I was in middle school when the papers were signed. I pictured those signatures like they had been written in blood, with words that might as well have read, “No more Baker family.” Mom and Dad were not a unit anymore; now they were Mom, and then Dad. At 11 years old, I thought their divorce would end after the night we all cried in the living room. I thought they would tell us it was over, and then it would be over. But the next day when I woke — crusty-eyed and small — it was all still happening. It was then that I learned that Divorce exists with a capital D, and it’s a word that constantly transcends a single label — especially, as I found, for the child.
I believe that with the right work and commitment to healing, adults can separate in such a way that allows their whole family to find peace. My family and I are still on this journey: We typically haven’t felt familial since the divorce. It always seems more difficult to connect, and everyone has wavering opinions of each other. We never say it out loud, but I know we are always thinking about how we each cope with our own neuroses. A sort of inherent judgment has come from the simple act of shifting our family dynamic into something individualized and less wholesome.
I’m not anti-divorce and I don’t blame my parents for terminating their marriage. It was necessary, but I didn’t realize just how crucial it was until years later. In the thick of the experience, all I knew was that I was young and there was a knot the size of a melon in my stomach all the time. I knew I wanted to blossom right away, convinced that if I grew up, the pain of being a child of divorce would evaporate. It was nobody’s direct fault, but it hurt more than I thought anything could hurt. I felt disavowed and costly. I felt impossibly in the way.
I undeniably grew up faster than I should have because of their divorce. I was fortunate enough to not have to worry about eating or having a roof over my head. The payments were made and I got to live a good high school life. But my god, I felt like a business deal. My emotional health was threatened with every “don’t tell your dad about your sister’s boyfriend right now” lie and “tell your mother I’ll mail the check this weekend” text. My worth felt entirely dependent on my ability to carry out tasks for my parents that made me feel gross and unwanted.
While this portion of my life is over, and I now have a much brighter sense of self, the way I handled divorce challenges are now how I handle love. I love my boyfriend, and he loves me, but the pain and implication of divorce and the good, bright, healthy love I seek out all live in the same file folder in my brain. I never had the good example as a kid; my extended family lives far away and my parents divorced before I wore bras, so healthy, strong, committed love never made sense. It never felt deserved. I perpetually question if I have done enough — if I have given enough of myself to merit real, lasting love.
When my boyfriend, Tim, and I disagree, it feels like the end of the world. All I know is that if something goes wrong, it ends. If something feels off, it ends. If I let my fears get in the way, it ends. Although Tim has proven to me time and time again that that is not the case, I have to knock down my walls, it seems, with each new challenge. Whether one of us is leaving for college, having a flat-out bad day, or facing our own individual troubles, I have to persistently remind myself that it’s not my fault. I know my relationship feels right in my heart, but somewhere in my brain, I’m not quite there. It feels like my worth is right at the tip of my tongue, but I just can’t seem to see it through.
Six (almost seven) years later, I am now a freshman in college. I like to think I’m at that weird lukewarm adult stage — the one where the frozen TV dinner has been warmed in the microwave, but you have to stir it and put it back in for a little while before it’s ready to go. (Sorry, frozen meals are all I know how to cook.) I am warm and I am so close to getting there, to being free.
But then, when I’m home for the holidays, my family and I will argue about where to sit at the table or who will put up the Christmas tree, and I know I’m not ready yet. I know I’m not a lesser human or somehow deprived because I was raised by a single mom in my most malleable years, that I’m not broken or hard to love because I have a history with “daddy issues” — I simply haven’t healed enough yet. I, along with everyone else in my family, am a work in progress.
While I still have dark, uncomfortable memories of unrecognized depression in my youth and empty, tear-filled second Christmases, I refuse to resent my parents and allow their past actions or words to influence my perception of them. I’m happy my parents got divorced. I’m happy I was cleared of the subconscious responsibility of mediating a crappy marriage as a kid. I recognize that relationships don’t always work, even when we put everything we have into them. I understand that half of the married population gets divorced and that love does not need to last to be valuable.
But divorce is undeniably really gross. It’s messy, and it’s the beginning of a lot of mental unrest and illness in many people. Divorce in my life symbolized a feeling of ugly incompleteness that defined a large part of my youth, up until I began writing and going to therapy. Since then, I now know how to prioritize my feelings. Why would I be angry about my parent’s estrangement when other people in my country are scared to even go outside or didn’t grow up in an environment where they can be themselves? Why would I be angry that my dad always traveled when I was a kid, when now I want to travel and tell stories for a living? Why would I remain hurt when I can now help myself and help others around me?
I hurt less these days. I text both my parents because I don’t live with either. I like them better because I am on my own. I respect their decisions more now that I am in a significant relationship.
But I’m still really scared to love. With love, I’m going in blind. I’m scared of the unknown and I’m scared to take love from the universe, because I somehow believe I was born and raised to be alone, to be angry.
I wish we talked about divorce, about heartbreak, about our childhoods. I wish they weren’t worn-out tropes in literature and film and deep, dark secrets we tuck under our beds. I wish the “my family is dysfunctional and messy” conversation wasn’t annoying but instead the start of new relationships beyond said dysfunctional families.
I love my parents, but I will not be them. I will love with equality. I will love with curiosity. I will love with kindness, and without a hierarchy. Maybe it won’t work, and maybe I’ll get divorced one day — but it won’t be the end of the world. I must believe that love is the beginning of everything.
And, no matter how many times I have to tell myself, I deserve it.
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