By Izabella Balcerzak
It’s 3:23 a.m. on a school night. I’m 10 years old and sitting on the cold bathroom floor with my back against the wall. I have a hardcover book in my hand, but haven’t dared to open it. My earphones are plugged into my MP3 player, blaring My Chemical Romance. This is my feeble attempt to drown out the noise coming from the kitchen. In between songs, I can hear the crumbling of my parents’ partnership, but only for 10 seconds at a time.
My parents fell out of love as soon as they fell into it.
It was 1989 and they met through mutual friends in a busy Polish bar in Roncesvalles. Both new to the country, they spoke little English and found each other attractive. My mother is fair skinned, has ocean-blue eyes and blonde hair that falls to her shoulders in curls. My father is olive toned with dark hair and a sharp jawline. They were the Sandy Olsson and Danny Zuko of the night, but 10 years older and without all the grease.
Their struggle to start new lives as Canadians was what united them. They were living paycheque to paycheque. My father started working at a car dealership during the day and my mom found a job in a meat factory. From midnight to dawn, they both cleaned offices. Any romantic desire was replaced with what was convenient—if they had the energy to do so.
Like many first-born children, my older sister wasn’t planned. At the time, my parents were living together because the rent was cheap and the sex was convenient. They weren’t married and weren’t very compatible. My dad preferred brunettes.
With the arrival of two more little blonde girls—me and my little sister—my dad’s frustrations heightened and he turned to alcohol for release. He began working as a truck driver, which meant long days away from home. We didn’t mind because it meant less time spent in the bathroom, hiding from the screaming.
There’s no way to guarantee a couple will stay in love throughout their relationship. Circumstances change. People change. But once they start a family together, breaking up isn’t always an easy choice. The well-being of the children is the priority, and the initial thought is that staying together—despite being unhappy—is what’s best for everyone.
But research conducted by Child Trends, the Journal of Youth and Adolescence and the National Institute of Mental Health all found that children raised in unhappy homes often experience depression, anxiety, cardiac stress, difficulties in school and trouble with their own future relationships.
One student I spoke with doesn’t remember a time when her parents relationship was in a good place. Her dad found his escape in working late nights, then coming home to watch TV. He never asked about school or how she was doing.
Her parents’ constant fighting finally resulted in their divorce a few years ago, but only after staying together for nearly two decades for the sake of their children.
The reasons behind marrying or starting a family with someone have evolved over time. Rather than being driven by combining family wealth and land, people now seek emotional fulfillment in long-term relationships. Denise Marigold, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo, says current generations are marrying with higher expectations—a result of being busier and having less time to invest in relationships than previous generations.
“[People believe] that their partner will be all things to them; be a friend, a lover, a domestic partner and help them fulfill their ultimate potential,” says Marigold. “And yet people end up disappointed [even] more.”
That feeling of disappointment stayed with me throughout my childhood. After school, I would watch other moms and dads walk by, holding hands and sharing the occasional kiss. I felt confused and intrigued. Romance was a foreign concept to me. It was an approach to love that my parents had left behind that night in 1989.
Though I secretly denied it for years, my parents’ hostile interactions with each other affected the way I reacted to potential relationships. I have trust issues and hate being dependent on men. Frankly, I’m scared to go through the same shit my mom did.
Thankfully, my parents put an end to the misery after 20 long years. But some people aren’t that lucky. A friend of mine, Sarah Rowe, prefers not go home after a long day of school. She lives under the same roof as her parents, who she says don’t love each other. It took three kids and 30 years for them to realize that.
“It’s painful and I wouldn’t wish this on anyone because it’s kind of a very hostile environment,” she says. “We’re walking on our tiptoes because everyone knows that they’re unhappy.”
This tense upbringing is what makes many children from unhappy homes hesitant about falling in love themselves.
“I fear for how I’ll be when I do have that relationship,” says Rowe. “When I do exchange ‘I love you’ and it is real, it is fierce.
“It scares me. It’s a weird double-edged sword. I want it but I don’t want it at all.”
Ayan Mohamed, a third-year nursing student, said her parents marital decline happened after the birth of her youngest sister twelve years ago. Last year, they officially broke it off. Being the oldest of four, Mohamed focuses her time on her siblings and her education now. While it was difficult to live in an unhappy household, it helped her grow thicker skin and become adaptable.
“Experiencing trauma and going through negative experiences in your life, it definitely hurts. But it also helps you build skills and emotional intelligence,” says Mohamed. “You’re more aware. It helps you not fall into bad situations. I would try not to continue that cycle.”
If my experiences taught me anything, it’s that marriage shouldn’t be the ultimate goal. It doesn’t always work out for everyone and isn’t something that should be forced.
Play your music to enhance your life, not to drown it out.
Read your book because you want to, not because it’s convenient.
And don’t sit on cold floors. There are rugs for a reason.