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.