The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce – Judith Wallerstein

This wonderfully researched book examines the lives of children of divorce over a span of twenty-five years. It shows that the challenges for divorced families, especially for the children, are complex and continue to transform society. It states that 45% first marriages break up, that the risk of divorce in second marriages is 60%, and that 25% of people today between ages 18-44 years have divorced parents.

The difficulty of writing this article is that one can only make a few comments on a book and subject, the full consideration of which would take us very far. The first paragraph in the introductory chapter recounts a Sesame Street episode in which Kermit the frog interviews a little bird enquiring where she lived. The bird’s response is that she spends half her time happily playing in her mother’s nest, and the rest of the time frolicking in her father’s nest.

This little story illustrates one of the many assumptions that this book comprehensively dispels. Many parents and policy makers assume that as soon as the marriage is dissolved, and parents attain their freedom from an unhappy union, that their children’s lives will exactly be as they were before. This book destroys this notion, and clearly shows the lasting effects of divorce on the children, and how it later shapes and even ruins their lives.

The book represents the voices of these children. They have now grown up, and some have families of their own. They narrate their difficulties in dealing with the loneliness, anger, depression, drug abuse and even the violence in their own lives that followed the break-up of their families. They talk about the unpleasantness of hopping from one nest to another, often having little choice of how to spend their time, and feeling inferior to children from intact families. They are now forcing society to pay more attention at their interests.

The book is written in five parts, like five short stories, with each section demonstrating the very unique challenges encountered by these children. Part one is about Karen James, a child forced by divorce to be a care-giver early in her life and continued to put the needs of others above her throughout her growing years. Her life is compared to Gary, a child of parents who decided to stay together despite their difficult marriage.

Karen’s father was a successful dermatologist, and her mother worked in a floral shop. She regularly yelled at husband for not paying enough attention to the family. He also barked grievances at her. The situation got worse when Mrs. James lost her mother in an accident. Her husband became the principal target of her anger, as Mrs. James rapidly sunk into depression. Eventually and inevitably their marriage ended in divorce, as they continued their savage feud with their children looking on.

With her father meeting and marrying someone else, Karen’s mother floundered from one relationship to the next. Karen, at a very young age, became a substitute parent for her siblings, and even for her mother. Her own childhood had ended early. She continued this habit of parenting others into her personal relationships: always feeling responsible for the problems of others.

Her story is juxtaposed to that of Gary, who grew up in a home where the parents were unhappy with each other, but toughed it out despite their difficulties. Gary grew up, got married and had a family of his own. His parents had been a model for him of how to keep the family together, their unhappiness with each other notwithstanding.

Part two is about Larry, a child raised in a family blighted by domestic violence, and the rage that tormented his life following the break-up of his parents’ divorce. He is compared to Carol, a young who like him witnessed scenes of parental violence without their breaking up.

Part three is about Paula, who suffered from intense loneliness after the divorce when her mother took up studies and continued to work at the same time. Divorce brought about an economic nightmare for both her parents and her mother to make ends meet had to study and work at the same time. This not only led to the loss of structure in Paula’s life but also the constant presence of one of her parents. She was both fatherless and motherless.

Part four is about Billy, a vulnerable child with special medical needs because he was born with congenital heart disease. Billy’s health made it difficult for him to adapt to the changed family environment. His mother quickly remarried and focused on her new family. His father was pre-occupied with sport and his business. Neither seemed sensitive to the time and attention required for Billy.

Part five is about Lisa, who was raised in a family where every effort was made to ensure harmony. Her parents were determined after the divorce not to worsen their child’s suffering and often co-operated with each other. Lisa’s case leads to the question: Is not fighting enough? Does absence of conflict between divorced parents protect the child from suffering? However even this did not stem Lisa’s rage, even though she seemed to have adapted better than others following her parents’ divorce.

Although her father was apparently happily remarried, there was a vast distance between Lisa and her parents than when her family was intact. She had to adapt to the two families, as she continued to hop from one parent to the other. As she grew from a child to a woman in her thirties, she still harboured fears about marriage.

Her life mirrored those of many children of divorce (40% of them) who decide remain single as adults. Some of them like Lisa were co-habiting, others hop from one affair to another, and a few led very solitary lives. Lisa’s story illustrates that although the impact of divorce is immediately felt by children, it is in adulthood that they suffer the most: especially when they venture out in search of love.

The book is an eloquent narrative of the aftermath of divorce and seeks to make us understand the long term impact on the children. The authors warn us that though we have a created a world where there is greater freedom for adults that this carries considerable and hidden costs. The authors wisely point out that their book is not a pronouncement against divorce. They are aware of the acute suffering of adults trapped in failed marriages. They are also equally aware that very few adults take the decision to divorce without due consideration.

But they only wish to point out that while divorce may be beneficial to the parents, the consequences for the children are often dire. This book also seeks to assist those who are affected by divorce to rebuild their lives. This book is also for the policy makers: the judges and a whole array of other stake holders in the legal system: it urges them to pay more attention to the interests of children during and following a divorce.

Wisely the authors conclude while it is necessary to improve the post-divorce culture, much more effort must be put in strengthening the institution of marriage.

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