Noah remembers the trip as one of their better family vacations. He and his older sister were pushed from shore in a double kayak as their parents prepared to follow behind them. But as the siblings drifted into the sea, no one followed.
Noah and his sister looked back at their parents standing on the shore in a heated argument. "It was this very clarified [body] language that, as a nine-year-old, you can totally perceive but you couldn't possibly describe."
Then Noah's sister said something they'd both been thinking: Mom and dad should get a divorce.
"I agreed immediately. Even then, there wasn't really any question."
It was the first time he'd used the word "divorce" with his sister, but not the first time he'd thought about it. He'd known his parents were candidates for divorce since he'd learned what divorce was. He now knows his parents' separation was a long time coming. "I think when I was a toddler was the first time that they had that discussion."
But it took until he left for college for them to separate. In 2015, Noah graduated from the Dual Degree Program between Wesleyan and Columbia, in which he spent three years at Wesleyan and two at Columbia's School of Engineering and Applied Science. Still, his parents' divorce has yet to be finalized.
Noah, who has asked for anonymity to protect his professional reputation, represents a sizable group of students whose matriculations in universities coincide with their parents' divorces. Sometimes this timing is coincidental; often it is strategic.
The students, maturing adults themselves as they enter college, often realize divorce can be the right choice—but the ripple effects of their parents' separation forever alters their own understandings of love and home.
Blanca Alvarez, a first-year at Barnard, knows that her parents' choice to delay separation was no accident. "They actually made this pact that they wouldn't get separated until we turned 18 or left for college, and that's exactly when they did it."
Alvarez grew up in Avalon, California, a quaint town on Santa Catalina Island. She has two sisters, one of whom also goes to Barnard. The other goes to Cornell—they are triplets.
Custody laws, Alvarez explains, may have been one of several considerations in her parents' choice to prolong their marriage. "It would have been a mess trying to deal with that," she says, given that she is one of three.
Now, all the Alvarez sisters are over 18 and have the legal right to spend time with either parent to whatever extent they wish. Sometimes their father takes them to dinner, which disappoints their mother. Alvarez often feels like the center of her parents' competition.
"They're kind of fighting over the power of who gets us longer," she says. Her parents bypassed the perils of legal custody, but their sense of parental ownership lingers and is exacerbated by the limited time Alvarez and her sisters spend at home.
Indeed, waiting to divorce can be logistically prudent, as it enables divorcees to bypass the factor of custody, but it presents a unique set of emotional challenges that are scarcely acknowledged. Divorce Magazine points to the beginning of elementary school and the beginning of secondary school as "vulnerable ages," yet it neglects to discuss the next big beginning: the beginning of college. Probably because adults, in theory, can "handle it."
"I guess being thrust into so much change was what got me the most," Alvarez says. It wasn't necessarily the quality of change that affected her, but the sheer volume of it.
Yet Alvarez had what she considers to be an advantage: She knew with certainty the divorce would happen and when. When she was 16, she asked her parents if their mutual hostility meant they would eventually divorce, and they said yes. She had maintained some hope her parents would be able to reconcile their differences.
"Once they say it then it's kind of like, oh, I need to think about this realistically. They're not getting back together."
While Alvarez commends her parents' transparency, she criticizes their timing. "I wish that they did separate earlier."
She says that children can, without a doubt, detect antagonism in their parents' relationships. Alvarez's mother and father stopped kissing. They stopped going on dates. She was most affected, though, by the hostility they started to display at home. She doesn't go into detail.
Being exposed to a marriage warped by antagonism can mean that a student's own view of how relationships should work permanently shifts.
Charli Ann Hertz, a Barnard first-year, adds that her parents' divorce likewise lowered her tolerance for hostility in her relationships. Hertz attended a small high school, and she now enjoys being surrounded by a greater number of students because it allows her to hand pick friends.
"I think that [before the divorce], I put up with a lot of people because I just kind of had to. But here, I don't have to."
Hertz attributes her newfound judiciousness to her mother's rationale behind the divorce. "I think the way she rationalized it to me and my sister was like, 'I'm just trying to set a better example for you.'"
Her mother's example has shaped Hertz's own standards for treatment; she demands more respect than she used to from the people closest to her.
She has also become jaded to the institution of marriage. Hertz believes that marriage validates relationships that, if good, don't need validation and if bad, won't work out anyway.
The most admirable adult couple Hertz knows isn't married. "They're so compromising. They're so understanding. They just love each other so much. If you're really at that point, I just don't see the point in getting married."
The actual process of the divorce—the legal and physical separation, the reconstruction of the family dynamic, the development of new and potentially more nuanced relationships with parents—might be simplified by waiting until college to initiate the final sequence. But delaying so long can also mean that a student's conception of home is fundamentally changed by the toxicity of a broken marriage, strained by its lingering conclusion.
Alvarez remembers her eagerness to return home during finals her first semester, but she was jarred by the transformation of the place that had been home. Her mother had "cleansed"; she had discarded the living room furniture, which had held memories of her former husband.
Similarly, Noah returned home after a very enjoyable first year at Wesleyan to an environment that was markedly unpleasant. "It was very stressful, and [my parents] were at each other's throats, and I felt like I was 16 again." He was disappointed by the stagnant hostility he'd left behind.
But there is a positive to a negative home life, Noah adds. "It kind of discouraged me from going home, especially after that first summer, when I knew I was very unhappy there."
The summer after his sophomore year, he decided to stay in Middletown, Connecticut. Noah and a few friends rented an ant-infested apartment, and he made money by tutoring. "That turned out to be an absolutely amazing summer," he says.
Noah's reluctance to return home has driven him toward more worldly experiences, too. One summer, he received a grant from Wesleyan to study in Israel with experimental architect, Adital Ela. "It was just kind of these gambles, you know?" They were gambles he may not have taken had home been more comfortable.
For Alvarez, a desire to establish a base away from home became an incentive to immerse herself in her academics. As an environmenmental science major, she works as a lab assistant for two different professors.
Alvarez's efforts to acclimate quickly to college have paid off. At this point, she feels more at home at Barnard than anywhere. "If I had a more permanent home there I would have been like, oh, I want to go home to this one place that is comfortable. But now it's not comfortable."
She has also befriended Barnard lecturer and laboratory instructor Sedelia Rodriguez. "I always jokingly say that Sedelia's kind of like my college mom."
Because Alvarez's own mother was preoccupied with divorce proceedings, Alvarez says, "The accomplishment of getting into Barnard or getting ready for school was kind of lost on her." Alvarez enjoys the presence of a mentor who is involved in her academic life.
Having graduated, Noah now lives in an apartment in Manhattan, and he enjoys controlling the process of building a new home environment around himself. He points out that while his childhood home environment was not abusive, it was perpetually uncomfortable.
"There was still this kind of salient thing where even when you were in your room, there was still anxiety, there was still stress, there were still things happening around you that you couldn't control. And you know, with the exception of the drunk people who always hang out up the street from me, I mostly can control my surroundings here."
Now, Noah adds, "I do, in a way, feel swaddled."
Still, he isn't too sure about his future, and he likes it that way. "I like to think that I wouldn't, at this point in my life, hesitate moving and relocating and finding a new place to swaddle myself up in." For some children of divorce like Noah, home isn't solidified.
That lack of stability means that students seek out sources of constancy in other aspects of their life. Hertz sought solace in the writing of Sylvia Plath before she left for college. She remembers empathizing with Plath's uncertainty. "She's so confused, and I'm so confused."
Hertz laughs warmly when she tells me that she recently reopened The Bell Jar to a tear-stained page. "I was like, 'Oh my God! I was so emotional like six months ago.'"
She maintains humor and distance when she talks about her emotional experience, but at one moment her nostalgia shines through. Hertz remembers the many family vacations in which she and her family drove all over the United States, and she begins to express hope that her family can redeem its past closeness. "We always spent a lot of time together and I think we're going back…"
A gust of pragmatism must have stopped Hertz, because she pauses, gazing at something behind me. "But it's hard," she continues, "because I'm here."
Noah sometimes falls victim to a similar misconception that he can relive memories—both fond and not. He equates it to visiting an old high school, or an old college: "Even if you went back, none of the same people would be there."
He calls this a "nostalgia of absence." It is what he feels when he thinks about his old family house, a stone-front colonial in Westchester with a blue second floor.
I took to this phrase because it's little bit ambiguous. Does it mean that he is nostalgic for some void in the past? Or does it mean that he is nostalgic for a substantial memory that is null in the present? It reminds me of the untranslatable Portuguese word, saudade. It refers to the melancholy love that remains after the loss of something that may have never existed.
Alvarez observes the distorting effect the passage of time has on her concept of home. "I did get to that point where it was just kind of like nostalgia for what [my home] used to be like … but what it used to be like was kind of terrible for a long time."
"Nostalgia of absence" speaks to a core tension every student discussed, implicitly or explicitly. They have matured enough to know rationally that their parents' divorce is right, but it still feels bad. Their memories of divorce are tinged by a sense of pain heightened by their powerlessness to change the reality of their parents' broken marriage.
"I think it's good to focus probably more on the things that you can control and how it's probably changed you for the better. Because you can't really do anything else except for accept it," Hertz says.
Going through divorce in college can change the most basic facts of a person's life—how they relate to their siblings, their parents, the geographic and emotional spaces they used to call home. But sometimes, for students undergoing this fraught and often destabilizing process, the best way to deal with the event can be to accept it as necessity—to acknowledge that change in their parents' marriage in some ways mirrors change they personally experienced as they grew older and entered college.
For Noah, divorce was something he dealt with. It isn't who he is, but it happened, he had to confront it, and he is a different man in its aftermath.
"You don't get to choose when you become an adult."