Daughters: Forever Triangled / Forever Hopeful
“Although my parents fought constantly, I never expected them to divorce,” admits Bethany, who at twenty has been a daughter of divorce for six years.” I always had this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when friends told me that their parents were divorced. I couldn’t imagine how they got through it, having to pick one parent over the other and living in two houses. Then my parents got divorced and my father moved out, taking my older brother with him. Our family dissolved before my eyes. My mother spent all of her waking hours on the telephone. She cried constantly. We began to eat cereal for dinner every night.
“During the divorce period, unforgettable things were said and done. I saw our house, which had once represented such stability, as prison. My mother and I were left there to r ot. When my father came by to pick me up, he and my mother had these horrifying scenes. I couldn’t wait for the nightmare to end. I decided that one of two things would happen: my parents would get back together or my father would remarry, like all my friends’ fathers. I don’t remember how long it took before I gave up hoping for my parent’s reconciliation.”
We expect our mothers and fathers to be there for us, a united front against the world. The image of the picture-perfect family is held up to daughters, reinforcing that illusion. From a very early age, daughters feel responsible for this myth. The image of the harmony of family life—dinners, outings, holidays, vacations—is set before us on a regular basis. Beyond these seemingly essential ingredients in the fast moving, superficial profile of the ideal American family is a sense of completion, of oneness. Nothing can be more harmful than to rend this fabric. In every stage, be it childhood, adolescence or adulthood-we would do anything to hold it together, to perpetrate the fiction that all families live in a state of constant bliss.
&nb sp; Brenda Szulman, a clinical social worker, notes that most daughters would prefer to see their parents remain together despite the high level of strife in the marriage. “Even if the marriage was fragmented, daughters can stand conflict if the parents still stay together. In fact, there may be a good result from living in a contentious atmosphere. If daughters see marriages can withstand this contention, then the daughters learn how to negotiate the world of ambivalence. It is when the marriage cannot withstand the conflict that a divorce ensues.”
The Stepfamily Foundation reports that in the United States one out of two marriages ends in divorce and that over sixty million American children under the age of thirteen are living with one biological parent and that parent’s partner. Almost half of the female population who are not mothers, are likely to live in stepfamily relationships, including cohabitating arrangements. The United States Census Bureau reports that sixty-five percent of children will have parents who divorce before the children are eighteen years old. Regardless of daughters’ hopes, statistics tell us that the chances of remaining in an intact family are on in two.
The Disintegrating Family
When the seemingly “flawless” family crumbles, often daughters are crushed. Hopeful and idealistic, these girls had banked on the concept of cohesive families. The daughters might blame themselves or blame one of the parents, usually the one who has initiated the divorce. When a parent moves out of the house and the acrimony between the two adults begins, many children still dream that one day their parents will reconcile; one day this terrible wrong will be righted. Because most daughters are raised to please others, they will struggle to be on the good side of both parents, even if they secretly sympathize with one, usually the parent who did not want the divorce. Daughters are often pushed and pulled in both directions in a frantic search for solid ground. Regardless of their ages when divorce of their parents is announced, the event pushes them into an alien world. Their identity is irreversibly altered; no longer will they be a part of a conventional nuclear family, but instead they are one of the pieces of a splintered family. Their social con ditioning, steeped in patriarchy, encourages them to compromise and to accept. Whatever such daughters see and sense, they are customarily taught to be silent and to swallow their pride.
Foe Vanessa, the eldest of three daughters, her parents’ divorce, which happened when she was twelve, tore apart her family. “My mother was a wreck after my parents spilt. Living with her was hell and I really resented her. So, when my dad started dating a nice woman, I really liked her. Despite his good relationship with her, Dad always talked about wanting to lead a single life. That was very hurtful for us kids. We all liked his girlfriend and we hoped he’d settle down with her so we could have a family again. Instead, he dumped his girlfriend and focused more on his career, becoming head of his department at the hospital. This was a leap forward for him financially, but my sisters and I didn’t care about the money. All the while, our parents were so unpleasant to each other and so embroiled in the divorce proceedings that I ended up raising my sisters, especially the youngest who was only three when it all began. I felt like Cinderella. I did all the chores, because our mother worked full-time and when she wasn’t at work she taking pills and threatening to commit su icide. I became tired of their fighting, trying to keep my mom from being depressed and taking care of my sisters as if they were my own children. When I turned eighteen, I left home and never went back. The divorce was a nightmare and no one in our family ever really recovered.”