SEPARATE WAYS

It’s time we stop pitying children of divorce

When I was traveling in Pakistan, I received a lot of pity for being North American. People would ask with horror, “Is it true that you live in a different city from your parents and siblings?” When I said yes, they would shake their heads mournfully and tell me how sad it was that I lived such a bleak, empty life. I was surprised that they felt sorry for me, because I belong to a wonderful, close-knit family. I was also pretty sure that if I ever got married, I wouldn’t want to have to move in with my mother-in-law and do her bidding, as is the tradition in Pakistan.

A lot of children with divorced parents feel the way I did in Pakistan. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” is a standard reaction to the discovery that a child’s parents are divorced. This reaction comes from real concern that the child is suffering, but it is also naive. The speaker is not taking into account the possibility that a child with divorced parents might have a happy, warm, nurturing family, nor the fact that it can be hurtful to express pity about someone’s family structure. Nobody would say to a girl who was adopted or a boy with two moms, “Oh I’m so sorry,” even though their lives may be complicated by having non-traditional families.

After my husband and I gave a talk about our book, which examines society’s attitudes surrounding marriage and divorce, a woman shared her daughter’s experiences with us. She told us that she and her husband had separated many years before, when her daughter was a toddler. The dad had never been a part of their daily lives. Nevertheless, every time the girl has difficulties at school, teachers and support staff jump to the conclusion that divorce is the culprit. One teacher asked the girl to write a story titled “When Mom and Dad Separate,” an event that the child does not even recollect.

A discussion at a mother-daughter book club meeting was the final straw that prompted this parent to address the prejudice our society has about “children of divorce.” She had always been troubled by the way divorce is portrayed in children’s literature—no character ever just incidentally has divorced parents, like a character might incidentally have a younger brother or be from Michigan. If there’s a divorce, it’s an important plot point. On this occasion, book club members spoke about the lifelong tragedy of divorce in front of a girl who saw nothing wrong with her parents’ divorce. When the child’s mother pointed this out in an email, the other mothers were quick to thank her and admit that they spoke out of ignorance. The headmistress of her daughter’s school summed up the situation perfectly when she wrote, “Divorce is a one-time event. Divorce is a noun. We should not think of ‘divorced’ as an adjective to describe families and/or children for their entire lives.”

The stress of divorce certainly affects children, and it’s not unusual for kids to be sad in the immediate aftermath of their parents’ separation. Change is difficult. Once a new family structure is established, however, there is no reason for reflexive pity. Except in cases where divorce leads to poverty, there is absolutely no evidence that divorce causes children to have long term problems. Some children prefer life after divorce, and not only in cases where mom and dad fought all of the time. My own daughters are sentimental about the years immediately following my divorce because they had the undivided attention of both parents. People stay married “for the kids,” but most of the divorced parents I have met, particularly fathers, say that they became more focused on their children after they split up with their spouses.

Our society disapproves of divorce, and it is therefore taboo to speak of any benefits that accrue to children when their parents separate. I am sure that I will offend many readers by saying this, but as long as parents have the financial means to support their children, there are potential advantages to divorce. When custody is shared, parents can take care of chores and obligations during child-free time, and they can be more available to their kids at other times. Living in two different homes creates the challenges of having two sets of rules and two sets of clothing, but there are also opportunities. Children can benefit from the best parts of two familial cultures, two parenting philosophies, two perspectives on the world. If dad raises chickens, teaches them meditation and how to minimize their carbon footprint, and mom takes them on European vacations and to the opera, those children may have a far richer and more diverse life experience than if their parents had stayed married and compromised on recycling and local musical theater. Step-parents can provide extra layers of love and parental support, and they can be a port in the storm during adolescence. When the relationship with one parent becomes strained, a short break can set things right. There is a larger social network, twice as many summer vacations, and of course, twice as many birthday presents.

Not every divorced family is healthy and nurturing, but there are certainly also many two-parent households that fail to achieve Leave-It-To-Beaver perfection. Neglect, coldness, constant conflict, absenteeism, manipulation, and harried distraction are just some of the complaints my friends have made about their married parents. Ask a psychotherapist how many patients from intact families had happy childhoods. Marriage is no protection against dysfunction.

Our society is probably not ready to accept that a divorced family can be as good for a child as an intact family, let alone that it is sometimes better. Still, everyone should understand that stigmatizing divorce is not good for children. No child should be made to feel that his family is pitiable or that her life is diminished by her parents’ choices. Certainly nobody should be made to feel ashamed about his or her parents. “Children of divorce” are just regular children, and “divorced parents” are just regular moms and dads who live in separate houses. In the words of a wise headmistress, we need to train ourselves to use divorce as a noun, not as an adjective.

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