My mom and I talk to each other at least once a day.
Sometimes more like six. It’s been this way ever since I moved out to go to college and suddenly I couldn’t come home and share with her every detail that had happened to me throughout my entire day. So now we do that on the phone. My sister, on the other hand, is happy to touch base with my mom once a week. She’s all about quality time versus quantity time. If we all have dinner together and then Mom calls my sister within 24 hours to say that she misses her, Alissa will say, “Thank you…but you know we just saw each other, right?” I have a similar relationship with my dad – even when we live together, we may only touch base once every week or two. We’re more like ships passing in the night. A quick, “Oh hey, I remember you!” will set us up for days.
This is not to say that any of these relationships are better or stronger than the others. They’re just different styles. And this has been our family dynamic for a long time. During my parents’ divorce, the hardest part for me was knowing that the people I loved were suffering. They were going through things mentally and emotionally that I couldn’t imagine (well, I could begin to imagine it with my mom – she and I process emotions very similarly), and the best way for me to cope with their pain was to help in any way I could.
For my mom, that meant talking with her. A lot. About everything. I wanted her to be able to share any thoughts, feelings and experiences related to her marriage and separation that she needed to in order to help her through it all. She and I are so similar in the way we experience and deal with our emotions, that I wanted to help her make sense of everything that was happening. It’s no secret that divorce is an extremely sensitive, painful, emotionally charged process, and it can be rife with conflicting feelings: grief, loss, anger, hope, relief, bitterness, regret, guilt…just to name a few. Knowing that all of these emotions were churning around inside and eating away at my mom, I wanted to help her sift through them, process them, validate them, and ultimately move on from them. And because we’re so alike, I knew I was uniquely situated to help her do that.
I couldn’t be there for my dad in the same way because our emotional processes and communication styles are very different – he’s never been much of a “sharer” – but I tried to be supportive for him in a less involved, more subtle kind of way. He wouldn’t have wanted to split a bottle of wine and tell me about his feelings anyway.
My mom and I, on the other hand, have a general tendency to talk about anything and everything. However, there were plenty of times during our conversations about the divorce when she would say, “No, Erica, I’m not going to tell you that. There are some things you shouldn’t know.” And retroactively, I appreciate that. In my quest to help her, I’m sure I could have learned things about both of my parents that I didn’t want to find out and could never un-learn in the future. Yet at the time, I found it frustrating because I wanted to know anything that could potentially have helped me help my parents. Boundaries didn’t apply; I wanted to know it all.
My sister took a different approach.
She wanted to know as little as possible. (Which I think for most kids can be the healthiest way to go!) She loves my parents every bit as much as I do, but she made it clear from the start that she did not want to act as a confidant for either of them. The separation, divorce, and details of their marriage leading up to the separation and divorce were nothing that she felt a daughter should know about. And that’s totally fine. She had a lot of her own emotions that she was dealing with surrounding the issue of their divorce, and she needed to handle them in her own way and in her own time. She didn’t need to take on our mom or dad’s emotions as well.
Even before the divorce, my sister was more of a boundary-setter than I was. We used to tease my mom about being an over-sharer, infusing stories with tidbits that might have been a little too personal for the every-day listener, and Alissa used to tell Mom that she was an open book. Whenever Mom would tell a story with what my sister felt was an over-abundance of details, Alissa used to say, “Close the book, mom!” And as far as Alissa was concerned, most of our parents’ divorce was a volume whose binding she wanted never to crack. Just close the book. She didn’t want to know.
Again, I’d like to emphasize that neither of these approaches are right or wrong.
They’re just examples of different people handling a rough situation in whatever way helped them make sense of it. Divorce puts a strain on your relationships, your home life, even your memories of the past and your plans for the future – and this can be true regardless of whether you’re one of the people actually getting the divorce, or just someone close to the divorcees. All children of divorce, no matter how old they are, experience the process differently, and their coping mechanisms will obviously be diverse as well. Even within the same family, children can be on opposite ends of the spectrum concerning the ways they want to be involved in or guarded from the situation. It’s important to be sensitive to their personalities and respectful of the boundaries that they chose to put in place (or in my case, not put in place).
For myself and my sister, our respective relationships with our parents prior to their divorce indicated the type of boundaries we set during the divorce, and even as they began dating after the divorce (but that’s a story for a different blog post). I’m always going to want to talk to my mom six times a day, while my sister can catch up with her in just one dinner a week. And that works for us. We both have healthy, supportive and loving relationships with our parents; we just experience them differently.
Love comes in all shapes and sizes: some love is more talkative than others, while some just needs a quick, “Hey, I missed you, how’ve you been?” but love is love, no matter how boundaries shape it. Even through divorce, love in a family can stay strong, and that’s what gets everyone through to the otherside. Just ask me…I’ll tell you all about it.