I have never known my parents together. They were married in 1990, three years before I entered the world (I even provided a picture for evidence!), but couldn’t stay together much after that. I don’t have fond memories of the three of us making pancakes on a Sunday morning and cuddling in bed watching black and white films (that’s what “normal” families do, right?). Instead, I have memories of having crumb cake on Sunday mornings at my grandparent’s house and watching Nickelodeon with my mom and baby sister (born from a different dad). Although a little different from my imagined “normal” family, I was happy and loved the one I had.
But being a child of divorced parents automatically placed me in a club during elementary school. And no, I don’t mean a secret club where you all know you belong but don’t say anything to each other (that’s another type of club I’ll come back to later when I tell tales from high school); I mean an actual club in school facilitated by a social worker. It was appropriately named, “The Banana Splits”.
I didn’t mind going. All the kids from divorced families gathered in the social worker’s small yellow office around a round table. We mostly colored pictures of actual banana splits and played board games like Guess Who? while the counselor asked us how our parents’ divorce made us “feel” and to always remember that it “wasn’t our fault”.
But I knew it wasn’t my fault. At seven, I reasoned that my parents’ divorce could not have been my fault because I hadn’t even been alive long enough for them to get to know me before they broke up. As for the other kids, I wasn’t sure. Looking back, my reasoning was a little silly, but somehow I knew deep down that I was not the cause of their breakup since it had happened before I could even remember. The counselor kept repeating that it wasn’t our fault though, and I began wondering if I was supposed to think it was. A lot of kids must be feeling it was their fault for her to keep telling us it wasn’t, right?
And then there was the talk of happy families with married parents and their happy lives and how different they were from us. Of course, the counselor was only trying to tell us that our families were just as great-only different- but before I knew it, I began to think my family wasn’t good enough. Because it wasn’t “right”; because it wasn’t what the “normal” kids had; because I never had two married parents; because I never knew what that was like. Suddenly I began to miss something I never had.
It was the first time I felt I was supposed to have something that I didn’t (two happy and in love parents) in order to be happy. And so it made me unhappy. Instead of giving me a sense of belonging among other divorced kids, The Banana Splits made me feel like my parents’ divorce was the defining characteristic that separated me from my peers with married parents. It became like a tattoo on my forehead that I thought everyone could see. And even now, so far removed from elementary school and The Banana Splits, I feel as though I have the faint tracings of this label etched into my forehead. In my college classes, surrounded by people I’ve never met before, who have no idea who I am, I must remind myself that they can’t tell that my parents were never together during my life. I must remind myself that they might think I come from a happy family where we did make pancakes on a Sunday morning and cuddle in bed watching black and white films.
And then I realize that when they look at me they aren’t thinking any of those things at all. They aren’t concerned with my life history; they’re thinking about their own lives. Knowing that they don’t know my past is liberating because it gives me the chance to choose the defining characteristics they will see. Instead of letting an event define me, I define myself. I am a blank slate and finally get to choose the picture I paint for others to see.