How To Divorce
Stuart Sheldon, Mother’s Day, Acrylic, Chinese funeral paper on panel, 24″x24″, 2004
I got divorced a long time ago. The short story is this – Good friends. Bad mates.
Luckily, no kids were involved. Still, it was the second saddest event in my life next to later miscarriages that nearly robbed me of fatherhood.
Recently, several friends with 4-yr-olds, the same age as my kids, announced divorces. I happened to be four when my parents divorced. So I have a clear opinion on these matters from both the parent and the kid’s POV.
What does divorce “do to” a child?
I remember the night my dad left. There was a window above my single bed, and in the darkness just beyond it, a rubber tree grew. He came into my room and woke me an hour after my bedtime. He was big. Muscular, probably 170 pounds. And he sat on the edge of my bed and stroked my brown curls, the same as his. I remember his hands were calloused from handball. Then he said just above a whisper, “I’m leaving in the morning.”
‘Where are you going?’ I asked sleepily.
“Away,” was all he said, as he kissed me on the forehead and left the room.
I still see, clear as yesterday, my mother, brother and me the next morning clustered outside the front door, as I waved limply at my father’s yellow station wagon, packed-to-the-windows, as he backed out the small curved hill of our driveway.
As a young child, divorce is mostly confusion. “Why is daddy not living here anymore?” Parenting is at best a two-person job, so with just one hand on deck, kids can get slighted in the attention and discipline department. But I believe a truly unhappy marriage can do much more harm to a child than a breakup. I’d love to have my nuclear family in tact. To be throwing my parents a 50th anniversary party on a cruise to some craggy island. But I happen to know them both very well, and frankly, they should be divorced. It was the right choice. They needed to do it. Just as I needed to do it.
Luckily, speaking as a former 4-yr-old, we are more resilient than you think. Forty-five years later, I’m less f*&ked up than the average person. Don’t get me wrong … I’m plenty f’ed up. But I can’t necessarily pin it on my parents’ split. My joy stopped being their burden a long time ago. I alone am responsible for my own happiness, and an evolving awareness of my own negative patterns, admittedly later than I would have preferred, has helped kick most of my demons to the curb. Currently, the dominant flavor of my life is hard-earned sweetness.
I had anger as a boy. Self-confidence issues with women in my teens. I still maintain a pathological need for social inclusion. But I do not know to what degree these things had anything to do with divorce.
I do know this … when kids are involved, the parents’ interaction with one another is EVERYTHING.
My parents “divorced well,” because they have always shown respect (and even love) for one another. Never a disparaging word about the other to the children. No screaming. No using the kids as pawns in their personal war. Luckily, no personal war. I understand that theirs is one of the tamer splits. Surely, there are plenty of “I hate your guts and hope you die” situations for which this civility is more challenging.
I’m no expert, but no matter how obliterated your marriage/relationship may become, if you want to shield your children from the shrapnel, maintain a basic level of consideration for your ex, a.k.a. your child’s parent. Because every kid needs to love and be loved by that person in some capacity.
Hate is not a family value.