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Jane Smiley

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Divorce! It's Good for the Children!

Posted: 11/12/10 09:22 AM ET

When I asked my older daughter what she thought of my divorce from her father (she is 32), she said, "Do you really think I wish we had remained in that suffocating little four-person family?" But my daughter is a pro-divorce radical. Even as a teenager, when she dated boys from nuclear families, she was open about how dull their lives were compared to ours--always the same few people sitting around after dinner, no step-brothers and sisters, half-brothers and sisters, foster brothers and sisters. Here we were with an extended family and none of the parents had had to defy the prescriptions of Zero Population Growth (she is strict about over-population). It was divorce that gave her the tribe of peers that she wanted, and she has never seen a downside.

I will say, though, that when I've defended divorce in the past--notably in an Op-Ed for the New York Times, the response has been outrage. In America, you are never supposed to treat divorce with anything but appalled lamentations. No type of family is better than an intact nuclear family, ever. That millions of Americans have voted with their feet for other types of families is just a sign of cultural failure, or personal failure (the personal failure of the divorced ones, of course--the married ones have at least kept it together, even if...well, I won't go into the cost of keeping it together. I come to bury divorce, not to praise it. Amen.)

So, let me not praise divorce. Let me just offer a few suggestions about how to make it good for the children.

1. No United Front. People are quite frequently eccentric. Grown-ups quite frequently do not agree on basic issues like discipline of the children, the balance of power within the marriage, budgeting, running the household, sex, how the world works, etc. When they attempt to present a united front for the children, this can come to be, basically, a lie, as in "Daddy and I love each other very much, and we agree on everything, especially what is good for you." If the reality is that Daddy and I don't know what in the world we agree on or whether we actually love each other, then the dissonance between the presentation of the united front and what the child sees for him or herself can undermine the child's sense of reality. Once the parents are divorced, Mom and Dad are able to discuss with the children those things that they differ on. That doesn't mean either one can say, "Gee, your ___ is a full-fledged mindless jerk." A better approach: when the child says, "Why does ___ do that?", the parent says. "Well, here is how ___ sees it. Here are some reasons for that. It's possible to agree or disagree with that point of view, but I see it differently, and here's why." A steady diet of this, I think, allows the children not only to differentiate between the parents, but also to differentiate between lots of points of view, and to develop a point of view of his or her own. Most importantly, his or her sense of reality is not undermined by a determined effort on the part of the parents to deny reality.

2. More Siblings. I was an only child. I've known only children. From this experience, I do believe that the children should outnumber the parents. Parents are powerful. Children need friends and allies as well as playmates and antagonists. They need a cohort of peers to liven the place up and counterbalance the parents' ideas. Combined families often get bad reviews, but the family my children got when they traded away "the suffocating four-person" nuclear one is one that has benefited all of them. My daughters got step-siblings with whom they have lifelong relationships and a half-brother they love, and my son got an older step-brother who has been an excellent example for him, and a good friend. The only siblings I have are half-siblings. My nuclear family would have been an extra-suffocating threesome. Instead, I have an interesting brother and sister, in-laws, and darling nephews.

Not everyone in my children's cohort has a relationship with everyone else, but the relationships that do exist are important to them. However, you must let these relationships form independently of you. You can't force the kids to like each other, though you can insist that they be courteous to one another and you can forbid bullying. And why shouldn't you? You wouldn't let them bully school friends, would you?

3. Conflict Management. It's good practice! Nuclear families tend to get into patterns of conflict that last for years and seem like normality. Step-families have to be more self-conscious about conflict management. My most important piece of advice is, the step-parent has to be the good cop and the parent has to be the bad cop, and both members of the couple have to do their jobs. This means that if there is some indulging to be done, the step-parent has to not only be willing to do it, but to do it sincerely. I mean, these are kids! They are not kids you gave birth to, but they are cute and they are inexperienced. They also can be won over with gifts and kindness. There is no reason to take a stand or operate by some authoritarian standard--as an intruder (in the eyes of the children), the step-parent does not have that option. If they behave badly, then the parent's job is to correct them, and the step-parent's job is to discuss this with the parent quietly and reasonably behind closed doors when no one is angry. Forewarned is forearmed--the step-parent has to know going into the family that these conflicts will come up and have a strategy for not losing his/her temper and for persuading the parent to deal with things. The parent has to know that the children and the step-parent have to learn to like each other. Chances are that members of a couple with step-children had plenty of conflict in the marriages they have left, so now's the time to gain some self-knowledge and some new techniques.

4. Love. With luck, we learn more about love as we get more practice. Why divorce the father if we can't learn from it? I never saw an example of conjugal affection and compatibility until my mother married my step-father, and even though that marriage was cut short by his premature death eight years later, I knew what to emulate in my own adulthood. My partner and I offer a model of love that is kind, generous, affectionate, and fun. The children may or may not learn from it, but at least it is visible to them. Maybe, in fact, what it says to them is "if at first you don't succeed, try try again." Is that bad? I don't think so. I would be very sad if one of them got into a bad marriage and gave up.

5. Home. Everyone agrees that home is good and instability is bad. The nuclear family is supposed to offer a domestic haven in a scary world, and maybe it does. And maybe this haven is to be purchased at all costs--this is an individual decision. But any person or two people or three people can make a home, they just have to be willing to do it. When I was a child, my grandmother and grandfather made a part-time home for me, and now I would be sorry to have missed out on that, because they were vivid personalities and I loved them dearly. The home my mother made was appealing, too--she could cook and clean and decorate and welcome my friends. My two homes had two different sets of playmates and two different sets of activities. Because my mother was willing and able, I never felt strange in our two-person home, and because my grandparents were loving and involved, I never felt strange in their (our) home, either. My children were reared by joint custody--sleeping at each parent's house an equal amount of time. That they would feel at home in both houses was our first priority, and, according to them, they did feel at home, and also liked the change of venue. In fact, some of their friends were envious--two rooms? Two sets of Christmas presents? As I said, children are materialistic. The heart is where the home is, but you have to make it welcoming and homey. At the same time, children who have to negotiate two homes can learn to operate with flexibility and imagination. I remember reading in the New York Times that the crop of soldiers and junior officers in Iraq were cannier than their by-the-book superiors. This was attributed to what they had learned from divorce. I kid you not.

Divorce is based on the idea that we marry for love; you can't have one without the other. In cultures where marriage is based on property (women as property, marriage as exchange of property) divorce is much less common and love, at least for men, doesn't have to be (isn't often) a part of marriage (ask your wealthy French uncle if this isn't true). Falling in love is an expression of freedom and so is divorce. Freedom is, as they are always telling us, a responsibility. If we have the freedom to divorce, then we have to use it wisely. So far be it from me to praise divorce. For that, you're going to have to go to my daughter. Or Newt Gingrich.