real life

How it feels to be an adult child of divorcing parents.

As melodramatic, insensitive, and spoilt as it may sound, I was 23 when my parents separated and it changed me. Deeply.

It was unexpected. It fractured the foundations of my upbringing. It shot ‘my place in the world’ well out range. And I didn’t expect it to hurt so much.

I also didn’t expect to revert to my five-year-old self who so desperately just wanted to kick my legs and throw a tantrum because things didn’t go the way I was expecting.

I lived in a different city, had a full-time job to attend, rent to pay, a plane to catch home from my holiday, a partner who was brilliantly supportive. I had my own life, and was well and truly ‘an adult’. So why did I so badly want to throw that tantrum?

I also knew I was lucky.

Other children, much younger than I was, can experience horrific things when their parents divorce. I was not subject to abuse. There were no screaming matches in the middle of the night. I was raised in a loving, welcoming, empowering family.

Watch Mamamia staff reveal the moment they knew their relationships were over. 

See? That tantrum is sounding more and more unreasonable by the minute.

‘Grey divorce’, or the divorce of baby boomers, is on the rise. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the average age for divorce in 2013 was 10 years older than it was in 1990. Fewer people are divorcing in their 30s and 40s, and more and more people are calling it quits after 50.

“We’ve seen the average age of marriage get later and people divorcing later,” Social researcher Mark McCrindle told the Sydney Morning Herald. “There’s a couple of other factors in addition to people getting married later, including people living longer, changing careers later in life and being more active later in life. Once upon a time, people would have said ‘I’ll stick it out’, but not any more.”

I understand this. I understand the importance of being happy. And I understand my parent’s lives do not (and should never have) just revolved around us kids.

Divorce was something that happened to other people’s parents. Not my family. I used to boast that my parents were still together. That they were a great example of what marriage should be. That, as a family, we had gone through a whole world of different stages and experiences. And, the fact we were a family, is what pulled us through them.

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Suddenly, I didn’t know what to believe.

“It’s that sense of: ‘Is nothing permanent?’ And: ‘If my childhood wasn’t what I thought it was, what else should I question?’ ” Paula Hall, a Relate counsellor and author told The Guardian when talking about adult kids of divorcing parents. “We need more research into this unexamined group.”

So I became difficult. Like really difficult. I shut down, froze, felt sick, lost myself.

Wanted to get home and see my dad. Didn’t know what to say to him when I did.

Wanted my mum to be the same as she always had been. Didn’t know what to say to her when I saw that she was the same, just different in my mind.

I became difficult. Like really difficult. I shut down, froze, felt sick, lost myself. (Image: iStock)

I treated my friends, my partner, badly because in my mind they wouldn't understand. Why? Because there was nothing to really understand, right? There are so many worse situations in the world. Divorce happens all the time. I have a lot to be grateful for. Chin up. Get through it. It's not the end of the world. 'I am an adult'.

Taking this attitude effectively enabled me to alienate everyone around me and completely screw myself over mentally.

Because it was impossible.

Grieving the loss of your parent's relationship is hard work. No matter how old you are, no matter what your background. It is upsetting, confronting, shattering. It makes you question where you're from; where you're going; and all those things you've ever taken for granted.

The roles within a family change. You're no longer a child. There is no 'family home'.

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One of your parents has a whole new life - and you don't know how / if / when you might be willing to be a part of that.

The other parent is grieving, hurt, angry, uncertain, and you don't have the slightest idea how to help them.

My story is not everyone's story, but you get the drift.

All of a sudden you're talking finances with your dad, real estate with your mum, legal papers with both parties. You're listening to the inner-most problems of a marriage that you thought was solid. Your facing details of betrayal, selfishness, secrets about the very same people you're meant to call 'dad' and 'mum'.

When the parents of younger children are separating, there is (often, but not always) a whole army of people there to support the kids. Family friends, extended family, teachers, the parents themselves are doing there best to make sure those children feel safe, loved, secure with the change. When those same kids are older, it's the often the other way round.

I so badly wanted to help and support my parents and my brother. I thought I could do that because I was not a child, and I could think like an adult.

One problem. I didn't feel like an adult. I felt as scared, angry, deceived, let down, as if I was five.

I also didn't know how to navigate the future with each of my parents. I still don't - what if there's a wedding? Or a grandchild?

It does get better with time. And my brother and I have been lucky enough to form strong relationships with both our parents. These relationships are different to each other, and different to what they once were. But they are also, arguably, stronger than before.

Everything has changed, but nothing, really, has changed. We've still gone through a world of stages and experiences. We've gotten through this, not because we a one family, but because we are family.

I did throw the tantrum. At Christmas. It was ugly. I was mean. I was also honest.

For anyone in the same position. I would urge you to not hold back. Scream, cry, get angry, say what you think, kick those legs, spit the absolute dummy. This might not be 'adult' but it will be helpful. It will help other people understand how to talk to you and where you're at. It will also put you in a better position to support your mum, dad and siblings.

Most importantly, feel justified in doing it. Because when parents separate, whether you're aged five or thirty-five and no matter your background, it makes you question everything. It puts into harsh reality the potential problems of any long-term relationship. It rocks your faith in people and it splinters your trust in anyone. These are the reasons you most certainly, definitely, should throw that tantrum, no matter how old you are, what your rental requirements are and regardless of your current job status.

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