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.
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.
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.