Six words. Six words was the project assigned to my 6th grade daughter at the end of the school year. She was tasked with writing a six-word memoir of her life. She completed the assignment and wrote: “I never knew they were unhappy.”
I could think of a couple six word statements that I may have preferred: “I break for cats and books.” Or “I am happy, healthy, and whole!” Or “My mom is truly super awesome!” Any of these would have sufficed. Instead, five years later, she defined her life around her parents’ divorce.
This profound statement surprised and rattled me. My greatest fear was being realized inside of a short sentence. Had I damaged her? Was she feeling deep pain despite appearing well adjusted? Would this be the only story she would tell of her childhood?
She captured in these small words a truth that left me reeling. We had pulled the proverbial rug out from underneath our daughters’ feet when we announced our separation. We had sheltered our girls from our disagreements and dissatisfaction with our marriage. The result being that they had no way to process that their parents weren’t truly, madly, deeply in love any longer.
I have thought about this in the months that have passed since the day she shocked me with her sentence. I have been trying to reconcile how she defines this pivotal moment in her life with what I should have done to keep her from having this BE a pivotal moment in her life. Should we have showed our five and seven year old daughters some of our marital distress? No. Would my children be better off if I had stayed married? No. Will I be able to protect and provide for them a heartache-free life? No.
As a parent of divorce, my single greatest worry is that my actions in divorcing will harm my children. I have heard this fear echoed by the hundreds of parents who have sat in my office over the years. I have grappled with the reality that sometimes we will cause our children pain for their own good. It is part of parenting. So in trying to yet again, forgive myself for the harsh standard to which I hold myself as a mother, I must turn to the truth.
The truth is my daughters are happy, healthy, and whole. The truth is that their parents got divorced when they were young. The truth is they never knew we were unhappy. The truth is that that is okay. (Their mom is truly super awesome!)