One of the saddest and yet most comforting things my daughter ever said to me when her dad and I broke up her family was this:
"It's terrible. But I guess I'm lucky because I have a mom whose parents got divorced, too, so you understand how I feel."
When my parents split, they were the first on our block and one of only a handful of families among my peers to become a "broken family."
It felt more shattered than broken, and many of us had no one to talk to who truly got what we were going through. It's like your whole family and future blew open and apart - like a sinkhole—that suddenly swallows you in.
If you are a divorced parent, you know the absolute worst part of tearing your marriage asunder is that you knowingly, willingly shatter your kids' lives. You may be absolutely right to do so. You may know (or desperately hope) the short-term pain will result in a far better life. Or, your ex may have left you no choice but to get out.
It's not your fault...
It doesn't matter. We tell our children, time and time again "This has NOTHING to do with how much I love you." We assure and reassure "Daddy and I love you all very, very much and we are doing this because it is the best way we know how to be the best parents we can...."
No matter what words we say, no matter how predictable, how obvious, how long-in-coming the split is, it is always, on some deep, primal level, an agonizing shock to our children. We are pulling the rug out from beneath their entire lives and they have every right to feel stunned, panicked, freaked out, enraged, in pain, and like every single thing they thought was a foundational truth about their existence is now up for grabs. Or, worse, was a lie.
In whose best interests?
Parents who split think a lot about what's best for our children, what's in their best interests, and yet, somehow, we so often don't ask them what they feel or need because we know best, and, really, because we don't want to come face to face with the tremendous pain and damage we - their protectors—are causing them.
In this post I explore a new move to transform how child custody decisions are made. Normally, the parents create a parenting plan that is not reviewed between the time of the split divorce (when the child may be a toddler) until he or she turns 18.
And that's how so many of us felt - alone, unheard and irrevocably damaged.
"Divorce is a life-transforming experience."
And then I read the work of psychologist and researcher Dr. Judith Wallerstein, widely considered the world's foremost authority on the effects of divorce on children, and someone whose writing finally gave voice to what so many children.
I'm thinking a lot about Judith Wallerstein because she died June 18, at the age of 90. The New York Times obituary describes Dr. Wallerstein as "a psychologist who touched off a national debate about the consequences of divorce by reporting that it hurt children more than previously thought, with the pain continuing well into adulthood..."
For me, she did so much more. She explained my feelings, and the feelings of many in my generation, with clarity, empathy and insight. She told us we were not alone, and that we could be healed.
Landmark 25-year study: Impact of divorce on kids
I hope her legacy of listening will live on through her landmark 25-year study, which allowed her to take the time to delve deeply into the experiences of children of divorce. By listening to kids, she blew the lid off the common assumptions at the time - the divorce is hard on kids only during the actual split; that the kids only suffer if their parents have a nasty divorce; and the most prevalent idea that divorce is so common it's not really that big a deal anymore.
Wallerstein's research gave voice to the truth. She forced parents and our nation to listen. Folks were uncomfortable with her findings. Parents didn't want to hear how much pain their kids were in. Many women felt she was harming the women's movement by seeming to be anti-divorce. She spoke and wrote eloquently to refute those critiques. I believe her realistic reports on the mental health of children of divorce can only serve to help us transform our families in healthier and safe ways, offering our kids the support, validation and understanding they need to make it through the experience more whole. She wasn't saying don't get divorced. She was saying if you do it, go in with this information and act accordingly.
"When I began studying the effects of divorce on children and parents in the early 1970s, I, like everyone else, expected them to rally. But as time progressed, I grew increasingly worried that divorce is a long-term crisis that was affecting the psychological profile of an entire generation. I caught glimpses of this long-term effect in my research that followed the children into late adolescence and early adulthood, but it's not until now—when the children are fully grown—that I can finally see the whole picture. Divorce is a life-transforming experience. After divorce, childhood is different. Adolescence is different. Adulthood—with the decision to marry or not and have children or not—is different. Whether the final outcome is good or bad, the whole trajectory of an individual's life is profoundly altered by the divorce experience. We have been blinded to this fact by the sheer numbers of people affected and by the speed at which our society has been transformed. Many people today think divorce is a perfectly normal experience. It's so common, children hardly notice it. No stigma. No big deal. After all, if half the child's schoolmates come from divorced families, how could divorce be so traumatic?"
"I knew I wasn't crazy!"
Reading her words was like lighting. I remember thinking "I KNEW I wasn't crazy!" It was the first time (besides talking with other kids of divorce) that my story had been accurately understood and recounted by an adult. Being heard, being understood, was the antidote to being told we were too emotional or even crazy, that we had to just get over it, that it wasn't that big a deal or that we were just being "indulgent adolescents."
When your parent is parenting some other kids
Our parents had no idea what to make of our pain, our refusal to adjust quickly, our inability to be dragged along into their new lives. So often, those new lives meant watching our parents be husbands and wives to people we didn't really know and parenting new kids we didn't have a choice but to live with.
Dr. Wallerstein saw this clearly and continued to write and talk about the impact of divorce throughout her life.
Our parents' divorce doesn't have to be ours
Re-reading her books as a newly-divorced parent - I am struck anew how important her work is and how much we all need to pay close attention to her insights.
The fears of adults whose parents got divorced, Wallerstein writes:
"are reshaping our society in ways we never dreamt about. What prompts so many children of divorce to rush into a cohabitation or early marriage with as much forethought as buying a new pair of shoes? Answers lie in the ghosts that rise to haunt them as they enter adulthood. Men and women from divorced families live in fear that they will repeat their parents' history, hardly daring to hope that they can do better."
-The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study
I know this sounds bleak. But my point in sharing her work is that for me, knowing the true impact of divorce on kids means we can - as parents - dramatically alter how we handle our own marriages and divorces to better support our kids. This is a clear way we can use our experiences on behalf of our kids. But first we have to be honest about our experiences.
If we listen to our children, consider their needs in deeper ways, behave in ways that support them, we are far more likely to give them the tools they need to heal and to build futures from strength and faith in relationships, rather than from fear.
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