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COMING APART

By Barbara Dafoe Whitehead

An excerpt from Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's "The Divorce Culture," Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, the author contends that the widespread shift from nuclear to post-nuclear family life dramatically erodes the durability, quality, and solidarity of family relationships.

Stresses of Divorce on Children

Because family disruption destabilizes childrens family lives, it weakens childrens opportunities to form strong social bonds. The breakup of a marriage often means the loss of the family residence. Children leave the family house and move to another, often more modest place. In community-property states, where assets acquired during the marriage are often split evenly between the two parents, the court usually orders the sale of the house, one among many legal practices that ignore the interests of children. Many of the postdivorce living arrangements are temporary, so children in disrupted families often face more than one residential change. Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefurs research shows that children who live with both parents enjoy the most residential stability, whereas children in stepfamilies experience the least; children from single-parent families fall in between, although their moves are most likely to be caused by eviction or other stressful experiences.

If divorce caused only a single residential move, children might not be significantly affected. After all, moving from one house to another is a well-established American family tradition. But divorce commonly leads to further disruptions. A growing proportion of children in disrupted families will be caught in a revolving door of changing family households, moving from intact to single-parent to cohabiting to stepparent families. Half of the children whose families are disrupted by divorce will also experience a second disruption before they reach age eighteen.

Moreover, because children of divorced parents are members of more than one household, they must divide their family lives between separate and sometimes distant residences. As a direct consequence of divorce, therefore, American children have become more migratory. As parents settle into their own places, children move between family households.

On weekends, during summer vacations, and over school holidays, children shuttle back and forth between dads house and moms place. A growing number of children have joined the ranks of frequent fliers, creating a special market niche in the airline industry and a special set of industry regulations for the unaccompanied child. In airports one catches a glimpse of such children, with their brightly colored backpacks and their special airline escorts, but the larger segment of the migratory population remains less visible, traveling back and forth in automobiles, buses, or subway trains.

Weakened Father-Child Bonds

When fathers and children live in separate households during part or all of the year, these routine exchanges are not as frequent or as easy. Thus, the loss of a household brings a decline in father-child contacts and a loss of paternal time investments. According to the National Survey of Children, close to half of all children had not seen their nonresidential parent (overwhelmingly the father) in the past year, and only one in six had weekly contact or better. As time goes on, a childs contact with his or her father becomes increasingly infrequent. Ten years after a marriage breaks up, nearly two-thirds of the children report not having seen their fathers for a year. Residential distance further reduces the likelihood that fathers will be involved in their childrens lives.

The departure of the father from a childs household is often the first step in a downward spiral in the relationship, by which the father becomes steadily more distant from the child, and the childs access to the fathers love, support, and sustained involvement progressively weaker. Social psychologist Robert S. Weiss describes the specific stages of this downward spiral: Separate residency diminishes contact; diminished contact reduces opportunities for routine sponsorship; diminished opportunities for sponsorship weaken the incentive for involvement; weakened incentive reduces a sense of binding obligation.

The result is emotional disengagement and a loss of commitment. Weiss writes: Without a relationship to the children, affectionate awareness diminishes, as does the sense of kinship obligation. Nor is there a basis for a sense of companionship. The parents life is reorganized, with parental concerns no longer of central importance or, possibly, with feelings of concern for the parents own children replaced by less pressing feelings of obligation for a new partners children.

As Weiss suggests, the nonresidential fathers disengagement from his children is often influenced by his relationship with a new partner. Men who enter new family households with children, often as a result of remarriage or cohabitation, frequently shift their support and sponsorship to the new children, either stepchildren or children born as a result of the new relationships or marriages.

A fathers troubled relationship with an ex-spouse can also work against regular contact with the children. If hostilities with an ex-wife continue after divorce, and particularly if the mother tries to subvert the fathers relationship to his children, then the father may also withdraw from his childrens lives. Evidence points to postdivorce parental conflict, rather than the grievances existing before the breakup, as the strongest factor in paternal disengagement. Fathers who are blocked from regular contact with their children, as a result of either punitive visitation arrangements or mothers efforts to interfere with fathers visitation, are also less likely to pay regular child support. In 1990, 76 percent of fathers who had no contact with their children never paid child support, compared with 57 percent of fathers who saw their children monthly. Some evidence suggests that the loss of any semblance of a working parental partnership, rather than indifference to the child, contributes to paternal disengagement from the child.

Stressed Mother-Child Bonds

Although the mother-child bond remains the most durable and primary of all human attachments, it is not undamaged by divorce or nonmarriage. Mothers may believe that getting out of an unhappy marriage will make them better mothers, but for many mothers, say Wallerstein and Blakeslee, that may be wishful thinking. In only a few families did the mother-child relationship in the postdivorce family surpass the quality of the relationship in the failing marriage . . . at the ten-year mark, over a third of the good mother-child relationships have deteriorated, with mothers emotionally or physically less available to their children.

Maternal competence declines in the immediate aftermath of marital breakup. Caught up in the legal and emotional turmoil of divorce, mothers become distracted and sometimes depressed. Some mothers plunge into new self-improvement activities or romances to boost their sagging spirits and self-esteem; others take on a second job or increase their working hours. They may be less emotionally and physically available to their children, and as a result, family life may become disorganized, even chaotic. The physical appearance of the house may deteriorate; realtors observe that divorce houses are susceptible to sharp drops in market value because they fall into disrepair.

Since single mothers must fill two roles instead of one, they have less time for children. By their own reports, divorced mothers are less likely to read to their children, share meals with them, and supervise their school activities than married mothers. Compared with married mothers, single mothers exercise less control and have fewer rules, about bedtimes, television watching, homework, and household chores. The decline in time spent with the child is not simply due to the loss of a second adult, however. Parents in stepfamilies are even less likely than single parents to report involvement in childrens school or afterschool activities. A 1990 survey of American children conducted by the National Commission on Children shows that children in stepfamilies are more likely than children in intact and single-parent families to wish for more time with their mother. Distressed and lonely mothers may also turn to their children as friends, confidants, and allies, placing unfair and inappropriate emotional burdens on them.

If there are no further family disruptions, mothers usually reestablish more stable and dependable relationships with their children. But for a significant minority of children, the mother-child bond suffers long-term damage. According to one study of young adults from both intact and divorced families, 30 percent of young adults from disrupted families report that they have poor relationships with their mothers, compared with 16 percent from intact families.

In divorced families, the mother-child bond is strained in other ways as well. To begin with, the children and the mother are likely to have very different attitudes toward the childrens father. In good marriages a wifes affectionate regard for her husband is communicated to the children in both small and large ways. But once the marital bond is severed, a mother seldom communicates such positive feelings. Some divorced mothers openly express their hostility toward the father or attempt to draw children into their emotional corner; others are cool or silent about the absent parent. Childrens love for their father often becomes a lonely and even secret love which they learn to keep hidden out of fear of exciting the mothers anger and resentment. They may find it especially difficult to speak of their confused yearnings and unrequited love for a father who has dropped out of their lives because the very fact of father-absence supports the mothers (and other relatives) view that the father is a bum.

@ 1997 by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Posted on Saturday, February 24, 2007 at 02:17PM by Registered CommenterSite Administrator in | Comments Off

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