Two Divorces Too Many

This piece was originally published in the Hartford Courant's Op-Ed section in September of 2004. It was my first byline. 

I attended my sister's wedding last year.

Correction: I attended my stepsister's wedding last year.

Still not right. Let me start over.

I attended a wedding last year.

While waiting my turn in the receiving line, an older man standing beside me asked, "So how are you related to the couple?"

I paused, considered the question for a moment longer than usual, then answered, "I'm Meghan's ex-stepbrother. We were actually brother and sister until I turned 18, then we became ... exes, I guess."

"Really?" came the excited reply from the man. "Well, it's nice to finally meet you. I'm Brian, Meghan's uncle from California. I guess that makes me your ex-step-uncle."

"I guess it does," I replied.

As is true of many people today, divorce has left an indelible impact on my life. But what I've found is that it's not the initial divorces that prove most troublesome. It's those second divorces that really hurt.

My parents divorced when I was in second grade, leaving me in the custody of my mother. As a result, my relationship with my father faded into an occasional holiday visit and a lifetime of guilt and awkwardness. Not long after the split, my mother remarried, bringing a variety of new people into my life, including a horrible new stepfather whom I'd rather forget; seven new aunts and uncles, most of whom came to mean a lot to me; a new, sweet grandmother who lived with us for a time before she passed away; and most important, two new siblings, a stepbrother named Ian and a stepsister named Meghan. For the next dozen years, I grew up with those two redheaded balls of fire and loved them just as much as I did my "real" siblings, Jeremy and Kelli.

But as I said, it was the second divorce that got me. When I was 18, my mother and my stepfather divorced, separating me from Ian and Meghan, who at 13 and 15 naturally remained loyal to their father. So there I was, left with ex-step-siblings whom I did not see or hear from again.

As the years rolled on, I'd find myself in the midst of a story of my childhood (which often included Ian and Meghan) when my listener would stop me mid-sentence and ask, "I thought you said you had only one brother and sister. Who are these two?"

Initially, I'd try to explain: "Actually, I grew up with two brothers and two sisters, but I lost two of them in a divorce." But this response led to confusion and more questions, so rather than dealing with this topic, I simply began eliminating Ian and Megan from these stories, digitally remastering my memories much the same way the guns were turned into walkie-talkies in the 2002 re-release of Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

In fact, I became so efficient at wiping my mental hard drive clean that I began to lose track of which stories were still accurate and which had been altered for the sake of conversation.

Like I said, it's the second divorce that kills you.

Now fast-forward several years.

I'm 23 and I meet Kendra, who has recently divorced her first husband, leaving her with a beautiful little 6-year-old named Nicole. I marry Kendra and immediately assume the role of father, handling discipline, helping with homework and providing her with emotional and financial support. In my mind, Nicole is my daughter, and I tell Kendra as much while discussing whether to have a child together. Kendra, Nicole and I live together for a decade before Kendra one day asks me for "space," which leads to separation and eventually divorce.

And once again, it's the second divorce -- not mine, but Kendra's --that kills me.

Suddenly, the girl I considered my own daughter is now my ex-stepdaughter. At first I thought little would change in our relationship. I assumed that I would remain a father figure in Nicole's life, consulted on where she would go to college, when she would get her first car and so on. But when Nicole chose a college without informing me and I did not receive an invitation to her graduation, I suddenly felt like that 18-year-old boy who one day had a brother and sister named Ian and Meghan and the next day did not.

And now, when someone asks if I have any children, what do I say?

"Yes, I raised a daughter from ages 6 to 16, but then her mother and I divorced, so now I'm an ex-stepfather. Does that count?"