On Sunday, another one of those you’re-divorced-so-go-ahead-and-throw-yourself-off-a-bridge articles designed to make divorcees feel like post-modern Hester Prynnes appeared on the front page of the NY Times Styles section. The piece tracked the changing perceptions of divorce from the “Ice Storm” 70s–an era when personal fulfillment trumped all else–to the 21st Century–when a long-term marriage is now a coveted status symbol, especially for the bourgeois bohemians among us.
The article offered a few positive tidbits, namely the current belief that the damage divorce wreaks on children can be greatly mitigated by those who can pull off peaceful divorces, such as Molly Monet.
But basically, the divorced women (no men mentioned, oddly) interviewed for the piece described feeling viewed by their married peers as social pariahs, bad moms, and abject failures who might infect the Marrieds with their divorce cooties.
Many of the article subjects stated that growing up as unhappy children of divorce made them determined to keep their own marriages together, no matter what–which is contrary to the statistics that adults who came from divorced homes are more likely to divorce.
Whether it’s because I spend an inordinate amount of time perusing the Huffington Post divorce section, or reading other divorce articles such as the one cited above, or the fact that my recent custody battle has sent me spinning in an endless hamster-wheel-like examination of the eight years of post-divorce hell (if I’d done x, y, or z, would my ex have been less angry and my children less damaged?) that has tainted the lives of my children, me, and now my second husband, I can tell you this:
My one-time conviction that leaving a high-conflict marriage would eventually morph into a low-conflict divorce and thus ultimately be better for the children, was misguided. Post-divorce life has been more hellish than I ever could have imagined. And the undertow of shame and sorrow for being unable to shield my kids from this level of craziness has gotten so powerful that I’ve decided to go back to therapy.
As the women referenced in the NY Times article, I was a child who came of age during the key-swapping, Me-Generation, Ice Storm era in which women in particular fled marriages, borne by the social current that promised personal fulfillment and a sense of self-agency to those brave enough to break loose from the shackles of traditional marriage. Many of these unions, I imagine, could have and should have been saved.
I, however, was not a child of divorce. I grew up in a home with two parents who loved and respected each other. There was very little overt conflict. I cannot, in fact, remember a single argument. Perhaps because I was an introverted, bookish kid who longed to be accepted by the cool crowd whose divorced parents were boozing, pill-popping, and key-swapping, I often wished my parents were divorced. I felt dull and out-of-sync next to my peers, who got to run glamorously wild due to their preoccupied parents’ permissiveness.
Statistically, given my upbringing in an in tact marriage, I should still be married myself. I should have acquired early on the fundamental building blocks to develop self-esteem, a sure sense of values, the ability to recognize Mr. Right, and a committment to see my marriage through till death do us part.
But that was not the case. I derived my self-worth mainly from externals (as long as my outsides looked great, my insides didn’t matter). I lacked the courage of my convictions. I mistook my ex for Prince Charming when he was really Prince Machiavelli. And I was riddled with ambivalence about my marriage from the moment I stepped my white-satin-clad foot on the aisle, until the ambivalence outweighed the committment and I filed for divorce.
How did this happen? When I perform a psychic autopsy on my parents’ marriage, and my childhood in it, the distance between my parents is laid bare. While my sister (who has been long-time married) remembers my parents as a vibrant, social couple embarking on a grand adventure, I, ten years younger, recall two genteel, polite people who went out of their way to avoid each other.
My parents hid out in a myriad of ways. They ate TV dinners on trays in front of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. My mother, worn down by mysterious somatic afflictions, took long afternoon naps. Weekends that could have been spent playing tennis or visiting friends were divvied up separately. My mother compulsively cleaned the house and my father escaped either to his study or to a buddy’s to play pool.
My mother lived for her job as a highly-acclaimed elementary school music teacher and producer of children’s theater. She loved being a big fish in a small pond and thrived on the urgency and drama of mounting theatrical productions, then basking in the kudos she received. Next to her creative endeavors, home life paled. For whatever reason, she turned to me to meet her emotional needs–quite often sobbing about her internal despair–which eventually kept my father out of the house for entire weekends, and kept me percolating in a stew of resentment and swallowed feelings.
Given the lives of quiet desperation my parents and I lived, juxtaposed next to the anything-goes, seize-the-day existence of my peers and their parents, it’s understandable why I grew up to think staying in an unhappy marriage was worse than exiting one.
Yet as frustrated as I think my parents were, they–and I–would probably have fared far worse had they divorced. Neither of them had the financial or emotional resources to be on their own, and, I, a nervous-nelly of a child, did not have the constitution to navigate domestic upheaval.
That said, I know quite a few adult children of divorce who were relieved when their parents split up because the conflict stopped. These adults now tell me that the only fantasy they harbored about their parents was that they would stop fighting. One friend confided that her parents, long-divorced, are friends now and have grown into the people they never could have been had they stayed together. When I asked her if she ever wished they’d reconciled, she literally shuddered, looked at me as if I were insane, and said nononono!
But what of the adult children who never get over their parents’ divorce, and blame every problem they have on it? I used to believe that every misfortune I had was due to my being adopted. Conventional adoption literature can really mess with an adoptee’s head: according to adoption statistics, adoptees are more likely to have learning disabilities, failed marriages, addiction, and a lifelong sense of not fitting in. In my own life, I can lay claim to all of these issues. Would I not have had them had I not been adopted? Who knows? But I do know one thing: my birthmother was in no position to raise me and my life would have been far more chaotic had she tried.
Until I accepted this simple truth, I spent much of my childhood and adulthood being angry that I was adopted, that I had been denied the breezy entitlement that comes with knowing where you belong. But while adoption may have been the cause of some of my problems–such as picking the wrong person to marry–it’s not an excuse for mistakes either. My birthparents and adoptive parents did the best they could with the resources they had at the time. It’s up to me to decide whether or not I’m going to let adoption, or divorce, define me.
I wonder if the current divorce literature isn’t saddling children of divorce with the same you’re-screwed message doled out by adoption researchers before this current era of trendy adoption. Are we guilting parents who left marriages that should NOT have been saved–those where addiction, abuse, personality disorders, and mental illness ran rampant–by insinuating that they didn’t have “the right stuff” like their still-married counterparts?
Are people legitimately trying to work on marriages for the sake of the children, or simply because Marriage is the New Black?
The twice-divorced Nora Ephron, who co-created the HuffPo divorce section hoping to lessen the stigma of divorce, has this to say on the subject:
“Divorce seems as if it will last forever, and then suddenly, one day, your children grow up, move out, and make lives for themselves, and except for an occasional flare, you have no contact at all with your ex-husband. The divorce has lasted way longer than the marriage, but finally it’s over. The point is, that for a long time, the fact that I was divorced was the most important thing about me. And now, it’s not.”
I hope that my kids will one day make a truce with divorce as I have with adoption. That divorce, like adoption, is something that happens to you. From time to time, especially in the face of another loss, it can creep into you like a virus and leave you feeling ragged. But most of the time, it’s just there, one experience among many that make who you are. Maybe it even brings you some gifts: the ability to appreciate what you do have; a belief in your own resilience; the wisdom to look at things from others’ point-of-view; perhaps a talent for mediation.
Until then, I look forward to the day when divorce is no longer the most important thing about me–or my children.