Also published on MariaShriver.com.
My parents divorced when I was one.
My mom (and I) remarried when I was four.
It was a different time from divorces of today. A different set of rules.
I didn’t have two houses, two bedrooms, two sets of clothes. I didn’t go back + forth each week. My parents didn’t equally share me.
I never saw either of my parents dating.
I had my house…with my mom. Then her new husband and their new baby daughters joined our household. They were always my family. I never considered him or my sisters step-anything.
I had my real father on the side.
I have always called him my real father. I have no idea why. Did I make that up or did someone ever say it to me?
My real father would pick me up sometimes on Sunday mornings. He was allowed visitation. We’d drive to Kennebunkport in his Cadillac for breakfast. I’d be on my best behavior, even as a toddler. He’d pull up on our neighborhood street at a snail’s pace. He would never knock on the door or give the horn a little toot. He would just sit there, in his car, smoking Parliaments lit with a butane lighter until I saw him and ran out. He would come and go…quietly. Not wanting to cause a stir.
My real father was 45 when I was born so having a kid in his midst, without the presence of a mom, was a different scene, and somehow I knew from a very early age that I had to be different than how I was at home. I had to fit in with him.
So I did.
Even little kids can discern energy and go with the flow. I had to be more grown up with him, calm, mature.
My stepfather told the story of when, one evening when he and I were sharing a humble dinner, cereal maybe or Kraft mac + cheese, at our little kitchen table on Gertude Avenue while my mom worked, when I asked him at the age of seven:
“Would it be ok if I call you Dad?”
It’s one of my proudest moments because when he retold that story several times over my life, he would tear up. I could see it had moved him deeply and he always remembered it like it was yesterday. That question, my spoken words, mattered to him.
I was a kid (and am an adult) who plans things out.
I don’t leap. I don’t make rash decisions.
At seven, to have decided I’d like to call him dad was no doubt deeply thought through ahead of the ask.
And I always called my real father Bob.
Why? I don’t remember. But I’ve no doubt, I did it having thought that through, too, in my young mind and concluded what was right. He was more like a Bob in our relationship than a dad.
I retained my real father’s last name, all my life until I married. I never shared the family name of the family I grew up with.
At that time, divorce and moms retaining maiden names was an anomaly, not as commonplace as it is now.
I remember an open house evening in elementary school. Teacher had parents who came to open house write their names on the chalk board. We all gathered around in the morning proudly looking for our folks.
I can’t imagine teachers doing this now; it was kind of shaming for those students whose parents didn’t come….and I was perceived as one of those. I said YES THEY DID and pointed them out on the black board – Mr. and Mrs. Everett. Then, I remember, all hell broke loose.
What? Why did my parents have different names than me? Was I lying? Was I adopted?
Truth be told, I wasn’t adopted. But I didn’t know that word at the time. Because I wasn’t adopted is why my name wasn’t theirs.
Back then, my father was able to say in the divorce that I could never be adopted by another man. I would always be his real daughter.
I remember my stepfather getting angry when any of my friends from school would visit and mistakenly call him Mr.-my-last-name-not-his.
One of my best friends today is a girl I met….partly, I think….because she was like me. She was one of the few kids in the 1970’s whose parents were divorced and her last name belonged to her real father and was different than her mom’s...just like me. Somehow we seemed to understand each other and it began a friendship.
The words used in divorce matter – what we all choose to call things and the players involved, how we speak about one another. How gracious and magnanimous or sad and angry we all feel impacts the words we choose. Words have such power.
Divorce in my parents’ case seems like the right course of action from my perspective; I got a much better life than I might have if that critical decision wasn’t made and the words for the separation said. And although my own words may be a little odd, they clarified what was happening for me as a girl processing it all.
And then the words all 3 of my parents used in front of me were mostly kind and gentle, not accusatory or angry. Their words made all the difference in how successfully it worked out for me.
I am grateful to all three – my mom and my two dads. Their words mattered and helped us all through.