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Mothers Who Were Children of Divorce

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During my childhood in the 1960's and 1970's, divorce was neither utterly taboo nor fully accepted. But when the neighbor's Mom died of cancer, their Dad's new wife was the first and only divorcee (the word practically vibrated, a scandalous whisper) I had ever met. Nobody blamed a widower for finding new love, though the jury never quite reached consensus as to how it affected the kids.

Contemporary divorced mothers -- whether single, remarried or blending families -- worry and wonder about how our decisions will impact the children. Can we mitigate the emotional damage? What kind of parents will they grow up to be?

Why don't we ask them? Kids of boomer divorces have become 21st century parents. Joan, Susan, Clare, Julia and Allie are doing a fine job as Moms; they are not divorced, but their parents were.

Regarding her parents' 1963 split, Joan said: "...our family is still actively experiencing in a second, and now third, generation, its fallout. Let's just say that it's good that one can create one's own family, and that it's never possible to fully get over the disappointment of not having been born into a healthy one."

There you have it. It's every bit as bad as we have feared. The trauma of divorce ripples through generations.

But Susan doesn't see it that way: "I believe that divorce is the right choice for those who make it." A latchkey kid whose parents separated when she was seven, Susan saw her Dad only on Saturday afternoon visits. Her mom, a student, worked full-time and earned two master's degrees.

A devotee of attachment parenting, Susan is "most thankful for being given the opportunity to develop self-reliance. I've got a stockpile of coping skills ... I think being a child of divorce is partially responsible."

Yet, she acknowledges that it was impossible to come to such evolved terms while going through the experience: "I think the most difficult thing is being a child in the middle of a very complex situation... we were pretty adrift when it came to what was happening... I remember feeling very different from the kids around me with "parents" who made decisions or gave them advice. My mother and father were two very different people that I had to form individual, nonintersecting relationships with."

Today we have family therapy, community support and more equitable custody arrangements. But are there bigger factors within the family that could make divorce more livable for our kids? It's clear that children are the only innocent parties when couples split. What about the uncomfortable possibility of adult self-sacrifice?

Allie is doing exactly that. The mother of twins and married for the long haul, she feels stifled. Forced into peacekeeper role in arguments with her husband, she said, "We can never get pissed off and yell and walk out of the house. Kids change everything. You feel like you have a muzzle on."

Allie does not sugarcoat it when it comes to her choices: "Part of the reason that I stuck it out is that I did not want to recreate (what I went through) ...There are things that I would never do, as a Mom, that they did."

Such as?

"Such as, drop the ball! They just put parenting second... They were utterly and completely consumed with themselves, their feelings... When parents get divorced, they become like teenagers. If that happens at the same time that you have teenagers, your rebellion becomes more important than theirs. Theirs should be the one that matters, because they are teenagers in the first place and you are not, you are a grownup."

Aha.

So, do we resurrect the old "stay together for the sake of the kids" notion? In most cases, Allie votes yes: "I think they should have put a lot more thought into how we were being brought up, instead of ...haphazardly having adventures. Like your kid really cares what a great sex life you're having? Ugh."

On a more compassionate note, she added: "That doesn't mean that somebody can't reinvent themselves. Reinvention is so much better for a grownup... This is all very poignant for me right now because I was twelve when my parents got divorced and my boys are twelve right now."

Allie brings up a key point -- that the established, secure nature of married parents, whether they are happy or not, can keep the children in a place of primary focus. Not so much the case when parents pursue new relationships: "This boyfriend/girlfriend thing takes a lot of energy... and the kids feel the attention deficit from you."

However, even unforgiving Allie supports divorce in cases of domestic abuse. Clare, divorced from a child-free first marriage and now determined to stay married to the father of her three children, and Julia, long-term happily married to her high school sweetheart, both had moms who suffered physical and emotional abuse.

In her upbringing, Clare finds seeds of her own mothering conflicts: "It is very difficult to sort out the products of divorce and the products of being raised by two controlling and demanding individuals with high expectations."

An artist with interdisciplinary talent, Clare ironically takes the role of taskmaster in her house: "I value the messiness of living... of being expressive... Yet, I still find that I don't drop what I'm doing to be with the kids...The unimportant stuff still takes all my time, because a clean house and a nice dinner are more important to my husband than the time I spend with the kids."

I've known this woman since we were kids. She is by nature playful, and has an easy smile. Listening to her emotional inheritance, however, I hear about a person whom I haven't met: "I wasn't valued for me. Now I discount my children's feelings. I'm controlling... I stay with my husband because it's not that bad. No physical abuse. Because he knows how to play and I don't. Like my mom, I'm too serious."

In college when her parents split, Clare still yearned for their reunion. Neither parent moved on to a new relationship, and their post-divorce "intact family holidays" together gave her "fuel for this belief." She emphasizes open and strong communication between parents as a way of modeling healthy relationships.

The perennial wish for parental reunion had no place in Julia's psyche. In her case, the divorce undoubtedly was the best possible outcome in a household terrorized by a violent father.

"I soon realized how harmful that atmosphere was and only wanted a safe haven for my mom and sisters. I was very protective of my mom... No man was ever good enough."

Eventually, however, came acceptance and understanding: "I look back and have only admiration for my mom who... had little resources to depend on. I'm sure she still carries a heavy conscience, although I am constantly telling her she did good. As a parent now, I understand my mom's hardships trying to support us alone."

She continued: "I believe I became a better parent to my children in the sense that I never wanted them to experience the pain those surroundings brought. I put emphasis on quality time, open conversations, honesty, respect and most of all showing and stating your love on a daily basis. Punishments were discussed and understood as necessary tools to learning right from wrong... I may have become too protective and smothering in the process."

Julia, who endured the most full-blown hardship in her childhood, has the gentlest attitude of all: "No one is perfect... But my mom sure comes close. She is my inspiration, strength, confidante, and best friend. I hope someday my children can say the same about me."

If there is one consistent theme among these very diverse mothers, it is that they are super-conscientious about parenting. If they are examples of who our children may become after divorce, then we have every reason to be hopeful.