It took a while but I’ve learned to gather some wisdom from the ruins.
My father’s voice on the other end of the phone was disapproving, disappointed.
“You haven’t even been married two years,” he said. “That’s not enough time to decide it’s not working. It’s too soon to get a divorce.”
The static between us crackled. It was 1997 and my father was more than 1,500 miles away. Still, even if he’d been standing beside me, it would have felt like an ocean divided us.
I didn’t know what to say. I was hurting. Divorce, even when you know it’s the absolute right, necessary, and only thing you can do to continue breathing, can be awful. I wanted comfort from my father, not judgment. I wanted him to offer empathy, words of wisdom, insight into how to grieve, heal, and move on.
He had plenty of experience at it, after all. At that point he was just a few years out of his third marriage, and a near decade before he’d say “I do” for the fourth time. If you counted up all his marriages plus the ones of my biological mother and adoptive mother, you’d find a small mountain of paperwork binding and dissolving vows of love and commitment. Six separate wedding ceremonies and five divorces.
In the two decades since that phone call with my father, I’ve thought of a million ways I should have answered him. A million words I wish I could have found the strength and quick wit to say.
That chance is gone, but in those 20 years I’ve found something more important: an understanding that my parents’ marriages don’t need to shape mine.
I don’t have to live in the shadow of their “failed” vows, although I have discovered there is power in scavenging through the remains of their past relationships, casting an archeological eye to what worked and what didn’t.
My father’s first marriage, for example, technically lasted more than two years. My biological mother, however, would have likely argued it ended much sooner—probably around the time he decided to return to the war in Vietnam without having a conversation with her first. He left the two of us behind in a tiny Wichita Falls apartment. Years later she would tell me how she felt helpless, left out of important decisions, practically abandoned, She felt isolated, too, as my father had made it clear he didn’t want her talking to other people, men in particular. “It’s his jealous streak,” she’d tell me, which pushed her into bad decisions, including the one to leave me behind for what would become her second marriage when I was 18 months old.
When I think back on her relationship with my father, I think of decisions made in haste and quickly regretted. They married only after she found out she was pregnant with me; she’d wanted an abortion, but Roe v. Wade wouldn’t be decided for a few more years. So, like other young women facing similar circumstances in the late ‘60s, she married. She was only 21.
When I think back to when I was 21, I find similarities. At that age, I was already living with the person I’d eventually marry—husband number one—but when I got pregnant, I had the legal freedom to end the pregnancy. I wish I’d been smart enough to end the marriage then, too, but if I learned anything from my biological parents’ marriage, it’s that it’s okay to walk away from something bad—however long it takes—without shame or regret. It’s okay to look back and think, “We were young, we were stupid, we’re no longer those people.”
My biological mother married the man with whom she’d had an affair, and soon moved far away to a tropical island. It all sounds romantic but years later she confessed that their marriage was built more on mutual need rather than love. He wanted a beautiful wife; she wanted a husband who thought she was beautiful and would buy her beautiful things.
Meanwhile, my father remarried, this time to a fellow officer in the army. She was young, too, only 25, and somehow ready to take on the role of instant motherhood by adopting me when I was 4. Their marriage lasted nearly eight years. When I look back on that time, I think mostly of how she tried to persevere in the absence of love. I can’t say for sure when their relationship turned, but I know it was before she found herself pregnant with the first of my brothers. She was determined to make the marriage work. Sometimes that was easy—my dad traveled extensively for work and without him the house maintained a frantically busy yet peaceful air. When he was home, however, the tension and anxiety simmered.
I was a year into my first marriage when I recognized the same tension and anxiety pressing down around me. “You’re never around,” my then-husband would say. He accused me of having an affair, but in truth I was unconsciously filling up many of my free hours with tasks and hobbies, anything to be out of the house. I was still in college so it was easy to keep myself occupied. I had coffee dates with classmates, long trips to bookstores, endless study sessions at the library. Eventually like my mother, however, I realized the unhappiness that came with being married in absentia.
Meanwhile, my father was still trying his luck. His third wife was nice—always kind to me. I never met the fourth, but by all accounts it lasted barely two years. News of that last divorce brought with it a lot of mixed feelings. I’m sorry it didn’t work out for him. Surely, deep inside him somewhere there still exists an optimism for love, and I’d hate to see that permanently crushed.
But, still. Less than two years?
I wonder what he’d say to me now. I try not to think about it very much. These days I’m no longer as hurt by the way he reacted to the news of my impending divorce. Instead, I think about the ways my biological and adoptive mothers reacted.
I told my adoptive mother in person; she hugged me tight and offered me my childhood bedroom as refuge. “We might try to work it out,” I said, trying to sound wise and strong.
She nodded and said, “Whatever you need to do, but sometimes it’s okay to know when something is over and to let it go.”
My biological mother echoed those sentiments. “We all make mistakes,” she said. “I just want you to be happy.”
At that moment I thought perhaps I’d never be in another relationship, much less marry again. I was sure of it, actually. How could I ever succeed at such a thing, following the broken, rocky paths of those who’d tried before me?
Then, almost a year to the date of leaving my first husband, I met the man who would become my second husband. We were engaged within a few months. Given my parents’ histories, I worried about disapproving comments from my mothers. Turns out there was no need to worry.
“Are you in love?” my adoptive mother asked.
“Love is wonderful,” my biological mother said.
“We can’t wait to meet him,” they said.
Rachel Leibrock is a writer and editor living in Northern California.