The realisation that your parents are actual people can be horrifying.
It’s like seeing one of your teachers outside of school, or Matthew Perry playing a character that isn’t Chandler.
You get used to seeing your parents in certain, parenty roles and it’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that they exist outside of that realm; that they forget birthdays, that they send needy messages, that they feel fat some days, that they fall in love.
That they fall out of love.
And they also go through break ups.
For some people, when their parents break up, it can feel like their entire world is crumbling around them. As though the stable life they have always known has been blown apart.
For others it can feel like an enormous relief, an end to an unhappy household and parents who fight all the time.
But even if you expect it to happen, even if you knew it was coming, it can still hurt like hell.
I was seventeen when my parents broke up and I didn’t see it coming.
I was wrapped up in my own life. I was taking my final exams, I was navigating my way through my own, very intense relationship, I was trying to decide what I wanted to study at university. I didn’t notice the other things that were going on in our house.
I didn’t see that my parents were hardly talking anymore. I clocked that my mum was crying a lot, but I put that down to her becoming more emotional as she got older. I was aware that my dad was coming into my room more often to hang out, but I thought it was because he was worried about me going away to university next year and having an ‘empty nest’.
But when they finally told me, I felt the pieces click into place. I felt stupid and self-absorbed and confused. I had no idea what to say or what to do or how to act.
I mistakenly thought that because my parents had survived four children, five different cities and 30 years of marriage, that they were somehow immune from divorce.
When dad moved out, my boyfriend helped me pack all my dad’s clothes into big black bin bags and stuff them in the back of my car. We counted up all the spare change in his top drawer, separated it into different currencies and took it to the bank. We made cookies with my new Christmas-shaped cookie cutters.
I remember holding my mother as she cried and realising that I had never been the one doing the holding, I was always the one being held. My mother had spent her whole life taking care of me, and now I decided it was time for me to take care of her. And sometimes, she’d let me.
I would go to the supermarket and return armed with what I considered precisely the amount of chocolate to cure her broken heart. We would lie curled on the sofa watching films and she would fall asleep resting her head on my shoulder. When the film was over I would carefully nudge her awake and tell her ‘it’s bedtime,’ while I turned off the lights in the living room.
My parents got back together in the end, so I guess I was luckier than most. Now, they hold hands like teenagers who can’t bear the idea of being apart.
And sure, it was a crappy, emotional, chocolate-filled time but I learned a lot from the experience. The thing that stuck with me the most was that sometimes adults will act like teenagers and sometimes teenagers will act like adults. After all, we’re all just people in the end.