“Dad seems sad…Can dads get sad?” I said to myself, bewildered as my four-year-old hand reached desperately for whatever scratch paper and pencil I could find. Like looking for a clean rag to put pressure on a bleeding wound, I needed to draw to ease the pain right away. It had to be a happy picture: the sun shining, bushy trees, a house with proportionate windows, waving stick figures with smiling eyes.
Why this frantic, hurried attempt? Standing next to a tower of cardboard boxes, I learned my dad was leaving—leaving to go to his own house, I was told. Barely grasping that my dad even could be sad, this idea of “living elsewhere” was incomprehensible. Needing to offer my “band-aid” at once, I gave him my picture, the smiling house and waving family, a small present with which to decorate his new place. I had yet to understand that my own house, my own family, my own self would that day be forever changed.
My parents separated in the early 80’s, and what followed was a bitter clash of lawyers, courtrooms and custody settlements, ending in a back and forth, teeter-tottering arrangement for my younger brother and me. Thankfully, my mom and dad continued to reside in the same town until we graduated high school. My brother and I even went to the same church every single Sunday, together, but with a different parent each week.
Even with these seemingly solid pillars, I don’t have a lot of vivid childhood memories. I can remember some fun vacations and camping trips, weeks at my grandparents’ homes and goofing off with my brother. But what I remember most is the stress of daily packing, meticulously thinking everything through as I moved back and forth between two worlds. I remember painstakingly planning what things to take, to leave, to wash, to find. I recall preparing my homework assignments at the one house that had the computer, well in advance of the due date, hoping the assignment wouldn’t change afterwards, as I had no ability to revise it.
The angst, the tightness in my chest, of getting everything just right, lest I inconvenience Mom or Dad by forgetting some necessary item. I remember taking an extra-large duffel to school from first grade through high school in addition to my school backpack. A sort of small Sherpa, schlepping my life’s essentials from port to port, every other day, every other weekend, in a blue polyester, broken-zippered bag—that was me. I was different than my classmates, and I had the literal baggage to prove it.
Essentially, there were two Beths. I had two lives, two personas, split straight down the middle. I could act one way at Mom’s, but not at Dad’s. I could ask for some things at Dad’s, but not at Mom’s. I learned what to say and what not to say after the sting of revealing something that was supposed to be a secret to the other parent could ignite in an instant the flames of a new argument. As a result, I rapidly mastered the skill of assessing any given situation to see what was required of me. “Who do you need me to be?” or “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it, just so you’ll be pleased. Because if you’re happy, then I can be happy. But if you’re unhappy and it could somehow be my fault, then something is wrong with me. Then, I can’t be happy.”
I took it on. The task of making sense of these two competing worlds, fell squarely on my duffel-bearing shoulders. Deep within me, I craved wholeness (though I didn’t realize this at the time). Who am I deep down? How do I make sense of these two opposing realities? I look like my mom, but act like my dad; I have my mom’s voice, but my dad’s last name. Yet, my parents, the ones whose union brought me into existence, resist even being in the same room together. So where does that leave me? Internally divided, a powerless bridge between two forces who would rather not connect. If I just did what I’m supposed to do, then everyone around me (and maybe even I, if I’m lucky) could be happy…
But as I grew older, I began to wonder whether I ever could find happiness in my own life, especially in my romantic relationships. Is there such a thing as happiness in marriage and a lasting love? Isn’t love just one of those unpredictable, relentlessly messy emotions? Who is to say that I won’t just repeat the whole process with my own Divorce 2.0? These fears I could not deal with. They had no place to go, so they had to be contained, suffocated into silence. Soon, I was hijacking emotions in general, at least on the inside. Oh, how I waged a bitter war against emotions. They were not to be trusted. They would only get me in trouble. What are they good for?
Crying was the worst. I learned how to cry silently so at least the messy tears and tell-tale sobs wouldn’t betray me. Happiness and joy were foreboding because when the source faded away, the “good vibes” always went with it. I would be left worse off than before. Feelings and emotions just were a precursor to more pain, a pain that could swallow me alive. They had to be contained, bottled up. Yes, I, the teenage and young adult child, desperately wanted to protect my own parents and those around me from my pain, lest they take it on themselves.
Like the movie Frozen’s Elsa of Arrendale, however, I couldn’t control it. My unchecked emotion was always something in me hurting those around me. So, like Queen Elsa, I locked them up, shut them away. “Conceal, don’t feel” was my mantra. It’s easier this way, I surmised.
And it was. In high school and college, I entered into the typical dating culture. Now that I couldn’t feel, did anything matter? I got dang good at sensing what others needed and wanted and provided it. But then the emptiness crept in. The emptiness that I suppose had always been there but now was ringing a gong, loud and penetrating, in my soul. There were lots of guys, lots of parties, lots of “fun” to be had, but after a while…what was the point? I always ended back at the same place. I felt trapped in an empty shell, locked up, impenetrable. Achingly empty.
If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result, then my insanity finally woke me up, like an earthquake in the middle of a dark night. Rubbing my eyes and finally getting my bearings, I began to see things a new way. And this new vision had to be through God’s eyes. I realized beyond a shadow of a doubt that the change was only possible through God and in God. It was time to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty, time to dive headlong into this new world, into a relationship with the One who made me.
I began to pray—really pray, from the depths of my soul, from the dark places that the light had never touched before. There, the seed of faith, planted in my youth, had started to take root and grow. In finding and spending time with fellow believers, I eventually met my future husband, a God-fearing, virtue-seeking man. Finally, I thought, the turbulent chapter of my life was closing and all the problems from my divorced upbringing would soon be behind me. I would be married!
But little did I realize how the small sherpa of my childhood, baggage still in hand, was lurking unseen in a deep dark corner. From all outward appearances, I had my stuff together. Married at a young age and soon after a mom, I was a model of strength, of security, of stability. Even after all I’d been through, here I was able to live marriage the way it was supposed to be. I could show the world that I made it, that I was alright.
But doubts slowly crept in. How did I know I was doing this well? How could I have a happy marriage if I’d never lived in the security of one? How could I give my kids something I never received myself? What if something bad happened and it all ended in an instant?
Even with the doubts swirling around me, something deeper was going on. When my husband got stressed, I took it on. It was my job to make things right. When my children were squirmy instead of still and quiet at church, it was my fault. When someone unexpectedly stopped by my less than tidy home, I had to point out to her all the imperfections. Then at least she knew that this wasn’t my normal standard. I had to keep up that reputation, right?
Most telling, however, was when my husband said to me, “I love you.” A part of me couldn’t accept it. “Why?” was my standard response. “Why do you love me? What motivated you to say that? Why are you saying that? Where did that come from?” Why would I ask why, you wonder? Because if the primary block on which we build our understanding of unconditional love is placed there by our parents’ loving marriage, then my foundation was fractured.
Deep in my heart, I dismissed those “I love you’s” as merely “pretty words”—words potentially full of meaning, but intentionally vague. I’d heard those words countless times before from family, friends and boyfriends, but it never felt real. It never left a mark. Was I worthy of love?
I love my parents and there are many things about them for which I am grateful. But as I settled further into my marriage, I started to come to terms with the fact that my parents’ divorce had left me with a deep wound, one that affected my marriage, my motherhood, my friendships and my life as an adult. It was a “suffering that was not allowed to be called suffering.” The divorce had short-circuited my ability to receive love.
Once I realized the full force of this, I knew I needed help. Thankfully, a friend encouraged me. “I think you need to go back to counseling,” she said.
Counselling? I had done that before. I thought I’d worked through the past and my broken upbringing. Why do I need to do that again? The time, the effort, the emotional energy…really? But I sensed she was right. There was more in me that needed healing, more lurking in the corner with the Sherpa’s baggage. I had to decide to step outside the “normal” and crack open the door to that deep dark place. To step in the light with the Light and put order in the chaos of my soul. To see it in a whole new way.
At long last, 18 years into marriage and many kids later, I finally am starting to make sense to myself. Through countless hours of therapy and prayer, I feel like I’m beginning to wrap my head around the past and how it still affects me. By entering in and coming to terms with it, I can deny the past’s power to control my present: The tensions between my parents were not my fault. It’s not my responsibility to take on the pressure and stress of everyone else’s troubles. I realize I don’t have to bottle up all my emotions in an effort to keep other people happy. I’m finally allowing the child in me to have a good, snotty, messy cry—the cry she has been waiting 30 plus years to have, the cry she has always deserved to have, but never felt safe enough to give in to. And most of all, I deep down know there are people who authentically love me for who I am, as I am, even though the child in me still sometimes second guesses that.
Going there, unpacking the layers, leaning in to the hard and working toward true healing, I now stand on a new solid ground. With my feet firmly planted, I’m gaining the strength to live differently in the present, which gives me a purpose and a hope for the road ahead of me. And, you know, if I squint and look hard, sometimes I think I can see the happy house and smiling stick figures waiting there at the end…