I met my mother’s fourth husband last fall. Now retired, they were traveling cross-country, from South Carolina to California, to be with my sister as she gave birth to her first child. My mother brought me a present, which included a coffee cup imprinted with the slogan “Life is About Creating Yourself.”
My parents have been divorced for as far back as I can remember—which happens to be around age five. In planning this issue of Chronicles on the societal effects of divorce, our editorial team decided that in addition to the sociological, historical, and political analysis provided by our two lead articles, we should include the personal perspective of someone directly affected by divorce. As a child of serial monogamists, I agreed to try to cast my mind back to that time and the years that followed.
There was trauma involved with my parents’ split, though I can hardly remember it now. Chiefly I remember feeling a sense of duty toward my mother. My father was gone now; I was the man of the house. When I was a kid in the mid-’80s, divorce was still relatively rare or unspoken of in the well-to-do middle class St. Paul suburb where I grew up. My neighborhood was filled with 3M employees, who worked at the nearby headquarters. Many of them were scientists and engineers, and many of those were immigrants from East Asia or the Indian subcontinent.
Divorce was beginning to spread like wildfire through America’s culture, but there was a firebreak around those immigrant families in my neighborhood. They seemed to be totally insulated from the trend by the mysteries of their cultural traditions, and their fierce devotion to their children’s success. I remember being shooed from the house of a Chinese playmate after an hour on the egg timer dinged; his “tiger mom” was there to direct him toward piano lessons, and then advanced mathematics homework, which his father would review after he came home from working as a scientist at 3M.
I also had duties to attend to: as a child of a single mother who worked as a 3M paralegal, I had to be home after school to take care of my sister for a few hours before my mom came home. My generation, Generation X, would alternatively be known as the “latchkey generation” for exactly this reason. Our parents weren’t home; we had to let ourselves in. Pop tarts and microwave popcorn were on the menu; peanut butter on Saltines (with sprinkles), scrambled eggs, or Rice Krispies bars could also be requested from the chef if my sister was good and I was feeling generous. The television network programmers did the rest of the work through the mesmerizing children’s cartoons that were on in the hours before the evening news.
By the time I was a teenager in the ’90s, it seemed all my childhood friends’ parents were divorced, separated, or their marriages were in the process of failing. The television shows and Hollywood films were full of contempt toward marriage at the time. Married With Children was a top sitcom in which the stock jokes revolved around the misery of the disrespected father, Al Bundy, who rues the day he got married and spawned offspring. The decade’s crowning film in the genre of matrimonial contempt was American Beauty, in which Kevin Spacey’s character throws off the repressive chains of his marriage to indulge an infatuation with an underage girl.
All the popular songs of the time were about finding new love. Our parents were still singing along to the sappy love songs of The Beatles, which we had to listen to in the car. My father’s second wife had the complete collection of Beatles records; the band was the greatest product of Western musical culture, in her opinion. Out of boredom I played the records and studied the covers and liner notes. There was Karl Marx among the faces on the album cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and in the back was the occultist Aleister Crowley, whose motto was “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”
My teenage friends and I preferred the more cynical music of our generation; we were all obsessed with Nirvana; a top 1994 song from that band was the acoustic version of “About a Girl,” with lyrics that conveyed the jaded feelings toward relations between the sexes: “I need an easy friend/... I’ll take advantage while/ You hang me out to dry.” Nirvana’s lead singer, Kurt Cobain, committed suicide later that year; it was also the year I decided to leave my mother’s house to live with my father and stepmother, at age 15.
My decision to leave my mother’s house was encouraged by my father; it was a coup for him as it would entail a reduction in his child support payments. An ugly custody battle ensued, along with court-mandated visits for me to a child psychologist. My father won, but skirmishes continued. After a job loss during the ’90s economic bust, my father petitioned for a further reduction in child support payments due to economic hardship; a casual visit by my maternal grandparents hid a legal riposte from my mother: recent purchases of artwork on the walls were noted and recorded for consideration by the judge.
It was a tumultuous upbringing, but not a deprived one by any means. Each parent competed for our affections. When I was with Dad we built and launched model rockets, went hunting in the woods, rented movies, ate steak for dinner and ice cream for desert. When I was with mom, we played loud music, sang, and played toy instruments. Sometimes she took my sister and I to watch plays at the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre. Our favorite was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which in retrospect was a nearly perfect analogue for our family life: my mother was Titania, my father was Oberon, and I was the Indian boy they fought over.
Many years later, my father would inform me that he would be seeking his second divorce. The second wife had let herself go, he said. He was no longer attracted to her and had met another woman, who hailed from the Middle East. I don’t remember what I said; I might have laid my hand on his shoulder and murmured some supportive slogans, such as “Don’t Worry, Be Happy. Life is About Creating Yourself.”
Around the time of the custody battle, I was sent down to Guadalajara to spend some time with my paternal grandparents. My grandfather was a Navy man who served on the aircraft carrier USS Sangamon during World War II. He had been badly injured during a kamikaze attack in 1945 that tore a massive hole in the carrier deck. Both of his parents had died tragically during his childhood; he’d been raised in a Catholic orphanage. Of German extraction, he had fallen in love with Spanish culture during his maritime travels. He learned to speak the language fluently and spent half the year in Mexico.
During my visit, my grandfather and grandmother bickered constantly. I was mortified. My parents at least had the decency to argue out of the range of our hearing. After one such argument, my grandfather caught me glaring at him out of the corner of his eye. “Fifty years. That’s how long we’ve been married,” he said. “Can you even understand how long that is? It’s not easy. You have to fight to make it work.” They remained married until his death.