When children are prisoners of (marital) war
“Caught in the crossfire” is how David (not his real name) describes the years before his parents decided to separate and eventually file for divorce.
“It was horrible. I was 8 years old, and I would get stressed out when we would all be at the dinner table and no one spoke to each other,” David told me over lunch a few days ago.
“Many years later, as a young husband, I would find myself experiencing unexplained anxiety attacks. It was only through therapy that I discovered that the anxiety was rooted in those days when Mom and Dad would fight, and my younger brother and I would hide under the blankets.”
The pain of surviving a parental separation is best appreciated through stories of the survivors themselves. Names and some situations have been changed for privacy.
Karina is 45, a successful lawyer. She is happily married to George, also a topnotch lawyer. When you look at her, you would never guess that she experienced such pain at a very young age. “I was 5, and my brother was 4 when our parents separated. We had no idea what to do, where to run, what could be done. We were conflicted, confused and we didn’t know how to defend ourselves,” she recalled.
“In the early 1980s it wasn’t as acceptable to have separated parents, so when there were PTA meetings, or bring your mom or bring your dad activities, it was extremely difficult,” she continued. Thus, no matter how busy she is, Karina finds time to attend all her daughter’s school activities. “I know what it’s like not to have a parent there.”
Doing kids a favor
The most difficult parts, she said, were “the constant fighting, bickering. I remember hiding in the cabinet so we wouldn’t hear. So really, the idea of staying together for the children is ironic.”
In my own practice as a grief and transitions coach, I hear this often from children of separated parents: “I wish Mom and Dad had separated sooner than they did. They thought they were doing us a favor, but they weren’t. Our lives became so much more peaceful when they went their separate ways.”
Samantha is a creative director at an advertising agency. She and her two sisters were raised by a single mother. “My parents separated when we were 6, 3 and 1. From an early age, my mom communicated to me how important it was to be financially independent. She was married at 19, without a college degree. My parents were so young when they got married, and my dad worked in the province five days a week. It wasn’t a healthy setup from the start.”
Samantha says the most important lesson for her from those days was the importance of a constant parental presence. “Also, my mom didn’t rely on any spousal support. She raised us on her own. That was the best parental modeling she showed me.”
Samantha shares that her mother eventually remarried a wonderful man, when Samantha was 13. “My mom would say, ‘I didn’t get it right the first time, but this time I will.’ And she most certainly did.”
Nina is 53 and recently divorced. She was 17 when her mother suddenly left for the United States, and six months later, married her American stepfather. “I didn’t like that they didn’t tell us anything. My mom said she was going on a vacation. And then, she got married to my stepfather six months later! We were so angry at her for a very long time. It was only recently that we managed to heal the wounds.”
When Nina’s mother upped and left, Nina hated that she had to take over. “My dad was always out, and I had to do the groceries and menu planning and pay the maids.”
When Nina’s dad remarried a few years later, she said they had no choice but to be mean to their stepmom, even if she was nice. “My mom was jealous when we were nice to her, and she would be all guilty that she left us. It was a really confusing time.”
Amanda is separated from her husband, a government official. They have been estranged for close to two decades now, but it is admirable how she has never spoken ill of him in public.
“I always consider how my children will feel,” Amanda says. “For the sake of my family, I will not be the one who will make it public. One should always temper anger and arrogance. When your marriage ends, the best way forward is to guide your children to move on, accept the situation and make the most of it. The worst thing is to have young children grow up with bitterness.”
Frederick Douglass once wrote, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” In any separation, the children will always be collateral damage. In a war, no one wins. The important thing to remember, whether you are a mother or a father, is to protect your children at costs. If you want to leave to preserve your sanity and protect your children, then leave with dignity and grace. Do not burn the whole house while setting yourself free.
E-mail the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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