How I Coped with my Parents’ Divorce as an Adult

“Your father’s gone.” I was sitting on the edge of my bed, pulling on a pair of socks, getting ready for work as a temp in a publishing house, when my mum phoned.

I was 23, had just got my first job since graduating that summer, and was feeling like an Actual Grown-Up at last. A call from my mum at 7.45am would make me late, so my tone was brisk. “Dad’s gone where?” I asked, thinking the answer would be to work, or to the supermarket, or to park the car better – the only kinds of “gone” I could associate with my dad, who was so present throughout my childhood.

I’d missed both of my parents a lot since moving out after university. With no siblings, I was close to my parents and Dad would often come and sit with me in my bedroom to ask what I was reading, or to borrow some new music. I had a happy, stress-free upbringing. Dad cooked dinner for us every night, and made my packed lunch for school in the morning; he was my friend.

“I mean he’s left,” said Mum, “and he’s not coming back.” I knew then that it was serious.

At work that day, I tried to get my head around everything my mother had told me. There was another woman, apparently not the first, and it was clear now that my dad was not who I’d thought he was. Or maybe he was, but he was this other kind of man as well. Far from just pottering around the house, listening to the radio and fishing big anthologies of poetry from his bookshelves for me to read, he had a whole other, secret life. This knowledge shook me. My parents never argued; at least not in front of me. They were kind to each other and had seemed happy.

I remember two things about that first night I went home to comfort Mum. First, Dad had taken the toothpaste with him when he left and she was furious – it just went to prove “the selfishness your father is capable of”. The second is that my Father’s Day card was still on the fridge – inside I’d written “To the best dad in the world”.

When you’re a child and your parents divorce, everyone knows what to say: “You’re The Most Important Thing”. But while divorce rates in every other age group are falling, among the over- 60s they’re on the rise – I blame Tinder – meaning that more adult kids are dealing with their parents’ divorces.

Sure, as an adult you don’t need to schlep between houses every other weekend and sit in Pizza Hut with your dad telling you yet again that it wasn’t your fault. But it’s still tragic, however old you are, to realise that the two people who love you – and you love – most in the world don’t love each other anymore. When it happens, even if you’re in your 40s with kids, or have been divorced yourself, there’s a six-year-old in you who wants to scream “It’s not fair!” and slam your bedroom door.

Instead, you have to be the counsellor, go-between and best friend to your parents. Particularly if, like me, your mum is 60 and has never been single. Then your job is to help with all the stuff Dad once did, like changing light bulbs, until she inevitably finds a new independence and you realise she’s stronger than you ever thought.

The more I learnt about my parents’ marriage breakdown, the angrier I felt towards my dad, but I didn’t want to cut him off. That isn’t my style. We would meet up in pubs to talk, and he would be contrite and sensitive, saying it was the right thing to do for both of them. Have you seen your father?” Mum asked me about once a week. It is the job of the adult child to offer enough information to satisfy curiosity, but no details likely to cause distress. She certainly doesn’t want to know that he “looks well” or “seems happy”. And for God’s sake, don’t tell her he’s just got back from Paris with his new lover, or is thinking of buying a house with her. “He was all right, we didn’t see each other for long” was enough.

I had no desire to meet Dad’s new partner – at least not at first. She was only six years older than me, which ignited a kind of jealousy I never thought I was capable of, particularly when I discovered they were doing stuff together that I was used to doing with my dad, like going to see bands. But it was tougher on Mum: being left for a younger woman is such a cliché, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Telling my mum that Dad was having a baby was one of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had. It was only a year after the split, and emotions were still raw. Two years later, I had to have the same conversation again, but this time Mum and I just laughed – and laughed. There may have been wine involved.

It’s said that it takes half the time you were in a relationship to really get over it. A decade has passed since my parents split, and they were married for 35 years, but we’re getting there. Once the shock of it all had subsided, I realised that I had a choice. I could hold on to the anger and resentment I felt and throw away the really special friendship I had with my father. Or I could forgive him, allow my mum to take her own time and feel what she needed to feel, but choose not to let this experience throw me off track at the very start of my adult life.

One of the great things about this all happening when you’re not a child is that you recognise that people – even your parents – are complicated and that life is full of grey areas. My dad did a bad thing, but he wasn’t a bad guy – it didn’t negate all the great stuff about our own relationship. Slowly, and with a generosity I respect so much, my mum, too, reached a point where she could forgive.

Eight years after the split she saw my dad again. It was okay, she said, it was fine. Then we went for dinner, the three of us, and we talked about the old days, books, art, film, me – the stuff we’d always had in common. Dad didn’t mention his kids, his new wife, or his new life and we didn’t ask. It was … nice. The three of us have met up a few times a year ever since and it still shocks me how profoundly happy-making it is to sit between Mum and Dad, feeling at 34 that I can finally be the kid again.

It’s not about you

The way you feel is secondary; work it out in therapy. If you got over your parents’ divorce in months but your Divorced Parent (DP) is still in mourning three years later, it’s not your job to fix them. Listen and be supportive but let them deal with it in their own time.

Do not care to share

If you have a good relationship with your DP’s new partner or family, do not broadcast it. Particularly not on social media.

Play the matchmaker

After three months, suggest your DP takes up internet dating. You will need to set up the account for them, and initiate chats with some unintimidating, age-appropriate people. But then leave them to it.

Feign ignorance

If your DP asks about their estranged betrothed, they are “fine”. Never more. Never less.

“You’re not my real mum!”

Rejoice that being an adult means that you don’t have to deal with a step-parent in any way. This person is your mum or dad’s new partner, and you can have as much or as little to do with them as you please.

The kids are all right

Be nice to your DP’s new children. You didn’t ask for siblings and the 30-year age gap makes it hard to bond, but it’s not their fault.

Make the effort

Don’t resent being the one that always sends the email asking if “we should all meet up for dinner soon?” Both DPs will appreciate it.

Keep your distance

Expect to be your DP’s surrogate partner for a while. There will be countless small things you can do to make the transition to independence easier. But know when to stop. Your DPs are stronger and more capable than you may give them credit for.


The Best Way to Help Your Parents through their Divorce


This article, written by Lotte Jeffs, originally appeared on

Posted by Sinta Ebersohn (Creator of – Stellenbosch RSA)