Making a book about divorce from a kid’s perspective was, at first, just for me. I wanted to do justice to this family upheaval, so I wrote a story I could relate to and made all the pictures. With every page I completed, I felt calmer, reassured, and most of all, not lied to.
Then recently, divorce struck a little too close to home, and I flipped right out.
A family I love faces divorce. Children I feel connected to are reacting to the news. And I am a child again. Night fills me with dread. My sleep is disturbed — not every night, but many, as this outcome has become clear and become final.
For weeks, a favorite title by Alice Walker has wafted around my head like the scent of honeysuckle, like ancient grandmothers, whispering the secret of life: “The way forward is with a broken heart.”
I have gotten too involved (I can fix it!) and hunted for bad guys (who is to blame for this?). Just as it did when I was a kid, this path of much resistance has culminated, a few times already now, with me feeling totally ashamed and apologizing for everything, literally everything — for being a person who exists and has feelings.
“The way forward is with a broken heart,” Walker reminds me.
I remind myself that I’m for letting kids’ hearts break over something worthwhile. That’s what I’m about — acknowledging that a crisis in their family, a rupture in an important relationship, a broken or lost something (baby blanket, beloved toy) are all “something to cry about” and we would do well to let them. Everyone will grow.
Trying to keep kids’ hearts from breaking over something real only increases the likelihood that their spirits may break instead, and that is much worse. For one thing, you rarely notice the moment when it happened.
Heartbreak can often be traced to an event, such as the day your parents told you their marriage was over or the day your best friend moved away. There’s a crrrrack down the center of things that you can mark and honor. My Syrian grandmother used to write “Sad Day” on her calendar in gorgeous cursive and underline it three times. Every year, those days came round again, usually commemorating the death of a friend or family member, and she made sure to notice.
But spirits break more quietly. Over the course of an entire childhood, for example, in a family where your still-married parents don’t connect with one another, have disdain for one another, or remain unfulfilled, unconscious and far away from whatever first drew them together.
Anne Lamott has said about the benefits of divorce that “…nothing is more damaging to a child than to be raised by miserable parents.” She also notes that “single parents have some of the greatest, most-loved and well-balanced kids around.”
I believe this. And along with Lamott and Walker, I’ve summoned other truth tellers to ease my worried mind, such as the writers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who set this gem into the season three finale, delivered by Whistler:
“Bottom line is, even if you see them coming, you’re not ready for the big moments. No one asks for their life to change, not really. But it does. So, what are we, helpless? Puppets? Nah. The big moments are gonna come, you can’t help that. It’s what you do afterwards that counts. That’s when you find out who you are.”
A few times lately, I have walked myself through the pages of Divorce Is the Worst, kicking the tires, checking to see if it’s sturdy enough to hold even my grown-up sadness. “Their reasons are theirs, not yours” beams at me from page 45. Get in your place, it tells me.
Just like that other one, this divorce is not up to me.
My only role is to embody Walker’s words, appropriate to every kind of crisis and at every stage of life: “The way forward is with a broken heart.” Children are watching; they need to see it can be done so they trust their own hearts to break without the whole world ending.
Then I remember that this is my favorite part of being an adult — having to see and say and do the difficult, brave thing so that kids can too. Change is constant. No apologies necessary for the feelings that come up. It’s always a good time to notice what we notice, about ourselves and those who care for us.
This is how we find out who we are. This is how we grow up.