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How Not to Tell Your Children You Are Getting Divorced

I was eleven years old. I was at boarding school I’d been at boarding school since I was nine. Well, almost ten, but let’s not split hairs when we’re talking about neglect. Is it really neglectful to send your child to boarding school aged nine, or almost ten? Yes. Because no matter how well you vet the school, no matter how prestigious it is or how what exorbitant fees you pay, you have absolutely no way of knowing exactly how your child is going to be treated when your back is turned. Yes, you could say that about any school, i.e. how your child is being treated on a daily basis in a regular school, but if you get to see your child every single night, you will likely spot the effects of mistreatment faster than if you don’t see your child for a month. When your child wakes in a wet bed in the middle of the night, climbs down cold stone stairs in slipperless feet to find the drunk, chain-smoking unsympathetic matron who thinks nothing of waking the whole dormitory while stripping off your child’s bed, leaving your child the instant subject of ridicule the next morning, then your child is being mistreated and you will never know. 

So, the day I found out my parents were getting divorced, I was eleven. I must clarify, at this point, that my brother and sister and I had been begging our parents to get divorced for years. We were sick of the screaming and the crying and the tension and the embarrassment we felt whenever we—as a family—were out in public or at a friend’s house. But what a five year old, a nine year old and an eleven year old don’t realize when they are yelling (over the yelling) at their parents, “WHY DON’T YOU JUST GET DIVORCED?!” is that they don’t really want their parents to get divorced at all. What they really want is for the yelling to stop, for the misery to end, for happiness to break through, for the sun to shine again. Time and time again I have heard people say they are “staying together for the sake of the children,” and I’ve told them, if staying together makes you unhappy then don’t do it, because all your children want is for you to be happy. 

The main problem with the terrible state my parents had let their marriage get into is that they had stopped communicating with us children altogether. Boarding school helped them in this endeavor. The other sad fact that became apparent to me much later in life, is that, because both my parents had over-inflated egos borne out of general insecurity and low self-esteem, their marriage, and subsequently their divorce, had been a battle of wills. Neither was going to let the other win. It was about getting as much as possible, as much control/custody, money/property and status/vindication as they could. 

And so it was that, aged eleven, I was on my way from my boarding house to the main school building with my gym kit when I was accosted by two girls in the year above me. Natalie Barkley (the bitch) and Claire Matthews (the minion) approached me and stopped me in my tracks. 

“Did you know your parents are getting divorced,” Natalie announced, with a triumphant smirk on her face. 

My cheeks burnt, my stomach went into spasm, and my mouth was bone dry as I weakly retorted, “no, they’re not.” 

“Yes, they are,” insisted Natalie, “because your mother went to see Claire’s dad, and he’s a lawyer and she went to see him because your parents are getting divorced. 

Now, I could have passed bitchy Natalie Barkley’s announcement off as pure, spiteful fabrication, but I knew Claire well enough to know that she wouldn’t let such a mean trick be played on someone, and the look of sheer pity on her face confirmed my worst fears. 

Suddenly I couldn’t see Natalie and Claire anymore, because my eyes were so full of hot, shameful tears, it was as if I was swimming, goggleless at the bottom of the ocean. I slowly turned around, swept as much of the rivers of tears out of my eyes as I could and somehow found the strength to put one foot in front of the other in the general direction of my boarding house. 

I found my way to my dormitory and lay on my bed, face down, and wept harder and longer than I ever had in my life. I couldn’t think straight, I could hardly breathe. My world had collapsed. As far as I was concerned, life was not worth living anymore. Not only had my parents finally declared war on each other (because I was savvy enough to realize that this was just the beginning of the end, that all that had gone before was an overture, a tame prologue to the drama that would likely unfold on the battle field now), but they had completely turned their backs on me. They hated me so much, they were prepared to hide their actions from me and allow me to become the laughing stock of the prison where I was forever incarcerated. 

The only good thing about that day was the fact that the chain-smoking alcoholic matron had the day off. The substitute matron brought me a cup of sweet tea. 

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