Are Americans a nation of frivolous divorcers who selfishly pursue the bluebird of happiness, oblivious to their children's needs? Divorce opponents like Judith Wallerstein seem to think most parents see divorce as a marvelous opportunity for the whole family. How immature do they think people are? All over America, unhappy spouses lie awake at night wondering if they and their kids can afford divorce-financially, socially, emotionally. Where will they live, how will they pay the bills, will the kids fall apart, will there be a custody battle, what will their families say? The very fact that so many people leave their marriage for a future with so many pitfalls proves that divorce is anything but a whim. Most people I know who split up (not to mention my ex and me) spent years working up to it.
In her new book, Wallerstein argues that children don't care if their parents are happy-they just want the stability of a two-parent household, without which they would later flail through adulthood and have a hard time forming good relationships. This conclusion, like her other gloomy generalizations ("Parenting erodes almost inevitably at the breakup and does not get restored for years, if ever"), is based on a small, nonrepresentative sample of families who were going through divorce in 1971 in affluent Marin County, Calif. Wallerstein looks for evidence that divorce harms kids, and of course she finds it-now well into their mid-30s, her interviewees still blame their parents' breakup for every rock on the path to fulfillment-but the very process of participating in a famous on-going study about the effects of divorce encourages them to see their lives through that lens. What if she had spent as much time studying children whose parents had terrible marriages but stayed together for the kids? How many 35-year-old "children" would be blaming their problems on the nights they hid in their rooms while Mom and Dad screamed at each other in the kitchen? Wallerstein points out that many children of divorce feel overly responsible for their parents' happiness. But what about the burden of knowing that one or both of your parents endured years of misery-for you?
As a matter of fact, we know the answer to that question. The baby boomers, who helped divorce become mainstream, were the products of exactly the kind of marriages the anti-divorcers approve of-the child-centered unions of the 1950s, when parents, especially Mom, sacrificed themselves on the altar of family values and suburban respectability. To today's anti-divorcers those may seem like "good enough" marriages-husband and wife rubbing along for the sake of the children. The kids who lived with the silence and contempt said no thank you.
America doesn't need more "good enough" marriages full of depressed and bitter people. Nor does it need more pundits blaming women for destroying "the family" with what are, after all, reasonable demands for equality and self-development. We need to acknowledge that there are lots of different ways to raise competent and well-adjusted children, which-as, according to virtually every family researcher who has worked with larger and more representative samples than Wallerstein's tiny handful-the vast majority of kids of divorce turn out to be. We've learned a lot about how to divorce since 1971. When Mom has enough money and Dad stays connected, when parents stay civil and don't bad-mouth each other, kids do all right. The "good enough" divorce-why isn't that ever the cover story?