The Girlfriend Site Logo
Oh no!
It looks like you aren't logged in to The Girlfriend community. Log in or create a free online account today to get the best user experience, participate in giveaways, save your favorite articles, follow our authors and more.
Don't have an account? Click Here To Register

The Unexpected Benefits Of A Divorce

Here's the surprisingly pleasant connection that can occur.

Comment Icon
photo collage of family pictures
Barbara Gibson (photos: Courtesy Laura Zinn Fromm, Tanya Malott)
Comment Icon

It was the end of a rainy Saturday afternoon. As I loaded the dishwasher, I tried to remember what I had done that day. Then it hit me: I had had a one-hour video call with my mother and sister.

That might not sound so strange, except my sister, Rachel, and my mother, Ruthi, have no formal relationship. My sister is the product of my father’s second marriage. I am the product of his first. Rachel and I were born decades apart, have different mothers and never lived together.

My parents had an acrimonious divorce; my mother and Rachel’s mother rarely spoke. While my father was alive, we were only occasionally in the same room. We were not one big happy family.

My father liked to fight. He fought with my mother and me; after my parents divorced, he fought with his second wife and Rachel. Dad was a successful neuroradiologist; he could be funny and generous. He also was bipolar and temperamental, and he attempted suicide twice. Near the end of his life, he penned letters to my brother and me. At the end of one he wrote, “You are all that I could ever have hoped for as children. I need only think of your bright beautiful shining faces & I rejoice.” He ended the letter, “Watch over Rachel. Love Dad.”

Like many writers, Dad could be more loving in print than in person.

Dad attempted suicide for the first time when I was 2; he attempted it for the second time 30 years later when Rachel was 9. Ultimately he died of complications from aplastic anemia. He is long dead now, and Rachel’s mother is in a memory care unit. But as our family has shrunk, our get-togethers have become more frequent and intimate. My mother is the only one left who can tell my sister what our father was like when he was young.

At these gatherings, Ruthi and Rachel chat. They have much in common: they are both super busy. My mother is 80-something and works full time. My sister is 36 and works 24/7. Not only do they work like dogs, they both like dogs (my sister actually has one, a Westie named Lola).

There is no word to describe the relationship between a first spouse and the child of a subsequent spouse. And yet, in this age of blended modern families, these relationships and the friendships that sprout from them have become common. The definition of family expands. Divorce and remarriage are not something you crave, but the ties they generate can lead to unexpectedly pleasant connections.

With that in mind, I decided it was time for Ruthi and Rachel to swap stories and forge a more formal bond. So we video chatted.

“What do we call ourselves?” I asked as we logged on.

“Extended family?” my mother suggested.

We nodded. Rachel spoke: “For the last 10 years, Ruthi has been the first person to wish me a happy birthday. Every year on my birthday, I wake up and I have an email from Ruthi: ‘Happy birthday, I’m thinking of you.’ It means so much to me. Every year I look forward to that email. And every year I’m so surprised and shocked by it.”

I bit my lip so as not to cry, then reminded myself to keep asking questions.

“What do you make of that?” I asked.

“Ruthi obviously loves her children,” Rachel said. “And so, she cares for your little sister. She has no relationship to me, but she cares to check in with me. It’s a unique relationship, and it means a lot to me.”

My mother nodded. “I think you captured it.”

I loved the sweet direction this was going, but knew I had to ask hard questions too.

“Mom,” I said. “What did you think of Daddy’s decision to have more children after you divorced?”

Ruthi: “I thought to myself, ‘Daddy was a loving father; he made a lot of mistakes, but he was a loving father.’ But I did worry because as we all know, he wasn’t the easiest person to get along with. He battled a lot of demons. And it got worse as the kids got older.”

“What connects the two of you?” I asked.

Ruthi: “I know my children love you and regard you as a sibling, so I want to make sure you are a sibling.”

Rachel: “I understand that, and it has always meant the world to me.”

“So, Rach,” I said. “Do you have questions for Ruthi?”

Rachel: “I don’t want to get too dark into the chaos but what was Dad’s early depression like?“

Ruthi: “Depression is genetic, as you know, and generally triggered by something. In this case I think (his first suicide attempt) was triggered by my miscarriage.”

Here, I must admit, I rolled my eyes. My mother and I have discussed possible reasons for Dad’s first suicide attempt multiple times. She maintains it was because of this miscarriage; I maintain it was because Dad, who was doing his residency in radiology at the time, was not made chief resident.

My mother shrugs. “I can only tell you that I had a late miscarriage and very soon after that he became depressed.”

Rachel: “Was he a good husband to you?”

Ruthi: “He was always self-centered. When he got to be depressed, he became more centered on me and that was one of the early signs. He said things, like, ‘I don’t deserve you, you are so wonderful.’ ”

Rachel and I laugh. Gratitude was not a sentiment Dad easily expressed.

Ruthi: “Rachel, how old were you when (his second suicide attempt) happened?”

Rachel: “I was in third grade.”

Ruthi: “He was good at what he did, that’s the good news. The bad news was you couldn’t discuss anything that was troubling you with him. I don’t like the smell of cigar smoke. He would smoke cigars and say, ‘If you don’t like it, leave.’ The first time he paid attention to the things that were troubling me was when I said, ‘I am going to get a divorce.’ ”

Rachel: “There was no compromise with him. I lost Dad at 17. I’m not delusional that he was this dream guy. I don’t think he’s some superhero. I know it really is a mental disability that he had; he truly loved every single one of us immensely. His mental issues just got in the way of that. It’s a strange feeling to miss someone and not miss their energy. I miss Dad and can only imagine the exhaustion he could have caused us the last 18 years.”

We wrapped up our conversation. When and where should we next meet? We decided on Dad’s yahrzeit, a few days after Mother’s Day. Rachel planned to visit Dad’s grave that morning; my mother had no interest (remember, they divorced); I had to teach a class so couldn’t go. We proposed dinner that night.

We gathered at my brother and sister-in-law’s. Mike made food Dad loved —steak, chicken thighs with barbecue sauce, short ribs, roasted cauliflower. I brought cheesecake. Our kids came and we sat around the dining room table and told stories about Dad.

My middle nephew remembered that Dad had offered to give the kids $20 for doing somersaults on the trampoline.

My younger son remembered that Dad had taken him and my older son for a joy ride, with Rachel in the front seat, and neglected to put either of my kids in seatbelts or car seats. Rachel remembered Dad leaving her in the car with the air conditioning on while he played tennis and her (then 13) taking the keys and driving the car into a tree.

The stories were outrageous and unsettling — they summoned Dad’s generosity and impulsiveness, his capacity for recklessness and fun.

At the end of the evening, my sister-in-law, Nancy, toasted Dad. “He raised three very resilient kids, Rachel most of all,” Nancy said.

I wonder how Dad would have felt about this — his first ex-wife bonding with the daughter of his second ex-wife? I doubt he could have predicted that my mother, with whom he had fought bitterly, would step in as a wise parent to his youngest child. Yet he respected my mother’s parenting skills. He could not have anticipated that Ruthi would play a supportive role in Rachel’s life nor that they would each enjoy each other’s company.

But she had and they do.

I drove home thinking how strange this all was, and how wonderful.

Have any of you ever experienced a connection like the above? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Relationships