Having grown up as the child of divorce, raising my own kids feels like trying to break a curse.
Sasha, why did your parents get divorced?" the carpool mom purred into the rearview mirror of her station wagon one day. She was after dirt.
"My mom's a Democrat, and my dad's a Republican," I replied. They did seem to argue politics a lot.
Sasha Aslanian was a metro reporter for MPR News from 2008-2015 and is now a correspondent for American RadioWorks, the national documentary unit of American Public Media. Aslanian got her start as a daily news producer in the MPR newsroom in 1992. From 2000 to 2008, she produced documentaries for American RadioWorks. She is the creator of MPR News' Youth Radio Series. Aslanian has won awards named for famous news men: Edward R. Murrow, Lowell Thomas, Heywood Broun and Eric Sevareid. She is a graduate of Grinnell College.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
My parents did not appear to have a bad marriage. My childhood memories are of cross-country car trips, jumping on beds with our beloved Norwegian elkhound, my little brother teaching me how to throw a football and ride a bike no-handed, and my parents—both teachers—encouraging me to be curious about everything.
We were the kind of family nobody expected would divorce. My parents' saga was riveting to everyone.
I was 10. We sat in the living room, a kid on each parent's lap, as my mom told us they were separating. I froze. I watched my little brother's face crumple. We cried spectacularly. Couldn't we get them to change their minds? They grimly endured our agony, and Mom rented a duplex a few blocks away.
As divorces go, my parents handled it pretty well. They never said a mean word about each other. They were united at teacher conferences, sporting events, and proms. My brother and I loaded up laundry baskets with clothes and shuttled back and forth, spending two weeks with Mom and two weeks with Dad.
Meanwhile, I was determined to be The Divorced Kid Who Turned Out Fine. I'm a type-A, achieving firstborn. My brother just rode around the neighborhood on his dirt bike, unplugged from Mom and Dad.
The problem with divorce is kids want to be the center of the universe. When your parents divorce, their antics upstage you. And I was driven crazy by something I knew in my bones: They still loved each other.
Years after their divorce, they dated each other again. And broke up again. Over and over. I think this gave me the idea that love never dies. It's just incredibly painful for the rest of your life.
The dark little secret adult children of divorce carry is that we're doomed to do the same thing. We're 50 percent more likely to end our own marriages than those whose parents stay together. And we'll do anything to keep from breaking our own kids' hearts someday—including not getting married and not having children.
I should know. In my 20s, I was living with my boyfriend when I noticed something odd: All of our friends were getting married. "Why?" I asked my best friend when she called with her happy news. I wasn't invited to be a bridesmaid in that wedding.
I did eventually want to be a mother, so I casually asked my mom what she would think if my boyfriend and I had a baby. I was 30 and needed to get the show on the road. My mom's a groovy '60s chick—she even looks a little like Gloria Steinem—so I figured she'd be cool with it. Wrong. I forgot the '60s chick was raised in the '50s.
I booked the church. I cried geysers through the entire ceremony, and the minister had to keep smuggling me handkerchiefs. So much for my nonchalance about marriage. I was scared out of my mind, and overwhelmed by the enormity of it.
Yet I was determined to do it differently. Where my parents would stay up all night playing gin rummy because the loser had to turn out the light, I chose a marriage where we don't keep score. One time my dad asked me how often I let my husband win arguments. I told him, "About half the time." My dad was incredulous that his stubborn daughter would cede that much ground. "But Dad," I said—feeling like the older person in this conversation—"sometimes he's actually right."
In the cookie-cutter wedding that married off my mom at 19, equality wasn't expected, nor was she to have a career. "Man is the head of the household," booms the minister on the reel-to-reel tape recording of the ceremony she still keeps. "I didn't know how to renegotiate the contract," she admitted to me recently. All she could do was void it and face life on her own.
I was at her duplex when my reserved Norwegian mother got the call offering her a teaching job. She hung up the phone and did a pirouette through the living room. I will never be that desperate for a job in my life, I thought.
I'm so much more forgiving of them now that I'm a parent myself. How hard it must have been to hide a broken heart and rally to the challenges of solo parenting. How they must have had to bite their tongue when we wanted to pin blame. And to the poor souls who tried to date my single parents: I'm sorry I was such a jerk to you.
Now when I find out friends are divorcing, I'm quick on the scene with damage control for their kids. Keep them at the center. Tell them you love them until it embarrasses them to hear it. Support their relationships with your ex and any stepparents that enter the scene. Remember, this is the only childhood they get.
I longed to be a parent because I saw it as a chance to relive the playful exhilaration of youth but rewrite the ending my way. "Who's having a happy childhood?" I like to ask my kids. They know the drill. They shoot their little bean sprout arms up in the air and yell, "Me!" I haven't messed this up yet.
As a divorced kid, I worried my marriage would detonate from a fuse I couldn't control. Now I see marriage as the millions of tiny matchsticks we safely blow out: Do I snap when my husband asks me to hand him something, or do I catch his eye and smile? Marriage isn't the big "I do" moment of takeoff. It's how you handle all the mundane hours of tinkering with the controls, inventing flight plans. I want my children to trust the grown-ups to fly this plane.
My kids are still trying to figure out my parents' arrangement. My folks live six blocks apart but function as Mor Mor and Happy, the grandparent team. Once, after a sleepover at my mom's house, my younger daughter noted on the drive home, "Happy had a sleepover, too." I burst out laughing. I don't think divorce makes any sense to my kids. I hope it never will.