It resonated with me so deeply when you shared on Louise Perry’s podcast that a child feels loved when they see their biological parents sharing affection and love with one another. I felt the opposite when I witnessed my biological parent sharing intimacy with a step-parent. There was a sick feeling in my stomach whenever I saw my mom or dad have an intimate moment with my step-dad or step-mom. Indeed, I felt sick inside for much of my childhood. That, to me, is the through line connecting it all, the tragedy of divorce and remarriage on children—a sick feeling, somewhere, forever.  

So much of the childhood trauma of divorce goes unnoticed and gets glossed over by well-meaning but emotionally immature and self-absorbed parents, and I don’t think I really even felt the profound wrongness of it all until I became a mother myself. After all, I grew up with it. It was my normal. I didn’t know any different. I didn’t know what it was to see a mother and father deeply in love and committed to their marriage and family. I only knew how to awkwardly explain the dynamics of my family and make excuses when someone raised an eyebrow. I learned to be mad at my parents for other things, for their  personalities and behaviors. It took me years to come to terms with the primal wound of it all, how devastating it must have been on my psyche and soul as a little girl, how it shaped and changed me and set me up for failure, if not for the triumphant burning spirit within me that would not give up.  

My parents were high school sweethearts from the south, who married and had three children by 1985. I was the youngest, with two older brothers. When they were still married, I was often in the care of nannies and au pairs, and this trend continued after they were divorced until I was in elementary school. We moved to California when I was just a baby, and by the time I was five, my parents were separated and seeing other people with whom they would stay and eventually remarry. So, I essentially grew up with four parents, believing it was normal that my mom and dad were divorced but still close friends, that a man who would become my step-dad moved into our home when I was only five years old, and that my dad lived in an apartment with a much younger woman where I stayed one night every weekend.  

Because my parents were on positive terms and were committed to staying friends, the new dynamics of our family were explained to my brothers and I as normal and healthy (if it was even explained at all. I can’t remember). Looking back, that almost seemed to make it worse, that they tolerated each other enough to stay friends but couldn’t put in the hard work to make the marriage function. Either way, they never really discussed with us what happened and everything rolled along as if nothing drastic and tragic had occurred. My mother never asked me how I was doing, if anything felt strange, sad, or uncomfortable about this new normal. She never talked to me about much of anything significant or meaningful. I have this ever-present memory of her being around but just out of reach, perpetually distracted and focused on herself or on anyone else but me. I learned to live inside my head. I also learned that whatever I felt didn’t matter. I was  obligated to love my parents and my step-parents without a thought or question, because it was all I knew, even though I look back now and felt such confusion, rage, and loss. Mostly, I felt that sick, queasy, feverish quality. It was as if I had taken on the family shame. My parents wouldn’t hold it, so it was transferred to me.  

I don’t know, however, if it was just the divorce that caused me so much suffering and psychic damage or because my parents were also rather self-absorbed and neglectful, especially emotionally. My father was a bit of a narcissist and could be downright abusive in his language and behavior, and my mother was not able to provide any emotional mirroring, validation, or support. She didn’t want her children to be sad, so when we were she told us not to be. Just be happy! I don’t know if it’s a boomer generation thing, but they are both still very much in denial about how their choices and actions affected their children and don’t take responsibility for the pain they inflicted by breaking the family and bringing strangers into their children’s lives. My mother flitted through life putting herself first, her career, her grand social life, her wants and desires and pretending that  everything was happy and fine, never acknowledging and validating her children’s losses and suffering (and probably never feeling her own true feelings). My father was more honest about what had happened but was nevertheless extremely critical and impatient, lacking empathy and perspective outside of his own.  

This burden finally began to consciously affect me around fourteen, when depression and anxiety hit me like a ton of bricks. I found solace in alcohol, drugs, and hanging with the “bad” crowd and doing whatever I could to alter my mood. All of my friends from that time period came from broken homes: divorced parents, neglectful mothers, fathers who had never been in the picture. We all seemed to be running for our lives into substance abuse and our own troubles with sexuality, be it promiscuity or daddy issues or body image and eating disorders. I spent the next four years of high school partying heavily and regularly and grappling with ever increasing anxiety and depression. This continued into my twenties and thirties in various forms. There were profound moments of despair and suicidal ideation as well as short periods of self-harm. There was substance abuse, starvation, bulimia, panic attacks, compulsive overeating, chronic pain, excessive use of SSRIs, and promiscuity. It was hell.  

Both my brothers and I have suffered immensely with self-esteem, self-worth, identity, and direction. We have all engaged in self-destructive behaviors with drugs and alcohol, risky and destructive sexual behaviors, and eating problems. Luckily, thankfully, I dedicated myself to healing at twenty-five and committed to sobriety, therapy, and spirituality. Thirteen years later I am still sober and have done immense work to heal the wounds within and create a happy, healthy, functional life. I became a wife and mother seven years ago and have two children under the age of five. My husband and I are devoted to each other. Our vows mean something. But now that I am married and have children this all affects me far more deeply, for I cannot understand why my parents did what they did, why they put their own selfish desires and feelings and wishes before the well-being of their children; and why they continued to inflict damage after the fact by denying that we would be affected in the first place and pretending like nothing had happened. I am lucky to have a healthy, happy marriage and two beautiful children to whom I am devoted. But the wounds are there forever. The pain is there forever. I have moments of forgiving my parents and understanding they did the best they could with what they knew at the time, and then moments of absolutely hating them and feeling such disgust for their selfish and irresponsible behavior as parents to young children, as well as repulsed by their continued denial of the wretchedness of their choices.  

I still have active relationships with my parents and step-parents, but I wouldn’t call them particularly intimate or authentic. I have never felt truly safe or comfortable with my father and choose to have strong boundaries with him and my step-mom. My mother is more challenging to find solid ground and stasis with these days, though she is a safer presence for me than my father. She and I have at times been extremely close, probably codependent, but since I became a mother I have a difficult time being around her because of her continued self-centeredness and the awareness I now have of how much she failed me when I was a child.  

It is somewhat the curse that keeps on cursing, divorced and remarried parents, as the dynamics of the extended family remain confusing, painful, and sad—as I am sure is more than obvious in this writing. The damage to the psyche, the sense of self, and the emotional world of a child is immense. All that stemmed from it was devastating. My life was extremely screwed up in many ways for a long time, and had I not dedicated myself to healing and recovery in my twenties I don’t think I would be here. But it has not doomed my life. I have a wonderful life, an endless capacity for love, strength, and courage, and at least what I went through has inspired me to dedicate myself to maintaining a healthy marriage and putting my children first.