Dealing with Divorce
The news hit her like a punch in the stomach: Esi (pronounced AY-see) Abercrombie’s parents were getting a divorce. Esi was 10 years old and had had no clue that her parents’ marriage was in trouble.
“It was a shock to me,” Esi tells Choices. “It didn’t really make a lot of sense, because I hadn’t really seen my parents fighting. They seemed as though they had a great marriage.”
Seven years later, Esi, now a 17-year-old high school senior in Endicott, Maryland, still remembers painful details of the early days of her parents’ breakup. “I cried a lot,” she says. “I asked a lot of questions. I wanted to fully understand why my family was ending. My parents tried to make it seem as though we would still be one big family, but I knew deep down that we wouldn’t. It was a huge change.”
Esi’s experience isn’t unique. Each year, an estimated 1.1 million children under the age of 18 in the United States have parents who divorce or separate, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Kids with divorced parents have to make adjustments. Living arrangements are altered. For instance, Esi and her younger brother live most of the time with their mother and see their father on weekends.
They must make emotional adjustments as well. To provide for her family, Esi’s mom works two jobs. All that time working takes away from the time she can spend with her children. “My mom goes to work at 8 a.m. and doesn’t typically get home until 7:30 p.m., so I have to take on a lot of responsibility with my brother,” Esi says. “I make sure he stays on top of his schoolwork and does his chores. I’m pretty much a full-time baby-sitter, so I can’t hang out with my friends after school.”
Looking after her brother isn’t the only challenge Esi has had to handle. She has had to learn how to communicate with her divorced parents, a task that has become more complicated. When her father announced that he and his girlfriend of two months were engaged, Esi was upset by the news and confided in her mother.
“I told my mom I didn’t like how everything was going so fast,” she says. “My mother tried to mediate. My father felt kind of ambushed, and he flipped out.”
Moving forward, Esi and her parents agreed that she would talk to her father directly about issues between them, instead of getting her mother involved. It’s to the credit of Esi and her parents that they were able to resolve the problem without too much rancor. It’s not unusual for parents to have a high degree of conflict after a divorce.
“Most divorces aren’t friendly,” says Paul Schrodt, associate professor of communications studies at Texas Christian University. “When parents begin to send messages through their kids or ask kids questions about each other instead of dealing directly with each other, kids feel like they have to choose sides.”
Despite the challenges she has faced since her parents divorced, Esi says she is thriving. She is an honor roll student, sings in her school’s chorus, and performs in school plays. And for the past five years, Esi has served as a peer counselor at the National Family Resiliency Center (NFRC) in Columbia, Maryland. She offers advice to other kids who are coping with the breakup of their parents’ marriages.
“I tell them, ‘When you are having a problem, open up and speak to your parents,’” Esi says. “‘Nothing will change unless you speak up about the problems you are having.’ If they can’t talk to their parents, I tell them to speak with someone they feel safe with. I try to help people feel comfortable where they are.”
Part of feeling comfortable is realizing that families come in all shapes and sizes, says Risa Garon, executive director of the NFRC.
“It’s not the makeup of a family having two parents, it’s what’s inside the family—the love and the caring—that matters,” Garon says. “It may be one parent who’s always there for you no matter what. It may be an aunt or uncle who can give you what your parents can’t. You don’t have to have one particular kind of family.”
Esi understands that. Although she initially was upset about her parents’ divorce, she now believes it was for the better. Her father and stepmother are happily married, and her mother is pursuing a master’s degree in business.
“Both of my parents are a whole lot happier,” she says. “I am glad to see them go down the paths they were destined to go down. My brother and I feel extremely loved and know we have three parents who are always there for us.”