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I often had more than one birthday party as a kid. This sounds cool, but it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I am a child of divorce. My childhood wasn’t mine. It belonged to my parents.
I lost myself in every effort to appease each side of my family. Shuffling alone between two separate lives meant that I was on the fringe of each family, never an insider. The people I loved most were never in the same room together, and many of them barely even knew each other existed. I missed out on events and celebrations because I would have to spend time with my other family.
Children of divorce learn to cope with these inconsistencies and instability, but by the age of 10, I no longer wanted to deal with it. I didn’t want to live in two different homes with two different bedrooms, different clothes, different toys, different friends and different rules. I was a 10-year-old caught between a rock and a hard place.
So one day I told my dad that I didn’t want to visit any more. It was a courageous and ignorant act of defiance. We will never know if it was the right decision or not, but at that time neither one of my parents possessed the objectivity or emotional stability it would have taken to unearth a more positive solution. And so that was the way things went.
The power struggle that had lain dormant between my parents erupted again, and this time it was directed at me. This time, I was responsible for the discord. In one house, I was blamed; in the other, I was a victim. There were no more multiple birthday parties. Instead, there was stability and consistency in one house, anger and avoidance in the other.
Choice is met with consequences, and as time went on, I fell out of touch with my dad’s family. It’s hard to stay in touch with people connected to someone we have pushed away. Cousins I used to play with were erased from my life. We never visited again. Was that because it’s best to keep severed ties cut? Or was it my punishment for being a horrible child? All I knew was silence and loss.
When I was in my early teens, my mom remarried and I met new cousins. I learned new Christmas traditions and sat with new kids at the dinner table. Instead of being ushered from one family to the other, life settled down. Even though I heard from my dad only once or twice a year, life was fairly stable. But that changed again when my mom and stepdad split up during my first year of university.
I tried to keep in touch with family members every time I went home for the holidays. Again, I tried to please everyone while anxiety flooded my thoughts. Whom should I spend Christmas Eve with? Should I visit with this family or that one? Will they be offended if I don’t make time to see them? Will they be offended if I don’t bring presents?
I would have loved to have everyone drop by and visit me, but that would not have gone over very well at my mom’s house. Instead, I diligently visited everybody on my own, carrying thoughtful little presents I bought on my student budget. I would make small talk and feel like an outsider. I was always the awkward guest, never the welcoming host.
For 10 years after I graduated from university, I lived away from home. Not a single family member from any one of my four families (save for my mom) came to visit, called or even let me know when they flew through town. Yet, every time I went home for Christmas, I scheduled visits, bought presents and made time to see as many people as I could. I did this to make them feel good. Not me.
Two years ago, I moved back home and now I live less than a day’s drive away from all four of my families, their new spouses and young kids. We are all connected on Facebook, but my mom is still the only person who ever calls or visits.
When I hear that a family member passed through town but didn’t call, it saddens me, but I realize that they don’t call because they don’t really know me. To them, I was never a fixture. I was only ever around a few Christmases here and there.
Although they were my family, I was never theirs. They don’t know that they are just one of several people spread across four different families that I wasn’t able to keep in touch with.
Sometimes, divorce spreads us too thin to make any real, lasting family connections.
This summer, I will marry into a Maritime family. I’m trying not to have too many expectations (I know no family is perfect), but my soon-to-be husband is the king at keeping in touch with people. He is persistent, charismatic, forgiving and loyal. He is teaching me what family means. Together, we will teach our kids to reach out to one another with compassion and to stick by each other through times of darkness.
I’m looking forward to joy, friendship and hospitality with my new family, and I plan to do everything I can to stay married.
Leigh-Ann Smith (a pseudonym) lives in Vancouver.