Playwright Alan Bennett once wrote: "Every family has a secret and the secret is that it’s not like other families."
I was 23 when my family’s secret was exposed. Suddenly our weird little world was cracked open and everyone was about to discover that for as long as I could remember, my parents had been living completely separate lives.
My mum and dad consciously uncoupled long before Gwyneth coined the term. They stayed married and remained under the same roof, sharing a room, dogs and cars, but really, beyond material things, very little. But even though I was well into my 20s when it happened, it didn’t feel like it was just about them — it felt like a reflection on our whole family.
"Particularly bad timing"
I was worried that everyone would know that we were weird now, that we weren’t normal (whatever normal is) and everyone would think that we were broken, and know that we couldn’t make it work.
I wasn’t living at home when I found out they’d decided to go their separate ways. My younger sister called to tell me. She said Mum wouldn’t stop washing the floors and Dad had barricaded himself in the kitchen and was hanging out by the back door alone, save for several packets of Silk Cut.
After trying my best to be big sisterly for about 10 minutes, saying stuff like, "Things won’t change that much" in a cack-handed attempt to reassure her (but really myself), I put the phone down and sat, alone, in my flat. It was particularly bad timing: Christmas was looming.
The whole thing was totally surreal. Living away from home, I felt completely detached from the fact that it was falling apart. It was like we’d all been clinging to the same big sheet of ice and now, suddenly, it was breaking up and we were all going our separate ways. Like global warming, my parents’ split was something I knew was coming.
Other people’s parents seemed like they really liked one another, took pleasure in doing things together, had shared interests, they made each other laugh and, sometimes, actually touched. When we went on family holidays my dad would often say he’d much rather stay at home, meaning we went on a lot of girls’ trips. Mum and Dad were nothing like married people in the movies.
I knew the situation was getting worse with every year that went by and that the split, like the melting of polar ice caps, would be inevitable at some point — but that didn’t make it easier to swallow. You’d think that your parents divorcing once you’re a grown up, with a degree, job, and rented flat of your own would somehow mean that it mattered less.
"Suddenly, my reflection was cracked"
You’d think that the fact that things were, relatively speaking, amicable, would soften the blow. You’d think that you could just be glad they stayed together for 26 years and tilt your head to one side knowingly, going into autopilot to spout benign platitudes like, "They had a good innings" or "They’re really happier like this" whenever people asked about it.
Well, I didn’t get a chance to test that out. One of the things about being an ACOD (Adult Child of Divorce), in my experience, is that nobody asks about it. Nobody, neither friends or family, really batted an eyelid. People divided into two camps: they thought that because I was a "grown up" (if anybody is a grown up at 23) I wasn’t bothered about it, or they thought I should just suck it up.
But, the reality is, the breaking apart of your family unit, at any age, even if, as was the case with mine, it’s for the best, is a rupture that shakes your core. Your family is like a mirror. It reflects you back at yourself. Suddenly my reflection was cracked and what I saw, my ideas about life and love, were refracted and distorted. It took a while to put things back together again.
If your parents stay together until you’re in your 20s then all you’ve only ever known is them together. Your parents are a team, two partners in the family firm: Mum and Dad of "The Parents Ltd." and no matter how much you know that their relationship isn’t working, no matter how many fights you overhear or how many times you catch yourself wondering if they’d be better off apart, there’s something comforting about the reliability of their brand.
They weren’t perfect together, theirs was no fairytale love story in the end, but they were consistent.
There was no big announcement. No drama; no rows or shocking revelations on either side. One day my mum just told my dad her heart wasn’t in it anymore, he agreed, they both cried. A month later he moved out. As far as break-ups go, it was actually pretty mundane, they didn’t even argue over who got to have what furniture. Dad just let Mum keep it all.
In a weird way, the banality of their break-up was the hardest part to get my head around. The fact there was no wrong party with which to side and no crusade to go on in the style of Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler, and Diane Keaton in The First Wives Club, these would have been a welcome distraction from what I actually had to face: the sad reality that some things just don’t work out, that love isn’t always enough. Sometimes there’s no single reason, no neat explanation. Things just change.
"Everyone around me seemed to think I should be fine with it"
Perhaps because nobody else seemed bothered, I felt like I should be grown up about it, but I didn’t feel like one, I felt like a child. I was confused and felt rootless all of a sudden. The terms and conditions of my family had completely changed.
Thinking back I don’t think I actually had a conversation with either of my parents about what was happening. Neither of them sat us down and said what all divorcing parents say in films: "We both still really love you," because we were "adults" and they didn’t think they needed to spell that out.
My sister and I became support systems for our parents, because we were old enough to be. My sister went on lots of late night shopping trips with Mum and I got a lot of emotional phone calls from Dad in which he blasted Fleetwood Mac down the phone at me.
Initially, my relationships with both of them became strained. When a friend goes through a break-up, you give them bottomless support. You encourage them to get back out there and you never ever tell them it was all their fault (even if it was). But there’s something unsettling about a break-up that directly affects you: one where the people involved in the break-up are both your parents, both leaning on you in a way that’s unprecedented.
Everyone around me seemed to think I should be fine with it, but there were so many occasions where I just wasn’t. Our first Christmas as a broken home was stressful. Mum cleaned all day and we ended up at Dad’s, cooking Christmas lunch for him at his new house, with food we stole from the fridge at Mum’s, because he hadn’t gone shopping, while he hid in his bedroom.
That day I wondered, if we’d been younger, whether they’d have been trying to make sure we had some kind of Christmas. I found comfort in Bridget Jones, the one where she spends Christmas drinking with her dad while her mum’s off with that ‘orange’ TV shopping bloke and found myself secretly wishing my mum would also turn up at the door, having changed her mind.
The general consensus seemed to be that my parents had done "the right thing," a noble thing in waiting until we’d both grown up. But I’d grown up watching friends’ families fall apart. It’s not easy to keep your faith in romance and "happily ever afters" in this cold, modern world where it feels like nobody stays together.
As a result, I’d invested a blind romantic faith in the notion that it was the imperfections that held my family together.
"Time is a healer"
For a while I definitely became more cynical about relationships, cautious about commitment, and was convinced that marriage was a waste of time. I refused to rely on anyone and insisted on doing everything for myself (from putting up shelves to moving heavy pieces of furniture), perhaps subconsciously preparing myself for the fact that, in the end, I might end up alone anyway.
My friends whose parents divorced when they were younger all seem to be doing fine now, it’s been their reality for a lot longer than it’s been mine. They’re used to having two Christmases, two family homes and having to divide their time and loyalties. I’m still adjusting. Sometimes I forget that my parents aren’t together. If I go for dinner with Mum, I feel like I should invite Dad.
It doesn’t matter how old you get, you will always be your mother and father’s child. And your mother and father, no matter how old they get, will still be your parents. They are your reference points for everything: where you came from, who you are today, and who you will become in the future.
In the end, after a year of not speaking to Mum and four Christmases of double dinners, we’ve found a new way to relate to one another. Time is a healer. Things really are better this way… I guess clichés get overused for a reason.
Dad really does seem happier. His new house is show-home clean and there’s nobody around to mess it up or move things around. He can happily sit around all day restoring old furniture he’s collected from junk shops and nobody bothers him.
Mum, too, is happier. She’s redecorated her bedroom (it’s purple) and lets the dogs sleep in the bed. She’s always out and about and watches trashy films freely without having to negotiate timings with a golf-lover during the Ryder Cup.
The thing you start to learn as you get older is that everybody is a little bit wrong up close, even your parents. And one of the hardest things you face as an adult child is the realisation that the people who made you are not a) superhuman or b) immortal.
So, our secret’s out: We aren’t like other families.
Even in this day and age we’re brought up on happy endings, which involve a conventional set up. Two married parents, together forever, through thick and thin, ’til death do they part. But what I realized was this: not that we don’t all get a happy ending but, rather, that not everyone’s happy ending conforms to that ideal.
This post was written by Vicky Spratt. For more, check out our sister site, The Debrief.