By Ashton Applewhite

A key element of the family values agenda is the assumption that divorce ruins children's lives, and it finds an easy foothold among guilt-ridden parents. The flames have been fanned by the media, which is quick to publicize findings that reinforce that assumption. Much hand-wringing followed the publication of Judith Wallerstein and Samdra Blakeslee's 1990 book "Second Chances," a study of families ten years after divorce, that depicted children emotionally damaged for life, even though the study was limited in scope and had no control group. Let's face it: bulletins about catastrophic effects of divorce sell a lot of soap. Another study, published in 1995, called "Growing Up with a Single Parent," concluded that children from single-parent homes fare less well at every stage of life. It's frequently quoted by conservatives to prove that the divorce is a problem and to justify the repeal of no-fault laws. That simplistic conclusion, however, is not the one arrived at by the authors of the study, Professors Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur. "The worst thing for kids is to be around a constant state of warfare." McLanahan calls the movement against no-fault "a bit of a sham. Just an easy fix that will appeal to voters."

If children of divorce suffer psychological problems, it's usually because of the troubled family life that preceded the breakup, not the divorce itself. Research seldom compares the effects of divorce to those of other major upheavals in family life, or takes into account other factors such as downward mobility, so negative stereotypes tend to be reinforced, as sociologist Terry Arendell notes. But they are based on myths and reinforced by guilt.


During the 1970s the conventional wisdom that unhappily married parents should hang in there "for the good of the children" yielded to a general acknowledgment that divorce is less stressful for families than life in a battle zone or an emotional freezer. Despite a recent nostalgia-driven lament for the days when Mom and Dad toughed it out, there is no evidence that the good old days were better for children and considerable evidence to the contrary.

Comparing children raised in high-conflict families where conflict led to divorce with those whose high-conflict families remained intact, researchers found that children had similar problems. As summarized by Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers in their study of two-income families, "The researchers said that if children emerged from the trauma of divorce with a strong relation with a parent they were better off than if they remained in an intact family in constant upheaval. They challenged the notion, that divorce caused permanent and long-term damage to children." Divorce releases many mothers from tension and depression. Happier, they are able to be more generous with their kids; calmer, they are more even-tempered; self-reliant, they provide better examples of how to make goals and live up to them.

Susannah's easy give-and-take with her second husband provides a wonderful model for Eliza, now college-age, and their twelve-year-old son. She says, "Any kid worth his salt would notice that there was no affection in the home beforehand, to say the least, of that their mother was resentful. Better you should say, 'I'm really happy with who I am now. I'm doing what I need to do for me.' " Susannah has complete faith that what's right for her is what's right for her child, and that Eliza benefited immediately from her mother's happier state. Two at the time of her parents' divorce, Eliza is a relaxed and flexible twenty-year-old who, says her mother, "comes to her own decisions about who her mom is and who her dad is."

One reason that children of divorce are often independent thinkers is the example set by a strong and autonomous parent. "I don't mean to sound egotistical, but I think the kids really got the benefit of being a single parent." says Marella, who had three children with her Nigerian husband and then twins out of wedlock, "because I was determined not to let anything stand in my way in terms of them getting an education, in terms of their manners, the way they interact with people." Had she stayed married, Marella feels she would have been a much more distracted parent, and that "I would have taken out the frustration and unhappiness of being cooped up with him on the kids. Now I'm happy."

She feels the divorce was the hardest on her oldest child, seven at the time. "Sometimes he would ask me, 'Where's Daddy? and that took a lot out of me," Marella admits. "That is the absolute worst." She did her best to reassure him that there were lots of people in the world with just a mommy, reminding him of all the aunties and uncles who loved him; much of Marella's extended family has also emigrated from Trinidad/ Ultimately Marella feels that the divorce brought out the best in her and her children, "in terms of them knowing that life is a struggle sometimes but if you stay strong and focused, you can overcome that struggle," she says firmly. "I tell them that every day. They have all done well."

Theresa too was infinitely happier post-divorce, even though at first it didn't seem that way to Nora, the oldest of her three daughters. "I bet Daddy left because you were always yelling at him," said five-year-old Nora accusingly, soon after the separation; Theresa, a nurse, had always been the disciplinarian, the parent who dragged the kids away from the television or who got upset when her ex-husband, David, let them stay up late on school nights. But those issues resolved themselves over the source of a year or so, and Theresa believes that the divorce has definitely benefited the children. Short-tempered and self-centered, David never had much patience with his daughters. "Short-term they love seeing him, and then when he gets grumpy he goes home, which they really like. and I'm not as grumpy anymore, don't yell as much. So they have these two parents that are happier, and I think they sense that." Theresa's also very nice to her ex-husband in front of the kids, and says that for their sake she'd sacrifice a lot to keep it that way. As a single mother she feels much more able to handle the kids' affairs in their best interests. "I guess it's a control issue," she says frankly. "I feel I know what's best for them and I can provide that without interference."

Though acutely attuned to the way in which their children have borne the brunt of divorce, the mothers in this study believe their children are better off now. If how their children are doing is any indicator that the divorce was not a mistake - and what better one could there be? - they're right. Think too about how many adult children of divorced parents say it vastly improved their home lives, or that they wished it had happened years earlier. They ought to know.

Our thanks to Ms. Applewhite, author of "Cutting Loose," and to the publisher, HarperCollins, for permission to reprint this valuable and controversial excerpt.

Posted on Saturday, April 7, 2007 at 02:04PM by Registered CommenterSite Administrator in | Comments Off

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