Saturday, January 14, 2012

Animal Husbandry: An ACOD Story

I never pictured our departure from Princeton this way. After each completing a six-year long Ph.D. program, my wife and I drove out of that quiet little suburb at four o’clock in the morning, the car packed with our final belongings and our cat. It was also black Friday, the day after American Thanksgiving, and the strangeness of the world at that time of day was made even stranger by the full parking lots and line-ups at the malls and big-box retail stores. A quiet departure in the night marked the end of one chapter of our lives and the start of another, and that was what should have been occupying my thoughts on that dark drive along New Jersey’s Route 1. But instead my thoughts were almost four thousand kilometers away at a farm just outside of Vancouver, British Columbia.

Just weeks before that early morning drive, my Dad, Ron, had called to say that my Mom, Barb, had suddenly left him after a thirty-year marriage. The news was a complete shock to me for a number of reasons, one of them being that I had spent the previous weekend with them and neither had said a word to me about it. But as the news sunk in, I put the signs together: Ron’s haggard appearance and gloominess, Barb’s negative remarks about Vancouver and its inhabitants, and her long periods in the barn, where – I found out later – she was speaking with the new object of her affection, Martin, on her cell phone. Each for their own reasons, they decided together that that weekend was not the time to tell me or my brother, Aaron, and so I found out by telephone from Ron. Barb was not there.

The next few weeks are clear in my memory, but hazy, somehow, like they took place in another world, removed from space and time. Here I was, trying to wrap up my last days of one life, while at the same time coming to terms with the fact that – in a totally different way – the other home I had left years ago would not be there for me in the future, as I had always thought. Some of our furniture disappeared as we sold it on Craigslist in preparation for the move. As our apartment became increasingly empty, it all began to sink in: my relationship with my mother would never be the same – if I went to visit her, she would with someone other than my Dad. Even living so far away, I had celebrated Christmas with them and Aaron every year of my life. That would never happen again.

The effect of divorce on children is well known and openly discussed. The research has been done, parents agonize over the decision and, if they decide a divorce is necessary, send their kids to counselors if needed and –hopefully – realize that speaking badly about their ex damages the child as well. My wife’s parents divorced when she was a child and I assumed she would have some insight for me on what I was going through and what I could expect. This turned out not to be the case. Adult children of divorce, known as ACOD’s, have a totally different experience. While as adults they are somewhat more emotionally equipped to deal with the fall-out, the change in perspective can be just as jarring. As adults we are often expected to be supportive to one or both parties, and that leads to all manner of messy situations. But the biggest problem is that no one seems to realize how difficult or debilitating it can be. Over my final weeks in Princeton, many friends and people I looked up to (with the best of intentions) gave me different versions of the same advice: your parents have their own lives, it’s between them, it doesn’t involve you. I believed it after a while as it seemed logical enough, and focused on preparing for our departure and on my life and career.

But through all of this doubts nagged at me and occupied my thoughts, sometimes ceaselessly: if my Mom left to live with another man, would she receive alimony payments? How was that fair? What effect would it have on my Dad to know that he was paying for the happiness of two people that had screwed him over? What would happen to my Mom if this new relationship didn’t work out? Who was this man? I thought I knew my Mom well enough to think that she wouldn’t blow everything apart for a loser, but what kind of person knowingly professed undying love for a married woman he barely knew? And did I know my Mom? She had always seemed rational and careful in her decisions, and she worried about money, often needlessly, but always erring on the side of caution. This seemed out of character, to put it mildly.
A family friend explained it this way: her decision was based on emotions, and emotions aren’t rational. You can’t expect them to be. Moreover, they had a shared dream.

I should back up: although my Dad was a University professor and I grew up in the suburbs, my parents had moved to a hobby farm one year before I left for Princeton. My Mom had a veritable menagerie of animals: chickens, sheep, horses, dogs and cats. Her plan was to take all of them with her and start a new life as a “real” farmer with Martin, who lived not on a small hobby farm, but a sprawling sheep farm in a remote region of Manitoba. It has a romantic sound to it, but everyone who knew about the situation thought it was insane. And those “fucking sheep” (as my uncle called them) added to my doubts: she cared for these animals, and she had little options if she wanted to keep them and leave my Dad. It was Martin or nothing. They also had serious implications for my relationship with her: if she wanted to see me, she needed someone to look after them, because I was sure even at this early time that I wouldn’t be traveling to Manitoba.

As we packed up our car and headed out of Princeton, the situation in Vancouver continued to deteriorate. Ron’s clinical depression was obvious to anyone who spent more than about three seconds with him, and he was living in his sister’s basement without any clear plan of where to go. Aaron tried everything he could think of to try to convince Barb to reconsider the way she was making decisions, and then, after a particularly angry outburst, essentially cut off all contact with her. Aunts and uncles and family friends also exchanged angry words – at times it was as though everyone I knew in connection with my family was splitting into opposing camps. Amidst this I left the only other community I had ever called home and moved to Boston in the middle of winter. Not surprisingly, it was then that things got really bad.

* * *

The beginning of a “post-doc” – as my job was called – is a notoriously difficult period in the best of circumstances. One goes from being an expert in one area to a neophyte in another, and after a long graduate program, it can feel like going back to square one. Adjusting to life in Boston was difficult for all manner of additional reasons: the apartment which had seemed close to work was more than a forty minute walk, the transit system which had seemed so impressive was almost intolerably slow, and the free street parking which had attracted us to this particular area of town was basically non-existent. The noisy radiators kept us up at night and the walls were chipping paint. Of course, the weather was cold. It got dark early and light late. After a particularly ill-advised bike ride home from the lab on an evening when it was well below freezing, I chilled my lungs to such an extent that I was coughing up blood. I began to notice that my nose never ran anymore, and I constantly felt pressure behind my cheekbones. My lips never got enough chapstick, and I was constantly drinking water. During my first two months at my new job, I had three separate colds that caused me to miss work. I thought about the years ahead in this city and pictured myself slowly drying out, like a raison.

I was miserably unhappy. While at work, I couldn’t stop watching the clock. I would get home, make dinner, and go to bed, waking up after two or three hours of sleep. Wait until morning, and then do it all over again. I didn’t understand why; during graduate school my day-to-day life had been virtually identical from the way it was now, but my feelings about it couldn’t be more different. I might as well have been punching in.

It was during this period that I talked to Barb face-to-face for the first time. She traveled to visit us a couple of days after her lawyer had sent Ron a cease-and-desist barring him from all contact with her. We went through the motions of sight-seeing in Boston while she tried to explain to me that she was still the same caring and rational person she had always been, and that this was just another chapter that all of us were entering. She said that any meaningful relationship she had had with Ron was years gone, and that Martin had just given her the courage to seek a better life. My thoughts were that that was an awfully convenient way to look at it.

The evening after I took her to the airport to head back to Vancouver, Ron called me. He asked how things had gone and I told him that it had gone OK, figuring that the particulars were none of his business. He then began to insinuate that I wasn’t putting enough pressure on her to reconsider her decisions, the way Aaron had done. I replied that I deeply empathized with him, and I agreed with him that I thought what she was doing was wrong, but that there wasn’t a lot I could do about it that wouldn’t permanently damage my relationship with her. The conversation ended with him saying that he had thought he could count on my support but obviously he was mistaken.

I went to work the next day feeling worse than ever, and - instead of working - drafted an email explaining that if they couldn’t leave me out of the middle of their fight, that I would cut off all contact with both them. In my first serious mistake in handling the situation, I never sent it.

February came, and on the day the Olympics came to Vancouver I turned in my first major grant application. It was a Friday, and I resolved to take the weekend to re-group, and come back in Monday with a changed attitude. Without the grant hanging over my head, things would be different. When Monday came, and everything was the same, something broke inside me. In my second mistake of that year, a few weeks later, I explained to my advisor that although it was nothing to do with him, I had made a mistake in coming to his lab, and I would be leaving at the end of the month.

* * *

I didn’t have much trouble finding another job. I missed an opportunity, though, and I wish that things are turned out differently. I don’t blame my parents for what happened to me. I’m an adult and I know that I’m responsible for my own choices. But I wish Barb had considered that the gravity of her decision would impact the world around her, and not just herself and Ron. I wish that Ron had valued his relationship with my brother and me for its own sake, and not as way to exercise some quantum of control over what was happening to him. The decision to divorce is never an easy one and - whether children are young or grown - there are no easy answers. But I wish that no one assumed that what happened didn’t matter to me because I was grown up and out of the house.

But mostly I wish that I’d taken care of myself first. I should have staked out the grounds of what my role was, no matter how much difficult it might have been for them to hear. I wish I’d had the insight from other ACODs.

As adults, we have one distinct advantage over children of divorce: we can learn from the experience. I sit writing this on a weekend as we await the arrival of our first child. I love the mother of that child, my wife of four years, and my only unchanging friend between the three cities I’ve called home, more than my life, but I’m also old enough to know that romantic love is fleeting, and that holding onto it takes far, far more work than simply falling into it. For our child’s sake I can be sure that it’s worth the effort. A freak October snowstorm reminds us that winter will come again to Boston. A little older and with a little more wisdom, maybe this time will be different.

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