Read an Excerpt
1: Growing Up Divorced
When I was growing up, divorce was an all-but-nonexistent topic of conversation. Beyond my own siblings I knew few other children of divorce; much less did I have any sense that I was part of a brand-new cohort, a generation of children marked by the first era of widespread divorce. I did, however, always feel "different" as a child; in the lingo of the seventies I thought of myself as a "weirdo." But I assumed my weirdness was part of who I was. Sometimes I took pride in it, but more often I felt lonely because of it.
It was only in my early twenties that I began to understand how common the experience of having divorced parents was. Only then did I begin to wonder how divorce might have shaped me as a person. I was born in 1970, just as the no-fault divorce revolution started sweeping the country. California was the first state to pass such legislation, in 1969, and virtually all the other states followed. My own parents, high-school sweethearts who were among the top graduates of their class in a small town in North Carolina, married in their first year of college, had me in their sophomore year, and separated when I was two years old.
In the very early pictures of our family my dad has a shaggy haircut, barely covering his ears, that scandalized his father. My mother wears her hair differently in nearly every photo and is clad in hippie regalia—pretty, homemade crocheted vests and snug-fitting shirts and jeans. I am usually dressed in overalls or, for special occasions, in dresses that she and her mother and grandmother sewed for me.
I'm fascinated by those early pictures because I have no memory of that time. I don't remember my parents living together, sharing a home, or hugging, let alone arguing. In one home movie from that brief era—I think my dad's younger brother was holding the camera—my parents give each other a long, deep kiss. They're hamming for the camera but there is unmistakable youthful passion there too. It's the only time I've ever seen them kiss, and I watch it a little embarrassed but also entranced. That's where I came from.
My first memories are of my parents apart. I remember my mother and first stepfather as the parents I called out to when I was scared in the middle of the night. I remember living with my dad, a bachelor getting his master's degree, for a long summer vacation at his apartment. I've learned since that his friends were impressed that a young man could feed, clothe, house, and love a little girl by himself for an entire summer, every summer. When I look at men in their early twenties around me, it seems hard to imagine. But even though I knew that my parents were young, they seemed larger than life, and capable of anything.
In some ways I was a fortunate child of divorce: I could take both parents' love for granted. So many like me lose a warm relationship with their father or lose that relationship entirely. The trouble was that I missed my mother and father terribly when I was separated from one of them—and I was always separated from one of them.
As a result of my parents' divorce, my childhood was filled with constant movement. I traveled often between my parents, spending school years with my mother and long summers, holiday breaks, and occasional weekends with my father. Even when I stayed in one place, other people did not. My childhood was routinely peopled with new faces—parents' boyfriends and girlfriends, new spouses, step and half-siblings—that came and too often went.
The two people I loved the most and looked to as the rocks on which my own identity was built, my mother and my father, lived completely separate lives a six-hour drive apart. As I entered young adulthood I began to sense that growing up with parents in two different worlds, with me traveling between them, had shaped me in profound ways. I started to read avidly about divorce, looking for an explanation.
What We Know About Children of Divorce
I learned a lot from the studies I read about children of divorce, but there always seemed to be something missing. Most books and articles focus on the social or economic consequences of divorce, often showing the links between divorce and serious childhood problems such as poverty, dropping out of school, juvenile delinquency, early sexual activity, and teen pregnancy. For example, a recently published study by a major researcher, E. Mavis Hetherington, examined more than a thousand divorced families over three decades and found that 20 to 25 percent of young adults from divorced families experience "long-term damage"—serious social and emotional problems—compared to 10 percent of young people from intact families.
These kinds of studies are valuable. Learning how many children of divorce struggle with truly debilitating problems ought to makes us question our society's high rate of divorce. I know some of these young people, and my heart goes out to them. Yet studies such as these are something of a blunt instrument; they capture only the most dramatic negative effects of divorce on children. As far as I could tell, I was not struggling with those kinds of problems, yet I suspected that divorce had still deeply influenced who I was.
Among all the researchers, Judith Wallerstein has been a pioneer in examining the more subtle psychological effects of divorce in children and young people. By getting to know a sample of children of divorce extremely well and returning again and again over the years to talk with them, Wallerstein has painted a detailed and sensitive portrait of the way divorce shapes the inner lives of many children, whether or not they end up with severe, diagnosable symptoms. For instance, her most recent book shows that experiencing parental divorce during childhood has a "sleeper effect": its worst symptoms often appear when children of divorce leave home and attempt to form intimate relationships and families of their own, but do so with much less ability to trust and little idea of what a lasting marriage looks like.
But there is an enormous story left untold. Although the number of divorces stabilized in this country in the early 1980s, close to half of first marriages still end in divorce. Today, one-quarter of all young adults in this country between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five have experienced the divorce of their parents. Many people look around and see plenty of young people from divorced families who seem just fine. These children of divorce graduate from high school and even college or beyond, get jobs, get married, have kids of their own. They are everywhere. If divorce causes such serious problems, then how do we explain these young people?
Some in my generation have noticed and written about this seeming contradiction. Several decided to write about their parents' divorce because of the disconnect between the studies that focus on the tragic consequences of divorce for some children and their own experience of building lives that were outwardly successful but still, they were certain, deeply marked by divorce. Among those accounts are Split: Stories of a Generation Raised on Divorce, edited by Ava Chin; The Love They Lost: Living with the Legacy of Our Parents' Divorce, by Stephanie Staal; and Generation Ex: Adult Children of Divorce and the Healing of Our Pain, by Jen Abbas.
Perhaps the most intriguing book by a Gen X-er about her parents' divorce is one that does not even mention divorce in the title. Rebecca Walker was born in 1969, the daughter of author Alice Walker and attorney Mel Leventhal. She tells the story of her parents' divorce in Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self. Although most reviewers focused on Walker's story of growing up biracial, the overriding division in Walker's family life appears to be not race but divorce.
For Walker, whose parents divorced when she was in third grade, Black, White, and Jewish is an attempt to make sense of her own history, to locate and describe her own "shifting self." The book opens with the words "I don't remember things." She writes, "Without a memory that can remind me at all times of who I definitively am, I feel amorphous, missing the unbroken black line around my body that everybody else seems to have." Walker locates the roots of her shifting, ambiguous sense of self in her own early, shifting experience of home. Only a child of divorce could write about home as she does: "I remember airports. . . . I am more comfortable in airports than I am in either of the houses I call, with undeserved nostalgia, Home. I am more comfortable in airports than I was in any of the eight different schools where I learned all of the things I now cannot remember. . . . I remember coming and going, going and coming. That, for me, was home."
These books are important additions to what we know about children of divorce, amplifying and extending the story told by impersonal statistics. As far as I can tell, none of these young authors ended up with a psychiatric diagnosis, an arrest record, or a teen pregnancy, but the effects of divorce, and the specific ways it played out in each of their families, influenced by race, religion, or class, were so important and persistent they felt moved to tell their stories.
When I told people I was writing this book, I sensed that some of them thought it would be easy, that it must be a relief to hold my divorced parents up to a critical light, spill my guts, and feel vindicated. But this book is not meant to be triumphant or vindictive, and neither, I believe, are the books by these other young authors. Our voices are searching, reflective, and if anything overly tentative. As I confirmed in my own study, we children of divorce often feel extremely protective of our parents, especially when we are young, and for that reason alone it can be hard for us to speak truthfully about our childhoods. But if our culture is to understand the real impact of divorce and if we are to understand our own lives, we must try to put the experience into words. The love we share with our parents—us for them and them for us—is strong enough to withstand the whole, complex truth.
The individual stories of children of divorce point to the lingering loss and pain that result from divorce even when the children look "fine." The long-term studies point to some of the obvious and troubling differences we possess as a group. But no one has stepped back and explained how divorce changes childhood itself. The new study reported in this book explains how divorce reshuffles many core features of middle-class childhood that our society takes for granted and, in the process, shapes children's identities well into young adulthood.
This larger story must be told because, as a society, we still have not grasped just how radical divorce really is. Too many people imagine that modern divorce has become just a variation of ordinary family life, like growing up in a large family, perhaps, or in a military family that moves a lot. Sure, there may be some discomfort, and some of the kids may end up with big problems, but doesn't childhood as we know it stay basically the same? Most people assume the answer is yes.
They are wrong. In reality, divorce powerfully changes the structure of childhood itself.
Why a "Good Divorce" Is No Solution
The national debate about divorce has generally focused on the worst outcomes, with many assuming there is no need to worry about the children of divorce who appear to be fine. But I can think of few other significant childhood experiences that our society treats in the same way. Many people survive wrenching childhood traumas—child abuse, war, an alcoholic or drug-addicted parent—and nevertheless manage to become productive members of society. Yet no one would suggest that because they have survived the ordeal and now look "fine," their experience of child abuse, war, or addiction was apparently not that bad. On the contrary, our society sympathizes with these young people. It takes active steps to try to help them and to prevent other children, whenever possible, from growing up the same way.
Further, when our society asks only if a child has been hurt, and nothing more, it sets a very low bar for its expectations about children's lives. I'm a mother now. When I first held my daughter did I hope only that she would grow up and not be damaged? Of course not. Like all parents, my husband and I want to protect our children from suffering, but we also want them to thrive, to enjoy rich, loving relationships and have happy, successful futures. Parents do not set a low bar for their children, and neither should our society. Our society must do more than ask whether divorce causes clear and lasting damage to some children. It should also ask probing questions about how divorce shapes the lives of many children who experience it.
Just as most debates about children of divorce focus on the gravest and most obvious outcomes, most discussions about life in divorced families focus on the hot-button issue of conflict. When researchers examine how children fare in divorced families, many of them want to know how well or how poorly the divorced parents get along. Do they battle over custody of the child? Can they be in the same room together without getting into a fight? Are they able to stick to agreements on visitation and child support?
Learning more about the conflicts between divorced parents is undeniably important. But an overriding emphasis on the issue of conflict has led to a troubling idea that has quickly gained credibility in our culture. In recent years, some experts have speculated that if couples divorce amicably and if both parents continue to share in raising the child, then perhaps the negative effects of divorce can be avoided. Experts urge parents, for the sake of their children, to aim for what some call a "good divorce."
The idea of the "good divorce" is attractive to many. Some divorced parents are reassured because it suggests steps they can take to try to protect their children if they must end a very bad marriage. Other parents like the idea of a "good divorce" because it suggests they can end a marriage that may be okay but not completely satisfying and still do right by their children. Family court judges welcome it because they want to make arrangements that, whenever possible, keep both parents in the child's life, and they want to minimize conflict between those parents. Some therapists like the idea because they want to help these families and a "good divorce" gives them a role in teaching parents how to divorce.
From the Hardcover edition.