Friday, April 18, 2008

The divorce Generation Grows Up

A Newsweek reporter gathered stories from his high school friends about their experience of their parents' divorces. His own experience sounds pretty traumatic. His father was an aspiring actor, but,
Dad found acting to be a cruel mistress: he wound up spending more time tending bar than in front of the cameras. It was no way to support his wife and two kids, and his marriage was a shambles. So he found another mistress: my mom.
He was angling for a divorce. And those weren't easy to get in 1960, even in Hollywood. To begin with, his wife didn't want to give him one, and even if she had she would have needed to prove "fault"—adultery, abandonment, neglect, commission of a felony. So my dad and mom moved to Las Vegas for a few months, where they lived in an apartment house populated by card sharks and showgirls while awaiting the end of dad's marriage under Nevada's lax divorce laws. On Sept. 5, 1960, they drove to a small town in the middle of the Nevada desert called Tonopah and got married by the justice of the peace.

After moving back to Los Angeles, my actor parents set off on their new life together as if nothing had ever happened. But, of course, it had. At age 4 I discovered I wasn't an only child when my dad's kids, who'd been living in Florida, came to stay with us for a year. My mom says I refused to hug her the entire time—but I remember sobbing just the same when they left. My sister and brother had it worse: they grew up without a father, and never got to develop much of a relationship with him.

These vignettes put a human face on much of the statistical social science research. For instance, Research shows that children in stepfamilies have a unique set of emotional problems. Overall, their emotional health is more like the children of unmarried mothers than the children of married couples.

Laurie Gelardi's folks split when she was 3, and within a few years they'd married other people. From the outset, her relationship with her father's new wife was fraught. The way she saw it, her stepmother "didn't really care for him having a child from a previous marriage," says Laurie, who spent summers with them in San Francisco, where her dad was a Teamster. The rift worsened after her father and stepmother had a child, and Laurie felt she could never get any alone-time with him. "When I was about 13, I had a pretty big conflict with his wife one day when he was at work," she says. "I basically told him, 'I don't want to be with her, I don't come here to see her, and I don't want to come here anymore if you're going to make me stay with her while you're working.' And he said 'Fine.' That was probably the one and only time we had a serious conversation about the situation." Things weren't much better with Laurie's stepfather (it was her mom's third husband; her second had died when Laurie was 5).

Another for instance: research shows that children of divorce are more likely to have early sexual activity and substance abuse. Specifically, daughters in father-absent homes are more likely to have early sex and have multiple partners. Here is the human face of that finding:
Like so many kids of divorce, Elyse dealt with the instability at home by acting out. At the age of 9, she was smoking. At 13, she was having sex. "My boyfriend at the time went up to my mom and said, 'Hey, we want to have sex, can you put her on the pill?' " Her mother agreed. At least Elyse was getting birth control: a good friend at the time, another child of divorce, had a baby at 15 and gave it up for adoption. The sexual revolution was in full swing in 1977, but Elyse believes her behavior had more to do with her parents' divorce and her father's death when she was 11. "I think I had a problem because I didn't have my dad around. So I was looking for love that wasn't there," Elyse says. She settled for whatever love she could get, putting up with her boyfriend's cheating for five years, then moving from one relationship to the next. "The same night I broke up with my first boyfriend, I met my next. I was never alone; I mean, there's something wrong with that."

Children of divorce get lower grades, are more likely to drop out of high school, less likely to complete college:
"I was dealing with some emotional fallout from the divorce without really realizing it, and I acted out in some ways. My grades took a big dive. Fortunately, I was able to ride on test scores and things like that to get myself into college, so I didn't completely sabotage my future."

And the author confirms what I have observed in talking to many young people: they are determined to avoid divorce for themselves and their own children:

"My life since my parents' divorce has been shaped to a tremendous degree by the goal of avoiding divorce as an adult at all costs," says Chris, whose parents both died of cancer within months of one another in 2001.

In many ways, the urge to stay married is stronger in my classmates' generation than the urge to get divorced was in my parents'.

He also confirms what I have observed: these children of divorce are very forgiving of their parents, in spite of all they have suffered.
Despite the complications and the collateral damage, my friends from Grant class of '82 seem to agree that the divorces in their lives—both their parents' and their own—were probably for the best. Most don't think ill of their folks for having split up. "As a child I felt like I was a victim of my circumstances, a victim of the divorce," says Deborah Cronin. "But as an adult I learned that my parents were just two people who met each other, fell in love, had children, and it didn't work out. They were 18 and 19 years old when they met. They were young kids having kids." It seems that along with the crow's feet and expanding waistlines of middle age, my classmates and I have acquired an acceptance of our parents and their life choices. Some of us have even found healing. "My parents were good people," Tonju Francois told me the other day. "And good people get divorced, too." If I've learned anything from my walk down memory lane, it's that Divorce Generation has grown up.

I disagree with only one thing here: I disagree with the fatalism implied in the idea that "the divorces were probably for the best." We don't really know that. We have choices about how to deal with the inevitable difficulties and incompatibilities and disappointments of life. Not all those divorces were inevitable.
thank you David Jefferson, for a beautiful and moving article.

1 comment:

Sheila said...

I was with the author of that article until the last paragraph--that the children of divorce have forgiven their parents.

My father walked out when I was two, and I forgive him in the Christian sense, in that I have cut the ties of bitterness. But I do not think it was the right thing to do. I think he was wrong.

I think he made a bad moral decision, which has led to other bad moral decisions in his life. When I look at him now I just feel pity. When I look at my mother I see how she has blossomed. Ironically, I think the divorce was good for my mother and me in the long run. It made me a stronger person, it helped me meet God, which would have been much harder had Dad still been part of the piture.

But just because God used it for good doesn't mean it was right. My father was wrong, and I will always believe that. The vast majority of divorces are for wrong reasons. We can try to rationalize it away, but it's true.

Today my husband and I teach at marriage seminars and we have a great relationship with great kids. We have withstood the death of one child, and it only made us stronger. Marriage is possible. It is beautiful. And I wish more people could see that.

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