Last month, my husband Andy and I celebrated our 17th wedding anniversary.
You might be wondering why you're reading this in the HuffPost Divorce section. Just because I am married with kids doesn't mean I think everyone should get married and have kids. And just because I am not divorced doesn't mean I think people shouldn't divorce. Bear with me: I'm not here to gloat.
Seventeen years is a relatively long time for a marriage to endure, but I suspect it's an average lifespan for a marriage if the couple has children. That's about how long you can use them as a reason to stay together, the single reason most unhappy couples cite for not divorcing (that and more recently, to avoid foreclosure).
Seventeen years resonates particularly with me because it's how long my own parents were married. Or rather, how long it took them to divorce.
I don't remember my parents ever being happy and in love. They fought constantly, usually bitterly and sometimes violently. Potted plants were thrown, wrists were twisted, and worst of all: threats were muttered almost daily. The rare instances of affection I witnessed between them embarrassed rather than reassured me. I'm not talking about being embarrassed in the usual, "I'm your kid, I don't want to see you kissing" way. Rather, I felt their rare lovingness was a sham, a band-aid on a fatal gash, Saran wrap stretched tautly over an active volcano.
I can't remember a time as a child when I wasn't waiting for them to divorce. My best friend Ellen felt the same way about her parents and we fantasized about the four of them switching partners, nice with nice and mean with mean (as we saw it), like a marital square dance. I always loved the square dance call, "Swing your partner round n round/throw 'im in the toilet and flush 'im down." Throw that there marriage in the toilet, pardner! Please.
Later, in high school, when I read Catcher in the Rye, the people who came to mind as representative of Holden Caulfield's "phonies" were my parents, kissing or hugging or even just smiling at each other.
This is not the best way to embark on adulthood: thinking that when people were being nice to each other, it wasn't real. Sort of sets one up for second-guessing every relationship, doesn't it? (Doesn't it?)
A few years ago, when my memoir Dark at the Roots came out, Entertainment Weekly (very kindly) called it "the definitive memoir about parents' divorce." While I was flattered, I was also surprised. I thought my book was merely a humorous look at growing up trashy and gross. When my father left, my sisters and I literally cheered. Typically, we considered him the evil one and our mother the saint. When we were made to testify against Dad on the stand, things were not so clearly delineated. The divorce was deemed both of their faults, which made us feel as though we had failed our mother. Until I wrote about it, I had never looked back to examine how this might have shaped me emotionally.
Writing about the demise of their marriage stirred a profound, unexpected sadness in me. Using the predominant implement in my emotional tool belt, I kept trying to find the funny in it, which made me feel shallow and unexamined. I withdrew emotionally from my husband and my kids, while at the same time hugging them a little too hard, too self-consciously, and yes, rather phonily. I became my mom and dad: faking it. I started to think I wasn't capable of genuine feeling.
I began scrutinizing my own marriage, trying to place it in either the success or failure column, like it couldn't be a little bit of both. On a few occasions, I said to my husband, "Well, I guess we should get a divorce." Luckily, he didn't think I was being genuine in those moments. He thought I was being ridiculous. (I prefer to think I was being melodramatic, but we must choose our battles, eh?)
When Andy and I hit the 17-year mark this March, I found myself taking inventory again. Perhaps it's a bit like people who have lost a parent. When they reach the age their parent died, they wonder if they're going to make it through that year, and when they do, they wonder why. In my marriage, I wonder whether we're going to make it, and why, and maybe why should we? Both of us are from not just broken but absolutely shattered homes. If we escape divorce, 'twould be a miracle!
For the record, I don't believe in miracles. I can't say I have complete and unshakable faith that my marriage will last. And rather than see this as a bad thing -- as damaging residue from being a child of divorce -- I think it's okay. Because no one should be together if they're unhappy, but for now, as long as we are together, let's give it a try, shall we? Call it squishy fatalism: if you suspect something bad might happen, then it probably won't, and if it did, it might not be so bad.
Besides, if Andy and I must fake it occasionally, the fact that we're both actors helps it come off more real than my parents ever did. Though come to think of it, they weren't half-bad.
Soon after I got married, my father sent me a DVD of everything he'd ever shot on Super 8, at both home and work. Saggy-diaper baby scenes from home movies were indiscriminately spliced with footage taken at his construction work sites. The poignant juxtaposition of our sad domestic life with shots of foundations being laid was not lost on me (I graduated in English literature from a state university in the south).
At the very end of the DVD is some dark grainy footage of Dad and Mom, years before they married, on vacation at a lake cabin with another couple. Mom is sitting on Dad's lap and he is kissing her neck while she bats at him like she's shooing a fly. They are laughing. Initially, I found this footage excruciating to watch. Now it's my favorite scene.