“Divorce: The End of Innocence and its Impact on the Elementary School Years“
from The Longest Match: Rallying to Defeat an Eating Disorder in Mid-Life
In September of 1970, just after my seventh birthday, the innocence of my early childhood was shattered. My sister Sarah was only six months old when our father took our mother to the Thousand Islands in New York State to tell her he no longer wanted to be married to her. I cannot even imagine that car ride home.
In 1970 Rochester, well-respected lawyers and community leaders did not commonly walk out on their wives and young children. I literally have no firsthand memories of this time, but I have been piecing this jigsaw puzzle of my life together through reading my journals, talking with people who knew my parents, and through years of therapy trying to understand the origins of, and contributing factors to, my mid-life eating disorder.
I have no recollection of my parents telling me about the divorce. Mom, somewhat in denial, said at first that Dad was on a long business trip. This explanation was plausible given that he did travel on business frequently. Mom handled the reality of her divorce by behaving as if nothing had happened, believing that she was protecting us from pain. I learned as an adult that she would cry alone late at night.
With no opportunity to talk about the divorce or its impact I became a shy, introverted young girl; no place for tears, sadness or anger; no place for feelings of any kind. Life in suburbia went on. Dad supported us financially, but he neither lived with us nor was a part of our daily lives.
Soon after the divorce, which my father had to obtain by traveling to Mexico, he remarried, this time to a Rochester socialite. They moved to the neighborhood in Brighton that had the largest and most extravagant homes. It turned out he had been having an affair with this woman whom he had met through their involvement on the Board of Planned Parenthood. I had a bedroom in this huge house, yet I do not have memories of time spent there. I distinctly remember, however, that Dad missed my eighth birthday because he was in Europe with his new wife.
Life went on as an elementary school student at Council Rock School. I spent a lot of time with my best friend, who was in my class, and lived around the corner. We had many sleepovers at her house and her parents often welcomed me to join them on their occasional family day trips. We looked forward to watching The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family on Friday nights and we played marathon games of Monopoly. We read the entire Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
On my own street, kids of all ages played happily together. We enjoyed kickball games, spud, hide and seek and bike rides. On warm summer nights, after dinner, we would return outside with our ice cream treats. In winter we climbed snowbanks and built forts until our cheeks were red from the cold and we could no longer feel our fingers. Mom made us hot chocolate when we went inside.
Whenever Dad came to take Sarah and me out to dinner or on some other outing, Mom made us wait outside in front of the house so she would not have to see him. He was always late to pick us up. He did come to my second grade play, The Wizard of Oz and recorded on a cassette tape my one line “In Emerald City.”
I learned as an adult that Dad lived with a lot of guilt for having left our family and this was a contributing factor to the end of his second marriage after only a couple of years. With two divorces, he had to leave Rochester. Though still a successful lawyer, his reputation as an outstanding member of the community was tarnished beyond repair. My first diary entry was at the age of nine, late in 1972:
I feel horrible. I want to spend Christmas with my father. I think he is lonely and he needs me. Daddy is moving to New York City. I don’t want him to go to such a big city. I feel awful.
In the years following the divorce, my diary was the only outlet for expressing such sadness. Life went on and the feelings remained suppressed inside. I developed fears and started to show the first signs of anxiety. I slept with the sheets pulled over my head to feel safe, leaving only a small opening to breathe. From a young age I was put in charge of Sarah. Mom slept until almost noon on most weekend mornings, so Sarah and I watched cartoons and played together, and I fed her breakfast. Mom blamed me if Sarah did anything wrong. One time she tipped over the garbage. Mom blamed me and I had to clean it up. Mom would also leave me in charge when she went out to evening meetings, though I never felt comfortable until she got home and would feel worried if she was even a few minutes late.
I hate to babysit because I am always worried something will happen.
Though Mom tried to do everything she could so that we would never feel like we came from a “broken home,” she never did anything to help herself cope with the devastating loss of her marriage. She modeled for us living as if there had been no traumatic change, so that is what I learned to do. Mom could be very loving and always made birthdays and Christmas special, but in the years following the divorce she became increasingly more moody, rigid, and controlling. I often felt like I was walking on eggshells and her unfounded anger and screaming at me scared me. She seemed to release her suppressed emotions on me. Meanwhile, Sarah, six years younger, could do no wrong.
If I do any little thing, Mom gets very upset with me, but not with Sarah…. When I was sick, mom was nice to me, but now that I am better, she seems to always be upset with me for no reason. I feel like running away from home.
Mom and Dad would frequently have heated arguments on the phone, usually about money. I would take Sarah up to my room and close the door to protect her from hearing their arguments, but no one protected me. I internalized all feelings, no one cared how I felt.
I hate seeing Mom spend money on clothes for me. I hope she has enough money. I’m worried she won’t have enough money because whenever Dad calls, they argue about it.
What was perhaps a generous divorce agreement at the outset, did not include any cost of living increases. Dad expected Mom to get a job, but she always refused believing that as a single mom she needed to be a full-time mom for us. I grew up sensing Mom’s stress whenever taxes or monthly bills were due. Mom accumulated substantial credit card debt through the years and eventually had to file bankruptcy. On the contrary, Dad seemed to spend money needlessly and wastefully. My parents exhibited two extremes and I worried there would not be enough money for daily necessities. Fortunately, my loving, doting maternal grandparents often helped Mom financially when she was in desperate need. For instance, they gave her money for a new washing machine when the old one broke.
After a year in New York City, during which I vaguely remember visiting him, in 1973 Dad moved to Chicago to begin a new life even further away from us. There were certainly phone calls and scheduled visits, but there wasn’t the technology there is today to stay closely connected. For those scheduled visits, Sarah and I flew as unaccompanied minors starting at the ages of ten and three. Dad often seemed distracted, even during short visits, and he rarely gave us time alone or even his undivided attention.
I feel sorry for Dad. He always has so many things on his mind.
Dad sometimes would work during our visits or have us spend time with families we did not know. “They have kids your age,” he would tell us. There also always seemed to be a new girlfriend for us to meet.
[New girlfriend] slept over. Now that dad has met [new girlfriend], he doesn’t pay much attention to us. Whenever I told a joke, he never laughed, but when she did, he laughed a lot.
Unsurprisingly, from a young age, I developed “people pleasing” tendencies, common in children who have experienced trauma. My parents were consumed by their own issues and I often felt ignored. I had neither a voice nor an outlet beyond my journal where I could express my feelings and the impact of my parents’ actions on me. I was always put in the middle, listening to each of my parents painting a negative image of the other. Mom was always hard on me and her expectations were often unrealistic. Dad always seemed to lecture me and criticize me. My response to both was to internalize the negative feelings and outwardly try to please them and “be perfect” so as to earn their love and approval.
During the elementary school years, I rarely encountered other kids whose parents were divorced. For several summers, I attended Pioneer Day Camp where I could just be a kid. It was a place for good old-fashioned childhood fun. I have many happy memories from those summer camp sessions and recall meeting one girl whose parents were also divorced.
There is a girl at camp named Jan. Her parents are divorced too. She says I’m the only one who really understands her.
At Pioneer Day Camp, I learned to swim, play group games and enjoy sing a longs and arts and crafts in the wooden pavilion. The counselors drove the campers to and from camp in large 1970’s station wagons. There was also an afternoon swim and popsicles before heading home. I looked forward to the camp overnight at the end of each two-week session. We were served pizza instead of the usual bologna or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I was happy at camp and had many friends and loved the attention received from my favorite counselors. My only negative memory of camp days was coming home during the summer of the Watergate Hearings and President Richard Nixon’s resignation. Mom would be glued to the television when we got home and we couldn’t interrupt her even though we had been at camp for hours.
Day to day, Mom, Sarah, and I were a family of three. Many aspects of a safe, happy childhood remained after the divorce and I cherish fond memories of school, friends, holiday traditions and even silly rituals which Mom created. We had “bad manners nights” on Wednesdays with the understanding that on all the other nights our manners were perfect. On Wednesdays we could lick our fingers, chew with our mouth open, and put our elbows on the table. I am grateful for many happy childhood memories, yet my parents’ acrimonious divorce and its aftermath left me tinged with sadness, and beneath my smile, were fears, anxiety, and multiple layers of unexpressed feelings and emotions. Dad was in the picture, but he was mostly on the outside, and our relationship would not turn the corner until my college years.