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A Divorced Couple's Perspective on Raising a Child, Part I

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A recent article on Huffington Post, Can Divorce be for the Sake of the Children?, spoke to the circumstances under which it may actually be better for the kids if two unhappily married parents divorce. We second that emotion, and would like to share a bit of our own story, as parents who divorced ten years ago after six years of marriage, when our daughter, Lillian, was three. In the intervening years our family (we use the term intentionally) has survived a cross-country move (together) and Anne's remarriage, not to mention all the matters both logistical and emotional that divorced families deal with every day. Today and in the coming weeks, we wish to share some of our own experiences with divorce and, we hope, provide some hope and confidence to those with children who are going through, or have gone through, the process of marital break-up.

As the divorce expert Constance Ahrons has said, although "good" divorces are becoming more commonplace, they remain largely invisible in public discussion of divorces. Divorce is still commonly thought of as a catastrophe or, as one writer colorfully put it, "Like an IED going off in a child's life."

Let's be clear: Divorce is not an IED. It can, of course, be ugly and conflict-ridden. More typically, divorce is difficult and often painful, requires major life changes, and should not be taken lightly. But unlike IEDs, which routinely and purposefully kill and maim those caught in their path, divorce does not have to destroy a child's life; it does not have to destroy their sense of safety, their relationships to either parent, or their chance for a happy, contented childhood or successful adulthood. Divorce is not death. And parents can purposefully choose a path that will not ruin their child's sense of family and well-being.

Though plenty of post-divorce families manage just fine, divorced parents still feel worried and guilty about how their actions affect their kids. Everyone tells you to "put the children first," but how do you do that, exactly? In a few posts over the next few weeks, we wish to address the fear that you can't do it outside of marriage. Here are some of the things we've experienced in our divorce:

1. Once we were through actually making the split, we were surprised to experience considerable negative judgment among some of our friends about our decision. Wrestling with those judgments, and with the larger cultural disapproval of divorce, has been a challenge.

2. Adults make things more complicated than they have to be.

3. The relationship between parent and child can actually deepen and become better following divorce.

4. It is vitally important not to disparage your ex-spouse in front of your children.

Let's deal with the first of these today: Dealing with others' reactions.

We should start by noting that we have both been very fortunate to have truly loving friends and family, for whom we're deeply grateful and who have opened their homes and hearts to us in ways both large and small. But our marital break-up was confusing and challenging for some of those loved ones. We did not fight horribly, scream at one another, become violent, or in other overt ways have a terrible relationship. We argued sometimes, of course - everyone does. But because we had what Ahrons calls a "good-enough" marriage and there was no "obvious" reason for us to split up, we did face the judgment, sometimes implicit, sometimes not - wasn't it irresponsible and selfish of us to end the marriage?

There was a lot that our friends didn't know: we'd been in couples' therapy for more than three years - starting before our daughter was even born. We'd tried to figure out how and whether we could meet each others' basic romantic/sexual/intimate needs and decided that we couldn't. We couldn't remember a time when we had been able to meet those needs. We each had to confront our deep unhappiness. This is, of course, a selfish consideration, but it's a mark of the stigma of divorce that we waited so long to accept an inescapable fact - we were married for six years - that if your primary love relationship doesn't provide at least the hope of happiness and intimate fulfillment, it's likely only to become more corrosive and insidious over time.

Even our first couples' therapist had trouble accepting our unhappiness. When we said we were not intimate with each other, he said, "Lots of people lose interest in physical intimacy as they get older." We were 30! We'd been married two years! We had not lost interest in physical intimacy - just with each other. We got a new therapist.

Our second therapist asked, "Why would you want to be someone somebody settled for?" We had no answer for that question. We fought reality because we didn't want to ruin our daughter's life, but when we realized that the alternative to divorce was to deny ourselves the kinds of love, nurturance and fulfillment that a romantic partnership should bring, we realized the trade-off was not a good one, even for her. We confronted the possible long-term consequences for her of growing up in a household of constant underlying dissatisfaction and the persistent hum of tension and anxiety related to our unmet needs. So, although in no way did we divorce for her - she had no say in the matter and would never have chosen that path at her age - we knew in our hearts that staying together for her would not guarantee her happiness, either.

A few of our friends and family didn't understand the amount of work, thought, and guilt that had gone in to our decision. They mirrored society's view that "a good-enough" marriage is better than any divorce. Our daughter felt it, too. In fact, as she got older, her primary sadness was expressed when she'd compare our family to those of others and find ours wanting. And we felt it. One time, Anne was out to dinner at another family's house: the stay-at-home mother, the three kids and a dog, the dad were all there. These kids never had to miss their mom; they'd never been in day care; this mother never brought home the stress of working, writing a dissertation, or single-parenting. But we knew nothing, really, about this family's inner life. Maybe the mother was unfulfilled and bored. Maybe the kids, like one of Lillian's friends told her, were envious of children who got to do things with just one parent. But Anne felt guilty because she wasn't providing the "ideal" home for Lillian, even though Lillian hadn't spent any more time in day care than most of her friends, and notwithstanding that plenty of our married friends' homes included tension and stress for all the normal reasons.

We also experienced a kind of marginalization at times. Sometimes it was being left out of family-oriented events, like group trips to the beach, because without a husband you might not look like a family to your friends anymore. Or friends might express relief in front of you that a divorced couple they know didn't have any children. We're certainly thrilled that we had one.

It's understandable, of course, that many people would view divorce as a negative event. It often is. But for the many folks who have been through divorce and know they made the best-faith effort they could to balance their and their childrens' needs and have felt that even those close to them sometimes substituted judgment for support, we've learned a few things:

1) It is good to surround yourself with a variety of family types. When she was young, we had Lillian in a private religious-based elementary school. Although it was a great learning environment and provided her with lifelong friends, Lillian was one of only two children in the whole school whose parents were divorced. Outside of school she had cousins and a best friend whose parents were divorced. One day, when Lillian was nine, she said, "I sometimes feel bad when I am with a family that is all together in one house. But when I'm with friends whose parents are divorced, I love that we have that in common. I don't feel bad about it then." In addition to providing divorced parents the support they need, it can be very valuable for children to interact with other divorced families, so they don't feel so different from everyone else.

2) Remember that every parent - married or divorced - feels guilt about something, as one of our long-married friends reminded us. So, if you are divorced, it pays to try to be more balanced in comparing yourself with other families (Of course, not comparing yourselves to others at all would be ideal, but we are talking about human beings here). It's likely that there will be aspects of their lives that you admire and would wish for yourselves, and other ways in which you feel quite fortunate. The divide between married and divorced couples is one potential point of comparison for evaluating family well-being, not the only one. And you can, without question, make your kid's world very, very good outside of the traditional family set-up.

3) Divorce is a process not only for you, but for those who are close to you. For the reasons we've already noted, some of our loved ones were genuinely surprised and a bit unnerved by our announcement. But even if they had initial uncomfortable or conflicted feelings about our decision, many adapted over time to our new reality, just as we did. Our friends now tend to see us as an impressive exception to a general rule about divorce. While we appreciate the complement on one level, on another we recognize in it lingering feelings about divorce itself. In any event, whether concerning Lillian, or how to navigate their friendships with each of us, those close to us had to sort through their understanding of this new reality. Recognizing divorce as a process for those who care about you can help you deal with some of these conflicted feelings and judgments.

Divorce is both a profoundly personal decision and one that many other people will feel a stake in. Everyone has an opinion about how others raise their children, but divorce elicits especially strong feelings. If you're going through divorce, you should expect some degree of collective judgment, but you can also take steps to ensure that you focus on what's most important - creating a relationship with your co-parent that ensures the maximum well-being for your children.