I remember reading The Suitcase Kid by Jacqueline Wilson when I was young – a book about a young girl whose parents divorce, and her feeling caught between the two, living from a bag between her two homes. This is what I have always called myself. And although the real Suitcase Kid from the story had it much more rough than I did, it felt like a running joke that sort of made light of the situation.
When my Dad left my Mum, I was only one year old. Obviously this was a bit of a blessing, as it means I never knew them together. My Dad always wanted to see my sister and I, and so would have custody of us at the weekends. Luckily, my Mum and Dad always got on and so on a Saturday morning we would meet in a lay-by half way between their two houses and we would swap parents, lugging my life in a bag for a two day stay at my Dad’s house. I guess when I write it like that, I was super lucky. Super lucky to have two parents who weren’t at war, and to have two homes where I was loved. Of course each home had its downfalls, but for a child, to feel like I had no strong base, and to feel like I was living out of a bag made me feel lost, disrupted and unsafe. Moreover, as my Mum’s house was a volatile environment due to her alcoholic and manic depressive husband, I felt unsettled wherever I was, torn between wanting to be at home to protect my Mum, and to escape it all and be with my Dad.
I will always, always regret not telling my Dad what was going on at home. I could have stopped the situation earlier, and protected myself from the mistakes my Mum was making and the environment she was exposing us to. But I was young, and I was scared. In some ways, the disruption of packing my suitcase and living out of it at my Dad’s for two days a week was a welcome break from the shouting, screaming and stress of my normal home life.
My parents never really understood how disrupted I felt as a child. Between their two houses I never felt truly settled. Never had a minute to relax, never felt like I was in control of where I wanted to spend my own time at the weekend: I was going to my Dad’s, away from friends and making my own plans, that was that. What irritated me most about the whole debacle was forgetting to pack things – probably explains why now I pack one of everything, just in case! I felt stuck, and almost like my life was a game of tug of war. I was a chess piece in a game played by Mum and Dad. I would overhear conversations between my parents about what time we would meet to swap back, who would have who at Christmas or Easter Holidays, who got to attend parents evening this year. Where was my input? Where was my choice?
It was funny how surrounded by all these different adults, being pushed from pillar to post, nobody noticed how much I was struggling with my depression and anxiety. Of course this instability probably only fed my mental illness.
I coped with being in both places, disregarding the other situations going on with my parents and their partners, by making sure that I had a safe haven at both homes. A place to read, a place to be quiet, play music, watch TV etc. I was lucky enough to have a bedroom with a door that I could close on the world at both houses, and this did give me some comfort. If I had some advice for parents who have separated and share custody of children, I would say to provide this safe haven for your children, ensuring that they feel at home in both settings, somewhere that they can grow and be themselves, as after all that is what a home is all about. Make sure they have all the necessary items that they need at both houses: clothes, bed, books, etc, which will make them feel settled and at home. I would also implore parents to give their children some choice, within reason, about where they want to be, who they want to spend time with, and what they want to do, as I definitely felt like my opinion counted for nothing, and as a result, felt entirely unimportant to my parents.
If you are a child of a broken home, talk to your parents! I wish I had. I wish I would have said if I just wanted to spend a weekend at my Mum’s house and stay settled in one place, or go to the cinema with friends, or spend the week at Dad’s house to have some more quality time with him. But I never spoke up. And so my parents continued to make decisions for me, decisions that I wasn’t always happy with, and this is what made me feel like The Suitcase Kid. I’m lucky now to live in my own flat where I have my own things surrounding me and can come and go from my parents houses as and when I want to, but this is a luxury that comes with age. Younger children do not have a choice in where they go, who with and what they do, but they should be made to feel safe, secure and stable, always.