Moving back to my hometown had been challenging. There are good memories and bad memories that return as I drive the streets and visit the restaurants and places of the past. Understanding that my perceptions of my childhood were not always what I thought them to be is hard at times. But answering to others in the community about my family and where we are today is one of the most difficult things I have encountered.
My job takes me into the community. I rub shoulders with others who have lived here for a long time. I was gone for over thirty years. I am not the same person I was when I lived here as a child. Neither is my family the same. Yet often, people don’t know what has happened. I inevitably meet people whom I recognize from my childhood or I make the “mistake” of excitedly and warmly reminiscing about something from my past (my childhood school, or a recollection of the “old days” relating to the city) with people I have newly met. Often that innocent and enjoyable exercise leads the person I am talking with to ask what my maiden name was. My heart drops as I realize again, what I have done. I have walked right into “telling the family story” and enduring the responses.
The conversation often goes like this:
“Oh, what was your maiden name?”
“Is your dad _____?” or “Is your mom ____?”
“Well, how are your parents doing?” (Excitedly and happily)
“Did you hear they were divorced?”
“Oh no…. (shocked, disturbed) …not them…blah blah…they were such a good family…blah blah…oh my…blah blah blah……….” (I say blah because each time this adds to my pain…their shock reminds me of my first shock)
And then I “get” to answer questions or not answer questions about why, how it could happen, what the situation is today, etc.
What used to bring me joy to talk about my family now is uncomfortable. I often reveal just what needs to be said. Sometimes the people tell me things I didn’t know about my family .Sometimes I want to know more, and sometimes I don’t. What begins as a casual encounter becomes a serious, uncomfortable discussion that takes away from the initial enjoyable conversation. What begins as a person getting to know me, as a new acquaintance, now becomes about my family and its problems.
Contrary to the idea that divorce is common and most people just accept it nowadays, I do not think I have EVER had a response of “oh, good for your parents….”, or “how nice”…. No, most people I talk to are upset and disturbed and I “get” to be the bearer of bad news. They ask questions and want to know more and how it could happen and on and on and on…. If I sound angry, to some extent I am.
Growing up, as the oldest child, the reputation of my family and how I conducted myself was drilled into me. I was to bring pride and good behavior to the reputation of my family. My younger sisters were watching me, and so were others and I knew my parents would be deeply disappointed and hurt by any shame I would bring the family by unwise actions. I took this seriously. My actions , and thereby my reputation, reflected on my family and the reputation we had in the community. We all were a part of each other, so what a person thought of one of us, they also thought similar of all of us.
But the standard set and followed for so many years for me, was either never followed by my father, or he decided not to heed his own advice in his later life.
So now the family is broken and the reputation is left in my hands to explain and try to redeem. I am not the same person I was when I was a child in this community. I do not hold to the values that my father upholds now in his later life. I want people to see me for who I am on my own merits . I do not like being connected to my maiden name or my family story and things that I have learned. It is a challenge and a burden I did not ask for, but have been given. So I face it each day as I head out the door.
SO…as I live my life and work in my old hometown, I will try to do so with the highest of values and work ethic. I will try to remember the good memories and stop by the places that bring me recollections that warm my heart. I will not go to other places that bring me sadness. When I meet people I will be careful and cautious about how excited I get about revealing that I grew up here. If I do and the conversation turns to my family and the new reputation we have, I will try to answer respectfully of each family member and tell the “story” as simply as I can.
Late life divorce puts adult children in an awkward position of trying to hold on to or redeem the family reputation, especially if it has been a good one in the past. The responsibility for our parents’ actions do not fall on us, but we end up “telling the story”. Here are some tips for adult children of divorce as we head out into our communities today:
*If someone asks about your family, remember you do not have to share anything you don’t want to share. You can simply say “I would rather not talk about it”, or “What I have told you is as much as I want to share. Thank you for respecting that”.
*Drive past the places with good memories often. Sometimes drive past or go into the places that bring you sadness as you remember family times at that location. Some closure happens when you face the sadness and accept the changes.
*Continue to see yourself as a part of your family of origin, but keep in mind that you are forging your own path and your own reputation among the people you live with. Think about how your decisions affect others around you.
*Maybe think of a humorous way to divert the conversation if it gets around to your parents divorce or one parents poor decisions. I once heard a woman say “You just never know how your parents are going to turn out” and it brought a sense of lightness and closure to the topic.
Late-life divorce puts adult children in awkward conversations with people in our communities, but we can be ready and wise in what we say.