I was nine when the family court decided my sister and I were going to live with our mother.
Over the phone, my mother’s tone was measured when she talked about the arrangement of the divorce. We were to see my father on weekends, and we’d get to meet him every morning when he drove the both of us to school. He would eventually end up driving us to work as well.
I don’t remember how soon afterwards my father moved out, nor do I remember what I felt after hearing the news. But even after 18 years, I still know what I didn’t feel: sadness, grief, and disappointment.
There was just relief—and then guilt for being relieved instead of sad.
My father was not a terrible person. But together with my mother, they were unbearable. As a nine-year-old who just wanted peace in the house, I was always either annoyed or upset that I had to be the adult my parents couldn’t be.
Mainly, I was excited to begin a new chapter. I could finally regain the childhood that I felt had been robbed from me.
In retrospect, I also survived relatively unscathed because of the privileges I was accorded.
For instance, neither parent abandoned the family or moved to another country. In fact, they became even more invested in my life after the split. They ensured their own differences didn’t result in a loss of love or a lack of interest in my education or relationships.
Now that they didn’t have each other to focus on, they placed all their attention on my sister and I.
The split was also mostly civil; no objects were thrown and fighting and screaming were kept to acceptable levels.
And because my father lives a mere 10-minute drive from me now, I see him so regularly that it’s almost as though he never moved out. So logistically speaking, the divorce didn’t shake up my life very much.
If anything, there was an unspoken understanding that we would, as a family, find a way to work around a new normal. And I would find a way to turn this seemingly disastrous event to my advantage.
From an early age, we learn how to guilt trip our parents. We may not resent them for splitting up the family, but we wield the fact of their divorce as emotional blackmail whenever we want permission to do things.
We learn how to get creative when we want things. For example, when I make major life decisions, such as deciding to take a gap year, I broach the idea to the stricter parent first. If he/she doesn’t give me the support I need, I approach the other parent. Then I let the latter know that I’d already sought help from the other, just so they know they’re not solely responsible for the consequences of my decisions.
Now imagine if my parents were still married. They’d catch on within minutes. But because they don’t talk to each other, they never know how finely I coordinate every step of my plan.
That said, I don’t push my luck. They may have been insufferable together, but trust me, divorced or not, parents will still find a way to gang up on their children when they think we’re making a wrong call.
And on a more superficial level, living in two homes means more red packets over Chinese New Year. I suspect my father is always trying to outdo my mother in all ways where caring for my sister and I are concerned, including how much he gives us in angbao money. Their petty competition is always our financial gain.
But things don’t have to last forever to be meaningful.
“I wouldn’t just say that there are benefits. In fact, I can’t even see any cons!”
Being a child of divorced parents is basically a super efficient crash course in life. There are all these inevitable lessons that you have no choice but to learn way earlier than your peers.
After the initial sadness fades, being able to see the silver lining lends perspective to an otherwise ‘depressing’ situation. It sounds callous, but there are many upsides to the end of my parents’ marriage and a ‘normal’ family life.
Yet I also rarely mention this optimism aloud because I’m expected to be sad, or at least mindful that I shouldn’t come across overjoyed. As much as divorce is no longer really taboo, society still isn’t ready to wholeheartedly embrace it, even if it’s clearly beneficial to the parties involved.
After all, relationships fail. Forcing them to work can hurt the ones around you even more. I don’t need to tell you how selfish this is.
All this ends up being very counterproductive to shaking the taboo surrounding how we think about divorce.
It doesn’t help that there are so many stories romanticising couples who stay together for 40, 50 years. While commendable, the narrative only perpetuates the myth that longevity is the most important sign of a successful relationship. Giving up or breaking up implies personal failure or a kind of moral inadequacy.
But things don’t have to last forever to be meaningful. The fact that my parents are no longer together doesn’t reduce the importance of their years together.
Having seen firsthand what happens when a marriage falls apart, I can testify that “staying together for the children” is a poor excuse for a lack of courage to end something that clearly isn’t working anymore. It’s also inherently harmful to a child’s understanding of love when parents stay together out of obligation.
Isn’t it more destructive to remain in unhappy relationships because it is what’s expected of you, than to leave and pursue something that doesn’t make you want to belittle, hurt or kill your partner?
Today, my parents are much happier than they ever were in their best days as a married couple. Well, I think so anyway; I don’t have many memories of them as a happy couple.
I might not have an idea of what the ‘perfect’ relationship looks like, but I’m also beginning to think there isn’t one. Not having a conventional Singaporean template for happiness, success, or love to follow also means I’m able to create a life I want from scratch.
Whether this means getting married at 23, at 40, or not at all, it’s liberating to know my parents don’t put any pressure on me to settle down or conform.
I suppose this is what people mean by divorce being a blessing in disguise.