My parents divorced when I was three. I’m not sure why, although I suspect they were just incompatible. My dad was charmingly traditional. He wanted to go to work in the city and return home to dinner on the table and a house glossy with furniture polish. My mum; fiery, ballsy and allergic to housework felt suffocated by his expectations.
It’s not uncommon. A third of children in Britain live with only one biological parent. New BBC 2 documentary Mum and Dad are Splitting Up, directed by BAFTA-nominated director Olly Lambert whose own parents separated when he was sixteen, collates honest and intimate interviews with families discussing their own experiences of divorce.
Strange though it sounds I have happy memories of the separation. Every Friday until I was sixteen my mum made the two hour round trip to my dad’s house so I could spend the weekend with him. Every Sunday night he would return me, ready for school on Monday. Often he would spend an hour or so on Sunday evenings catching up with my mum. They’d gossip about parents, siblings and mutual friends, giggling like school children as they recounted times gone by.
So I champion divorce, when done properly. Parents who stay together for their children are making a mistake. While I don’t doubt they have their kids’ best interests at heart, growing up in a house listening to vicious rows and achingly long silences will trouble a child more than growing up in a ‘broken home’. While we’re at it, let’s abolish that term. There was nothing broken about my home.
My parents both remarried and so our family grew. We attended weddings together, family BBQs, birthdays. We even ended up on holiday together once. When my dad had children with his new wife he asked my mum to be their guardian should anything happen to him and Lizzie, so solid was their friendship.
He died suddenly in 2007. I remember his funeral vividly, remember wanting to vomit when I saw his coffin, remember the dazzling sunshine so at odds with the occasion, remember crying myself to sleep that night knowing my life would never be the same again. But now what moves me most is the memory of my mum stood behind me, weeping uncontrollable tears as she said goodbye to her closest friend.
The stigma attached to divorce, be it religious, social or political, makes my blood boil. Only the other day my friend was asked in a job interview whether her parents were still together. “I guess they just wanted to see what kind of family I came from,” she said, seemingly unbothered by the sudden deviation into her personal life. We shouldn’t be defined by our parents’ relationship status. Divorced, married, widowed – who cares? All that matters is children are brought up knowing their parents love them, even if they don’t love each other.
According to Lambert, open discussion is the key to successful relationships. “I want people to realise the simple power of being able to have a slightly difficult conversation,” he says. “Breaking up is not the problem; it’s how you do it.”
I implore parents to be honest with their children and with themselves. That’s not to say all unhappy spouses should cut and run tomorrow, my parents’ divorce took time, co-operation, and understanding. But isn’t it braver to leave a hopeless marriage than be miserable forever? Do it right and I promise your children will thank you for it later.
I emailed my mum before I wrote this piece, asking if there was anything she wanted me to include. Quick as a flash she replied: “We needed to divorce to save the friendship.” I’m convinced my dad would say the same.