Last week, the New York Times ran an article about Cate Edwards, the 29-year-old elder daughter of John Edwards, in which she was praised for standing by her father in his current legal crisis:
In a display of loyalty that surprised many outsiders, Cate Edwards walked into a North Carolina federal courthouse last week with her father, John Edwards, the former senator and presidential candidate who had cheated on her mother and shattered his career and their family.
This piece, and especially its attempt to make a story out of Cate's "surprising" support of her father, made us think about something we've been meaning to write about for a while: the surprising truth that bad spouses can make good parents.
We don't know the family and cannot possibly say what the family dynamics were. But as divorced parents, we are struck by the presumption that because John Edwards has acted appallingly in his marriage and public life that this tells us something definitive about the kind of parent he has been and how they should see him. Some people believe that bad spouses make bad parents because they assume that all divorced parenting is worse than all married parenting. And it is true that sometimes the things that might make someone a bad spouse, such as selfishness or cruelty, can make for a bad parent as well. But the tendency for many to reduce complex natures to easy caricatures makes it difficult to imagine that someone with high-profile flaws might still be a parent worth supporting.
How many of us never say anything negative about our spouse or ex-spouse around our children? We don't know any couples -- married or divorced -- who avoid this under all circumstances. Not disparaging a spouse who has wronged you is difficult for anyone, not only for those who end up divorcing. But in divorce or in high-conflict marriages, there are great temptations for one parent to vilify the other due to anger and hurt and a desire to enlist the kids as allies in the conflict. Even if it's not the parent's intent to force the kids to take sides, such behavior puts the children in a terribly burdensome position. At any age, kids can be extremely impressionable and are highly motivated by loyalty. If Elizabeth Edwards had wanted to, she certainly had ammunition to turn her children against John.
But if a hurt spouse avoids using that type of ammunition, it would be a sign of great strength and wisdom. In the spirit of seeing the world from the perspective of your children and putting aside your own hurt, however justifiable, the door is open to see that your ex-spouse can and should still be a very important and esteemed person in your child's life.
We choose the word "esteemed" purposefully. All children are best served by two parents they can value and respect. Part of your role as an ex-spouse is to help the children honor the person to whom you're no longer married, as long as that person is a loving parent. Certainly that can be very difficult, and it can't be done 24/7. It is possible, however, to try and hope that your ex-spouse tries too. Your children will be better off in the long run, and so will you.
From our perspective, it needn't be surprising that Cate is standing by her father. She may be furious at him for how he's behaved over the past few years. She must feel intense sadness at how her mother had to deal with that behavior so publicly while fighting an ultimately fatal illness. But we don't know, based on his public behavior, that he wasn't a loving father. And Elizabeth would have known better than anyone how to separate John Edwards the father from John Edwards the spouse and public figure. Although a young child might be motivated by fear of abandonment or blind loyalty, Cate is also old enough to know better, and her judgment about her father is, of course, ultimately what matters most.