What's In A Name? On Being The Adult Child of Divorce
Today, I committed to writing (and publishing!) something personal every day for 30 days. This is the first post in the challenge, and man, it's a doozy. Why not start things off with a bang, right? It's a tough subject - a bit of a sore spot - and it's more than a little terrifying to hit publish and put it all out on the table. But this is my year of showing up and being seen, soooo....here I am. Ta-dah. Recently, my mother sat at my dining room table, engrossed in the website of Paper Source. Her wedding is just a few weeks away, and though it's a small affair (a second marriage for them both), she wanted the perfect envelopes for her invitations.
I stood at the butcher block kitchen island, chopping vegetables for dinner. As I diced carrots, I threw in my two cents every so often. I was multitasking as only a mom/wife/working woman can - preparing dinner while giving assistance while making a to-do list in my head.
"Oh, look at these custom return address stamps. Well, but I should wait until after the wedding to order that...," said my mom, still engrossed in her iPad.
"Mmm-hmm," I said absently.
And then a sudden realization jolted me. Her hesitation wasn't about the address part of the stamp. My 66 year old mother, who had, until five years ago, been married to my father and kept her married name even after their divorce, is going to take her new husband's last name.
The realization washed over me like an icy, wet wave. I felt cold needle prickles all the way down my arms. My hands went still on the chopping board. I couldn't make my brain absorb this benign, yet catastrophic, bit of information rapidly enough to smooth over the choppy emotional whitecaps I felt foaming around me.
My entire life, I knew my mother as a few certain things. My mother, first and foremost, and then my father's wife, but also a teacher, a guidance counselor, and later, a priest. Through all of her professional transitions in life, I knew her by her name, which included the surname we shared until I married and took my husband's name. This thought brought my emotional roller coaster to a screeching halt as a voice of logic took the loudspeaker for a moment.
"Come on, Ellen. Isn't that a double standard? You were excited to take YOUR husband's last name, but now you don't think your mom deserves the same joy?" I shook my head slightly, as I I could clear my interior monologue with a physical motion. No, of course she deserves to make that choice, if that's what she wants and if that brings her joy. But...
At the heart of my upheaval is the hard truth known to the adult child of divorcing parents. No matter how old you are, when your parents split, the sanctity of "home" is torn asunder. There is no longer a place I go on holidays where I feel comfortable to do lazy, unguarded things like stay in my pajamas all day. Now the belonging of a live-in girlfriend are strewn across my parents' former home, where my father lives, and my mother's home will be that of her soon-to-be husband, a nice gentleman who makes my mom happier than I've ever seen her, but remains largely a stranger to me.
At each point in their process of disentangling from each other, I have felt a wash of grief as the only family I've ever known disintegrated and became something very different - strange, awkward, separate, and tense. The day they announced the divorce. The day she moved out. The day it became final. The day she bought her own house in a different town. The day I found out she was dating. The day I met my dad’s girlfriend. The day I found out my dad's girlfriend was moving in with him. The day my mom announced her engagement. And now, the day I realized she would soon renounce the only name I've ever known to call her.
As each layer of my parents' divorce has been peeled away, it was removed just a little too early for me. The skin underneath was still barely healed, too tender and sensitive to be bared to the sun and air and wind and touch. With each layer gone, what remains of the family I knew until I was 30 years old grows smaller and more fragile. I can see in the not so distant future the point where there is nothing left of that shrinking kernel of a thing that was so central to the formation of who I am.
Intellectually, I know that my nuclear family ceased to exist the day my parents arrived in my kitchen and gently broke it to me that their marriage was over. Regardless, at every juncture, I have scrambled to hold on to all of the jagged shards before they all blow away forever.
In equal parts, I am both thoroughly adult and singularly childish in my reactions. When asked to meet my parents' respective significant others, I was both happy that they'd found someone and petulant that this new person was intruding into MY family. I am both overjoyed to see my parents so happy while simultaneously resentful that it's not with each other. In equal measure, I want to get to know their significant others and want to refuse to acknowledge their existence. I want to both support my parents as they move forward AND drag them backward to the time when we were still a family.
I miss the family of my first thirty years in a manner that is akin to mourning. I miss the simplicity of holidays that weren't split. I miss dinners at their house the didn’t include the awkwardness of strangers at the table. I miss being able to revisit stories of my childhood by speaking in the shorthand of inside jokes and family narrative - without having to bring an outsider up to speed. I miss the unfettered haven of their home which was, in turn, my home, simply because they were both there and I knew with absolute certainty the fact of my belonging.
At each point as my parents moved farther and farther away from each other, I stood at the midpoint between then and wished they could magically come back together.
It doesn't seem to matter that I'm a grown-up. That I understand why and how their marriage tumbled beyond repair. That I can see now, in my own marriage, the true toll the minutia of adulthood takes on a relationship - working, child-rearing, paying bills, and the somewhat inevitable relegation of the relationship to the back burner.
However, my gut reaction to my parents' divorce defies logic and intellect; I am simply their child and they are my parents and I want them back the way they always were to me.
My mother deserves every ounce of happiness she's found. So does my father. My opinion of their choices and life partners matters little, and my wish to return to the easy familiarity of my-mother-married-to-my-father is pointless. I know that acceptance is the only way open my defiantly closed eyes and recognize that the landscape is changing, as it always inevitably does. I must learn to appreciate the scenery in front of me, rather than longing for the views to which I cannot return.
And so I changed my mother's name in my phone.
Each time she calls or texts, I fight my way through the momentary confusion, and then the resentment, grief, and stubborn resistance. This is the name she has chosen and I will respect that, come hell or high water. More than that, I will embrace it. I will make space in my heart so that her joy is my joy and her fulfillment amplifies my own.
After all, the only name that's non-negotiable is the one she couldn't relinquish even if she tried. It's the one that has never appeared on a legal document and can't be altered or changed by any court of law.