Children and Divorce: And Now For Some Really Depressing News

I awoke early Tuesday morning with my throat so swollen and sore I couldn’t swallow, mucous streaming from nearly every orifice above my shoulders. I could not utter a sound that was even recognizable as speech.  My daughter felt much the same.  I knew I needed to call in a sub.  Two days later, most of it spent sleeping and reading (I certainly had no energy for anything else and the reading was pushing my limits), I think I might be well enough to return to work tomorrow.  The book I managed to devour between naps was, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, by Wallerstein, Lewis, & Blakeslee.  I’m warning you.  It isn’t a cheery read.  In fact, I had tears streaming down my cheeks at points.

wallersteinbookimage I stumbled across this little find at my local book exchange.  I’m always up for reading some research (yeah, I’m kind of nerdy like that), especially about families of divorce, stepfamilies and how all of this impacts children. (Maybe because it is just a little close to home for me?)  This one billed itself as a landmark study because it was the only one that tracked children of divorce from the time their parents split up until they reached full adulthood. It was a 25-year-study. Since I work with kids and their parents many of them divorced and re-married, and since I myself am the child of divorce as are my own children, I thought this might be an interesting read.  It was indeed interesting, but it was not cheery. Wallerstein’s findings are sobering, relevant, deeply saddening, and yet more hopeful than one would expect.

I would recommend that anyone considering divorce, in the process of divorce, or now in the post-divorce family read this book.  I wish I’d read it 4 years ago.  It would have helped me support my children more effectively through the divorce process. Of course, to be honest, I was so stressed and fragmented (as many who undergo divorce are) that I’m not sure I’d have read it.  Which just underscores a significant aspect of this research.  The book also details children’s perspectives of parenting plans, remarriage, step-parents and life after divorce.

The most salient point of Wallerstein’s study, for me, is that no matter when the divorce occurs, no matter what the reason for the divorce, and regardless how amicable or not the divorce is, risk factors for children significantly increase while protective factors that were in place when the marriage was intact are diminished. I don’t think this is new news for any of us, but Wallerstein was able to get behind the eyes of the children in this study and reveal how that reality impacts and shapes children of divorce. She (Wallerstein) does not draw from this conclusion that divorce should never happen.  The author does conclude that we’ve just not been aware of the impact divorce has on children from the child’s perspective until now.  Maybe now, we can begin thinking more about divorce from the perspective of not just what works for the parents, but what works for the children throughout all their developmental levels. Wallerstein goes on to mention that the debilitating impact of divorce is often not evident until children reach adulthood and begin to enter into relationships and marriages of their own.  In other words, divorce has lasting effects on children, no matter how good things appear on the outside. (Personally, I suspect most of us parents know this. We just feel uncertain as to how to deal with this reality.)  These are just a few of the highlights I’ve gleaned and tried to summarize, and which were significant to me as I devoured her over 330 page book.  Oh, and the book does include specifics about the research design and the statistical results of study for those who are interested.

As for me, it was impossible for me to read this book casually without some serious personal introspection.  I am, after all, the mother of four children, all of whom experienced divorce, two of them when they were in elementary school and two of them when they were in preschool.  This book forced me to look at myself and my parenting since the divorce.  I’m asking myself questions because, if I’m to be the best support for my children that I can (and diminished parenting is cited by Wallerstein as one of the biggest perils of divorce), then I must take inventory. 

j0410095 Some of the questions I’m grappling with are:

  • Given that children often tend to either act out or stuff their feelings behind an ultra compliant approach, how are my children really doing?
  • Am I giving my children opportunities to express their fears and their anger (and yes they have both) about the divorce?
  • Am I taking the necessary time to parent them or am I so preoccupied with survival and keeping the family afloat that I am unintentionally neglecting their very real emotional needs.
  • Are any of my children taking on the parenting role?  What am I doing to reinforce this if it is happening?
  • How do I balance the stresses and demands of my adult world, the needs I have for adult love and companionship, with my children’s needs for protection, comfort, care and emotional connection with me…and…when do I get any rest?  (I say that last a little bit tongue in cheek, but fatigue is a big stressor and leads to illness as I’ve learned of late.)

And there are more questions lurking within. 

I’m really not depressed and I’m not beating myself up as a parent after reading this study, but, like the veil being lifted, I certainly see some areas I need to work on for my children’s sake.  I also see some areas that I’ve done well, which is reassuring. It has certainly given me a great deal to consider regarding my parenting, dating as a single parent and, if it ever arises, the idea of remarriage. We grow a little at a time all throughout our lives.  This book just revealed some areas that I think I need to check up on.

As I re-read this post, I realize I’ve only shared the down side aspects of the research.  There is much cause for hope and encouragement as the result of Wallerstein’s work.  I don’t want to be a spoiler, so you’ll just have to read it for yourself. 

8 thoughts on “Children and Divorce: And Now For Some Really Depressing News

  1. TWM – I, too, pick up research reading and plenty of non-fiction to pass the time. I will have to look for this one as I am the mother of six children who are products of divorced parents. My kids were in elementary school, preschool or younger when the divorce happened. Thanks for letting me know about this book.


    1. True that, jassnight. Especially for the children. Most of the case studies showed that as things improved for the parents after divorce, they were necessarily better for the children.


  2. Dealing with divorce really is difficult. My wife and I had a divorce just recently and what saddens me is that my 7 year old kid underwent depression. Good thing one of my friends recommended me to a counselor specializing in child management. I also bought a planner/organize from co-parenting-manager ( which help my kid cope up with the process.


  3. I might suggest that even if we (as divorced single parents) are taking a lot of time “just surviving” as you say – first of all, there’s no “just” about it. Survival first, then time for discussions, etc.

    Secondly (as it really isn’t that cut and dry), what makes you think that in this economy and rush-rush world that it is any different for those who are still married, and are also trying to “just” survive?

    I am not convinced that our kids (children of divorce) are getting any more or less of the “good interpersonal stuff” than any other kid. In some ways, we single parents are hyper aware – and may even look to make sure we’re connecting more than married parents. I’m just tossing that out there…

    I think it depends on the parents. Period. And the kids. And many more circumstances than divorce.

    And as for all this ‘being present’ stuff that is SO talked about now – frankly, I’m over it. It’s bullshit. YES, we all rush around too much. But we’re all trying to survive. YES, we’re on our devices too much. SOME of us, and we could do with a little more face time, generally, with everyone in our life and not just kids.

    The guilt so many parents are taking on about not being present enough for their kids? Especially mothers buying into this? I say – just say NO. It’s swung too far. Moderation and reality. You cannot be “present” for children all the time. It’s ridiculous to think so. You cannot even be “present” for yourself all the time. Equally ridiculous.

    Look at the principles behind all these extremes? That we need to truly listen to our children and pay attention, whether married or divorced? Absolutely. That we need to hop off the merry-go-round now and then, to stay alive? Of course.

    Reality check.
    My two cents.


    1. BLW,

      Secondly (as it really isn’t that cut and dry), what makes you think that in this economy and rush-rush world that it is any different for those who are still married, and are also trying to “just” survive?

      I’m not sure that it is any different. I was reflecting on a research study that compared divorced families with intact families over a 25 year period. There are some significant differences in what the children experience even if things are no different for the adults…according to the study. Further, according to the study, when things get better for the adults, that is not necessarily the case for the children. You’d have to read the book to get the full gist of all that, but none of it was presented by the authors in a critical, demeaning manner that implied single parents weren’t doing the right stuff by doing what they were doing. I apologize if I implied that, because it is inaccurate.

      I wasn’t suggesting that survival wasn’t an absolute necessity, nor was I suggesting that people should be present all of the time for their children. I was merely reflecting on the outcomes of a 25-year-study that compared children in intact families with those from divorced families. The researchers studied children from the point of the parents’ divorce through 25 years into full adulthood. They also tracked the children of the intact homes for 25 years. The findings and what that information suggests is what the book is about and that is what I was reflecting upon. The authors never imply that surviving was “bad”. The authors never suggest that single parents should veer from their course of doing the very best they can to make life the best they can for their kids. The authors never suggest that “people” should work on “being present” with their children.

      The research study found what it found. Clearly, not all families experience everything the way these families did. Not all parents handle divorce the way these parents did. However, if the study was valid in that it addressed the impact of divorce, from the child’s perspective (131 children of divorce were involved in the study which began in 1971) then I, for one, as much as I am able, want to be sensitive (and I think most parents feel this way) to what my children might be experiencing, even though they might not be communicating it in directly understandable ways.

      The questions I posed were ones that are relevant to me and my experience. Not once did I suggest that I wanted to or would even attempt to “be present” for my children all of the time. I don’t believe that is healthy. Not once did I suggest, and I hope I didn’t convey, that it is somehow less loving if we do what we need to do to keep ourselves and our children safe and fed and that’s all. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. It is what must happen. For many, it is all that can happen. We are finite beings after all and often the infinite is asked of us. I would never want to disrespect that reality. I’ve been there, I’m still there. Even so, as much as I am able, I don’t want the very real and pressing demands of our survival to choke out the more relational elements of our existence and I know that it sometimes has. It was a personal inventory, for me, based on my own situation.

      As for the “good interpersonal stuff” and single parents being hyper-aware, I can’t speak to that because I don’t really know other than my own experience. I do know that what I think matters and is important, is not always the same thing that matters to my children. I just want to make sure that where my children are concerned I don’t assume too much. I think I’ve done a great job so far through our personal nightmares, but there are definitely some areas that I can work on, for the benefit of my children and our relationship.


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