Dr. Carly Blackstone’s Reflections on Being a Child of Divorce
As a psychologist working with high-conflict families, I can reflect on my own experience and recognize how much it has impacted my professional and personal life. I had the “lucky” experience of living through two divorces during my childhood.
The first, between my biological parents when I was four years old, I don’t remember well, but I know it greatly impacted my personality. The second happened when I was 19 and remains a strong memory that affected me in a much different manner.
How Divorce Shaped my Life
I sarcastically say that I was lucky because divorce brings a lot of turmoil to the family – the moving, the changes to the school, and the day-to-day routine. When you transition from a home with two parents to one, nothing stays the same. However, I felt lucky in the first divorce; I didn’t have to change schools. I was in kindergarten at the Jewish Community Center, which was actually closer to the community we moved to after the divorce.
We went from a quiet cul de sac in the suburbs where everyone knew everyone to an apartment in Pittsburgh. For the first time ever, my sister and I had to share a room. At five years old, I was thrilled about our communal habitat; at 9-years-old, she was not.
For better or worse, my biological father and I never had a deep connection. He struggled with mental health and drug abuse issues my whole life. I remember him being home one day and gone another. Prone to imaginative thinking as a little girl, I fantasized that a neighbor’s father could be my Dad instead.
The neighbor always took time to chat with me, had patience with my questions, and made me smile and laugh. I always felt like he valued me as a child. He was nothing like my real Dad. Fast forward a few short years later, and I got my wish: this man and my Mom dated and then married when I was 10 years old.
I was very fortunate to have an active stepfather present in my life, particularly when my biological father had declined his role. My stepfather was kind, giving, consistent and reliable as a father to me. Like anyone else, he wasn’t perfect, but when I needed something as a child, he was available.
When I needed a hero, he was mine. At my bat mitzvah, I chose his name to be listed as my father on my invitation because he was a Dad to me. He would drive me to school and take me to dinners and other social engagements.
When I was looking at colleges, he encouraged me to apply to Indiana University. I wanted to go to a big college in a small college town with huge college pride and spirit. Attending Indiana was and is one of the best decisions I ever made. However, during my Junior year in college, my world and the stability I had grown accustomed to flipped upside down when my mother and stepfather separated and divorced. So many things changed within just a year:
For two years, my mother and stepfather were both there for drop-off, pick-up, football games, and my sorority parents’ weekend. The next year, my junior year, my mom dropped me off herself, but they both came to the sorority parents’ weekend. They wanted to help comfort me, as it was obvious I was having a very hard time with the separation.
They tried their best to make it comfortable, but it wasn’t comfortable – the word I’d use to describe the entire weekend was Awkward (with a capital A!). I felt different. Everything was different. It seemed as though no one understood what I was going through, and I did not have the maturity or education yet to explain it.
This time, the divorce felt very real, and it affected so many components of my life. I was involved. Discussions about my housing, my school, whether I would travel abroad, and where I would live during summer break were all in the center ring during this second divorce.
Unfortunately, the separation was not amicable. My parents’ conflict was difficult to witness, so I avoided it every chance I could. That is how I coped. I even stayed primarily with friends that summer to avoid being in our home.
Over time I became more comfortable with our new normal. In my senior year, my sorority hosted parents’ weekend. This time only my mother came. Although I didn’t feel as normal as friends with two parents present, having clearly established familial roles helped me move forward in confidence, knowing that it was better for our family to live separately than be at odds together.
During these years, I didn’t know what to expect from my stepdad after the divorce – would we stay in touch? Would I still be his daughter? Ultimately, to ease the conflict in other relationships in our lives, our relationship faded away abruptly after my parents’ divorce.
We finally sat down and spoke about everything 20 years later while he was suffering from cancer. I thanked him for the years he was there for me, and I apologized for fading away in my 20s; he did as well. It was amazing closure to a very significant person in my life.
As a child and young adult, I was actually very resistant to therapy (even anti-therapy, perhaps). Everyone around me was in therapy or was a therapist. It was only when I traveled abroad that I noticed I had difficulty making friends, and I was insecure. I was lost, and this time there was no active male role model to help show me where to go next. I would have to determine my next steps independently.
In reflection, here are how those two distinctively different divorces impacted my life’s trajectory and relationships:
After college, I started working in an ad agency. I hated it. So, I started volunteering and thinking seriously about graduate school. This led me to pursue psychology. I leaned into my lifelong love for children and decided to help. Now, I can empathize with children at different stages in life.
In graduate school, you pick an area of expertise for psychology: I focused on the disconnect that kids feel with their parents and vice versa. I remember how I felt as a child and what I desperately wanted someone to do or say for me. So every day, I advocate for the smallest voices in the room so their needs can be heard and realized in light of family transitions.
It has taken a lot of my own therapy throughout the years to refind and reclaim myself. I am who I want to be professionally now: a strong advocate for healthy families. As a friend, I feel like I am also in a good place. We talk a lot about feelings and authenticity.
Marriage & Divorce
Looking back, it is clear that both divorces really impacted my spousal selection. My ex-husband has traits of both my biological father and my stepfather. I tried to avoid the conflict I had witnessed in my parents’ marriages. All I knew was what did not work for them, so I tried to avoid those mistakes. I was oblivious to so much because there was a real lack of communication between my parents to me. I didn’t know what I didn’t know and fell into many of the same traps.
My marriage did have a lot of conflicts. I employed comfortable coping mechanisms of avoidance and gleefully kept the wool over my own eyes for years. Ignorance can be bliss, but it comes with consequences. Ultimately, I did not want my daughter to witness our conflict. I had visions of my daughter being insecure as a ten-year-old due to our struggles. That hit me hard because I knew about the unhealthy coping mechanisms teenagers can develop, and I did not want my daughter to face that.
Parenting: Progress, Not Perfection
As a parent, I am on my way. I have taught my daughter that dating is for fun and for entertainment. I tell her to find herself before she worries about finding someone else. I teach her to be confident, independent, and strong. Instead of focusing on superficial connections, we try to develop deep, meaningful relationships with others. We talk a lot about the qualities we want in the people we have in our lives.
After all, no one is perfect. But we learn as we go. We learn from mistakes. We learn to grow. As I reclaim my own confidence and independence, I recognize that open, honest communication and having a strong sense of self are the two greatest learning lessons that made me lucky to be a child of divorce.
Carly Blackstone, PsyD, has nearly 15 years of experience as a clinician. Most of her work is in the area of individual, adolescent, or adult therapy, Parent Coordination, or Reunification Therapy. From 2015 to 2018, she was the Director of the UPO Office of Parent Coordination at D.C. Superior Court.
Carly is currently a Licensed Clinical Psychologist treating children, adolescents, adults, and families in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington D.C. She began her education at Indiana University and received a Doctorate in Psychology from George Washington University in 2005. She is also a member of the Association of Family Conciliation and Courts (AFCC).
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