Like the Gates kids, I was an adult when my parents got divorced. That didn't make it any easier.

·8 min read
jennifer bill gates
25-year-old Jennifer Gates is the oldest daughter of billionaires Bill and Melinda Gate, who recently announced their divorce. fotopress/Getty Images
  • Bill and Melinda Gates announced their divorce on May 3.

  • Their children are adults, but divorce is difficult for kids of any age.

  • My parents got divorced in my 20s. It was complicated, emotional, and time-consuming for everyone.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

When the news broke this week, I saw a lot of people in my social circles talking about how they were "taking the divorce pretty hard."

By that, they meant Bill and Melinda Gates' divorce, which they announced May 3 after 27 years of marriage.

As public figures, philanthropists, and some of the wealthiest people in the world, the couple is a household name. Even their most personal, intimate decisions resonate with a huge number of people.

But amid romanticized sighs about the end of the decades-long marriage, few people seem worried about their children Jennifer (25), Rory (21), and Phoebe (18).

There's a tendency to talk about kids in a divorce when they're young, and not when they're adults. But divorce takes time and a lot of energy, both emotionally and logistically, to resolve for everyone in the family, whether the kids are grown or not.

I would know - my parents started the process of divorce in my mid-20s, when I was in the middle of a rigorous grad school program. Even halfway across the country, it was a major upheaval.

As someone who's gone through it myself, I feel for the Gates kids. They're all grown up, but it doesn't take away the complexity, pain, or even relief, of the experience.

A divorce might be years in the making, which comes with a lot of emotions to process

Divorce sucks because it forces you to reframe your perception of your family and your place in it. As an adult, that can be especially challenging, because it means shifting decades' worth of feelings about your family. And that's true even if you're not rich or famous.

I was 26 when my parents divorced, but the process began much earlier. Despite being married for more than two decades, and dating off and on since high school, my mom and dad were deeply unhappy in their relationship for as long as I can remember.

They also went to great lengths to make things work while I was living at home, for the benefit of my sister and I. Parents often choose to "stay together for the kids," at least until they're out of the house. In my experience, that can make things harder. Frankly, I wish mine hadn't.

It was comforting at the time, since divorce can be a scary prospect. As a teenager, I had friends that had been deeply affected by combative divorces. I didn't want that to be me.

But when the divorce did finally happen, I had to reckon with a lot of behavior in my childhood home that I now realize isn't the norm for a healthy relationship. It's not normal to routinely have shouting matches over household chores, to resolve disagreement with slammed doors, or to communicate largely via passive aggressive jabs or the silent treatment.

My parents meant well, and they're good people. They're also incompatible. It often seemed to me like staying together made them the worst versions of themselves.

divorce
Divorce makes family gatherings awkward. Vladimir Smirnov/Getty Images

Splitting up changes the whole family dynamic

Children of divorce often talk about the shock and discomfort of being "caught between" sides of the family, and that doesn't go away as an adult.

I wasn't moving between mom's house and dad's house, but navigating family events became much more strained. In the immediate aftermath of the divorce, I found myself having to carefully field questions about why it happened from relatives who had a clear bias toward one side or the other. There was a lot of implied judgment about how my parents should have handled their marriage, even if not all of it was said out loud.

It also created a rift in my social world. My mother and paternal grandmother went from being extremely close to barely speaking. Now when I visit, rather than reuniting with the whole family, I have to choose whom to spend my time with. That's still very much the case even three years later.

When I'm catching up with my dad, it's still jarring to realize that he has very little idea of what's going on in the daily lives of my mom and sister. I'm often his only source of updates about major happenings in the family, as neither of them speak to him much (an important part of maintaining their personal boundaries, which I respect).

My parents also didn't announce their split in a PR statement to the world, so I was spared the additional emotional baggage of making divorce a spectator sport on the world stage.

Gates children
Yana Paskova / Stringer/Getty Images

Divorce is a logistical nightmare even if you're not rich or famous

Divorce has the uncanny side effect of making you feel like the adult in the room even around the people who raised you. When I was a kid, and my younger sister and I fought like crazy, my parents used to make us sit facing each other until we had resolved our differences.

It was strangely similar when my sister and I ended up being mediators for my parents in the throes of divorce proceedings. She helped my mom and dad clean and renovate our childhood home to sell. Preparing to live alone, my parents were downsizing, which meant sorting through nearly 12 years worth of stuff. It's amazing how much accumulates even with just my family of four. Digging through piles of old journals, class projects, and mementos was an incredibly depressing and nostalgic process. The process of renting a storage unit and deciding what was important enough to keep was even more so.

Unlike the Gates family, we didn't have a massive inheritance or assets to divvy up, but we did have quite a bit of debt.

My mother switched careers and went back to school when I was a teenager. Between her bills, my lingering undergraduate loans, and various other mortgages, it was an imposing pile of paperwork, and the lawyering to manage it all was even more costly. While I wasn't directly crunching all the numbers, I spent hours on the phone in a supporting role, juggling calls between grad school night classes to resolve minor scuffles of whose lawyer was dragging their feet, and what papers still needed to be signed.

Even seemingly straightforward tasks are thorny to resolve. Splitting up the family phone plan, for instance, was an unexpected headache. In order to separate the account, both my mom and dad had to be physically present together to confirm the decision with Verizon. Getting my parents, fresh from the dissolution of their long, fraught relationship, into the same room for that mundane project took months to accomplish.

Altogether, it took about over a year to work through all of the details.

Even positive feelings about divorce are complicated

One of the strangest moments in processing the divorce was realizing later that I felt proud of my parents for making the choice to split up and move on with their lives.

Both of them were ultimately much better off. My dad finally quit a job he hated for one he's proud of, and started a new workout routine. My mom finally has a small home to herself, with a yard and garden, and no one to bother her when she sits in her favorite rocking chair to read.

It's an incredibly uneasy feeling to acknowledge I'm proud of my parents, though, because it means recognizing them as people. It sounds silly, but it's easy to perceive parents in the abstract, as cheerleading role models or angst-inducing smotherers. It's unsettling to recognize the whole life they have outside of their parenting, as individuals with their own struggles, flaws, needs, and goals.

Talking about it helps. I have and continue to spend a lot of time in therapy processing my family dynamics, and encourage everyone with a similar experience to do the same.

Ultimately, I'm grateful for my parents' divorce, in a way, because it helps me remember to set my own boundaries and shows it's never too late to prioritize your own happiness, even if it's messy.

I wish the Gates family all the best in finding happiness in this new chapter of their lives, and hope we can all give them the time, space, and privacy to do so.

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