I haven’t interviewed a person yet who wasn’t concerned in some way about the effects of divorce on children and so I thought it would be interesting to interview some people who experienced their parents’ divorce as a child. Today, I’d like to introduce you to Sarah who was about 12 when her parents divorced. That was 25 years ago. Our conversation began with Sarah recalling “the event.” Here’s Sarah:
I knew that my parents were having troubles. We had gone to Europe in a couple of years before they separated and it was bad. It was just a bad, bad trip. When you’re traveling with people that you don’t really want to travel with, then nothing is good about it. They just were not communicating with each other, so I kind of saw it coming.
I don’t remember what season it was when they told me. I remember my mom was upset and my dad was upset, too. My dad really wanted it to work out, but I found out about a year later that he had an affair, and so he kind of wanted both of these things. He just felt like it was important to be married, but then he could have this other thing going on, too, and that didn’t make any sense to me.
I think if you make a big deal about telling your children, it will stay with them forever but my parents didn’t really make a big deal about it, it was more like, “Mom and I are moving apart. Here’s dad, he’s going to stay here. And this is the way it’s going to be.” It was never like mom and I were moving away and I was never going to see dad again or talk to him again. So it didn’t feel like a divorce for me. I knew that they were having problems, so it didn’t really suck with me.
It was still kind of a big deal because my mom was moving to a nicer place. We only had one bathroom, and then we had this kind of clubhouse, which was kind of a glorified garage. So I was looking forward to having my own bathroom.
At that time all of my friends had nuclear families and all of my parents’ friends and all of my friends’ parents were married, with the exception of maybe one or two, and one was a widower. No one was divorced, and it was kind of like a stigma in 1987. The town where we lived was just a small community, more of a farm community back then, than the upscale place it is now.
I was also going through an early puberty at the time, so I felt awkward more because of that than the divorce. We were such a tight-knit community, if there was gossip or scuttle about the divorce, I didn’t ever hear it. My mom had her career, my dad had his career, and I never really heard about all the extra stuff. My friends treated me the same, and I don’t ever remember feeling ostracized because of that, in school. School was fine, because my parents knew all the teachers and they knew my parents, so it wasn’t awkward. There wasn’t the dual conferences, same conference, with both parents. That’s the way it was.
I remember my mom sent my dad’s girlfriend a dozen roses and a thank you note but I don’t ever remember it being like I had to pick or I had to be angry or be upset. My dad stayed with his girlfriend, for 15 years. We’d hang out, a couple of times a month. I knew her, and she was really sweet. But she had kids of her own, and she lived away so it wasn’t ever like a stepmom situation.
The Divorce Coach Says
I was very interested to hear that Sarah didn’t recall the day, the place she was when her parents told her about their divorce. I have always imagined it would be one of those life events that stays with you and that you can recall in vivid detail … similar to remembering where you were on September 11 or when you heard the news about JFK.
I suspect that the passage of time has something to do with that but also that it didn’t come as a complete surprise. One of the findings of the Longevity Study was that when the family unit was clearly troubled, children experienced divorce as a relief. What is key here is the child’s perception of the degree of conflict. If you and your spouse rarely argue or you have your disagreements when your child isn’t going to witness them, then your child’s perception of your marriage is going to be very different from yours. When you tell your child you’re separating it is going to be a shock and it will be a bigger adjustment.
When I was growing up, if there was anything I needed my dad’s agreement on which my mum thought he might disagree with, my mum would handle it and she would handle it one-on-one with my dad. It wasn’t because he had a violent temper but he could be impatient, I guess although I don’t really know because she handled it. I know she was doing what she thought was best but I’ve come to believe that it’s healthy for children to be part of these negotiations. It models conflict resolution skills which are valuable life skills.
It’s also healthy for kids to see that their parents don’t always agree. Mama J’s first husband thought his parents never fought and being married meant never fighting. That’s just plain not true. I look at friends who seem to be happily married and one of the characteristics I notice is how openly they express disagreements and how they resolve those differences.
Now, I’m not suggesting you should suddenly expose your child to all the nastiness and ugliness as a way to prepare him/her for your divorce – there is a balance but as Nancy says, keeping secrets in a marriage isn’t healthy. Making sure your child has an age-appropriate realistic perception of your marriage could prepare him/her for the future, whatever that may hold.
Photo credit: jmark3