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Navigating Their Own Worlds: The Varying Experiences of Children of Divorce

Photo by Kelsey Mattison
Written by Grace King

Lydia sits on the bench outside of the office. The muffled sounds of the principal’s and secretary’s voices echo from behind the closed glass door. She taps her pink and white sneakers together to the rhythm of the clock that hangs on the cinder block wall in front of her.

Tick tock tick tock tick tock.

She has just learned how to tell time, and she can see that the clock says 3:34 p.m., 29 minutes since the bell rang to signal the end of the school day. All the other students ran to the buses to take them home. She would have done the same, except she needed to go to her dad’s house, two towns and a 25-minute drive from her elementary school. Teachers walk by her with expressions that hint at pity and sympathy. Lydia isn’t quite sure why, so she just smiles back at them, her hands stuffed under her knees and her feet continuing to thump to the rhythm of the clock.

The faint sounds of heels clicking down the hall is the first indicator that her mom, Sarah, is here.

“I’m so sorry, Lydia. How was your day?” She picks up her backpack from the bench and gestures toward the door. “Let’s go. You’re supposed to be at your dad’s by four.”

The two rush out the door and into the parking lot, moving quickly so as to stick to their strict timeline.

***

I sit in Lydia’s dad’s kitchen, waiting for her mom to drop her off. The only noises I hear are my own fingers typing at my laptop and the faint chirping of birds outside. I listen for the sound of a car pulling up the driveway, but nothing comes. A note sits on the table from Greg, telling me that he has a late meeting and will be home past Lydia’s bed time. There is no information as to what time Lydia would be arriving from school, and so I pick up the phone and call Sarah to check in.

“Hi Grace, we’re almost there!” I hear through the muffled and static-y cell phone. A few minutes later, the front door creaks open. Sarah and Lydia rush in. Sarah drops Lydia’s backpack on the tile floor.

“I need to get to a meeting. What time will Greg be home?”

“He left a note that said around nine,” I respond. Sarah nods, gives Lydia a hug, and then turns back to me.

“Can you let him know that I can drive Lydia to school tomorrow and then she can take the bus home to my house?”

I nod and Sarah leaves. As Lydia’s after-school nanny, I have become the communicator between the two parents on Lydia’s behalf. Three years divorced, Sarah and Greg do not interact much at all, except to care for their 8-year-old daughter, Lydia. It is an interesting dichotomy, as Lydia is at the center of both of their worlds, and yet this once-team of parents would prefer never to speak again.

***

Although Lydia may be too young to do so yet, this mediating role is one that children of divorced parents often find themselves forced to take on. Furthermore, growing up with divorced parents is a fairly common phenomenon. According to The Spruce, an online publication offering home improvement advice, 50 percent of children born to married parents will experience divorce before they turn 18. In other words, 50 percent of children are learning how to navigate life with divorced parents, just as Lydia is.

This is also true for both Eliza Oliver ’19 and Liv Sears ’19. And although these two girls have experiences with divorce that are distinctly different, many of the feelings they have internalized through their experiences are the same.

“I was two when my parents got divorced,” says Eliza about her own experiences growing up with divorced parents. “So, I don’t really remember life any other way.” Eliza’s parents’ divorce ended on very poor terms, and there is very limited communication between her parents as a result.

“Once I was old enough, I would communicate for them. That was in the court order. They wouldn’t communicate at all, and I was expected to relay messages,” says Eliza. Eliza explains that of all the feelings she has associated with her parents’ divorce, the most poignant is guilt.

“My parents weren’t very gentle about the guilt,” says Eliza. “There was a lot of hostility between them and it was very clearly passed on to me.”

“If I wanted to spend time with one parent, the other would make me feel bad for trying to foster that relationship,” she adds after a pause. “I promise it’s not as shitty as it sounds. Because of all this, I think I’m extra careful about relationships. I don’t want to get divorced and don’t want to have to put kids through this,” Eliza says thoughtfully.

***

Liv’s own experience with divorce is almost the complete opposite of Eliza’s.

“I think my family is kind of an anomaly. I mean, we celebrate Christmas together still,” Liv says. However, she sympathizes with Eliza’s role as communicator between parents. “But communication has always been a terrible thing. Our parents communicate so much more than other people’s parents do, but we still have to be the messengers a lot of the time.”

“Because my parents are on good terms, I don’t ever feel tension between them is passed onto us kids,” says Liv. Although Eliza’s and Liv’s experiences with divorce differ greatly, the feeling of guilt in interacting with their parents after the divorce rings true for both.

“There is still a lot of guilt on us to make sure we show equal appreciation for them,” says Liv. This navigation can be tricky, and can affect the way the children see marriage.

“I’d rather not get divorced. I don’t think anyone wants to,” says Liv.

***

Back in Lydia’s house, Greg returns home just after nine, as his note promised. On my way out the door, I turn back and remember to relay the message to him.

“Sarah says she’ll bring Lydia to school tomorrow, and Lydia will take the bus to her house tomorrow afternoon for the weekend.”

“Great,” he says. “I’ll be sure to text you if I have any questions. Thanks, Grace!” I smile and close the back door, leaving the sleeping Lydia to navigate her own world as a child of divorce.

About the author

Grace King