Riding two boats

Riding two boats

How does a child deal with a parent’s divorce? Is there a better way of helping the child ease into it? Of course, there is.

Seema Kumar

My parents’ divorce came through when I had just passed out of school and taken admission in first year of college. I didn’t even know that my mother had filed for divorce. So, it was a shock when she informed me once her legal document came that they were now legally divorced.

I did not know how to react and respond. I gathered courage to ask my mother why I was not informed when she took this decision, and I was told that she did not want me to be called as a witness in court. I did not understand once again.

At that young age the only courtroom I had ever seen was on the big screen so I never knew what a real life one looked like. I say gathered courage to ask her because my relationship with my mother is a little difficult to explain. Being an only child every decision in my life was never mine, they were all taken by her – what I wore, what I ate, who I met, etc. etc. I was never asked if I would like something. I was only told what I had to do.

So, whatever information I got about our lives came to me filtered. So, I learnt to live in a world of my own. Since I was not privy to any major developments in our life I went through my young life in a state of fugue.

Grappling to come to terms

The information about the divorce jolted me out of this fugue but I did not know what to do or how to respond. At that point I didn’t even know where my father was or how I would be able to get in touch with him. My parents’ relationship was so toxic, especially from my mother’s side that there was no way I could have asked her about him or told her that I wanted to meet him. And some close family friends did not help matters.

A few months after my admission to college, I was returning home from the bus stand when I suddenly looked up and saw my father standing in front of me. I froze. Vacillating between wanting to smile and cry at the same time, I walked up to him and clung to his arm while he hugged me and just stood there, holding me. “Come I will walk you home,” he said.

My father was my soul mate. He knew me and understood my moods better mainly because I always hid my feelings from my mother. Mainly because my mother suffered her entire life to build a life for us and I never wanted to be the one to add to her anguish about anything to do with me. So, I learnt to hide my feelings.

I happily started walking with him while talking nineteen to the dozen recounting everything that had happened in my life in the few months that he was away. He let me talk. We reached the block before my house and he stopped and said, “I will leave you here to walk the rest of the way home alone.” And it struck me that my father was never going to live in the same house as me ever again. This was another jolt that brought me out of my fugue.

My father was my soul mate. He knew me and understood my moods better mainly because I always hid my feelings from my mother. Mainly because my mother suffered her entire life to build a life for us and I never wanted to be the one to add to her anguish about anything to do with me. So, I learnt to hide my feelings.

And frankly my mother was so busy fighting off unwanted attention both for herself as a single parent and a young woman and for her daughter that she never had time to assess my feelings. She loved me to bits, her world revolved around me, but she had no time to assess how I felt about things. Therefore, the filtered information.

Father’s daughter

My father could read my mind. He was my go-to person for all my issues and worries. Here too he realised I was fighting to put on a brave face. All he said to me was, “don’t judge your mother for what has happened. I didn’t help matters at home. I also should have shouldered my responsibilities well, which I didn’t. It’s a big decision and she was brave enough to take it so respect her for that and be there for her whenever she needs you. As for us, I am not going anywhere. I will always be near you. We will meet every day and talk every day.”

And we did but I never told my mother as long as my father lived that I met him or that in his later years I took care of him because I know she would have been hurt. And I didn’t want to hurt her. When he passed, I informed her and that is when I told her that he was under my care. She hurt, more for me than for herself. She felt she had let me down by not being there for me during his care, that she should have tried to think of me too when she took this decision and let me have a more open relationship with my father.

A child lives in a cocoon of warmth and shelter of their parents and when that cocoon is shattered because of a divorce, it is very difficult for a child to understand who is at fault. As an 18-year-old, I knew at the back of my mind that it was not my fault but there I was somehow wondering what I had done wrong.

I flunked my first year exams and for someone who had till then done well in academics, this was a wake-up call. I decided to get out of my fugue and take charge of my life. In all this my parents stood with me, my mother who loved studies and had educated herself to make ends meet ensured that I did not have another setback in my studies and my father gave me support from outside as a person who I knew had my back.

Making peace with my situation

My parents, individually, were wonderful people. My father, a highly intelligent, well-read man left his home in Kerala at a young age to make a living in Delhi. But like most Malayalis, my father’s one vice that led to a broken home was his alcoholism. All his intelligence was useless when he couldn’t control his drinking.

My mother who was uprooted from a life of school at a very young age of 13 found herself embroiled in a life devoid of education. But when life gave her lemons she decided to make lemonade. She educated herself by reading any and every book that came her way and this stood her in good stead later in life.

My parents, individually, were wonderful people. But together they had no life. When they divorced, I remember for a long time I never spoke about it to anyone. I was worried what people would say. I met my father secretly. He was my father yet I met him secretly.

But together they had no life. When they divorced, I remember for a long time I never spoke about it to anyone. I was worried what people would say. I met my father secretly. He was my father yet I met him secretly. Till one day, a neighbour sarcastically asked me why my parents had divorced, my mother was still young so why did she take this decision and why my father came to drop me till the end of the lane and not home.

I was taken aback. Who was this person to ask me such personal questions and why should we be accountable to him or anyone else like him? That’s the day I decided I had nothing to be ashamed of.

Divorce in the 1970s was not so common but it was also nothing to hide. So I began to tell whoever asked that my parents were divorced. I realised people who knew me never judged us and took all information in their stride. I was never judged by people who knew me. Those who judged obviously did not, so their loss in my life didn’t affect me. Over the years it became easier to talk about.

But till then I went through a lot of mental trauma. Was I being untrue to my mother by meeting my father outside the house? But do I stop loving my father because my parents were now divorced and I lived with my mother? Should I be beholden to her and not think about my feelings for him because she was providing for me? These and many other thoughts constantly plagued me day in and day out.

Till one day, cartoonist and author O.V. Vijayan who was my surrogate maternal uncle sat me down and said, “They are your parents, and you will never stop loving them. You have as much right to meet your father as you have to live with your mother. They couldn’t live together but as parents they love you and you need to remember just that.” His words gave me a lot of solace.

As the child of divorced parents all I can say is:

  • If you take a decision to separate, do not make your child choose between the parents. Most toxic breakups end up putting the child in the middle and the child is incapable of making a decision. It’s a scar for life.
  • Talk to the child, let your decision not be an individual one, let the child in on your conversation to make the child understand it is because you can’t make the marriage work and not because it is something the child has done.
  • After the divorce, maintain cordial relations so that the child does not feel pulled from both sides every time the child is with the other parent. Try to be there together when the child needs you.

After over 45 years of my parents’ divorce, I recently found the legal document during a shifting process. It took me time to process what the document was and realised that it was for the first time that I was seeing this document that broke my family! I did not know how to respond, once again!


Divorce on the big screen

The movie Kramer vs. Kramer released a couple of years after my parents’ divorce came through. I was in college and I remember my friends insisted we go to see the movie. The only information I had about the movie was that it was about a broken marriage and how a child is caught in the middle of it. I was not very sure if I wanted to go see it but was also curious to know how the subject was dealt with in the movie. Of course the biggest lures were Dustin Hoffman and the gorgeous Meryl Streep. It was a very sensitively made film and some scenes between the father and the son had a lump rising in my throat.

At the end of the movie, all I could think about was that every divorce/separation is unique – it comes with its own highs and lows. So to compare one’s own situation with someone else’s, that too on the big screen, howsoever sensitive the portrayal may be, is not justified. Because every one’s dealing of a situation is different. Some years down the line came Akele Hum Akele Tum, loosely based on Kramer vs. Kramer. Starring Aamir Khan and Manisha Koirala this too was handled sensitively but was a little more dramatised than Kramer vs. Kramer.

Over the years our entertainment industry has dealt with the subject of divorce in many movies but it is not about portraying black and white characters. It’s about showing the grey in them. Especially if there is a child involved. Black and white characters only confuse the child more – who is at fault, my father or my mother?

I feel, showing the grey helps one not sit on judgement. Because it’s not the people who are bad, it’s the circumstances that led them to behave in a certain manner and not allow them to sustain a marriage and think of their child. Over the years, the one fallout I have due to my parents’ divorce is that I advice people to not rush in to have children.

Enjoy your marriage, get to know each other and once you are absolutely sure bring another life into this world. If, even after that, your marriage breaks then try to make sure your child does not suffer the consequences!