Saturday, July 22, 2006

Yes, Jesus Loves Me

From a great article on children, divorce, and faith in the Winston-Salem Journal:

"More than 40 percent of those adult children of divorce who are members of a faith community describe themselves as born again. Marquardt theorizes that they are drawn to the theology found in evangelical churches, 'where you have a more direct personal relationship with God as father through the son, Jesus Christ.'"

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Divorce and children on The Today Show

Elizabeth Marquardt gets the opener and then Matt Lauer interviews a family therapist about how divorce affects kids. Watch the video here.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Telling the truth

I just finished a collection of essays by Marjorie Williams, a writer for the Washington Post and Vanity Fair who died last year from liver cancer, living behind a husband and two young children. It was an impulse buy at Borders a few weeks back, intriguing me because of the subjects of her political profiles, the caliber of her writing, and the hook that this was a book posthumously collected and and lovingly edited by her husband, journalist Timothy Noah. The book, The Woman at the Washington Zoo, starts with a series of fascinating profiles of Washington's colorful personalities, then slogs through the mechanics of politics, and finally lands squarely in the realism of cancer and motherhood and life. These last pages are now smeared with mascara and dog-eared where there are passages I want to share with friends for one reason and another.

Williams isn't writing about divorce, but in these latter essays she has a great deal to say about parenting in the midst of a situation that stinks for everyone, that has no ultimate happy ending, that brings issues adults don't even like to deal with smack into the lives of children. In an essay titled "Telling the Real, Real Truth," Williams faces up to tough questions from her kids that nearly any parent can relate to--questions about that jolly old elf, Santa--and in so doing, she learns how to parcel out information about her sickness. And so she tells them the truth of Santa, that he is Mommy and Daddy, but assures them that if they want, they can continue to pretend that Santa exists.

"If this had been a normal year, I couldn't have asserted with such authority, that it is feasible to live two possibilities at once. Facing down the Santa issue reminds me that every time I step up to one of those big, choking questions about my future, my anxiety evenually turns to relief. You can almost see the children choose which parts they can take on right now, which to jettison. And then off they run, in search of the rich oblivion of SpongeBob and baseball."

A reader emailed me last week worried about how she and her husband would tell their young child about their separation, which now appeared to be irreparable and headed for divorce. My advice to her was very much in line with how Williams dealt with telling her kids about cancer. Give them the facts they need to know, without burdening them with unnecessary detail. Answer their questions honestly and simply. There will be more questions in the weeks and years to come, and they can be dealt with in their own time; but for now the simplicity of the real, real truth is sufficient.

Shaken or stirred?

After reading about Anne Burt's new book, My Father Married Your Mother, I ordered it from Amazon. It was on the porch step today when I got home from work. I read the introduction and already I am encouraged. Despite the book description on Amazon, which says that Burt is exploding the "myth of the perfect nuclear family," Burt says in the introduction that she is exploding the myth of the perfect blended family. She's battling Carol Brady, not June Cleaver. As a divorced mom marrying a divorced dad, she came to realize that their family would be more of a mix, not a perfect blend. Her book, she says, came from a desire to bring a dose of honesty and realism to relationships that everyone wanted to dance around and pretend were perfect and lovely. She says:

"According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the origin of the prefix 'step' comes from the Anglo-Saxon 'steop.' It means 'bereaved.' Of course, I thought: I wasn't about to become a stepmother because I would 'step' in to parent Delayna, nor would I be a 'step' removed from her. The archival meaning of the word 'stepmother' addressed the grief inherent in our situation: why, then, didn't any of the books? I had found the Evil Stepmother at last, only to discover that she had been buried under mountains of sunny advice on the blended family and finger pointing at the nature of divorce."

The thing about blending families is that it doesn't happen all at once. The perspective is always different when you're the one who has fallen in love than when you're the one who is, in some way, standing on the sidelines. For those in love, the blend has already occurred; they are, assuming marriage is part of that equation, in the process of becoming one flesh, the most blended kind of relationship God created. That's part of the beauty about the 'in love' part. The rest of us have to grow to love that person. This isn't a contrived or less holy thing, but it is usually a slower process. Maybe it's just too darn hot today, but the phrase that comes to mind is the latest ice cream catch phrase: slow churned. I like it. Now, excuse me while I make a trip to Safeway...

Friday, July 14, 2006

What do you wish for?

On this week's radio program, Family Life host Dennis Rainey said:

"Carvel Ice Cream Bakery, which is located on the East Coast, asked about 1,500 people when they blow out their candles what they wished for on the birthday cake when they blow them out – 75 percent of the children with divorced parents wished for their parents to be reconciled."

This was part of a five part series featuring Divorce Care founder Steve Grissom. On Monday, Steve gave his own story; on Tuesday, Steve talked about the legal cost of divorce; Wednesday was on the financial cost of divorce; Thursday was on the emotional cost; and today's program features the cost on the lives of children. You can read the transcripts, order CDs, or download MP3s of each day's program at the Family Life web site.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Grandparents play a crucial role

From Dr. Joyce Brothers:
"Grandparents like you are always important to children and to the general welfare of families and family life, but after a divorce, they become even more vital in terms of helping to heal a child's shattered home. They provide a much-needed sense of security, as well as family continuity and strength."

How do you spell "denial"?

London rag Daily News with a surprisingly touching story about Kate Moss:

"while her parents have always maintained that Kate was unaffected by their split, friends insist otherwise."

Wow. It doesn't take a genius to see that Moss is a very troubled woman with a lot of issues.

"...‘The breakdown of Linda and Peter’s marriage had a massive effect on Kate and her brother Nick,’ says the friend. ‘It was a really painful time for all the family, with lots of heated arguments and one massive screaming match when it finally came to an end.’ At the time, Kate was still attending Riddlesdown High School in Croydon. Friends remember her ‘going off the rails at that point’, disappearing with unsuitable boys. ‘Modelling offered her an escape.'...The effect on Kate was devastating. For her, the divorce changed everything. Not least because her big break — being spotted at the tender age of 14 by Sarah Doukas of the Storm model agency — unfolded at JFK airport in New York in 1988, when her father had taken her on holiday as part of the trial separation."

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Summer camp brings joy

Operation Smile in NJ provides summer camp opportunity for disadvantaged kids, including an 11-year-old who is having difficulty adjusting to his parents' divorce.

"A short break from the turmoil at home would help Ronald relax and give him the chance to enjoy the summer and just have fun."

Laugh a little

My sense of humor has always stood out in my family. It's quirky, witty, and quick. My mom, God bless her, can't tell jokes; she does it so badly that her inability to tell jokes is a joke in our family. My stepfather has a good sense of humor. But when I get together with my dad, I remember where my sense of humor comes from. Clearly it is pure nature, not nurture, since I haven't spent enough time with my dad through the years to develop a sense of humor from him. It's purely inborn, baby. Still it surprises and delights me when I hear my dad say something hilarious, the kind of thing I would say in the same circumstance.

When we spent a day together in Paris, we were riding around on a tour bus and Dad cracked a joke that only I got. We were talking about museums and he said, "I've been to that Rodin museum, and it's a complete waste of time. There is nothing there about flying monsters."

I've told it to several friends and had to explain it to them. I think this should be my new dating requirement: If a guy gets this kind of humor without having it explained to him. If you didn't get the joke, follow the links. And don't call me.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Becoming a child of divorce when you're not a child

Months ago, I promised a review of Brooke Lea Foster’s book The Way They Were: Dealing With Your Parents’ Divorce After a Lifetime of Marriage. It’s taken me a long time to make good on that promise. The delay, honestly, has been due in part to the fact that this was a hard book to read. Reaffirming my view that the only real fix for the brokenness that divorce imposes on us, Foster’s book is more than a little depressing. When she was a young twenty-something, Foster’s parents began a long and bitter divorce. Her mother was vindictive and snarky, her father was depressed. Foster’s relationship with both parents suffered and the strident tone of the book and the advice offered therein left me with the impression that Foster is still angry and resentful over the whole situation.

On the plus side, Foster’s book gives a voice to the adult children of divorce, those whose parents split up after the kids have flown the coop. Her research found that “20 percent of today’s divorces take place among individuals married more than fifteen years,” so her audience is not as small as you might think. Calling them the “lost-nest generation,” Foster details some of the unique difficulties facing these adult children:
- The parents’ marriage has had time to become part of the individual’s identity as a person, part of how they understand themselves and their broader family, and now that portion of their identity is being taken away.
- Parents who wouldn’t dream of telling their young children about intimate details of the breakup and their new life do not hesitate to share this information with adult children.
- Parents think it shouldn’t be a big deal because the kids are gone from the home; sometimes they even want their children to applaud their break for freedom. Because of this, adult children doubt their right to hurt.
- Because all their childhood stories typically involve the person one parent is trying to forget, oral history is lost or stifled.
- The breakup of a marriage that has lasted so long makes the kids wonder if the parents can be trusted at all, if the whole thing was a lie.

Reiterating the post on this blog quoting from Prison Angel, Foster says a study by Pennsylvania State University “found that 77 percent of adult children surveyed worried for their parents after a divorce, as they would worry for the well-being of their own child.”

Foster talks as well about the effect of parents’ divorces on their children with regard to romance and marriage:

Our own romantic relationships seem less certain when our parents’ marriage fails…We’d like to believe that the love between our parents is bigger than any problem. After an affair, we see our parents reduced to baser urges and impulses. When a parent cheats, the lessons learned aren’t encouraging. We realize that we can never know what’s really going on in someone’s head and heart. A person may say one thing and do another. No one can be trusted. These are all damaging, cynical thoughts for a young adult searching for a soul mate…Adult children feel less innocent going into relationships, as if their parent’s affair has marked them in some
way. We worry that telling someone why our parents divorced makes us less
desirable. Do people assume that we’ll cheat, too? Says one twenty-nine-year-old man, his dad’s affair “reflects poorly on me as a potential mate. It’s something I can’t help, but it’s there.”

As a generation, we’ve embraced marriage more than our parents did. In the late
1990s, demographer Pamela Paul noticed an interesting trend. Unlike our mothers, who dreamed of careers and independence, Generation Xers dreamed of domesticity. Forget Murphy Brown. We wanted to be Donna Reed. In a 1999 poll by a national market research firm, 57 percent of Gen Xers said they “would like to see a return to more traditional standards of marriage.” We don’t want to juggle home, family, and career as our parents did. We want to be there for our children in all the ways in which our busy parents couldn’t be there for us….As a generation, we’re also believers in divorce. Paul’s book The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony cites a 2001 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that one in five first marriages ends in divorce within the first five years. “Americans are diving in and out of matrimony with a seeming ease that belies the premise of the institution. Is this, one wonders, how the tensions between our optimistic yearning for marriage and our darker, childhood experiences with divorce are meant to play out?” Paul writes.

While Foster gives a list of tips at the end of each chapter, some of which are good, I felt a sense of despondency reading this book. The problems seemed so much bigger than the solutions offered. This is the reason I started writing about faith and divorce. Those of us who believe in a Father God have a solution so much bigger than the problems. While others may bemoan “the way they were,” we can celebrate the way He is!

Feeling protective

In one of those strange role reversals that often take place between kids and their divorced parents, we kids often become very protective of our parents. I was reminded of this reading a great book, Prison Angel, about a twice-divorced mother and grandmother who left a life of privilege in Beverly Hills to become a nun living and working in a Tijuana prison. Her youngest child was a teenager and still at home when she first began going to the prison for short visits. From page 74 of the hardback edition:

"I saw my dad go on and get remarried, and he had his own life," he says. "My brothers and sisters, they had their lives, they were married. Everyone was on their own and taken care of, and my mom was by herself. She was doing this work in Mexico that was really hard. I wanted her to find somebody to love her."

Mother Antonio was distressed about how much Anthony worried about her...

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Defining families

There's been a lot of talk lately about defining marriage. A lot of folks want to broaden the definition of marriage to include a lot of things that don't really look like, well, marriage. What's the big deal?, these folks say, it's just a word.

Interestingly, those of us who've grown up with divorced parents are pretty darn particular about family definitions. I've noticed this in others and in myself. We make distinctions between stepfathers or stepmothers and "my dad's wife" or "my mom's husband." These terms are not interchangeable for children of divorce. The first set of terms defines a relationship that holds some real essence of parenting, one that feels and looks like family. The second set defines a relationship that may include friendship and respect but is not a parent/child dynamic. Maybe it's our way of gaining a little bit of control in an often out-of-control world, but these distinctions are important. They help us tell others how our family--which is no longer just mom, dad, and child--fit together and function.

We do the same sort of thing with sibling relationships. Full, half, and step siblings are often distinguished, but there is an exception to this rule. When half-siblings are born into the same household family that we live in, we often just call them our siblings, not our half-siblings. I never refer to my two brothers as my half-brothers, although technically that's what they are. I don't think of them that way, and they don't think of me as their half-sister. Why? Because they were born into the family that was my primary family. I lived exclusively with my mom and stepfather, whose sons they are. They thought it a little weird, I suppose, that I went away for a couple of weeks each summer to visit grandparents they didn't know, but gradually they came to understand that our mother had been married before and that I had another dad somewhere else.

When I was in France a few weeks ago, my dad and his wife (if you're reading closely, you'll notice the distinction) asked how I would feel about having a brother or sister. My immediate reaction was, I already have two brothers so what's the difference? But that's not quite right. I enjoy spending time with my dad and his wife, but our times together are few and far between and any children they have together would be about as closely connected to me as the children of my cousins who I see every couple of years and in annual Christmas photos. If they want to have kids, I think that's great and I will hope that with some age and maturity my dad will be to them the dad I always wanted him to be.

One of my brothers got married last weekend. My eyes welled once or twice, but the tears didn't spill over until after the ceremony when my mom said it seemed like just yesterday that he was two feet tall. I held them both as babies, fed them bottles, changed their diapers, held their hands as they crossed the street, dusted off their scraped knees, and received scribbled letters and badly painted craft projects from them when I was in college. The one who just married lived in my basement for four summers in high school and college and for two years following college. He fixes all my computer issues and puts things in the attic for me (he can reach the knob for the pull down stairs without standing on a stepladder) and I repay him in homecooked meals.

I know what to call him and his younger counterpart: they're my brothers in every sense of the word. I'm not yet sure what I would call those others hinted at in Paris; perhaps half-siblings, maybe "the children of my dad and his third wife." I guess we'll name that relationship when we get to it.