I can link many of my insecurities to my parent’s divorce. I can also link many of my greatest blessings, including my husband, to my parent’s divorce. It’s one of the juxtapositions that cause us to lie awake and ponder the healing grace of our God.
When I was eight my parents told my brother and me that they were getting divorced. I remember being baffled – I had never heard the term and didn’t understand what it meant. It quickly became clear however, as my father carried a suitcase out to his black VW Bug, hugged and kissed us, and drove away. I watched his car until it disappeared, thinking with utter clarity, “Everything will be different now.”
And it was. In the evangelical mecca of 1976 Wheaton, Illinois, divorce seldom happened. I didn’t know any other kids whose parents were divorced; I was an anomaly at my grade school. Even as an 8-year-old I sensed the disapproval of other adults around me. My friend’s mothers became tight lipped if I mentioned visiting my dad, and invitations to friend’s houses slowly dried up. My little brother was banned from joining the local Cub Scout pack. Even my children’s choir director at church disappointed me as I was never again granted a solo in a recital. When I finally screwed up my courage and asked about it, my director admitted she “never knew who you’d be spending the weekend with” and therefore didn’t know if I’d show up for slated Sunday morning performances. The fact that I had never missed a rehearsal or a Sunday after the divorce apparently never registered.
The headaches began almost immediately after my dad moved out, causing me to spend many hours in the school nurse’s office with a cold compress on my head. The pain was incapacitating, rendering me unable to function upright without throwing up. I dreaded the exasperated looks from Mrs. Cobb, my third-grade teacher, when I would approach her yet again and ask to go to the nurse. She never denied my request, but she made her feelings known by the slight shaking of her head and compressed lips. To be fair, now I believe it was not me she was upset with; she was almost certainly feeling badly about my home situation. But I felt her disapproval deeply, and it saddened me.
The upshot of my parent’s divorce was that it made me feel different at best and excluded at worst from my peers. At that time in Wheaton differences were not celebrated. They were cause for suspicion and exclusion, and I suffered both.
There are worse fates for children, certainly. But I wanted desperately to be like the other kids. I wanted two parents at home, a mom who greeted me after school with a snack, and family dinner on the table at 7:00. Instead I had a mother who did not want a divorce and was in perpetual tears, a messy house, and T.V. dinners with babysitters as my mom attended night courses at a nearby college.
It was a very tough time in my life, and I believe it grieved God. But, as Scripture tells us, in all things God works together for the good of those who love him. And he did indeed make good come from my great sadness.
My parents both eventually remarried, and contrary to every Disney fairy tale, my stepparents were a blessing in my life. My stepfather, Les, was 20 years older than my mother and had already raised three teenagers, so he was a calming, steady presence for my brother and me, especially during high school. Losing both his wife and daughter to cancer within two horrible years had made him especially thankful for daily things many of us take for granted, and he was quick to find beauty in life’s ordinary moments. He gave my mother – and therefore my brother and me – a renewed sense of security, purpose, and thankfulness. Les died 17 years ago, but I still have his biological family as my own.
My stepmother, Dianne, entered my life as I started high school and helped me find my confidence. An impeccably groomed gracious woman, she taught me the ins-and-outs of makeup, hair styles, and most importantly, classic dressing. I was starved for this guidance and blossomed under her patient tutelage. She also imparted to me some tips of gracious living: fresh flowers, candles whenever possible, a clean powder room. But Dianne was not superficial – far from it. At different times she ran her own housecleaning company, made a good living with Amway, and worked in the best clothing store downtown. She was a master of blending work with home life before work-life balance was a buzzword.
However, the most important thing Dianne gave me was not knowledge of fashion, but my stepsister Heidi. Heidi was the person who introduced me to my husband of 27 years. Only one detail of the introduction is important, and that is that it never would have happened without Heidi. Which means it never would have happened if my dad didn’t marry Dianne. Which means it never would have happened without the divorce. It’s mind numbing when you think about it.
I’m grateful to Heidi every day. Not only do my husband and I have a very strong marriage, but we also have three children I cannot imagine my life without. I would not have Clara, Rhett and Grace if I had married a different man. Sometimes the obvious does merit some reflection.
And I have indeed reflected and prayed about all of this.
23 years ago, my oldest child was born, and — for the first time — I became enraged at my father. I now knew the depth of a parent’s love for their child. It’s staggering, raw and passionate. How then could my father have left us? How could he walk out that door and leave us with a grieving mother? Furious, hormonal and depressed, I knelt and poured out my heart to God.
I prayed to lose my anger toward my father, and my prayers were answered. He answered me, quite clearly, by reminding me of all the good he had brought out of that time. Yes, I ate alone at school for a few years, but now I was never alone. I had a husband who loved me, a child who depended on me, a stepbrother and stepsister, and my relationship with Christ. God had brought all these things out of a painful episode that he did not create but did allow. He used the messiness of human relationships to bring me my soul mate and my family as I know it.
The pain of my parent’s divorce was real, and even as a 52-year old woman I can clearly remember the pit in my stomach that was my constant companion in elementary school. But along with the pain came the surreal beauty of experiencing more people to love and having them love me back. What a gift of grace love is! I’m so grateful I reached out and received it.