The Love They Lost; Living with the Legacy of Our Parents' Divorce
By Stephanie Staal
On a hot summer morning, the streets quiet after the early morning commuter rush, I push my way through the double glass doors of the County Circuit Courthouse, where my parents filed for their divorce. The entrance is air-conditioned, cool and cavelike, untouched by the lights farther down the hall. I wait in a line that snakes slowly through the metal detectors, rubbing my shoulders to stay warm. When J reach the front of the line, J keep up the rhythm, placing my purse on the conveyor belt to be X-rayed, stripping off my watch, and emptying my pockets of loose change. I walk through the metal detector and am greeted by a loud beep. Before I know it a security officer is upon me, waving a thick wand around the outline of my body. Once satisfied that Pm not packing any weapons, she ushers me through with a wave of her hand. She turns her attention to the next visitor in line, and I step out of the way.
After a quick scan of the main directory, I head over to the Office of Central Files; it seems like as good a place as any to start in locating a record of my parents' divorce.
As it turns out, Central Files is the heart of the county court system, the final resting place where every case from the past twenty-five years lies color-coded, alphabetized, and catalogued away on metal shelves visible in never-ending rows behind the clerk's counter. In this small room, devoid of windows and filled with musty air, I run my finger over a dusty register printed rather primitively on green-striped computer paper until I find my parents' names: Staal vs. Staal. It's surprisingly easy. I scribble the case number down on a scrap of paper and hand it to the round man who sits behind the counter.
"What's your name, dear?" he asks, pen poised to mark it in his records.
"Staal," I reply, waiting for a spark of curiosity; waiting for him to ask why I'm here. My explanation runs through my head, already rehearsed-a gentle but firm plea convincing him that my interest is strictly personal. Family business, I would say, but he doesn't ask. Apparently, my request is nothing out of the ordinary, and he just nods, pushes his glasses up on his nose, and disappears into the back. Less than a minute later, he returns carrying a manila folder. He points to a numbered box on a clipboard.
"Sign here. When you're done, you can just drop it off," he instructs, then adds, "Have a good day." I grab the folder, mumble my thanks, and sit down underneath the bright wash of fluorescent lights.
The folder is thin and sleek. So this is it, I think. Fourteen years of marriage reduced to less than half an inch of paperwork.
I have never seen my parents' divorce settlement before, and I pause before delving in. My parents never discussed the details of their divorce with me; everything was decided quietly, outside the courtroom and beyond my ears. So with a shiver of apprehension, I wonder if I will discover something horrible, some secret that I've been shielded from until now. I take a deep breath, then flip the folder open to the first page. It reads "Judgment of Absolute Divorce" in bold letters. As I quickly rove over the pages, I realize that I have nothing to worry about: The prose is pared down to the most basic legal lingo. Maryland, like most states, has no-fault divorce laws on the books, so the document doesn't attempt to prove guilt by dissecting my parents' marriage. Instead it deals solely with the flotsam and jetsam of their broken union: personal property and children.
My parents never entered a courtroom, and as far as I know, they didn't have a particularly contentious divorce, at least in the legal sense. There were no court battles over custody or child support. So within these pages, I get the brief, official breakdown of the practical aspects of our postdivorce lives, choppy and impersonal in its vagueness. An entire four pages are devoted specifically to me, the minor child Stephanie-"hereinafter referred to as 'the child.'" My father is granted custody in paragraph one. Paragraph two stipulates that my parents will equally split the child's college expenses, if the child is inclined to attend such an institution of higher learning. Paragraph three ensures an equal split of all health insurance fees; my mother is ordered to open a life insurance policy with me as the sole beneficiary-standard operating procedure, I've learned, to safeguard the flow of child support in case the noncustodial parent dies. Paragraph four outlines that my parents must consult with each other in matters regarding my health, welfare, education, and upbringing, always keeping my "best interests" in mind.
The section closes by stating that my parents "shall make every effort to foster the respect and affection of the child for each other and shall do nothing which would injure the child's opinion of the other parent, or which would hamper the free and natural development of the love and affection of the child for the other." Doesn't exactly slide over the tongue, does it? Although my father retains custody, my mother reserves her right to see me at "reasonable" times and places and for "reasonable" durations. And with the flourish of their signatures at the bottom of the page, Mom and Dad agree that they "shall continue to live separate and apart, tree from interference, authority, or control, direct or indirect, from the other, as if each were single and unmarried." It's all very neat, efficient, and to the point, and when I've read the very last page, I feel strangely detached. This document is all smooth surfaces, with no emotional handles.
While the words offer nothing, I read volumes in between the lines. Did my father really want me, or did he just want to get back at my mother? Or maybe my mother didn't really want me, and my father had no choice but to take me in? I try to imagine how my parents felt as they signed away their marriage, studying their signatures for any slight trembles of the hand, but to no avail. Even though it happened over a decade ago, the suspicions still stick like pins.
If I try, I can explain away the hurt with logic. I can see how the choices they made conformed to a certain rationale: My father was keeping the house where we had lived together as a family for the past seven years, so by remaining with him, I wouldn't have to switch schools. It the decision had been up to me, I no doubt would have fought to remain close to the friends I had grown up with; still, every now and then, I can't help but feel the old sting of rejection. But then, love isn't supposed to conform to rationale, is it? No matter how much my mother wanted to remain a part of my life after the divorce, I always come back to this: When she moved out, she didn't just leave my father, she left me too. I know this sentiment has become almost a cliché, but underneath all the rules and sensible measures lies a strong core of grief: Maybe my mother didn't love me quite enough.
There is something deeply chilling about picking apart and translating into legal jargon the one love that is supposed to be unconditional. It leaves a hollow space inside. Despite the court's best intentions to keep our love "free and natural," I am surrounded by conditions, and so are my parents. The proof lies in this document that, more than thirteen years later, is still available for public viewing.
Love implies not only the morality of the family as against the immorality of the business world," writes Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart. "Love implies feeling against calculation." With the legal wrestling of divorce, though, many of us lose this distinction between business and family. After witnessing how easily love can turn into a battle of "yours" and "mine," we become all too aware of how relationships can carry a brutal epilogue, and this knowledge propels us to protect ourselves emotionally and financially as adults. "In the back of my head, I'm always preparing myself for what I will do if my relationship ends, even though I don't see it ending in the near or long-term future," says a twenty-six-year-old woman who has been living with her boyfriend for three years. "I think about whose house I can stay at if I have to move out, where I'll get my first and last months' rent for an apartment, what would happen to all the joint friends we have now, how we will divide up the furniture ... and the list goes on and on."
When parents split up, we learn that relationships are fragile and that certain situations are beyond our control, but it is the level of animosity that exists between them that determines the extent to which these lessons instruct us in our own lives. "If my dad died, my mom would do a jig on his grave," says one thirty-two-year-old woman. "They hate each other, and I am the product of that hatred. Sometimes my mom will say things like 'God, you look like your father' or 'You do that just like your father.' How are you supposed to live like that?"
Let's imagine the ideal postdivorce world: Two parents don't get along-enough so their children know the depth of their misery, but not so badly that the kids are traumatized by their fighting. Mom and Dad decide to part, both of them sit down with their children to discuss calmly and rationally the reasons why they are getting a divorce. After one parent moves out, they continue to be cordial, constantly reassuring their children that they will always be loved. Property division, child support, and visitation rights are decided fairly, amicably, and without court intervention.