D: The Scarlet Letter


On Sunday, another one of those you’re-divorced-so-go-ahead-and-throw-yourself-off-a-bridge articles designed to make divorcees feel like post-modern Hester Prynnes appeared on the front page of the NY Times Styles section. The piece tracked the changing perceptions of divorce from the “Ice Storm” 70s–an era when personal fulfillment trumped all else–to the 21st Century–when a long-term marriage is now a coveted status symbol, especially for the bourgeois bohemians among us.

The article offered a few positive tidbits, namely the current belief that the damage divorce wreaks on children can be greatly mitigated by those who can pull off peaceful divorces, such as Molly Monet.

But basically, the divorced women (no men mentioned, oddly) interviewed for the piece described feeling viewed by their married peers as social pariahs, bad moms, and abject failures who might infect the Marrieds with their divorce cooties.

Many of the article subjects stated that growing up as unhappy children of divorce made them determined to keep their own marriages together, no matter what–which is contrary to the statistics that adults who came from divorced homes are more likely to divorce.

Whether it’s because I spend an inordinate amount of time perusing the Huffington Post divorce section, or reading other divorce articles such as the one cited above, or the fact that my recent custody battle has sent me spinning in an endless hamster-wheel-like examination of the eight years of post-divorce hell (if I’d done x, y, or z, would my ex have been less angry and my children less damaged?) that has tainted the lives of my children, me, and now my second husband, I can tell you this:

My one-time conviction that leaving a high-conflict marriage would eventually morph into a low-conflict divorce and thus ultimately be better for the children, was misguided. Post-divorce life has been more hellish than I ever could have imagined. And the undertow of shame and sorrow for being unable to shield my kids from this level of craziness has gotten so powerful that I’ve decided to go back to therapy.

As the women referenced in the NY Times article, I was a child who came of age during the key-swapping, Me-Generation, Ice Storm era in which women in particular fled marriages, borne by the social current that promised personal fulfillment and a sense of self-agency to those brave enough to break loose from the shackles of traditional marriage. Many of these unions, I imagine, could have and should have been saved.

I, however, was not a child of divorce. I grew up in a home with two parents who loved and respected each other. There was very little overt conflict. I cannot, in fact, remember a single argument. Perhaps because I was an introverted, bookish kid who longed to be accepted by the cool crowd whose divorced parents were boozing, pill-popping, and key-swapping, I often wished my parents were divorced. I felt dull and out-of-sync next to my peers, who got to run glamorously wild due to their preoccupied parents’ permissiveness.

Statistically, given my upbringing in an in tact marriage, I should still be married myself. I should have acquired early on the fundamental building blocks to develop self-esteem, a sure sense of values, the ability to recognize Mr. Right, and a committment to see my marriage through till death do us part.

But that was not the case. I derived my self-worth mainly from externals (as long as my outsides looked great, my insides didn’t matter). I lacked the courage of my convictions. I mistook my ex for Prince Charming when he was really Prince Machiavelli. And I was riddled with ambivalence about my marriage from the moment I stepped my white-satin-clad foot on the aisle, until the ambivalence outweighed the committment and I filed for divorce.

How did this happen? When I perform a psychic autopsy on my parents’ marriage, and my childhood in it, the distance between my parents is laid bare. While my sister (who has been long-time married) remembers my parents as a vibrant, social couple embarking on a grand adventure, I, ten years younger, recall two genteel, polite people who went out of their way to avoid each other.

My parents hid out in a myriad of ways. They ate TV dinners on trays in front of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. My mother, worn down by mysterious somatic afflictions, took long afternoon naps. Weekends that could have been spent playing tennis or visiting friends were divvied up separately. My mother compulsively cleaned the house and my father escaped either to his study or to a buddy’s to play pool.

My mother lived for her job as a highly-acclaimed elementary school music teacher and producer of children’s theater. She loved being a big fish in a small pond and thrived on the urgency and drama of mounting theatrical productions, then basking in the kudos she received. Next to her creative endeavors, home life paled. For whatever reason, she turned to me to meet her emotional needs–quite often sobbing about her internal despair–which eventually kept my father out of the house for entire weekends, and kept me percolating in a stew of resentment and swallowed feelings.

Given the lives of quiet desperation my parents and I lived, juxtaposed next to the anything-goes, seize-the-day existence of my peers and their parents, it’s understandable why I grew up to think staying in an unhappy marriage was worse than exiting one.

Yet as frustrated as I think my parents were, they–and I–would probably have fared far worse had they divorced. Neither of them had the financial or emotional resources to be on their own, and, I, a nervous-nelly of a child, did not have the constitution to navigate domestic upheaval.

That said, I know quite a few adult children of divorce who were relieved when their parents split up because the conflict stopped. These adults now tell me that the only fantasy they harbored about their parents was that they would stop fighting. One friend confided that her parents, long-divorced, are friends now and have grown into the people they never could have been had they stayed together. When I asked her if she ever wished they’d reconciled, she literally shuddered, looked at me as if I were insane, and said nononono!

But what of the adult children who never get over their parents’ divorce, and blame every problem they have on it? I used to believe that every misfortune I had was due to my being adopted. Conventional adoption literature can really mess with an adoptee’s head: according to adoption statistics, adoptees are more likely to have learning disabilities, failed marriages, addiction, and a lifelong sense of not fitting in. In my own life, I can lay claim to all of these issues. Would I not have had them had I not been adopted? Who knows? But I do know one thing: my birthmother was in no position to raise me and my life would have been far more chaotic had she tried.

Until I accepted this simple truth, I spent much of my childhood and adulthood being angry that I was adopted, that I had been denied the breezy entitlement that comes with knowing where you belong. But while adoption may have been the cause of some of my problems–such as picking the wrong person to marry–it’s not an excuse for mistakes either. My birthparents and adoptive parents did the best they could with the resources they had at the time. It’s up to me to decide whether or not I’m going to let adoption, or divorce, define me.

I wonder if the current divorce literature isn’t saddling children of divorce with the same you’re-screwed message doled out by adoption researchers before this current era of trendy adoption. Are we guilting parents who left marriages that should NOT have been saved–those where addiction, abuse, personality disorders, and mental illness ran rampant–by insinuating that they didn’t have “the right stuff” like their still-married counterparts?

Are people legitimately trying to work on marriages for the sake of the children, or simply because Marriage is the New Black?

The twice-divorced Nora Ephron, who co-created the HuffPo divorce section hoping to lessen the stigma of divorce, has this to say on the subject:

“Divorce seems as if it will last forever, and then suddenly, one day, your children grow up, move out, and make lives for themselves, and except for an occa­sional flare, you have no contact at all with your ex-husband. The divorce has lasted way longer than the marriage, but finally it’s over. The point is, that for a long time, the fact that I was divorced was the most important thing about me. And now, it’s not.”

I hope that my kids will one day make a truce with divorce as I have with adoption. That divorce, like adoption, is something that happens to you. From time to time, especially in the face of another loss, it can creep into you like a virus and leave you feeling ragged. But most of the time, it’s just there, one experience among many that make who you are. Maybe it even brings you some gifts: the ability to appreciate what you do have; a belief in your own resilience; the wisdom to look at things from others’ point-of-view; perhaps a talent for mediation.

Until then, I look forward to the day when divorce is no longer the most important thing about me–or my children.

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About perilsofdivorcedpauline

I am a survivor of a world-class gnarly divorce. My dastardly ex-husband is suing me for full custody of my son, and more time with my daughter. He’s super-rich and I’m super-not. You get the picture.
This entry was posted in Divorce, Custody, and Parental Alienation and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to D: The Scarlet Letter

  1. I’ve read and reread this post this morning. You have me speechless, not sure what to say. This is defniately food for thought, and so so insightful. I too came from a unhappily married parents, going on 40 years together now. Although I know they’ve found a peace, a way of living together that has a deep longterm love for one another, it wasn’t like that while I was growing up. It took my younger sister moving out of the house to get them to learn to be together. And I think that relationship and my mother’s blatent unhappiness set the statge for my own marriage and bad choice in choosing my ex husband. I believed marriage wasn’t ment to be happy, that “true love” wasn’t real, and that you just find a nice person from a decent family and just MAKE it work. Anyway, lots of thoughts running around in my brain from this post. Thank you for it!

    • My parents found that peace too, I think. They did love each other, they had mutual respect and a long shared history. It took me a long time to see the value in that. But it wasn’t great growing up in the middle of it. Interesting that you had the same experience, both growing up and in your own marriage.

  2. canadian says:

    alot of really good advice and very wise introspection. who knew how much there still was to learn…

    ahh, the bliss of childhood; watching our parents and not really thinking they were thinking; focused only on our minute yet huge private world … and believing with all your heart that once you are ‘grown up’, all mysteries of the universe will be revealed unto you on a silver plate with a large dollop of whipped cream.

    your candor in and of itself is a beautiful thing; i cherish it as a human being who lives confined in her own thoughts.

  3. Ah, the endless hamster wheel. I know it well, too well. A lot to think about here, but in a good way. Also, 6degree’s comment about just finding a person “from a decent family and just MAKE it work” hits home. Child of divorce here which makes me think I didn’t set the bar too high.

  4. Jenny says:

    My parents didn’t divorce until I was 21. Although it was a bit of a surprise, I think the really hard part of it is the person my father chose as a partner after the divorce. Nothing like having a crazy stepmother to create chaos in a family system. However, I think my parents were very unhappy , and it would be selfish of me to want them to be together, especially after I’d essentially left the fold. I don’t know if their divorce really had anything to do with my subsequent divorce; they seem very different. I found that article depressing, mostly because I experienced that sort of nice, yet polite shunning from my peers once I left my ex. It shocked me. I’m not suggesting that divorce is “cool,” nor that it should be commonplace, but I truly don’t believe it’s contagious, either. When I tried to discuss these issues with the few friends from that group who stuck around, they usually told me I was paranoid. Nope. And Pauline, I totally agree with you that these studies are saddling kids of divorce with a tremendous burden. Their reality is what it is, so why predict failure? My daughter seems perfectly fine, although she’s sometimes annoyed by the complications of two households. I hardly think she has a big “Loser” tattooed on her forehead.

  5. Jamie says:

    Sometimes I wonder what I could have done to make things work, and often consider how my child-of-divorce past may have contributed, but those thoughts are always pushed back by the reality of my situation. No matter what I did wrong, I did not deserve to be called a c*#t, even once…and I was called a c*#t hundreds of time. I did not deserved to be yelled at for bringing home furnishings I liked, or my political opinions. I did not deserve to be tortured over deciding about, shopping for, preparing and cleaning up each meal, which had to be served at 5:30 PM, only to be told it was “boring” or “bland” or “okay” night after night. I didn’t deserved to be controlled financially, and even though WE decided I would be a stay-at-home mom, I did not deserve to be held to task over the grocery bill after the $5,000. plasma TV was delivered and installed in his man-cave. My daughter did not deserve to be ignored by the man that didn’t want to be around me and therefore resented her. In my humble opinion there are those who approach ending their marriage selfishly and those who approach ending their marriage for their sanity. The first time he yelled and made my 1.5 year old nearly jump out of her booster seat, I knew, unequivocally, that this was the right thing to do (as if the rest was not enough). It’s been a difficult two years, I won’t lie, but I am learning to find myself again and recognize how happy I should be with my life as it is now. As for my daughter…sure, it will be difficult, but in the end she deserves happy parents, even if we don’t live under the same roof. She definitely deserves it! Your relationship with your children should trump your relationship with your ex. Less focus on him, more focus on them…you love them, they need you, you know this.
    : )

  6. Carolyn says:

    I read the NYT article and it showed a snobby, “it will never happen to me” side of moms I dislike. Anything can happen to any of us and I don’t want to be the person who ever shuns a friend because they’re divorced (or have anything else alter their life).

    Great piece!

  7. Carolyn says:

    Oh, this enquiring mind wants to know if the Machiavelli family reads this blog?

  8. justmewith says:

    Wow, excellent post. I, too, am concerned about all those facts about the stigma of divorce and I have the added nasty factoids about the plight of African-American female headed families which spew the statistics of what happens to black boys, especially, without fathers (girls are often ignored) . Well, I tried to do it the traditional way. I got married before having children. My Ex-Husband and I were not fighting when we split. It was a sudden decision of his, so the kids were not spared the fighting by us separating. They did not understand. Still don’t. And I am not a child of divorce. My parents are still married. With the effects of aging, some memory loss, fear of aging, loss of independence (mom doesn’t drive anymore), and them both being home all day, well, it causes some (a lot) of bickering, but I believe there is still love there. I married too young but marriage was the thing to do (and to avoid the dreaded “shacking up” according to my mom). There are not many divorces in my family and friends and even fewer while children are involved or young. I grew up with a mother and a father (no extras) and one home to come home to, and no designation of days between parents. I hate the way I’m forced to raise my kids now. I do. And as kids get older, it becomes that much harder to fit them into a court-ordered schedule. Kids have activities, interests and even, dare I say, down time that don’t always line up. I do think children of divorce who have to juggle the normal schedules of school and activities plus their parents’ need for visitation schedules (because that is what it becomes) have a disadvantage. I know you’re not supposed to say that, but I did. It is an just additional thing to deal with.

    And in my case, we have suffered financially, I have suffered physically, emotionally and psychologically, my kids have suffered emotionally and psychologically. Just the other day my daughter said we used to have so much and now we don’t. The material things lost is not the worst part of the statement, it is that she feels that way. And the pity from some folks, because we did indeed “move on down” the socio-economic ladder. It’s been rough. I’m just going to try to do the best for my kids and me. It obviously won’t be the traditional in-tact family, nor will I be the poster child for the happy divorcee, with her best friend and partner, the ex. I’ve recently come to terms with that last part and I feel better.

    Funny about how you talk about one day divorce not defining you. It’s kinda of like the diaper aisle in the grocery store. For years you have no reason to go there and try very hard to make sure you don’t need to go there, then you live there, and one day, magically, it means nothing to you. I recently had to unfollow some of the divorce coaches on twitter because every time I looked at my timeline it was some divorce issue to reflect upon, most of which had nothing to do with a situation like mine where we will never “co-parent” with glee. I feel better choosing to seek that stuff out rather than being bombarded with it all day long. I am so much more than “divorced.”

  9. badbadwebbis says:

    One of the facts that gave me real pause in my first marriage was the fact that my arguments with my now-ex were starting to sound like my parents’ arguments, and I realized that I was in real danger of replicating their marriage in my own life.

    And they were a fairly bad example — ugly fights, no real communication, intentional misunderstandings, and shouting. My parents were not a compatible match, and it showed.

  10. Pauline — this is too funny! I, too, read the NYT piece this weekend and immediately started writing — it’s also the foundation of my next post, in fact. Seems the topic resonates with many of us “Divorceds.”

    The interesting thing is that it seems while there was a rebound “Me” generation in the 60s, there were also many of us whose parents couldn’t quite make that jump: They felt too guilty/committed/afraid/whatever to divorce, yet they weren’t truly happy. Perhaps they were comfortable, or even functionally dysfunctional. But never truly a good example of marriage and commitment, to be sure.

    Thanks for sharing this story. Now I have to go back to my post and edit some more … I think I even mention the Scarlet Letter D. Great minds think alike — as do girls (and guys) who’ve been around the same block, as we clearly have in many ways… 😉

    Take care, and stay strong. You’re an inspiration to many of us!

  11. I’m hesitant to actually READ the NY Times article. My understanding is that statistics on children of divorce today are changing in a huge way and the differences are closing. The issues tend to have more to do with class than marital status. In other words, children from very poor families tend to have a harder time in life. Families in the lower class tend to have a higher tendency to divorce or not even marry and simply be raised by one parent. But no one in this country wants to talk about problems like THAT so we’ll just go ahead and pretend it’s as simple as wishing everyone stays married happily ever after.

  12. Wonderful post, Pauline. And so much to think about.
    I’ve already weighed in on that particular NYTimes piece – as well as the related Lori Gottlieb “Happy Children, Unhappy Adults” article, and I continue to believe that as mothers we truly are damned if we do and damned if we don’t these days…

    As for divorce and its legacy, I believe it to be an ever-changing landscape – a matter of individuals at each point in time, and more variables than most people think about. There are no guarantees in life, no absolutes (except that it will eventually end), and most of us do the best we can with what we’ve got – trying to keep our eyes and ears open sufficiently to learn along the way.

    Let’s hope we do – collectively – as well. For our children, who are neither wholly damned nor wholly saved by divorce, or any other aspect of their upbringing.

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