Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Not destroyed

From an article in Greater Good, a magazine published at UC Berkeley:

My son describes his life immediately prior to and after the divorce as walking on a narrow bridge across the sea. The tides -- his parents' moods, needs, and desires, and the tensions and conflicts between them -- threatened to pull him down and drown him on either side. My daughter describes it as being put on trial in a foreign country where she knew neither the laws nor the language. Both children needed to become exquisitely aware of what each of their parents was feeling, how each of us would react to things said or done, in order to protect themselves from feeling emotionally swamped or from being barred from a desired activity, such as guitar lessons or a trip to the beach. As a result, they became highly intuitive observers of others' emotions and superb diplomats, able to soothe the most fraught situations.

...In 1988, Joseph Guttmann conducted a study demonstrating that when teachers and counselors are told that the child they are watching on videotape is from a divorced family, they see the child as having significant problems. If they are told that the child comes from a traditional home, they find the same behavior by the same child unproblematic. Children on the receiving end of this bias end up being treated by parents, teachers, and others as "problem children," when in fact they are perfectly normal. If we believe that children are damaged, we force them to respond -- often in negative ways -- to this depiction of themselves.

...When businessmen travel, they receive guides to the basic rules of behavior in each culture they visit. Children do not. They must figure it out themselves, and frequently the adults in their lives deny that such a problem even exists.

...Many post–divorce families have been paralyzed by parents' negative assumptions about divorce and their feelings of guilt. It is not that they are wrong to believe that divorce has been a painful experience: Divorce is difficult for most, if not all, children. The problem is that these parents sometimes forget what their children need. For in many ways, children in divorced families need the same things as children in every other kind of family: love, structure, consistent and reasonable boundaries, and for their parents to believe that they are not damaged individuals.

Earlier this week, I left a comment at Boundless urging a remembrance that we serve a God of redemption. There are two sides to this coin. On the one side, we need people who approach divorce cavalierly to understand that this is going to affect any children involved, that there is no way to divorce "right" so that children escape unscathed. On the other side, we need people who see us as hopeless because of our parents' divorce to realize that we are in fact not hopeless, that we are individuals who have experienced a difficult situation. Some of us will flounder, some of us will triumph. Yes, there is a hurdle, but it is not insurmountable.

I'm reminded of Paul's words in the Bible: "We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed." (2 Cor 4:8-9)

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Playdate with Cosmos

Recently, I was asked to review some new children's books about divorce, Cosmos' Mom and Dad Are Moving Apart and Cosmos' Blended Family. Written by Dr. Annie Thiel, a child psychologist, mother, and grandmother, these books are delightfully illustrated by W. M. Edwards and are part of a series that features four children who deal with different life issues.

In the first book, Cosmos starts out living with a Mom and Dad who spend a lot of time yelling (possibly about the fact that Dad wears sunglasses indoors and wears flip-flops with everything, including turtleneck sweaters and suits). When Cosmos hears that his parents are divorcing, he thinks maybe he is to blame and is reassured that he is not. He is told that whatever feelings he has are fine. At school, he talks to his classmates, with mixed reactions; some kids understand, but some make fun of him, a nice touch of realism. By the end of the book, Cosmos has settled into a new routine of weekdays at Dad's house and weekends at Mom's.

Some of the conversations in the book are a little contrived, like when a playmate tells Cosmos, "I feel special that you shared something so important with me." Perhaps the playmate in the story is a budding Dr. Phil. (The second book does a better job of creating realistic conversation.)

Reading about Cosmos taking clothes and toys to his Mom's new apartment so he will feel comfortable there highlighted for me that many children, in essence, lose their home--home now becomes "Dad's house" and "Mom's house" without being "my house," because of course it is now "my houses" or "the two places I go between, neither one of which is really fully mine." But the view of Cosmos' two bedrooms, different but equally messy and strewn with similar toys that show his interests, and Mom and Dad both standing over him, scowling at the mess, showed that Cosmos has a place in each of their homes.

In the sequel, Cosmos' Blended Family, Cosmos has a lot of special times with his Dad until Dad starts bringing his new friend Ellen and her kids home. Once they get married, Cosmos has to share a bedroom, to share his time with Dad, and to give up some of the special things they did together before. (The picture on the front cover, of Cosmos standing alone and apart is telling--and rather heartbreaking.) He tells his Mom that he is unhappy about all of this and she encourages him to talk to his Dad. When he does, Dad agrees to spend special time just with Cosmos, and Cosmos learns to get along with Ellen's kids and to appreciate his new blended family.

One of the nice features about these books is the first page. Before jumping into the story, there is a quick overview by Cosmos letting us know who the main characters are and what the story is about. These stories are rather obviously written to address a specific topic and to provide a non-threatening way to talk with young children about some of the issues surrounding divorce and remarriage. So while an overview might spoil a story written purely for the pleasure of story, in this case I felt that it set the tone. I also appreciate that the overview means kids won't suddenly have Cosmos' situation sprung on them mid-story. They'll know up front what's coming.

At the end of each book, there is a list of 10 "things to remember" directed at the child and a list of 3 "super cool" activities. These items reinforce the material in the story and could provide helpful talking points for parents or other adults in the child's life, particularly the first time the story is read. And Cosmos is such a fun little boy, I suspect children are going to want to hear his story read again and again for its own sake, not just once as a form of therapy.

I loved the fun illustrations in these books and while some of the advice being given to Cosmos was a little contrived, I thought these were really well done on the whole.

There is no faith element to these stories, which makes them accessible to a wide audience, but of course I would love to see a book like this that includes faith. DC4K (DivorceCare for Kids) has a storybook available (without pictures) that can be purchased through Parable, and I know they had a specific reason (which they explain in the forward) for not using pictures. I would love, however, to see a book as engaging and stylishly illustrated as these Playdate Kids books for the Christian market.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

A new generational legacy

More from Daisy Goodwin:

You see, since my own parents' marriage had ended when I was a young child, and there had been around 15 divorces in my immediate family after that, I feared my trip to the altar was going to be very much a triumph of hope over experience.

Today, however, I am still married, with two daughters - Ottilie, 16, and Lydia, seven - and have more wedding anniversaries to my name than anyone I know in my parents' generation.

It hasn't always been easy, but I am so grateful that I've managed to hold onto something that my mother's generation seemed to throw away so readily. And I'm not the only one.

This is a great article in the London Daily Mail. Read the whole thing here.

Friday, October 19, 2007

No free pass

A Christian News Wire article, written by a counselor, tells of a family torn apart by a wife's decision to have an affair and leave her husband and two young sons.

Over the next few months, I met with the boys weekly and was deeply impacted by their grief. I talked briefly with their mom and dad separately (depending on who had brought them to the session), and could tell that both parents were really good people who were suffering from some really bad decisions. Their mom told me that her husband was a great man, but said that she didn't want to work on the marriage because she had simply fallen in love with someone else. She said that she didn't want to have to choose between her own happiness and her children's happiness. She wanted to make sure that her boys would be o.k. so that she could marry her lover without guilt. I listened compassionately, but couldn't relieve her guilt. Nor was it my desire to do so. I could see that even if the boys would eventually recover from the trauma they were experiencing, they clearly would have been happier if their mom and dad had decided to work things out.

...If the question is simply, "Can children recover from their parent's divorce?" the answer is typically "yes." But before they arrive at a state of recovery, there is usually a lot of heartache along the way. And sometimes it lasts a lifetime.

If you are wavering in your decision to divorce or not to divorce, and believe that there is even a thread of hope to have a good marriage, please consider giving your marriage a shot.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Sitting on the front porch together

I just finished reading the best-selling memoir by Denise Jackson, wife of country music star Alan Jackson, It's All About Him. This book has flown off shelves, and woven through every chapter of this story is the thread of Scripture and God's love. I couldn't help but think about all the people who bought this book for the celebrity story and instead found a story about someone much more famous.

The Jacksons were teenage sweethearts and married young. After eighteen years of marriage, however, Alan had an affair and moved out. During their separation, Denise sought God and learned how to become her own person outside the shadow of her famous husband.

After several months apart, Alan asked Denise on a date. At dinner, he asked his wife how their three girls were handling the separation. Denise angrily responded:

"Their whole world has been torn apart, and you ask how they're doing? Why don't you ask them how it feels to suddenly have your daddy move out, and see what they say? Why don't you tell them all the things that are wrong with me so maybe they'll understand that your leaving us was not my idea? Why don't you tell them why I've been crying for the last three months?"

After that rocky start, the Jacksons eventually reconciled and Alan moved back home. Denise writes:

Tears welled up in my eyes as he told the children that he was here to stay.

"Girls, I want you to know something," he said. "Fifty years from now, when you are grown and have families of your own, your mama and I will still be together. You don't need to worry. We'll be right here, sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch together."

Included in the book (at least in the copy I got from my local library) is a CD with two songs by Alan Jackson. The first shares its title with the book, It's All About Him, and the second is a song that he sang to his wife on their wedding day and again nearly twenty years later when they renewed their vows.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

More Oprah on divorce

Last Thursday's Oprah was a follow-up to the show from a week earlier on children of divorce.

The show opened with a mom of four girls whose heart had been touched by little Kris in the earlier episode, the young boy featured in the first segment. (Of course, the mom whose heart I really hoped would be touched by Kris's tears was his own; hopefully she saw the show and felt the weight of her little one's broken heart.) After viewing a video of Mom and then watching Gary Neuman interviewing the girls, almost the first question posed back in the studio was "OK, so what is Mom doing wrong?"

Can Mom improve? Sure. But I don't think that was the point. I think, once again, that the implication was that the girls would not be feeling so much pain over the divorce if Mom weren't making such a mess of things. And yet, once again, in this situation it was the noncustodial parent's rejection and indifference that was breaking the children's hearts.

You can read about the episode here. If you click through all the way to the end, you can even watch a Q&A session that Neuman held with the studio audience. In that session, he stated unequivocally that he does not believe divorce itself is traumatic to children, but that the isolation children feel afterward (because they are not allowed to express their emotions) is what causes the trauma.

And yet, the stories heard during these two episodes of how children react to the news of divorce would state otherwise. If the divorce itself were not traumatic, why would children cry, run to their rooms, and put up emotional walls at the news if this were not a traumatic event in the life of their family? It simply doesn't make sense. If the trauma correlated to how things were handled later, then these telling reactions shouldn't happen until later. Certainly the family dynamics post-divorce and the relationship between parent and child can soften and soothe this pain or exacerbate it, as the case may be; but let's not confuse that with the root issue.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

In the shadow of the cross

From Christianity Today:

In many cases, divorce is indefensible, bringing serious consequences to adults and children. It should not be taken lightly. Yet to deny someone full forgiveness and the right to live life to the fullest in Jesus Christ denies the healing power of the Cross. God brings light out of darkness. His redemptive work in the lives of imperfect people restores the hearts of men and women and turns them back toward him. His grace forgives and transforms.

This tension is at the heart of the gospel: Sinners really can receive forgiveness and acceptance, despite their pasts. When it comes to most other sins, the church has long realized that it can be pro-hospital without being pro-illness. We just haven't given ourselves permission to do so with remarriage. Remarriage ministry does not diminish God's intent for the home any more than a ministry to alcoholics encourages drinking.

How churches handle remarried couples matters not just to the husband and wife, but also to any children involved. I'm glad for the perspective this article brings to the issue -- acknowledging the sin that accompanies a broken marriage, and recognizing that, like other sins, this one can be forgiven.

Musical wonder

As I'm sitting here working this morning, I have Pandora on in the background, as usual. The lyrics to "I Wonder," by Kelly Pickler caught my ear. It's a touching song about a girl whose mother has left and gone to California. You can read the lyrics here and watch the music video here. This is one that Jen Abbas deJong should add to her child of divorce playlist.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Family TV

Remember those "choose-an-ending" books you read when you were a kid? Well, my book will not be one of those, but I do need a little assistance. I'm trying to figure out if there is a TV family that best epitomized what we all dreamed of as the "ideal" family. So, I've set up a very short survey that is designed to find out from you, my readers, who that is. You won't be added to a mailing list, I don't care about your income level or hobbies, and I don't even ask your age (although that's because I would have had to upgrade to a paid account to add an 11th question to my survey).

So, if you're game, click through here and take the survey!

It's 10pm. Do you know where your mom is?

From an article for parents on dating after divorce:

The cell-phone calls would start a couple hours after she left. “Mom, it’s 10 o’clock, when are you coming home?” And later, “Mom, where are you now, Mom?”

When Anita Garvey started dating a couple years after her divorce, her teen daughters said they were happy for her, but even so, it wasn’t easy on the kids – or Garvey.

“It was almost like I was a teenager. It was like a role reversal,” said Garvey, who was divorced four years ago. It was perhaps made harder, she said, because she had been an at-home mom for most of her children’s lives, leaving the house to work only six years ago.

“They were used to having me 24/7,” said Garvey, of South Windsor, Conn. “Working was a little hard for them to digest, and then divorce was hard for them, and then when I started dating, I could sense they felt me pulling away.”

Read the whole story here.

Redeeming the pain

Here's a great story about a child of divorce who used his experience as a catalyst to help other children.

As a 6-year-old, Steve McIntire was not a typical hitchhiker.

Trapped in a custody battle after his parents’ bitter divorce, he was out to escape. But an older brother found him holding his thumb out on the roadside and took him back home.

The family’s trouble boiled over into court the next year, with a judge weighing whether McIntire’s future would be with Mom or with Dad.

“I begged to talk to the judge, but nobody would hear of it,” says McIntire, 41.

Not until years later would McIntire fully realize the importance of what happened next, how close he’d been to calamity, how one person — his school principal — changed his life.

“I was not going in a positive direction,” McIntire recalls.

The principal, Trevor Russell, testified that it would take the boy days to settle down after visiting his mother. The judge sent McIntire home with his dad.

“I think it was because that principal stepped up and testified on my behalf. That was the swing. That was a voice for me,” says McIntire. “That’s what I see in CASA, being willing to step up and be a voice for a child.”

Read the whole story here. [Update: It seems the paper has taken this article off their web site already. You may still find the full text in Google's cache by searching on the first sentence I quoted above.]

Friday, October 05, 2007

Divorce on Oprah

Thanks to two dear friends, I caught a heart-wrenching episode of Oprah on children of divorce that aired last week. I was traveling last week when my friend Karen emailed to tell me that she had seen on the scrollbar running at the bottom of the Today show that Oprah was doing a show on children of divorce that afternoon. Then my friend Lori TIVO'd the show for me and let me watch at her house last night.

The children from the three families involved had heartbreaking stories. The first segment featured an 11 year old girl and her 7 year old brother. Mom had run off with a boyfriend when the kids were 7 and 3, and she had not seen her beautiful children in two years. The kids were both angry and very sad. The daughter wrote a letter to her mom that ended by saying "Sometimes I love you so much I can't hide it" and the son talked about saving his allowance to buy a ring for his mom, hoping it would induce her to stay, but then she didn't even want it. These two siblings had tried desperately hard to get their mom to stay, but felt like failures because mom had chosen to leave anyway. They wanted to hate her, but instead desperately longed for her love.

The second segment featured two brothers whose parents had a tumultuous and possibly violent marriage. Only one of the brothers talked, and he told of being hidden in the bathroom during fights, of the police showing up at their house, and eventually of the day when the "dream died," referring to his parents' marriage. Despite the fighting and disruption, the boys nodded enthusiastically when Oprah suggested that they had still wanted their parents to stay together.

The final segment told the story of a teenage girl who felt guilty for her parents' marriage breaking up. She had caught her mother kissing another man and had told her father about it. Faced with her mother's hypocrisy, this young girl began acting out, smoking cigarettes, and then weed, and finally becoming sexually promiscuous. She was obviously ashamed of the lifestyle she had chosen, but had enough personal insight to realize that she had gone down this path in an attempt to get her mother to care. In other words, "if she doesn't care about me when I'm good, maybe she'll care if I'm really bad." We've all seen this -- the kids who are so desperate for attention that even negative attention seems good. Sadly, in this case, not only was the negative attention not working, mom sat in judgment of her daughter instead of realizing that her own promiscuity had set her daughter on this path.

There are lots of things I could say about this episode of Oprah. The stories were difficult to watch and some of the principles that came out of it were good. Two things stood out to me, though, that I want to comment on.

First, in the segment with the little boy and girl at the beginning, M. Gary Neuman (the expert voice on the show for this episode) noted that the kids felt like failures and were blaming themselves for Mom not coming back to the family. He said this was a scenario in which you should break the rule about not speaking negatively about the other parent.

I think there's a difference between denigrating the other parent and speaking honestly to kids about a situation. I don't think Dad has to denigrate Mom in this case. All he has to say is, "This is not your fault, and unfortunately there is nothing you can do to make Mom come back to us. She has chosen to leave us, and it's very sad. I wish she would make a different choice, but she's made up her mind. I'm so very, very sorry and I love you very much." Saying it this way does not put Mom down, nor does it sugarcoat the horrible reality of the situation. What it does do is to tell the kids the truth, acknowledge the rightness of their sorrow, and assure them that they are very loved.

I don't think Neuman meant that Dad has to denigrate Mom, but I think there is a misperception that not saying anything negative means hiding the truth. When we refuse to acknowledge the truth with kids, we imply that their sorrow has no good cause. I think what parents want to avoid is displaying any bitterness or anger toward the other parent and casting aspersions on the other parent's character. Simply stating the facts in a loving and gentle tone lets the kids know that, yes, something terrible has happened and it's right to feel sad or angry or whatever the emotion is.

The other big thing that stood out to me in this episode was the underlying presumption that if the parents in these three families had only handled things correctly, the children would not be experiencing this heartache. Listen, the kids aren't heartbroken because Mom and Dad muffed up the way they broke the news to the kids. They're heartbroken because their family is gone, because Mom and Dad are no longer married.

This presumption is a pernicious one. If we buy into it, we can convince ourselves that if we just do things the right way, no one will get hurt by divorce and we can all go our merry ways without guilt. If we buy into it, we can pass judgment on these families who have unnecessarily damaged their children by not telling them the right things about the divorce. If we buy into it, we can assume that well-behaved children of divorce are doing just fine.

Trouble is, it's all a myth. There is no right way to tell kids about divorce so their hearts won't be broken. Divorce is a terrible and terribly sad thing, and it will make children terribly sad. If that bothers you as a parent, well, you should take that into consideration as you make the decision to divorce or stay together. There's also no judgment on families who have done this "wrong." Take the first example above. Those two little ones aren't so angry and sad because Dad hasn't done a good enough job of talking to them about the divorce. They're angry and sad because Mom abandoned them all. If we're going to blame anyone here, it should be Mom, not Dad. Finally, Elizabeth Marquardt has exploded the myth that the well-adjusted child of divorce is doing just fine. That one's not even on the table for discussion anymore.

Oprah is doing a follow up show next week. If I can find a gracious friend who will let me watch at her house (I don't have a TV anymore), I'll do another post after the follow up show.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Apropos of nothing

Random thing #1:

I really, REALLY hate mosquitoes. Their existence is enough to make me wonder sometimes if God really knows what He's doing -- or at least His wisdom at letting them onto the Ark. I have to believe they only appeared after the Fall, one of those nasty results of sin that didn't exist in the original perfect Eden. I just spent a measly twenty minutes in the back yard mowing the grass, watering my newly-planted and already wilting pansies, and spreading sand over a former flower bed in preparation for a fab new patio I'm envisioning. Now, sitting back inside I can count at least five huge mosquito welts, despite having only my arms exposed and spraying Off liberally over them before I went out. (Next time, I'm grabbing the MaxiDeet instead.) I've always been a tasty treat for mosquitoes and have always been more than ordinarily allergic to them -- hence, the welts, not tame little bites. Darn the little buggers! If I could DDT my back yard, I would gladly do it and kiss organic gardening goodbye.

Random Thing #2:

This one is much happier. My dear friend Lori's new book A Walk with Jane Austen: A Journey into Adventure, Love, and Faith is now available for pre-orders on and will be in a bookstore near you on October 16. Lori is getting many fabulous reviews, which doesn't surprise me one bit because I've been reading drafts of this book for more than a year and have loved it from the very beginning. If you pre-order on Amazon now, you get an additional discount, so go order yours now!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Marriage and a movie

New York magazine, in an article on the marriage and movie partnership of Jennifer Jason Leigh and Noah Baumbach:

[Leigh speaking] "...this was always my childhood idea of what a marriage would be."

...she relaxes as she describes her notion of connubial bliss. It's a familiar fantasy, one that animated Joan Didion's memoir of her life with John Gregory Dunne, an ideal I remember picking up like a virus in high school, when I read about Woody Allen's relationship with Mia Farrow, back in those sweet and innocent days, before the fall. There's another model, of course, in which love is poisoned by competition: Baumbach himself portrayed it with acid specificity in his memoir of his parents' Park Slope divorce, The Squid and the Whale. But Leigh and Baumbach are clearly aiming for something different from their parents' lives (she's the child of artists who split up as well): marriage as an idyllic, never-ending brainstorm among supportive equals.

[Later in the article]

Much of Leigh's own personality, she acknowledges, was shaped in response to her older sister, a wild child who was the muse not only for Georgia but for her mother's earlier TV film Freedom, and who is currently a drug-addiction counselor in California.

"She was a very--" Leigh begins, then pauses, struggling to describe their childhood dynamic. "I mean, who knows why, exactly, because I could point to my parents' divorce, I don't know, I was 2 at the time, she was 5! But she had a very, very difficult time, and she was a very emotional kid. A lot of acting out. And so I was a very good kid."

Leigh remembers "literally going off to clean my room" when her sister freaked out. She can recall her own inner dialogue: "I don't want to be that. I don't want that attention. That's scary."

Other than the celebritology factor of a movie actress married to a filmmaker, who just happened to make a critically acclaimed and very personal (although rather disturbing) film about children of divorce, this article struck two separate chords with me.

First, I was a little taken aback by the cynicism of the author. I know, I know, this is New York magazine, the magazine for a town that defines cynicism. Maybe I've been out of the NYC aura for too long and have started to adopt the sunny optimism of the South. It's true that my wardrobe this summer contained a lot of pink and almost no black; but then isn't pink the new black?? Still Nussbaum's denigration of a happy marriage as "fantasy" and something picked up "like a virus" seems a tad mean. Why can't two people be happy, especially two people who have already seen the mean side of marriage? Can we just let these lovebirds enjoy wedded bliss, and perhaps even wish them a lifetime of happiness together? Is that too much to ask?

The other thing that struck me in this article was Leigh's comments about how she and her sister reacted differently to their parents' divorce, one child acting out and the other trying very hard to keep it together and be the good child. Same family, same divorce, different kids, different reactions.