News & Politics

Caught in the Middle

I Was 26--Why Was My Parents' Breakup Hitting Me So Hard? Was I Their Daughter or Their Friend?

WHEN I WAS LITTLE, MY MOTHER READ ME THE Little Engine That Could. I'd wait for the part when the railcar approached a mountain. I think I can, I think I can, it told itself. And up the mountain it went.

On an August afternoon about 20 years later, those words popped back into my head. I was 26, sitting next to my dad on the beach. I think I can, I think I can, I told myself. I can get through this.

"I don't know what she wants me to do," my dad said. "I love her so much."

He looked terrible. He's a painter, a physical job that keeps his frame toned. But in the four weeks since I'd last seen him, he'd lost 15 pounds.

Four months earlier, my mom had told him she wanted a separation. He refused to move out of their Long Island house, writing off her request as another phase in their 27-year marriage. When reality set in, he packed up his truck and went to stay with my aunt. She lives in Montauk, on the island's eastern tip. I was visiting him there.

"Maybe this is a good thing," I said. "Maybe you'll have a chance to do some of the things you've always wanted to. Maybe you'll define who you are without Mom."

He put his hand on my shoulder, fiddled with his sunglasses.

I wanted him to stop hurting. I tried to think of what I could say to make him happy, make him want to run and jump in the ocean or do a little dance while walking down the street–any of his usual antics. I wouldn't have minded if he'd asked me how I was doing. But the world was stale to him.

When I went back to my mother's house that night, she and I sat on the deck–candles lit, the moon bright. She could tell I was upset. I stared at her red-painted toenails. There was so much I wanted to say. I wanted her to take care of my dad the way she always had.

"I just need to hear that you still love him," I said, "that you always will."

Mom uncrossed and crossed her legs. She lit a cigarette and said, "I can't do that."

I CAME FROM THE PERFECT FAMILY. I grew up playing at the beach on Long Island Sound. I collected rocks. My parents read me a story each night and tucked me in.

I see them in the audience of my ballet recitals clapping, Dad whistling. I picture us sitting down to dinner each night and talking about our day. Or Dad playing his guitar and me dancing around singing. Unlike some parents who were in bed by 10, my parents stayed up talking for hours on Friday nights.

They often took Sunday drives. Sometimes my sisters, Erin and Chelsea, and I went along, and we stopped for lunch at a clam bar. My parents talked about the house they longed for or the trip to the Caribbean they planned to take. They seemed like best friends.

My younger sister, Chelsea, remembers more of the bad stuff. She recalls how many times they told each other they wanted a divorce. I was there for those moments, and I remember the time my dad was so mad he punched a hole in the ceiling. To keep from hearing, I'd duck my head under the water in the bathtub or take the dog for a walk.

I came to believe that's how marriages work–parents fight, and they make up. I'd be relieved when I'd see Dad loop his arms around Mom's waist and give her a kiss while she did the dishes.

I 'VE ALWAYS BEEN THE "GOOD" KID. Not that my sisters were bad, but I was the one who got the really good grades, won the awards. I wanted to impress my parents with one accomplishment after the next.

I thought my presence could keep them together. When Dad moved out, I considered moving home to help "patch things up." I could talk it out with each of them and remind them how wonderful their life was because of their children.

Only they know why they called it quits. I think it came down to the fact that they'd changed. All of the dreams they'd set aside in their twenties, after they had kids, began to resurface a couple of years ago–maybe because they turned 50.

Dad bought a sailboat and started spending more time there. He made new friends, and he'd drink beers with them on the docks. He joined a sailing club. Sunday drives were replaced by fishing trips with friends.

That year, Chelsea went to college, which inspired my mother to take up writing again. She'd been working on a collection of essays on and off for ten years. She tired of spending weekends alone. She didn't want to sail to the Virgin Islands–my dad's dream. She wanted to go to Europe. She joined a writers' group. She considered returning to school to study creative writing.

I never understood why they couldn't do their dreams together.

I FELT GUILTY TALKING TO MY WASHINGton friends about the breakup. It was embarrassing to get upset about what my mother said to my father on a day when a friend's parent was diagnosed with cancer. For six months, I didn't tell anyone except my boyfriend.

At 26, I felt I should be able to listen to my parents' comments about each other and get on with my day. Instead, every little exchange gnawed at me.

"You have to fight for what you believe in," my mother always told me. Saving my family became my fight.

I actually hoped on September 11 that the horrible events would inspire a reconciliation. Dad was still living with my aunt in Montauk. I pictured him rushing home to Mom. I thought they would realize how short life was and get back together.

A couple of weeks later, they began ping-ponging about one of those details that crop up in divorce. That day it was health insurance. Mom wanted Dad off her health plan. He didn't have ready access to insurance because he was an independent contractor. He offered to pay for his half. She said no.

He called me at work: "What do I do?"

I told him he could buy insurance on his own; he didn't have to go through Mom's. He knew that, but he seemed to want to play victim. Maybe it made him feel that he might be losing his wife, but his daughters would always be there to help him.

W HEN A YOUNGER COUPLE GETS a divorce, they worry how it will affect the children. My mom told me that's partly why she and Dad stayed together so long. Did it mean that what I saw as a perfect childhood was a lie? Were my parents miserable the whole time?

There's a notion that an adult child won't hurt as much as a youngster, that a 26-year-old isn't as likely to be affected by her parents' breakup. That she'll understand.

It's not true. Understanding what your parents are putting each other through is even worse. You know how you'd approach the same situation in your own relationships, or how you hope you would. Then you blame them when they don't do it the same way.

In some respects, I envy young children living through a divorce. They're coddled and worried about. They're sent to psychologists. Their parents go out of their way to make sure the transition is smooth. They're allowed to hurt.

During my parents' separation, I took on the role I'd played as a child. After they argued back then, one of them would slip into my room, hold me, and rock me. I think they comforted themselves by comforting me. I listened to their side of it–or tried not to.

Now I felt just as helpless when my parents cried to me over the phone. I tried anything I could to make the tears disappear. I felt like I was doing verbal acrobatics to send the conversation in a different direction.

"Dad isn't going to help you pay the mortgage," I'd say. "That reminds me of this interview I did yesterday. This woman was so down and out and needed help. . . ."

Even as I retreated into childhood reflexes, my parents treated me more like an adult than they ever had. They tried to manipulate me into taking sides, each telling the same story with different facts.

I couldn't put my hands over my ears when Dad told me Mom didn't want him on her health insurance. I knew the significance of his going without. I worried about Dad. I started researching insurance plans. I was afraid he'd have a heart attack and not be able to pay the doctor's bills.

"Stop worrying about us," Mom said. "You're an adult with your own life."

But I was still their child. They were too busy pushing each other away to realize they were pushing me away. I became an onlooker in their lives, and I hated it.

B Y DECEMBER 2001, DAD HAD FOUND an apartment ten minutes from the family home. On Christmas Eve, he took my sisters and me to dinner. Mom came with us, she said, so we could all be together.

Everyone was on edge. Would we repeat something one of them had said that we weren't supposed to know? Was there a chance they were getting back together?

My older sister, Erin, lives in California. She lightened the mood by telling jokes about women with bleached hair and fake boobs who didn't know how to drive their SUVs.

Every Christmas Eve, we go to church and then open our presents at midnight. We didn't go to church that night because Mom didn't want to confuse the neighbors by showing up with Dad.

My sisters and I gave Dad things for his place–artwork, a knife set, soaps. He looked grateful, but I saw a hint of disappointment: We were building him a new home.

Mom and Dad agreed he would leave after the presents were exchanged. Once he was gone, Mom came out with her own presents, excited to give us her gifts.

"I can't believe Daddy just left," Erin said, pulling me into the bathroom. I went into Chelsea's bedroom and called him. The line was busy.

On Valentine's Day, I called each of my parents and sang them an improvised song. I sent an e-card to my mom. She mentioned she'd received roses at work from "a friend." I pretended not to hear that.

P HONE CALLS BEGAN INTERRUPTING my days at work. Dad would feed me things Mom was saying or doing to pull our family apart. I'd hang up, cry at my desk, then call Mom, fueled with this information but sworn to secrecy.

One morning in March 2002, Dad called.

"Hey, Brock," he said. My name is Brooke Lea, which over the years turned into the nickname Broccoli, then Brock. When Dad used it, he was usually in high spirits.

He had good news, he said. He'd started going to support groups. He'd made new friends. They had dinner at one another's houses. "How's Mom?" he asked.

It was the question I dreaded most. Dad always wanted to know what she'd been up to. He'd look for clues to her new life. It made me feel like a spy. I told him she was fine.

"We had lunch the other day," he said.

Then he launched into what he really wanted to talk about. Mom wanted him to sign divorce papers. She'd changed the locks on the house. He wanted her to try couples therapy–why wouldn't she?

"I'm sorry," he said. "I'm not trying to put you between us."

Yet he continued to do it. When you're an adult child, your parents look to you for advice in the same way they look to a friend. I understood why–who knows a parent better than a daughter or son?

I became my father's coconspirator. Mom accused me of taking his side–which I denied, even to myself. But it was easier to talk to Dad, who wanted more than anything to get back together with Mom. I liked that.

It hadn't always been that way. In the year leading up to their separation, he probably wanted the divorce more than she did. When Mom took steps toward it, Dad changed his mind. He saw their arguing as something he could put up with in exchange for having a companion to grow old with.

That morning in March, office e-mails waited. My other line was ringing. I tried to console Dad, even though I felt like saying, "You need to talk to her about this, not me."

I supported him as I would a best friend. I didn't give Mom the same help. When she spoke to me about Dad, it was usually to justify the divorce. It was always hurtful, always something I'd rather not know.

M OM HAD BEEN THE GLUE THAT held our family together. When my sisters and I fought, she'd rub her index finger on her sleeve, call it the "magic finger," and wave it at us long enough to make us laugh. If Dad was having trouble at work, she'd counsel him through it. I never went to him to talk about heartbreaks or career moves. Mom provided support on every front–a reason why, when she stopped giving us as much as she had, we hated her for it. When she pushed Dad away, it was as though she were abandoning the thing that made her our mother.

She called me later that week. I was fired up from talking to Dad–he had become an expert at leaving me with more than a goodbye when we hung up.

"Why can't you just try couples therapy?" I said as soon as there was a pause. "Dad said he'd go."

Her voice began to tremble, and then she began screaming into the phone so loud I feared coworkers would hear her.

Did I know how many times a day my dad was calling her at work? How many times she'd asked him to go to couples therapy over the years? Did I know she'd dropped off the papers to him weeks ago and he refused to sign them? Did I realize how much strength it had taken her to go through with this–and how much support she needed? Did I know he showed up unannounced and she couldn't lead a regular life?

When she was done, I asked, "Where is Dad going to spend his birthday? Are we going to make him spend it alone?"

"You need to stop doing this to me, Brooke. He has family. He has you girls."

I told her she needed to think about someone other than herself and hung up.

W HEN I WENT HOME LAST JULY, my parents seemed like different people. Mom had grown her hair long, in a cut common in my circle of friends. She had always been fashionable, but now her wardrobe included V-neck tops and low-rise jeans that made her look ten years younger. She had taken up yoga.

When she announced we were going to meet my father at the boat and go for a sail, I nearly fell over. But I shrugged and said, "Cool." I hugged my dad when I saw him. He and Mom exchanged a brief kiss.

When Dad and I had a minute alone, I asked what was going on.

"We just like spending time with each other every so often," he said.

They'd go out to dinner or go kayaking.

"That's so sweet," my friends said. "They're rediscovering each other."

They didn't see what I saw. Dad would put his arm around Mom, and she'd wriggle uncomfortably. They'd have a couple of glasses of wine and share a kiss, then the mortgage would come up, and she'd leave to go to the bathroom. They looked like a normal couple, but there was a hollowness in their words, in their kisses.

They weren't falling back in love. They were making sure they weren't still in love.

I BEGAN OBSESSING OVER THEIR GROWing old alone. I pictured them in separate houses without someone to make them tea if they had the flu. They could come live with me, but I'd have to choose one.

When the only way you know two people is as a unit, it's strange to watch them apart. It's even stranger to watch them develop individual personas and then get back together. That day on the sailboat, Mom was less demanding of Dad. She tried to act as though she liked being on the boat. Dad asked her about her writing.

Few of our conversations were about my life. Parents may be the only people you think really care about everything that happens to you. Now when mine wanted to talk to me, I assumed it was to vent.

My parents and I reversed roles. I became the worried one, the one wanting to make sure they had a good weekend or that the birthday present I'd sent was perfect. When Mom told me she'd gone out with work friends in their thirties, I was annoyed. Why was she hanging out with such young people? When Dad said he'd taken up skeet shooting, I wondered if he had some pent-up anger I should help him deal with.

As the three of us sat on the boat, I felt as if everything I had talked about with each of them–all of the hurt–was there and at the same time vanishing. I thought I had helped Dad make progress, but here he was wanting her back. And there she was allowing us both to believe that it might work.

T HE EFFECT OF MY PARENTS' SEPARAtion on my personal life was subtle at first. I woke up in the middle of the night. I went to the gym more often so I'd feel less anxious.

I didn't notice I'd started to look for faults in my relationship with my boyfriend: Was I with the wrong person? We'd go out to dinner and a movie, then linger over dessert. I'd have a great time. I'd feel in love. Then a voice would remind me: Love isn't forever.

I watch a lot of romantic comedies. I'll happily pay eight bucks to see the leading man run halfway across the city to find the woman he loves. "When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody," Billy Crystal says in When Harry Met Sally, "you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible." These stories made me believe that if you find the right person, you'll stay with him. I was in love with John, my boyfriend–we'd been together seven years–but suddenly it felt futile. What was the point if in 27 years we might break up?

Over the past year, there were a few times I told John I felt stagnant–both in our relationship and within myself. I'd allowed my family's problems to take over my life, leaving little of myself for him. When we went out to dinner, they were all I wanted to discuss. I stopped talking about graduate school, the fellowship I wanted to apply for, articles I was working on, the trip to Europe we wanted to plan. I stopped calling my best friend because I knew I'd have to catch her up about my parents. I avoided visits with aunts and uncles.

If I didn't let myself hurt after my parents split up, hurting seemed to be all I did as time went on. I didn't see a therapist because I thought I could handle how I was feeling. I didn't like having to explain my family's history to a stranger.

A MONTH BEFORE LAST THANKSGIVing, I dreamed I was walking down a street past pastel bungalows. On my left hip I carried a young child. I held the hand of a girl on my right. We twirled around. They giggled. The sun was bright.

I'd always envisioned falling in love, but children weren't part of the fantasy. This dream seemed to change that.

"I guess I won't really feel the same sort of love and happiness in a family until I build my own," I told John that day.

I had met John in my first class on the first day of my freshman year at the University of Maryland. He now lives an hour away in Baltimore and is studying to be a dentist. We have a dog and keys to each other's cars and apartments. Everyone bugs us to get engaged or move in together.

"We have the rest of our lives to spend together," we always say. "What does it matter if it's this month or two years from now?"

I began to feel anxious about getting married. What if John changed his mind about me as Mom had changed hers about Dad? Our relationship was better than theirs because . . . why?

While I was in Long Island over Thanksgiving, I couldn't wait to get back to John. The safety my family home represented was fading. Going there meant stress. It meant facing the fact that Dad wouldn't wake up, scramble me eggs, and pour Mom a cup of coffee. It meant waking up to my mom sipping coffee alone in her bedroom, me climbing into bed with her, and both of us avoiding subjects like what she kept in Dad's drawers.

I used to look to this house for stability and love. Not now. That made the prospect of losing John even scarier. I had started creating my own nest. What I hadn't realized was how much John was at the center of it.

It's a big step to split mentally from your parents. It can be liberating. But the Peter Pan in me didn't like the way it felt.

T HOUGH MY PARENTS HAD BEEN SEEing each other on and off–I'd call home and Dad would be painting the spare room, or Chelsea would tell me Mom had slept at his apartment–I didn't think we'd spend Christmas together.

Yet there we were–all five of us–eating Christmas Eve dinner. Everything went okay except for the time I threw down my spoon and walked out of a restaurant because Mom started fighting with Dad in loud whispers. We made up and got on with the holiday.

I was still angry from a phone conversation we'd had a few days before I arrived home, when Mom told me she was leaving for San Francisco the day after Christmas. I was short with her, feeling abandoned. She said she was going on the trip to decide whether she wanted to move out there. If she decided yes, she'd sell the house. The news hit me harder than the separation had.

"Let her go," Chelsea said. "She needs to get away from us."

T HE DAY MOM LEFT, DAD TOOK US ALL into New York City for an overnight. My Uncle Bob–his brother–and my cousins joined us from Westchester. We went to a swanky restaurant, then to an underground pub. One drink led to another. By midnight everyone had had enough, but we moved on to a club in the hotel.

I don't drink often, and I was the only one who didn't that night. I felt I needed to keep an eye on everyone. Without Mom there, everyone seemed to lose control a little. We had never really spent much time together as a family without her–I think partly because Dad didn't want to. He was always the casual parent, relying on Mom to put her foot down. Without her there to balance his lax style, I don't think he knew how to say no.

Chelsea drank glass after glass of red wine. When she couldn't get into the club with us–she's not 21–even after Dad argued with the bouncer to let her in, she stormed off. Dad went in anyway.

"Who are you?" I yelled to him. "Mom would kill you if she knew what you were doing! Act like a dad, will you?"

Worried that my sister might start wandering the streets of Manhattan, I ran up to the hotel room. No sister. I looked through the lobby. No sister. Maybe she decided to have a cigarette out front. No sister.

I went back to find Dad. Erin pulled me aside. "Why is he acting like this?" she said.

I looked up. Dad was leaning against the bar, chatting with a woman.

We weren't a family that night. It felt like I was partying with not-so-good friends. I was tired of babysitting everyone. I wanted to get back home to Washington. I went upstairs to our room and tried to sleep.

Was Dad always this irresponsible? Was this what it was like to live with him?

I N THE MORNING, MY SISTERS AND MY dad chatted uncomfortably, knowing that the night before had gone too far.

When Mom returned from California, she called me: "Everyone sounds weird, like something went down while I was gone."

I told her what had happened, and many of the emotions that I'd kept to myself came flowing out."I don't see you as parents anymore," I said. "You're just two people trying to figure things out–like anyone else."

We went back and forth, tears flowing, for more than an hour. I told her that she needed to stop having an on-again, off-again relationship with Dad, that they needed to stop creating gray areas. "Start dating. Get a legal divorce. End it," I said.

She told me she'd decided not to move to California. She loved Long Island too much. What she said next must have been what I wanted to hear because once she said it, I felt a hundred times lighter.

"Dad was my life for so long, Brooke. I can't just stop loving him. But we're not meant to be. We shouldn't have spent Christmas together. I'm not sure why we did. He's all I have besides you girls–I don't have parents. It's been hard to just cut him off. We've all hit such a low this past week. We can only go up from here. I promise you we will go up from here."

H EARING THAT SHE STILL LOVED MY father, and always would, was comforting. It was as though she had waved her "magic finger."

I thought of the moment on her deck when she told me she couldn't love him forever. Why had she said that? Maybe she was trying to convince herself that she didn't need him. She might not be in love with my dad, or want to share her life with him, but she still cared.

For so long, I blamed her for the divorce. If she could stop being so selfish, I thought, things would be fine. But now I felt sorry for what I'd put her through, how little I'd supported her. She'd been my punching bag, and each time I punched, she cried, hugged me, and then stood ready to take some more.

That night in Manhattan, I had felt trapped by my family. I had tasted what it was like to live a life you didn't want to, if only for one night.

For the first time, I understood why my mom was pushing my dad away. She didn't want to be part of his world anymore. She wanted to build her own.

I TOLD A FRIEND AFTER THE HOLIDAYS that my family felt dead to me. "I think you're exaggerating," my friend said.

But I wasn't. I was in mourning. My family as I knew it was dying.

I did an Internet search about adult children going through divorce. Several Web sites popped up, constructed by people whose parents had split up. "The Cherepon Family, June 30, 1973, to May 17, 1999, RIP," one said.

It was liberating to acknowledge that my old family was dying. When someone dies, you have a funeral, you grieve, you adjust to life without the person, and you move on. I'd gone through all of the steps except the last. It gave me hope. An end was in sight.

It came in February. Nothing dramatic happened. I immersed myself in work. Mom joined a writers' group. Dad began practicing with a rock band. When Mom and I talked, the subject of my father stopped coming up. We had other things to talk about–which woman Joe Millionaire would pick, what yoga poses we liked best, where John and I had gone to dinner.

Maybe deciding that she wasn't moving to California made my mother realize she needed to work through demons on this side of the country. I don't know. But her head seemed clearer. And she was interested in my life. She felt like my mother again.

Mid-month, my dad called. I hadn't had a grudge about the night in New York City. We'd had a long talk afterward, and he'd apologized. We were all ready to surrender to reality.

"I feel really happy," he said. "Work is going well. I have friends, people I laugh with. I never really had that before. Sometimes I think Mom and I are better apart. We're happier that way."

He still hasn't signed the divorce papers. He doesn't want lawyers to be involved. But I think all of us have admitted that there isn't hope for a reconciliation.

M Y SISTERS AND I DISCUSSED EARLY on how we'd feel if our parents started dating other people. Erin said she'd feel nauseated. Chelsea said she wasn't sure.

Last summer I decided I wanted my parents to find other people. Then I could stop worrying about them. They were dragging out their divorce.

Chelsea and I suspected they had been going out on dates since the separation. Mom would tell me she was meeting a "friend" for sushi. When I called Dad's apartment, he was rarely there. Around Thanksgiving of last year, he told me he had a girlfriend. He'd already told Mom, and she admitted she had gone on a few dates as well.

Dad was excited about his life. I told him I wanted to meet his girlfriend. I didn't know if he was in love–I didn't care. I just knew I wouldn't have to look out for him as much. If he and Mom got into an argument, he had someone he could talk to. I couldn't fill that role forever. But I worried about Mom. She didn't have a boyfriend. Was she coping now that Dad did?

O N VALENTINE'S DAY I WAS DRIVING to Baltimore when Mom called my cell phone. I didn't want to ask her what she was doing that night–didn't want to hear she was spending it alone. I told her John had sent me roses at work.

"I got a beautiful bouquet, too," she said.

"Ooh," I teased, "from who?"

"I met someone," she said. "It's not a big deal. But I like him." She told me where they'd met, what they had in common.

You might not think it was the ideal ending. But the more my parents convinced themselves they shouldn't be together, the more they convinced me. Two new faces wouldn't destroy my family. My parents would have separate but happy lives–and it would bring the best of them back to us.

I gave the steering wheel a kiss. "That's really wonderful," I said.

When I got to John's, he had dinner waiting. He had slaved over chicken Marsala. Candles were lit. I didn't tell him what my mom had told me. This night was about us.

As he served dinner, he said, "You know, when we get married, we have to get some really nice pots and pans."

Life won't always be as clear as it was in that moment. But if there was one good thing about going through a divorce as an adult, it was this. I now was mature enough to see how important it was for my parents to move on and find new people. And when they did, I had my own life to return to–boyfriend, chicken Marsala, fancy pots, and all.

"Stop worrying about us," Mom said. "You're an adult with your own life." But I was still their child. They were too busy pushing each other away to realize they were pushing me away. I became an onlooker in their lives, and I hated it.