My parents have had a pretty on-and-off relationship ever since I can remember. When I was an infant dad would leave and come back, then mom would leave and come back, and so on. Over the years not much has changed, except for the leaving part. Since I have three younger siblings, both parents have wised up and realized that might not be the best thing for their children to witness. That hasn’t stopped them from throwing the divorce word around every couple of months. I never could get away from it. Even when I was in college 4 hours away, I would get a call from my frustrated father telling me he “had it up to here with your mother” and then I would get a call from my mother detailing how the divorce was going to work and that it would be in everyone’s best interest. Things would seemingly cool down a week later and I wouldn’t hear anything else about it until they would have another big blow up. They were empty threats, something I or anyone else never took too seriously.
There was even one time a year ago where my father suddenly decided he was going to move out of the house and sell it. He began tearing through my little sibling’s rooms, hastily boxing things up for storage. It really shocked my little brother and sister, scarring them to the point that any time they see packing tape come out of the drawer they ask if dad is going to pack everything up again. After about half a day of packing, my dad went to sleep. When he woke up, he acted as if none of it had ever happened, ignoring the boxes strewn about the house.
There are still boxes piled in corners around the house, unopened.
My father likes to be a bit dramatic.
But this time feels different. This time my mother filed papers, my father has set a deadline on when he is moving out, and meanwhile he moved upstairs into the spare bedroom. He even knows who he is going to stay with. Yes, this time is different. This time, the divorce is actually happening.
It’s an odd feeling, really, being 21-years-old, the oldest child, and faced with your parent’s visibly broken relationship actually coming to a close. I think it’s different when your parents get divorced at a young age; you aren’t entirely sure what is happening or why it’s happening. I was raised in my parent’s bad relationship. I know everything that is wrong between them — every moment of distrust, every night spent in hopelessness, every thought of divorce. I was 12 when I was sitting in my father’s car listening to him tell me everything that is wrong with my mother. I was 13 when I would hear my mother lecture me to “not marry a man like your father”. And after every conversation like that, I would have to go home and watch them exchange veiled pleasantries in front of me and listen to them scream at each other when they thought I was out of earshot. Sure, I didn’t know everything that was going on at the time, but as I grew older they both thought it would be appropriate to let me know the wrongdoings one did to the other in the past when I was a child and didn’t know any better. Once I hit high school, I would be privileged to stories of how my mother felt so ashamed to ask for money from friends and family because my father failed to pay the bills and racked up debt, of how my father felt like a failure to his children for not being able to properly provide for his family. It weighted me down for a long, long time.
As the oldest, I felt it was my job to take care of my siblings. Mother would stay late at work and dad would shut himself in his room to drown his sorrows in TV shows. My grandmother was really the one keeping the house together, and I would watch after the kids. Yes, I call my siblings the kids (a fact that completely baffled my therapist). And then I went away to college, and for the longest time I felt like I had abandoned them; I had left them in a place devoid of love and affection. I was tormented by the idea that they weren’t getting a good idea of what a relationship is supposed to be like, that they didn’t know what it looked like to have two people in love. I never did, and it has shown in my relationships. I finished college in 3 years total and have rushed back home and back into the parental role. And once again, I feel responsible for them.
Not only do I feel responsible for the kids, but I also feel responsible for my parents. I don’t know why. My therapist said that I am the fixer in the family. I am the one that tries to hold things together. That might be true, and if it is I am apparently epically failing at it. Let me tell you why I feel responsible for my parents. There are several reasons, and they are in no particular order.
There are many nights that I lie awake thinking about how my father feels, and it makes me sick to my stomach and it makes me want to cry. I don’t think he has paid a bill on time in twenty years. Something is always way overdue. He is about to enter his second divorce. He can’t keep a relationship with anyone, platonic or otherwise. When he comes home, his ears fill with my mother’s disapproval and the sound of disappointment in her voice. He never hears an encouraging word from her. He has worked so hard to run away from his terrible childhood, and it seems like anything he ever does is a reflection of what he had to grow up with. My father is a good man, he just can’t escape the damage done as a child.
There are also many nights where I lie awake thinking about my mother. About the hole my father put her in. About how she feels like a failed parent because she can’t do things to help us children out due to my father’s debt he built in her name. My mother doesn’t trust anyone anymore because for so long she heard my father whisper in her ear that it would be okay, that he would get things paid off, that they would be debt free. And that has yet to happen. My mother looks at me with tears in her eyes and tells me she is fine, that she will figure it all out.
My parents are drowning in each other’s sorrow. And I feel like I have to help them out of it. Because of their failures, I have chosen to be overly successful. Because of their mistakes, I pushed myself through 3 years of undergrad and now 2 years of graduate school so I can earn money to help them pay everything off and ease their minds.
Perhaps it would have been better for them to divorce when I was a child and didn’t know any better. But it doesn’t matter, because they are divorcing now, when I’m 21-years-old. And I’m still here trying to fix whatever is left over.