My mom, my dad and me

How I realized that the two versions of myself were one all along


Photo | Krish Dev and Sophia Ma

Shivani Verma


hen I was in first grade, I had to make an  “All About Me” poster — one of those show-and-tell things where you bring in your stuffed animals and your most prized Hot Wheels car and show it off to the rest of your class. I had to fill out boxes about my hobbies, what I wanted to be when I grew up and… my family. 

“Why do you have two pictures instead of one?” someone asked at the end of my presentation. 

I glanced at the My Family box, where I’d glued down a photo of me and my mom, and one of me and my dad. They were overlapping in my meager attempt to make them look like one photo. 

“Um,” I responded, “I don’t know.” 

At that age, I didn’t know how to tell her that this was the best I could do. I didn’t know how to say that I didn’t have any pictures of me and both of my parents together. I didn’t know how to tell her that my parents had been divorced for my entire life.  

My parents unsealed the deal when I was only three years old. So, that narrative about divorce — those coming of age movies where the main character hides the secret of her parents incessant arguing, the scenes of her curled up in a corner with her hands over her ears as her mother and father scream at each other — I was lucky to never have that. I don’t have any memory of my parents being together or the house the three of us lived in together, let alone them fighting in my infant years. My life had been fractured before I even had a taste of what life was; I didn’t become a child of divorce, I was raised as one. 

Having divorced parents, I’ve learned through the years, has never really been about the mundanities. Sure, it’s been weekdays at mom’s house, weekends at dad’s house, the opposite in the summer. Switching custody every year, every holiday. Enduring the thinly-veiled hostilities each says about the other one, being traded off in Safeway parking lots, forgetting my PE clothes in one house, carrying my good outfits in my backpack from one house to the other so I’ll have them for school the next day and mixing up whether the drawer besides the dishwasher has the spoons or the spices. It’s been all those things on the surface, but it’s never really been about those things. 

Really, it boils down to those two photos from that “All About Me” poster in first grade. Me and my mom, and me and my dad — the two versions of myself that have always existed in the two lives that I’ve led. What it’s really about is being my mom’s daughter and dancing around the kitchen while she’s cooking and hugs every five minutes. It’s when she stays up later than she planned to hold me as I cry when I’m stressed out at the end of the night, it’s us getting takeout every Friday evening and drinking more boba than we should. It’s about being my dad’s daughter, being hoisted onto his shoulders when I was younger, falling for his tricks because I’ve always been too gullible, making green tea for us at 11 p.m. and eating dinner in front of the TV. It’s about our serenely silent car rides, when he doesn’t try to make conversation like my mom does, but just sits there as I sing along to the radio. 

The thing is, I’ve always lived two separate lives. I’ve always been two different people around them both. I’ve always had those two separate photos. One might think I’d have gotten used to it by now, but I haven’t quite figured out who to go to first when my parents are waiting for me at opposite sides of the room after my dance performances or how to quell the awkwardness I feel knowing that I’m ignoring one parent in front of the other. Living with divorced parents is a constant would-you-rather that you didn’t sign up for — and every decision you make leaves you feeling guilty about the one you didn’t. Leaving one of my parents standing in the doorway, watching me as I drive to the other’s house, still causes pangs in my chest. 

 At the same time, I’ve always been hesitant about having both of my parents with me. When they’re together, my parents have done everything from chat about my accomplishments at my football games to scream at each other about my grades at my parent teacher conferences. I never know what to expect, and at times it felt like if they got too close, something was bound to explode. But this past school year, through discussing what I want to do as a career and filling out FAFSA forms, the three of us have been forced to interact more than ever. It hasn’t been easy, but the two of them are putting me through college together. And so last month, when I went on my college’s campus tour, I couldn’t decide who I should go with.

So I asked them both to come with me. I couldn’t explain it, but there was something in me that wanted both of them there. This was going to be my home for the next four years of my life, and I needed them both to come see it. If both of them weren’t with me, I knew I would feel unbalanced. Something just wouldn’t be right.

I spontaneously took a selfie with my parents on the campus of my college. Photo | Shivani Verma

I tried not to think about it too much, but the morning my mom and I drove to the airport, I couldn’t stop my racing heart. Maybe this had been a bad idea. Maybe my impression of this school would forever be soured by a huge fight between them, all caused by my decision to bring them both along.

Yet the trip went more smoothly than I could’ve ever imagined; they didn’t argue once. In fact, they split an omelet at IHOP our first day there and laughed at each other’s quips from time to time. They still kept their distance — my mom frowning at some of my dad’s comments and my dad staying s

ilent when my mom said something he didn’t like but we were there, together. That three day trip was the longest time I’ve ever consciously spent with both of my parents at the same time. It was surreal.

Our last night there, I lay on the bed in my mom’s and my hotel room, with my dad just down the hall, and scrolled through the pictures I had taken across campus on my phone. I swiped to a selfie I had snapped earlier that afternoon. Behind me were the smiling faces of my mom and dad.

My breath caught in my throat. 

Finally, for the first time in my life, I had a photo of all three of us together. 

Staring at the three of us captured against the blue southern California sky, I abruptly understood why I had wanted them both with me on the trip. 

It’d been weird, hugging my mom with my dad watching and engaging in playful banter with my dad when my mom was around for the past few days. The two versions of me kept so carefully separate were finally colliding. 

Or rather, maybe they had never been that separate at all. 

My mom nurtured my empathy and encouraged me to follow my dreams, and my dad had taught me how to set myself aside for others and how to stand my ground. 

The truth is, I’ve still only been one girl, no matter how far apart from each other my lives have seemed. All these years, despite mom’s house and dad’s house, I’ve been both of theirs’. And now, in a few months, there won’t be a mom’s house life and a dad’s house life, just my own, which is both thrilling and terrifying. So, I’m going to need both of them at my side, just as they’ve always been — even if they’re at opposite shoulders. And from now on, when I show people my family, no need for  two photos — this one picture will be more than enough.