Balance and Belonging

Another family holiday is almost upon us, which means, like many other people with divorced parents, I’m faced with a predictable but also stressful triage: who will I visit, and when? Once upon a time, all of my families lived within an hour of each other along the Lakeshore West GO line. So it wasn’t too hard to carve a holiday into little pieces like a Thanksgiving turkey. For most of my childhood, I celebrated two Christmases—one in the morning, and one in the afternoon—and I thought this was pretty great.

But now as an adult, my families have split into three very different directions, no one reached in less than two hours’ drive—and I don’t own a car. To visit all three would mean roughly sixteen hours of driving. And so, most holidays can be ceded to only one person. Which means I have to choose.

If your stomach didn’t twist a bit there, you’re not the child of divorce.

Because choosing is a heavy thing. It comes with history, politics, and guilt. It reminds you that the home of most children with divorced parents isn’t here or there, it’s between. The only space that seems neutral, even if it rarely is.

Being part of different families is strange: you belong in multiple places, but you’re not a permanent fixture in any of them. You never belong completely. I imagine this is the way immigrants feel, like citizens of multiple nations with divided allegiances.

Each family, of course, has different customs, different spaces, different taboos, different ways of interacting. Each family speaks a different dialect. But the harder part is there’s always an awareness of something else, other people, other times, other ways. Shadow families trailing behind you, and with them guilt, tiny betrayals, judgments, baggage that proves we never pack light. Our passports bear stamps from enemy territory.

I’m also always struck by the transformations involved as we respond to our environments, slip into old roles. In one family, I am the most serious. In another, chatty. In another, withdrawn. In two households I’m a good sister, in another, an indifferent one. It’s no surprise that people are mutable—I think we all dress for the occasion, so to speak—but in families it feels the most striking to me. After all, aren’t families supposed to be the place where we can be ourselves?

You can guarantee that before any holiday I will spend weeks agonizing over how to divide my time. I remind myself that this isn’t a situation of my creation: the divorces were not my choice, nor the relocations. Perhaps it is not my problem to solve, and maybe the parents don’t care as much as I think. They are, outwardly at least, pretty accepting. I’d like to stop caring so much. And yet the child of divorce is inescapably the one to try to smooth things over, to try to maintain some sense equilibrium.

This isn’t to say poor me, because no one wants someone they love stuck in a dysfunctional marriage, and there are benefits to all this too: having these divided families has given me new experiences and a broader support network. I’m just writing this because it’s weighing on me and to say this is hard, there is no tidy resolution. And to all the others negotiating the complexities of belonging, I see you.

I haven’t decided on Easter yet, though probably I should just flip a coin and save myself the angst. There’s no right answer. There’s just a decision, and then a couple months’ break before it’s time to start worrying about Thanksgiving.