I never expected how my father’s serial divorce would affect me over time.
My biological parents divorced when I was under the age of two, and I have no real memories of them ever being together. Their divorce was a reality that I grew up with, but not a traumatic event. After the divorce, my mother found love with a woman, and we formed a family when I was four. When I say “my parents,” I mean my two moms, not my mother and father. My moms were the people who raised me.
This is not to say that my father did not contribute to parenting me; although he lived on the other side of the country, my brother and I would visit him twice a year. My father was a hopeless romantic, and loved to fall in love, fall out of love, and then fall in love with someone else. As a result, I have had four stepmothers and a few significant almost-step-mothers in between. Most of them I didn’t particularly like and I wasn’t particularly sad to see them go. Still, it was a loss, and I missed my assorted step-siblings in unexpected moments, though I didn’t dwell on it very much.
What I didn’t expect was how my non-custodial parent’s serial divorce affected me over time. I didn’t live with him, after all. I had a solid family base with committed parents 90% of the year. The divorces didn’t seem to be worth discussing with anyone, they didn’t seem to affect me. When I filled out a stress evaluation in high school and answered yes to the question about recently having parents divorce, I felt like a fraud. It wasn’t really my parents. It wasn’t that big of a deal.
I’m sure he never gave much thought to the example he was setting, seeing as he lived over 3,000 miles away. But children watch their parents for clues to understand themselves as well as clues to how grownups act, even ones that live far away.
I always treated my mother’s partner as someone who would go away eventually, or who could be driven away if we tried hard enough. I loved her, I fought with her, I treated her as a parent, but deep down inside, I knew that she could leave anytime she wanted to. I had seen it happen over and over. All the family pictures and labels of step-sister or step-mother did not make any of my former family members stay in contact with me. When my dad broke up with them, they vanished from my life. Even though I did not live with my father, I was learning from his example.
As an adult, I married and divorced twice before I decided I wasn’t a good candidate for marriage. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in love, it was that I did not view marriage as a life-long contract. I am not saying that view is necessarily bad, or that people have to stay married forever. I am just saying that I couldn’t fathom a marriage that did stay together. I know I will love my kids forever, I know I will love my parents forever. I can’t turn that love off. But I have not historically looked at marriage with the same eye. I tried, but I couldn’t overcome the voice of experience in my head. I will love you forever, unless you…until you…except if you….
Secretly, I always worried I inherited some discontented gene from my father, making me incapable of life-long commitment. I saw my mother and her partner dance in the kitchen for over thirty years, and I knew I wanted that. I craved a stable life-long relationship, but I didn’t know if I had it in me. I didn’t know how to mean it forever. Was I more like my mom or my dad?
I did eventually fall in love again, and feel what it meant to know that I would love someone forever. But I still don’t know if I can hack being legally tied to anther person again. That unstable relationship role model provide by my father eroded my faith in relationships and eroded my faith in myself. Even though he wasn’t there full-time, he still mattered in deeper ways than I ever fathomed.
Photo Credit: Flickr/Lel4nd