Should You Stay Together For The Kids?


    "I stayed as long as I could for the sake of my child," says Cindy Smith, with daughter

    One afternoon when Joanne was nine years old she came home from school and noticed something missing. Her father's jewelry box had disappeared from its usual spot on her parents' bureau. Worse, her mother was still in bed. "Daddy's moved out," her mother told her. Joanne panicked. She began to sob. And even though Joanne is 40 now, a married Los Angeles homemaker with children of her own, she clearly remembers what she did next that day. Her vision blurred by tears, she searched through the house that was suddenly not a home for the jewelry box that wasn't there.

    Time heals all wounds, they say. For children of divorce like Joanne, though, time has a way of baring old wounds too. For Joanne, the fears that her parents' split unleashed--of abandonment, of loss, of coming home one day and noticing something missing from the bedroom--deepened as the years went by. Bursts of bitterness, jealousy and doubt sent her into psychotherapy. "Before I met my husband," she remembers, "I sabotaged all my other relationships with men because I assumed they would fail. There was always something in the back of my head. The only way I can describe it is a void, unfinished business that I couldn't get to."

    For America's children of divorce--a million new ones every year--unfinished business is a way of life. For adults, divorce is a conclusion, but for children it's the beginning of uncertainty. Where will I live? Will I see my friends again? Will my mom's new boyfriend leave her too? Going back to the early '70s--the years that demographers mark as the beginning of a divorce boom that has receded only slightly despite three decades of hand wringing and worry--society has debated these children's predicament in much the same way that angry parents do: by arguing over the little ones' heads or quarreling out of earshot, behind closed doors. Whenever concerned adults talk seriously about what's best for the children of divorce, they seem to hold the discussion in a setting--a courtroom or legislature or university--where young folks aren't allowed.

    That's changing. The children are grown now, and a number are speaking up, telling stories of pain that didn't go away the moment they turned 18 or even 40. A cluster of new books is fueling a backlash, not against divorce itself but against the notion that kids somehow coast through it. Stephanie Staal's The Love They Lost (Delacorte Press), written by a child of divorce, is part memoir and part generational survey, a melancholy volume about the search for love by kids who remember the loss of love too vividly. The Case for Marriage by Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher (Doubleday) emphasizes the positive, arguing that even rocky marriages nourish children emotionally and practically. The most controversial book, comes from Judith Wallerstein, 78, a therapist and retired lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. In The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (Hyperion) she argues that the harm caused by divorce is graver and longer lasting than we suspected. Her work raises a question that some folks felt was settled back in the days of Love, American Style: Should parents stay together for the kids?

    Listening to children from broken families is Wallerstein's lifework. For nearly three decades, in her current book and two previous ones, she has compiled and reflected on the stories of 131 children of divorce. Based on lengthy, in-depth interviews, the stories are seldom happy. Some are tragic. Almost all of them are as moving as good fiction. There's the story of Paula, who as a girl told Wallerstein, "I'm going to find a new mommy," and as a young woman--too young, it turned out--impulsively married a man she hardly knew. There's Billy, born with a heart defect, whose parents parted coolly and amicably but failed to provide for his pressing medical needs.

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