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All Apologies: Thank You for the 'Sorry'

Posted: 08/23/11 03:12 AM ET

When I wrote a Generation X memoir of our baby boomer parents' divorces, and our own that we try to stave off at all costs, I expected to get a lot of flack from baby boomers--especially from moms. The statistics measuring their child-rearing skills were grim. Frankly, they just weren't there.

After the epidemic divorces of the '70s and '80s were finalized, the dads mainly receded into the background (as everyone whose dad went through the Disco Dan phase can attest). In fairness, though, even if they'd wanted to stay involved, dads didn't have much legal pull. In the '70s, only nine states permitted joint custody; today, every state has adopted it. Consequently, most of us with divorced parents were raised by our single mothers--and at that point in U.S. history, many moms were applying themselves to "self-actualization," plotting career routes and exploring the nuances of their newly found sexual and political freedoms. What were the kids doing?

Generation X, according to a 2004 marketing study about generational differences, "went through its all-important, formative years as one of the least parented, least nurtured generations in U.S. history." Census data show that almost half of us come from split families; 40 percent were latch-key kids. We were making our own meals by age 8, letting ourselves into empty homes after school, numbly watching program-length commercials on TV, and trying to get to sleep while they "entertained" their male--and/or female--friends in the living room.

It's not fair to blame the moms completely. After all, they were doing the important work of the Women's Movement, often without back-up, financial or otherwise. But they shouldn't be surprised that we're such edgy Eisenhower throw-backs now, that we'll do anything for our kids, most especially avoid divorce at all costs. We divorce far less than our parents: 77 percent of us have made it to our 10-year anniversaries, a good indication of longevity. Many of us never marry at all. Friendship is more important to us than sex in marriage, say the studies. Time with our kids is more important to us than corporate ladders, say the studies.

So, when my editor at Random House suggested that we send advance copies of the book to people like Nora Ephron, Nancy Friday, and Erica Jong, I cringed out loud. I knew exactly what they'd say: Baby-wearing prude! Whiny slacker! Anti-feminist ingrate! Thanks for the suggestion, I said to my editor--I'll pass.

But it seems like the Greeks get you coming or going. The first week of my book's publication, I was paired up with Erica Jong on an NPR radio show. We were meant to ruminate on Jong's concerns that Generation X had given up on sex (Jong's own daughter had written an awesome essay entitled, "They Had Sex, So I Didn't Have To"). Since my own marriage, which I had vowed never to quit because of my own parents' monstrous divorce, had dissolved in spite of everything, I was crushed on a number of fronts. In this case, the boomer mom was yet again grabbing center stage to tell an Xer what a loser she was: that she was right, and I was wrong. Even more humiliatingly, she would be kind of on the money.

But the first thing Jong said was that I was right: boomer mothers had not given enough thought to how their behavior would affect their children. I was right: the sexual revolution, as enacted in one's childhood home, must have been terrifying. I was right: the divorces were bombs, and we were casualties. It was, she said, completely understandable that women of our generation would never want to divorce, to protect our children--that we might let sex take a back seat in marriage. We were right.

The producer later told me that it had gone undetected, thank God: ridiculous tears were lolling down my middle-aged face. Everything in me vibrated "thank you."

I then received emails from an astonishing number of divorced boomer moms. Phrases such as "your book makes me cringe in places, but I'm learning a great deal," and "Now I understand why my children act that way!" have been ricocheting in my uncomprehending mind. A recent text from my own mother, who--though she'd read my book to read prior to publication--simply said: "I did not know, and I don't know how I couldn't have known. I'm so sorry. I am so proud of you."

It occurs to me now that I, and maybe many of us, have spent so much time criticizing our mothers for their self-centered disregard of us as children that perhaps we have not spared them a minute to wiggle in an apology. It also occurs to me that our collective quest to be perfect parents is inherently shaming. Maybe they can apologize when we admit we can muck things up, too.

For me, it's simply: Thank you, moms. You have no idea how much your being sorry goes, in the wake of my own fallen marriage. Apologizing means understanding why I had no idea of what a marriage was supposed to be, why I opted for a best friend rather than a husband, why parenthood trumped a healthy conjugal relationship. Thank you for seeing this.

Now, what do you think I should look for in a middle school for my oldest daughter?

Susan Gregory Thomas is the author of In Spite of Everything: A Memoir (Random House: July 12, 2011)