Every summer, I spent a couple of weeks with my dad’s parents, after they worked out the details and travel arrangements with my mom. Beginning at age seven, that meant flying alone to visit Grandpa and Ponci (the name that had stuck with my grandma since my toddler years), who lived in central Illinois. I started a vast collection of plastic airline wings, became great friends with flight attendants and learned that the pilots had their own lounges with TVs. Those summer visits were always fun, and they kept me connected to my dad’s family. Because I was Ponci and Grandpa,s only grandchild, that connection was important both to them and to me.
Ponci and Grandpa lived out in the country in a perfect house that Grandpa built. He was a contractor, so every few years they would buy a different house, fix it up, live in it awhile, then sell it for a tidy profit. The country house was my favorite. It sat on five acres, nestled between fields of corn or soybeans, depending on the crop rotation that year. It caught every summer breeze through its tall windows. You could watch storms approach from miles away and hear the rain on the cornstalks long minutes before it soaked you. When tornado watches were announced, Grandpa and I would stand and watch from the doorway of the garage, just a few short steps from the basement stairs. We could see the funnel clouds form and dissipate, making the eerily green and black sky look like it was boiling upside down. At night, frogs croaked loudly from the pond in the middle of the property. The long, blacktop driveway was perfect for roller-skating, and I was allowed to make forts out of blankets and chairs in the living room.
A few mornings each week, we would meet up with some of Ponci and Grandpa’s friends and relatives — Audrey and Engle, Aunt Katie and Uncle Ray, Wayne and Sue — for breakfast at a little country diner, where I got hooked on biscuits with sausage gravy. But Friday mornings, if the weather was good, there was no time for the diner — we had yard sales to visit.
I learned the fine art of bargaining from Ponci, a master saleswoman and negotiator. We would zip around town in her little Triumph convertible, looking for dishes, roller skates or whatever treasure someone else called trash. We would pause for lunch at Taco Bell and maybe stop at the bank to empty the loose change jar into my passbook savings account. But our goal was fixed: We were two cool chicks, Big Ponci and Little Ponci, in search of a twenty-five-cent deal.
I remember one of those trips when I was about nine years old. As we drove around looking for the promising sales we’d circled in the paper that morning, the topic of conversation turned to my mom and dad’s divorce. Ponci was gently prying, trying to find out if I was okay. I assured her I was. No need to worry about me — I was fine. I remember Ponci’s relief as she said, “Of all the people involved, you handled it the best.” Of course, she thought I did everything the best, but the pride in her voice sounded awfully genuine. It was echoed by the pride in my own heart at hearing this — not because I had handled things the best, but because she thought I had.
Ponci did not see the times that I woke up screaming and disheveled from violent nightmares when I was four. She did not see the times I cried myself to sleep at age seven because I missed my daddy — and because, as a new Christian, I worried about his salvation, afraid I would be separated from him for eternity. She did not see the gaping hole left in my heart by my dad’s absence and apathy. What she saw was a calm, well-behaved, resilient, well-adjusted child. And that is exactly what I wanted her to see. I did not want to be a trouble to anyone. It was far better to go along, to do what I was told, to generally make myself as unnoticeable as possible. Clearly, it was working.
As proud as I was of having fooled Ponci, and presumably many others, I was also profoundly frustrated and disappointed. At our core, we all want to be understood. We want people to “get it”, to glimpse the true essence of us behind whatever mask we wear. I wore the mask so well that even Big Ponci could not see through it.
This is the story of many who have grown up and provided fodder for the “good divorce” theory. On the outside, we look like we have it together. We are not on drugs, we finished college, we seem like nice people. When I first read Judith Wallerstein’s The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, I was overwhelmed with thankfulness that God had drawn me to himself at the age of six and saved me from turning out like some of the women whose stories were told in the book. Their lives are a mess, I thought rather arrogantly, thanking God that I did not end up like them (though without Christ, I think I would have).
But that was not the whole story. A few years later, Elizabeth Marquardt published Between Two Worlds, focusing on the lives of the seemingly fine children of divorce, and I saw myself written all over those pages. Doing well but not daring to hope or trust too much; wanting to protect everyone else while feeling vulnerable and alone; not wanting to cause trouble; being a capable, strong, independent woman who was really doing quite well, thank you very much, please help me.
When Jeff’s parents divorced, everyone expected him to keep quiet — about the divorce and about his own feelings. He learned the lesson so well that he was married for ten years before he finally learned to communicate his feelings to his wife. Shortly after his own breakthrough, Jeff found himself in a conversation with a recently divorced co-worker. He asked her, “How are your kids doing?”
“Oh, they’re doing great,” she assured him. “I sat down with each one of them, talked to them about the divorce, and asked them how they were feeling. They are all great kids and handling it really well.”
“Baloney,” Jeff said. “Your kids are lying to you. They’re just telling you what you want to hear.”
Jeff’s blunt reply shocked, even angered, his co-worker. But later she sought him out and thanked him. After their last conversation, she confronted her children again and found that Jeff was right. They had been hiding their true feelings, not wanting to hurt her. She immediately signed up the whole family for counseling.
We children of divorce often felt pressured to pretend everything was okay. Sometimes that pressure was overt, but often it was no more than an unspoken hope in the hearts of the adults in our lives. Still, we sensed it and felt the weight of it.
Adults want to believe that kids are tough, that they can handle the strain of divorce. Popular psychology reinforced this idea for a long time — and some psychologists still do — for the same reasons that doctors tell parents that their young children cannot feel the pain of a medical procedure: it is too painful for us to hurt a child and not be able to explain or ease the pain, so we pretend they cannot feel it.
Some of our parents may have felt that same kind of helplessness and anguish, particularly if they were in a violent marriage or if they were abandoned. Some knew it would be painful for us, but they believed it was also the best thing. Only a third of divorces are the result of high-conflict marriages in which violence was likely, but since the 1970s, when no-fault divorce became the norm, one spouse cannot make the other stay. A mom or dad who is left behind like that tries to make the best of a bad situation, often while blindly groping through their own fog of emotional pain. And as the children of such parents, we wanted to protect them and make them believe they were succeeding. Elizabeth Marquardt found that more than half of us, compared to just a third of children from intact homes, felt a particular need to protect our mothers. Judith Wallerstein observed similar patterns, telling parents that even very young children will “do anything to not rock the boat because they love you and want to take care of you, and they realize that this is a crisis for at least one of you.”
We did such a good job pretending to be fine that everyone believed us. Alison Clarke-Stewart, coauthor of Divorce: Causes and Consequences, remarked, “That was one of the surprising things in the literature and also in our conversations with the students taking our class, that parents don’t seem to realize how much their children are suffering.”
Now that we are adults, we are supposed to be long over the split that happened in our family so many years ago, or old enough to realize that these things just happen. One young woman wrote to advice columnist “Dear Abby” about her parents’ divorce, announced two weeks before her own wedding: “I am 28 years old and should be able to handle the news but I cannot. I have been devastated by the end of a marriage that I thought was a good one until only a few months ago.”
Divorce is heartbreaking. As children, we were often caught in the middle of our own emotions and the hopes of our parents and other adults around us. Many of us felt overlooked and misunderstood, and many of us still feel that no one is aware of the sadness we carry around from our parents’ divorce. In one sense, we are right. No human can ever really know or fully understand the wounds on our souls. But God can. He created us, and he is very aware when we hurt.
Psalm 56:8 says, “You keep track of all my sorrows. / You have collected all my tears in your bottle. / You have recorded each one in your book.” Some biblical commentators think the psalmist is alluding here to lachrymatories, tear bottles that were popular in Roman times. The bottles were used to collect the tears of funeral mourners, which were then stored with the body, showing how precious and loved the deceased person had been by how full the tear bottles were. Sometimes people would use the bottles to catch and store the tears of a loved one who was suffering and near death, commemorating the deceased’s final anguish.
Other commentators, however, including the nineteenth-century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon, discredit this theory. They contend that there is no evidence of tear bottles being used in pre-Roman Jewish culture. Instead, they suggest that the allusion is to fine wine. In fact, the NIV offers an alternate translation that reads “put my tears in your wineskin.” The image here is of a vintner who plants vineyards and takes vigilant care of his tender vines; when the harvest time comes, he removes the grapes from their vines and places them in a winepress. There they are squeezed until they have released every drop of their juice, which is then stored in wineskins (leather bottles), to be poured out at a later time.
In either case, the implication is the same. Whether our bottles of tears are lachrymatories, bearing witness of how loved and special we are, or whether they are wineskins, storing the meticulously cultivated and purposefully pressed out fruit of our lives — God is in the process. He is taking special, tender care of our pain, and he is careful not to waste it or regard it casually.
He keeps track of all your sorrows. Not just some — all, the psalmist says. What a precious thought! This is no mild brush-off, but a “tender concern” as seventeenth-century English pastor Matthew Henry noted in his commentary on the psalms.
I tend to keep diaries only when I am sad or distressed. When things are going well or even just okay, I have more important tasks than pouring my heart out on even the prettiest of journal pages. Life is to be lived, not simply recorded. But when I am sad, I cannot wait to let loose every raw feeling within the pages of a diary, where I feel free to express myself. Yet my journals do not capture all my sorrows, but only those I felt burdened with, when I had time on my hands and the energy to write and a pen nearby. At best, my journals represent only a haphazard collection of woes. But God has been carefully keeping track of each one. I can imagine him saying to me in heaven one day, “Do you remember the time when you cried about ____?” And I will reply, “No, I don’t remember that one. Did I really cry about that?” According to the psalmist, all he will have to do is turn to his record book and say, “See? I wrote it all down right here.”
Bill Hybels, founder and senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in the suburbs of Chicago, talks about this passage in his book The God You’re Looking For:
Every person is wounded in one way or another… [God] was there, and He didn’t miss a millisecond of what took place… You must grab hold of the secure lifeline provided by the truth that God knows. He is intimately acquainted with all your ways. He doesn’t watch you from a distance. No feeling, no hurt, no scar, no wound has ever escaped His notice. Not only does He know, He cares. The Psalms declare, “You have seen me tossing and turning through the night” — let this next phrase sink in — “You have collected all my tears and preserved them in your bottle! You have recorded everyone in your book.”… How do you like that? When God greets us in heaven, He’ll be able to wave our tear bottle in front of His smiling face. “Didn’t miss a one,” He’ll say. “Not a single one.” Additionally, He not only collects each tear but also records each one in a book… God is never careless with your tears, hurts, and wounds. That’s how much you matter to Him.
Even when it seems that no one else knows what we are going through or cares about our sadness, God knows. Our tears are precious to him because we are precious to him!
Kristine Steakley is a freelance writer and a grant-writing consultant living in northern Virginia. This article has been excerpted with permission from Children of Divorce, Children of God (IVP Books, copyright @ 2008).