad is a music junkie and I definitely inherited that from him. Ok, let’s get this out there since I’m talking about my poor, sad life (woe is me, lol), I am just like him. Seriously, it’s true. I’m the female version. I just didn’t survive the same horror he did so my “ugly” side didn’t take control of me like his did but it does exist. In fact, I’m sure it was my childhood that taught me all about how to be mean when someone hurts me or when I am hurt about something. You have to really hurt me or do something worth making me angry to see that side of me. It takes a lot to push me to that so most people haven’t been on the receiving end of the wrath. Only the people closest to me have met that girl. I don’t like her. It’s like getting naked in front of someone for the first time; letting the most vulnerable parts of yourself show. If it’s a personality trait that I hate about myself, I’m sure the people it impacts really hate it too.

At my core, I assure you there is no other human being I am more genetically connected to than him. Our similarities are annoying and adorable, all at the same time! Visits with my dad are fun because my husband sees the similarities and it just gives him things to tease me about. Just 2 weeks ago, my dad and my husband had conversation where my dad asked about me, made some reference to me driving my husband crazy to which they both laughed… My dad apologized and said it was his fault because I am my father’s daughter. He knows it. I know it. Everyone knows it.

It’s a challenge to be so similar to a person who’s hurt you so deeply, especially as a young person. I guess if I could take away a positive it would be that it has made me a self-aware adult. When I start to recognize the ugly side of myself, I try to remember what it felt like to be on the receiving end of that. Self-reflecting is both painful and powerful. It works if you do it, though.

If you saw my dad and I socialize you would immediately see the similarities. Our gestures, train of thought, expressions and our emotional core. He is very emotionally connected. A very deep person with the most caring and giving heart. He would give anything he had to help anyone anytime, as long as they help themselves. He still does.

My dad was a mattress factory worker and later moved into management. He was also heavily involved in labor union business for the local furniture builders union. He was an activist during the Cesar Chavez labor movement and participated in marches. He used to bring home families, before and after his accident, (I can remember at least 3) who needed a place to sleep temporarily. They were his co-workers, mostly immigrants from various parts of South America, Definitely Mexico and I believe, El Salvador. They were factory workers with a wife and children. They worked for a living; both adults were always hustling. I have no idea what their childcare arrangements were but I know those kids were either with their parents or gone while their parents worked. They worked all day and I rarely saw them unless they were sleeping at night. This is because they woke up at the crack of dawn, the whole family dressed for the day and out of the house long before I opened my sleepy eyes to pour myself a bowl of cereal before school. (Fruity Pebbles, Please!) They came back in the evening, everyone was fed, bathed, put to bed and up at the crack of dawn to do it all over again. They stayed long enough to save money, establish residence and move on. I know it’s a controversial topic for some but if you can’t respect 2 adults busting their ass to provide the best possible life for themselves and their children (obstacles and red tape, be damned!), it’s you that needs to look in the mirror. They might have had to take 10 extra steps to earn something you were born into. We all have a story and every day we wake up means we survived the day before. I don’t care where we are born. We all deserve to find our own way to making tomorrow better. Sometimes that means you have to cross borders to get there.

By the way, after all that I still can’t speak a word of Spanish but I do know this; Pork tamales rock my world!

My dad is charming, magnetic and everybody loves him. He is a music junkie. He was a biker for years and sold his Harley to a friend after his accident. I know that broke his heart. I’m not a motorcycle girl because my sense of risk is so high but I am almost positive his last bike was a 1943 Panhead.

My mom was a quiet person. She did love to dance and she loved soft jams on K101 radio. If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t have an affinity for “Paul Davis,” “Ambrosia” and “Bread.” I’ve seen Neil Diamond live. No judging! You know you love, “Forever in Blue Jeans” too.

She liked having people around and my parents entertained a lot. She cooked for every celebration we ever had. She always made our birthdays a big deal and went crazy with whatever theme we were into that year. I remember having Holly Hobby and Cabbage Patch Doll cakes and every themed accessory to match. I can definitely thank my mother for my crafty side. Halloween costumes were her thing and we did not buy those in the store. Hers kicked ass! She made some very beautiful jewelry throughout her life too and I’m fortunate to own several pieces.

She was raised by a single mother. My grandmother was single with an infant and a toddler in 1952. She never dated or remarried after my grandfather left her and years later I found out it was due to infidelity. There’s that nasty “I” word again that I hate so much. My grandma worked for Granny Goose in the purchasing department her entire career until she retired. Her chosen life was to be a hermit. She smoked Moore cigarettes which were the long brown cigarettes. (All the adults smoked inside my house, by the way. My dad smoked non-filters, yuck!)

She watched TV shows and had a plethora of animals (I mean, a small zoo). She did not socialize AT ALL unless it was by force and she was so grouchy it was almost endearing. Seriously, we could probably turn her into a cartoon character. She actually told me all the time, “I hate you,” in response to, “Grandma, I loooooove you.” The truth is, that woman loved me with everything she had. She also loved every single one of her grandchildren, children, and son in laws. She gave and gave and gave and gave and gave and gave. She never left her house unless she had to but she worked and gave it all away.

She never had friends except a handful when my mom was young but I never met anyone and she lived with us my entire childhood. My mom and my aunt were in the Color Guard. They also both danced and my grandma handmade their costumes. She was a single mom in the 50’s, working full time and raised 2 girls. Cheers to her!

She was bitter, crabby and had a scary scowl to her every expression but I loved that woman and just thinking about her makes tears roll down my face. It’s hard to believe it’s been 11 years since she passed. I think she was a person who had the all the potential in the world and something in life left her broken. Based on first-hand experience, I’d guess it was infidelity and it destroyed her ability to trust another person again.

It was the middle of my 5th Grade year, 1984 when my parents separated. I was almost 10. The thing is, I don’t remember them fighting, ever. I remember sensing frustration between them but never yelling, screaming or fighting. I do know that I sensed a change was coming. For what seemed like a week or two my mom was going out a lot at night. One night she didn’t come home until after I went to bed. I remember it well because I was worried about who was going to take me to school if she didn’t come home. Isn’t that weird? I didn’t worry something happened to her. I worried about who would drive me to school in the morning. I think I knew she was ok. Her behavior was pretty unusual during this time, especially for an introverted bookworm. She came home long after I went to bed and of course, I made it to school that morning.

It was the next night when I heard my parents argue for the first and last time in my life. My bedroom was across the hall and I was sound asleep. I woke up to a shout. I still don’t know what was said or even who shouted. I just know that it startled me awake. I picked up bits and pieces of the conversation and I remember thinking this was not good. Out of respect for my parents, I’ll withhold the specifics. They aren’t important. The outcome is the same. Their marriage was over.

The next morning I got up for school and felt really withdrawn. As I was headed out the door with my dad, he said, “Kiss your mom before you go.” My nine year old brain instantly knew she wasn’t coming home that night. I went to school, then to the babysitter and my dad picked my sister and me up after work. It was the regular routine.

When we got home, he told us he wanted to talk to us. Then he gave us the “mom’s not coming home” speech. She did call that night and I saw her about 2 weeks after that. She brought Mr. Wonderful with her that day and that assface put his hand on my mother’s inner thigh while we were riding in his truck, right in front of my sister and me. Our mother left 2 weeks ago, showed up with him and no explanation, and he was touching her? Yes, my little brain exploded and so did my heart. When they dropped us off she told me it would be better if I didn’t bring up her friend to my dad. So, when I came through the front door I sang like a canary and cried like a baby. What in the actual hell was that? It was just wrong. I hate everything about that day because the only thing I can remember was riding in the truck, all 4 of us squished on the bench seat. It makes my skin crawl at the thought.

I said earlier, I only heard my parents fight once and it’s true. I didn’t even hear them fight about her bringing sicko around but I know my dad had words with her over that in his own space.

She could have done a better job about being physically present but aside from that, their separation was peaceful. They actually stayed legally married for several years for legal and financial reasons. It worked. Taxes were not a fight. Child support was not a fight. There was no argument over who took the house or car. They discussed and agreed on who would take on which responsibility and they shared the rest. It was never an argument that my dad bought school clothes so my mom should pay for binders. If someone didn’t have grocery money, the other one pitched in. My mom came to our house for every holiday, stayed the night before and prepared all the food and we spent the day together as a family. We usually had many guests. This lasted until I was 14. My parents were always kind to one another and there was hell to pay if we ever disrespected my mom in front of him. I’ve been back handed in the mouth a time or two because of my sassy mouth.

My dad did re-marry and she is such a private person that I am trying hard not to say too much. She has to be acknowledged, though. She is an angel and she saved my life. She and my dad started a friendship when I was 12 and eventually got married when I was 17. He and I were not on speaking terms when they got married but I was invited and went to the wedding. They are still married today and I truly believe she is the reason he has lived this long. I believe she is the reason he has found inner peace and humility. Her level of empathy is almost super human. I think she loved my dad so hard he had no choice but to snap out of it. The woman is my angel. She is the best thing that ever happened to my dad. She deserves a whole book dedicated just to her but she would really hate if I said anymore. Just know, I think she might actually be a unicorn. There is not another person like her. Not even close.

Not a lot of people can say their parents had a peaceful divorce and co-parented as friends. Even fewer people can throw a new wife into the mix who is accepting of the situation. My step mom was never jealous or insecure and welcomed my mom to anything family related. If you look at our family pictures, we were all there for everything. All sides of our family, in laws and outlaws, we were all there. My dad has always stepped up to help my mom throughout the years she was single. She had a stroke in 2007 and he was there for her and us every step of the way. He even drove her to doctor appointments, etc. When she got sick with cancer he was there for that too. My step mom was there. She sat with me next to my mom’s bed many times. I’m sure it wasn’t her first choice of place to be but she loved my sister and me so much and understood the depth of our pain. She understood that she was the mother of my father’s children and allowed him to go through the motions. She allowed us to be a family when we needed to be a family and she was right by our side through it all. She even participated in my maternal grandmother’s celebration of life which her and my dad contributed to monetarily in a more than generous way. I am telling you; she is an angel.

There is nothing good about divorce. It’s more than just 2 people who don’t like each other anymore. It affects everyone around you. Your children, your family and your friends. I am not suggesting that is a reason to live in misery but I am suggesting that letting your misery control you beyond the separation is counter-productive. You left because you were miserable together right? Ok, now that you are apart, can you work on making it not so miserable? You were in love once, remember? Your kids still need you to be those 2 awesome people.

My parents get the award for the best role models in handling a divorce. It was all the other stuff that hurt so much. They taught me that you can definitely want to rip each other’s throat out but there are kids that remain and it would be best if neither of you are injured or bleeding.

It’s not an easy thing but it is so healthy for your kids to see that you still respect one another, long after the fire went out. When they make decisions about life and marriage, they will reflect on your marriage and your divorce. What do you want them to see?

I look at my parents wedding photo from 47 years ago and not only do they look very different, they are different. It was 1970. They were 20 years old. They both had jobs and liked to party. They loved to bowl and were on leagues together. They had an active social life and a tight group of friends. They didn’t start out on a mission to have kids and hurt them. No, they intended to have the white picket fence and the happily ever after. They were good people just like you and me. Circumstances changed them. Pain and anger, it changed them.

Anger is a powerful emotion and when it takes control of anyone, I don’t care how wonderful they are, it is catastrophic. It creates hateful words you can’t take back. Anger is born when a person is so twisted up inside that they literally short circuit. They snap. They can’t take any more pain and it feels good to inflict that on someone else. It’s like relieving pressure. It’s not pretty but it’s exactly what anger is. It’s a build-up of aggression over things beyond your control. Things that severely impact you but you cannot change them.

Kids can’t change that you are getting a divorce but you can change the way you treat one another in the process. Fight in private. I’m sure my parents had their share. He may have been hateful and angry towards me but that had nothing to do with them, their divorce or how they handled their interaction with one another. That was because he was trying to grasp being a 30 something year old man in a wheelchair raising 2 girls and it defeated him every day.

The divorce? They always kept it classy. It can be done. I’ve seen it, in the midst of insanity, there is definitely the possibility of a peaceful separation and your children deserve that from both of you. That is what unconditional love is. Putting children first because you committed to that when you brought them into the world.

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