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The Way They Were

Couples often wait to split until the kids are grown. But divorce hurts adult children, too.

Nothing tested me more in my adult life than my parents' divorce. I can say that now without feeling embarrassed or weak. For a long time, that's all I felt. I was 26 years old at the time. I had moved out of my childhood home to attend college several years before. I had a great job, close friends, a relationship—all of the things that should make you feel rooted. Yet when my parents announced they were separating, I felt as if the world had collapsed in on me.

There was the realization that home would never be the same. I'd had what I thought was a perfect childhood—Sunday drives to clam bars, picnics on the beach. My parents were the kind who attended every ballet recital and graduation. Of course, Mom and Dad didn't have a perfect marriage. They fought often—but they always made up. When they made it past their 27th wedding anniversary, I assumed they were thinking about retiring, not about splitting up.

My life suddenly seemed a series of "lasts"—a final Christmas, an end to eggs together at the breakfast table. I'd never again find my parents standing side by side on the porch, waving to me as I pulled into the driveway. Looking back, it seemed as if Mom and Dad had been faking it—which cheapened all my childhood memories. How long had they wanted out?

I've come to envy young children going through a divorce. Everyone worries about them. They're sent to psychologists. The adult child's grief isn't taken as seriously. Many of our parents stayed together because we'd be more mature once we headed off to college, walked down the aisle, or had our first baby. Parents expect us to shrug off their split, as if the breakup of our family should no longer concern us because pieces of our adult life are in place. Even I felt I was overreacting. I'm an adult, I figured. I should be able to handle this.

On their own for the first time in 27 years, Mom and Dad needed guidance. My younger sister taught Dad how to cook a red sauce. I told him about an article I'd read about divorcées contracting sexually transmitted diseases—one of our more awkward conversations. Mom expected me to talk negatively about Dad with her. I'd get angry phone calls from her while at work. Ten minutes later the phone would ring, and it would be Dad. They wanted me to hear about every jab and knockout punch they'd exchanged. They wanted to know that I was on their side. So I tried not to say anything at all.

On the stereo in my dad's studio apartment is a photograph of me and my sisters in the same battered silver frame it was in when it was in our living room. It was one of the few things Dad threw into his bag when he left Mom's house a year ago.Dad had wanted me to come over to his new place to show me his Fender Strat, a guitar he had just bought. He doesn't look good. He is rail thin, and his face is drawn. He stopped sleeping through the night after he and Mom separated.

I didn't realize how little alone time I'd spent with my father until the split. Now, when I'm alone with him, I worry we won't have enough to say.

Dad asks if I want to play Scrabble. As we play, Mom's face pops into my head. Mom, with her hair long and blond and pushed back in a headband. Mom, who now wears plunging necklines even when she cleans the kitchen. She and I got into a fight before I left for Dad's this afternoon. All she had to hear was that I was seeing Dad. "What are you going to do," she said, "go over there and badmouth me? You never want to hear it, Brooke, but your father, your perfect father, wants to screw me out of everything." Then she started crying.

Dismantling a family is hardly a linear process, and grieving isn't either. Two summers after my parents separated, I visit home for a week. Mom and I take a drive out on the east end of Long Island where I grew up, stopping at farm stands and antiques shops. We're having a nice day, despite the fact that Dad is still refusing to sign the divorce papers.

On the way home we talk about Mom's recent forays into dating. "It must be strange to be out there again," I say. I'm not sure what I've said wrong, but the comment turns a quiet conversation loud. Mom begins yelling—a new habit since she and Dad split—about how I was never on her side. She says Dad could do anything he wanted and she was persecuted for every decision she made. My blood starts to boil.

And so it goes. After thinking I'd finally reached a plateau of forgiveness, I'm right back to where I started, as angry as I've been time and again in the months before.

Grieving in circles this way keeps you from moving on. You might accept and forgive one aspect of your parents' divorce, but then something else happens—maybe Dad asks you to meet the woman he's dating—and you have an entirely new set of circumstances to deal with.

Dad is giddy when I walk into my aunt Junie's house one evening two years after the split. It has been raining since morning."You look like a drowned rat," Dad says, laughing, as he walks toward me. "Hey, honey." He gives me a bear hug. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see her. She's sitting at Aunt Junie's kitchen table. She's blond and fair. Like me, I think, and for some reason that notion comforts me.

She is around my dad's age—I'd worried that she would be a young tart. "Let me introduce you to my friend," Dad says. Friend?"

Brooke, this is Donna," he says. "Donna, this is my middle daughter, Brooke." We say hello. She smiles.

Only seconds go by before I'm overcome with panic. What do I say next? Instead, I give her a big hug. She doesn't hug me as tightly. Before arriving at Aunt Junie's I imagined either I would immediately hate my father's girlfriend and refuse ever to see her again, or I would love her. As I sit talking to her, I realize Donna lands somewhere in the middle. She is okay. Not extraordinary but not excruciating.

Watching your mother or father date is surreal. An adult child has known her parents only with each other. To see Dad kiss another woman is like watching a scene from my very own version of The Twilight Zone.

Two years into the divorce I still avoid spending time alone with Mom. I can't reminisce about my childhood or say anything about Dad.

On the surface Mom and I act like nothing's wrong. But the anger traded between us during the past few years simmers below the surface. In the car one afternoon, Mom talks about her shirt not fitting right, how she wants to go to Europe this fall. I want her to ask me about my writing or my recent trip to Africa, but she doesn't. Then I make a joke about her brother's teeth, and Mom takes it personally. We start arguing and I say, "I just don't think you're much of a mother to me anymore."

A year earlier I'd promised myself I'd never say things like this to her again. She makes a quick U-turn in the middle of the highway and nearly gets us killed. We're both crying. She's yelling. When we get back home, we settle on opposite sides of the couch.

I am over my parents' divorce, I think. But I guess this isn't about accepting that my parents are no longer together. At some point, I realize, the way Mom acted during the divorce became the real source of my anger.

"This divorce has been the hardest thing I've ever had to do," Mom says calmly. "If I've been wrapped up in myself, I'm sorry. I'm learning how to be alone again."

I'd never heard Mom sound so vulnerable and honest—which makes me listen closely. I tell her I just want her to be happy. Mom moves toward me and stretches out her hand, then pulls it back.

"Sometimes I just don't know how to be around you anymore," she says. "There have been so many times I've wanted to hug you and don't know how."

I felt the same. I used to climb into Mom's bed and we'd talk for hours before Dad came in. Now we share so little intimacy I often look forward to leaving home just so I can hug her goodbye. I move next to Mom and fall into her arms. "I just want to feel like you love me again," I say. She hugs me hard, rocks me, and says, "I'm sorry you ever thought I stopped."

I read once that moving on is the period in which the knot of your grief is untied. After three years I finally let go of my anger toward Mom and was able to move on.

I got married this past summer, and I'd like to believe I'm going to be one of the lucky ones. John and I put off getting married when my parents first split up. It didn't feel right—and it's been work getting me to feel comfortable with marriage since. I've had to train myself to stop comparing my relationship with that of my parents. If John and I get into an argument, it doesn't mean our relationship is doomed.

I've come to terms with my parents' divorce. They're both so much happier now. Mom went to Europe for the first time this past fall. Dad goes to Broadway shows. They're both doing things they never would have done together. I can see now that I knew the muted version of who they were.

Dad recently bought our family home from Mom. He hadn't been in the house since the split. I thought I'd be sad when I saw the empty rooms. Dad had paint cans and drop cloths scattered about. My things—stuffed animals, books, prom dresses—were packed in boxes in the basement.

Several months ago I'd have been in tears. But the sight of Dad futzing around the yard made everything feel right again. Even though I put my parents' divorce behind me, I don't have to completely let go. A piece of me will always be preserved in those walls, in the shadows that dance across my childhood bedroom at dusk.

Brooke Lea Foster is a staff writer for Washingtonian Magazine. This article was adapted from her book, The Way They Were: Dealing With Your Parents' Divorce After a Lifetime of Marriage, published this year by Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House Inc.