A Case of Sympathetic Divorce Syndrome?

by Abigail Mieko Vargus

Just after I graduated from college almost four years ago, my parents separated. My dad moved into some scummy apartment, and Mom stayed in the house. Of the three daughters, I was the least shocked. My two sisters were already away at college when Mom packed her bags on a sunny spring Sunday years before. She got only as far as the garage, and I never did learn the precipitating event or the conciliatory actions. This time was different though. It was Dad’s choice this time, and it didn’t change after months of couples therapy. My parents got divorced.

Some fathers go through a sympathetic pregnancy. I think my sisters and I suffered an acute case of sympathetic divorce. My oldest sister took it the hardest. At age twenty-nine, she began labeling herself a “child of divorce.” Despite the ludicrousness of the appellation, I shared her fears. Children of divorce are less likely to have long-lived marriages themselves. Then again, nowadays it seems like there might be no such a thing as an enduring marriage.

We’d assumed for our entire lives that our parents were an example of marital bliss — or at least marital harmony. If it took them thirty-four years to figure it out, what were our chances of getting it right the first time? Ever? I started asking my friends to list every happy established couple they knew. I tried to find someone who believed in lasting love in the hopes that they could provide proof.

Meanwhile, my sisters and I spent hours on the phone worrying about Mom. What was she going to do? Was she okay? Should one of us fly out to be with her? Would her friends watch out for her? While our parents had raised us to be independent and self-sufficient women, we’d never thought about our mother in those terms. I could hardly remember a time that Mom did anything without Dad, other than teaching at the elementary school and chauffeuring my sisters and me to practices — oh, and bridge club night. Somehow, playing bridge club didn’t seem to scream “Independent, Modern Woman.”

I forgot that this same woman had been stranded in a blizzard on an empty Indiana highway and made her way to a telephone and shelter, had earned a doctorate while raising three young kids, and had even survived years of the Vargus girls’ exuberance. (And don’t try and tell me that your mom would have cheered the endless homemade productions of Annie — starring, produced and directed by Becka K. Vargus the First, Last, and Only; or Jilda’s time-tested babysitting techniques that involved presenting legal briefs about the younger siblings’ minor and major transgressions; or my habit of calling home with the message, “I’m in the emergency room, but don’t worry! I’m not hurt too badly.”) But within a few months, we’d relaxed. Mom had found a new house — in the trendiest part of town even — and was doing okay, it seemed. Maybe it was possible to survive both a marriage and a divorce.

Then the humane society called to tell Mom that her new dog possibly had a terminal illness. And my sister, the dancer, had to have ankle surgery. And, worst of all, Granny was sick. My sister and the dog survived, but Granny died. My sisters and I mourned our grandmother, but we exhausted ourselves worrying about Mom. In one short year, it seemed like she’d lost so much: the marriage, the house she and Dad had worked so hard for, and now her own mother.

Okay, maybe you don’t believe in spirits or heaven or any of those intangibles. But I can tell that Granny’s been smiling down at Mom. Because what did my mom do? She picked up the pieces, she decorated her new cozy house, she kept on being the best teacher at Lynwood Elementary School, and she kept demonstrating that she had learned every lesson on motherhood, kindness, and being a good person that Granny ever taught.

Since the divorce, my mom has toured New Zealand and Australia — after presenting at an educator’s conference down under. She’s started a freelance career with a publishing company. She’s trained her dog to love without licking, jumping, or barking (no small feat as her dog is the canine equivalent of Forrest Gump — sweet as rock candy, but stupid as a lima bean.) She’s gone spelunking with “kids half her age.” She’s made plans to raft the white waters of the Colorado River this summer. And she’s encouraged her daughters at every turn.

Mom doesn’t leave relationships out of that. Granted, culture has inured us to the stereotypical mama encouraging her brood to marry and multiply. But to hear my mom ask me how things are going with my four-year-long relationship (with that glint in her eye that says she’s actually wondering about a sparkly ring and not what I did last Saturday night) forces me to realize that her faith in love hasn’t been shattered. She’s happily planning a bachelorette party for a friend’s wedding. My oldest sister, married almost five years now, continues to roll her eyes at Mom’s none-too-subtle pleas for grandchildren.

Okay, so there is no ring in the immediate future of my left hand, and I’m still not sure I’m ready to assume the responsibility of that sort of commitment. The doubts still nag that something might change five, ten, or thirty years down the line. But I think I’ve learned over the last four years that marriage is something that I might be able to brave, to live through, even to enjoy. If it lasts, then I am a lucky and happy woman. If it doesn’t, then I have a great tradition of strength and happiness to follow all the same. Thanks, Mom.

(c) Abigail Mieko Vargus

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