I am 15 years old and an only child. People who meet me don’t usually think I’m an only child because I talk with the speed of someone who always had to compete for space in a conversation, as if I have 10 siblings. But no, it’s just me.
I have grown up in California in a nice neighborhood, with good friends and two loving parents, playing outside with my father on the weekends and reading books with my mother on the weekdays. I have been alone a lot but not lonely. I never needed anything I haven’t gotten, and whatever I wish for often comes true. And all of this, I think, is why my parents’ divorce took such a toll on me.
It was seven years ago that my parents came into the living room one evening and turned off the TV. I was watching my favorite show, “The Biggest Loser.” I was annoyed at first, and then confused, as they began to explain how their marriage wasn’t working out, and how they were splitting up but remaining friends.
Processing a parents’ divorce for any child, but especially for an only child, is a lot like going through the stages of grief. And not to sound overly dramatic or to diminish the heartbreak of losing a loved one, but when you don’t have a brother or sister who reminds you of what life was once like, who can serve as a link from past to present, keeping at least part of the family whole in some way, there is only the harsh reality of now. The divorce, to me, felt as if some imaginary family member had died, someone I didn’t even realize existed yet held the singular role of binding our family together.
In the first stage, denial, I refused to accept that my parents’ divorce was happening. I would drag my feet along with my mother or father to open houses and real estate agents’ offices. With a book or granola bar in hand, I would drift from reality and truly believe that I was going to return home that evening to them making dinner together in the kitchen, smiling and saying, “Sorry we worried you sweetie, but everything’s fine now.”
It wasn’t until they each had closed on separate houses and sold half of our furniture that I realized this fantasy was never going to turn into reality. And as soon as this two-house life became permanent, my hope quickly turned into envy, especially at the end of the school day when I would see friends greeted by both parents. Or during the sixth-grade science fair, when I would have to transport my unfinished volcano between houses while others could leave theirs untouched and permanently installed in their basement or garage, waiting to be worked on again.
Then came the depression, except I’m not sure it was really depression. I was going through the first stages of puberty, and who’s to say it was my parents’ divorce, and not hormones, that triggered my feelings of hopelessness? During this period, I spent a lot of time alone feeling indifferent. Every answer was “Sure” or “OK.” I had no opinions on anything, because even if I did, would it really change anything? No. The divorce would still be final, and my English homework would still be due in the morning.
I often spent my evenings imagining the different life I could have had if my parents hadn’t divorced. And because no one was around to ground me during these episodes, my imaginings became quite creative, one where we were all still living in the same house and I could smell the faint odor of my mother’s perfume and father’s deodorant mixing together in the mornings as they whisked by each other, rushing to start their workdays. Or another where I spent my 10th birthday at a party surrounded by all my friends and family without any tension or awkwardness.
It took a lot for me to escape this fantasy phase, and even today I’m not sure I’m fully out. Grief is not linear. You don’t get a punch card with a new hole every time you pass through another stage. But with the help of my friends and the movies and music of many great artists, I can undoubtedly say that I am not depressed.
During the summer between fifth and sixth grade, I changed schools, going from the warm bubble of my tiny private elementary school to the gaping reality of a large public middle school. As the first day of middle school grew closer, I couldn’t help but get excited about the opportunity to reinvent myself. In going from a place where everyone knew every detail of my life to a school where nobody knew anything about me, I could become whoever I wanted.
This new me started with the magical development of my parents getting remarried. Or, actually, having never gotten divorced. It wasn’t that I made up stories; I just excluded from my stories any mention of my parents splitting up. My sharp memory served me well as I recounted family vacations we took, places we lived and traditions we had, as if it all still happened. I made this bargain with myself thinking that what was once true could become true again.
My bargaining continued through middle school, even as other kids began to discover the truth. The 15-pound duffel bags I would bring to school, filled with clothes and toiletries, definitely raised questions. But I continued to shade the truth as a way to cope. I found that if I could fabricate enough to create the life I wanted, I could convince myself that it was true. But that never really worked.
As my parents drifted farther apart and settled into their own lives, my life grew ever more complicated. Without the consistency of having parents to talk to in the same house, I became more distant from them and started to rely more on myself to cope with my emotions. And if I couldn’t deal with my emotions on my own, then a show or movie would have to take the place of a deep conversation.
This experience isn’t unique; many children don’t feel like they have a place within their families. In my case, I didn’t know if there was even an opportunity for me to have a place, because I didn’t understand how I fit in when it came to the shifting ground of my divorced family. There’s something about hearing your parents argue over who gets to take you on spring break that makes you feel like there’s no room in the conversation for your own anxieties.
Now, as a high school sophomore, I still struggle with the reality of my parents’ divorce. It’s not something that will ever completely dissipate, but it has become more familiar and grounded in its own way. I even have started to find comfort and feel pride in the routines I have mastered: the duffel bags I haul around and the rushed laundry cycles I’m always pushing through to make sure I have the right clothes to wear in the house where I’ll be. And I’m grateful that I can write about my life with my parents’ support.
I still envy my friends whose parents remained married. Loneliness and resentment can creep in during the holidays, but I have learned how to find joy in them too, grasping onto the new traditions my parents and I are creating, even if those traditions take place at separate times in separate places. I choose to appreciate the constants in my life: the way my mother pops her gum (which used to bother me), and my father’s obsession with Christmas lights — all the quirky things they do that make them who they are.
Losing something also allows you to make room for new people and traditions. I have learned to love my life even as I have accepted that this one major aspect of it will never change. And the new memories I’m able to make outweigh my desire to hold onto what was then.
I used to mourn that imaginary family member who went missing seven years ago, the presence that held our family together, the invisible person who linked us all. And I’ve since come to realize something — that person is me. I’m the link. I’m the biggest constant in our lives. I have been all along, and I’m glad I always will be.
Natalie Muñoz is a high school sophomore in California.
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