by Sasha Aslanian, American Public Media
In the late 1970s, America was reeling from divorce. The divorce rate hit a historic high in 1979, and even the Academy Award for Best Picture went to a drama portraying a wrenching custody battle.
Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep starred as the estranged couple “Kramer vs. Kramer,” locked in a custody battle over their young son.
The kid they were fighting over in “Kramer vs. Kramer” doesn’t have much of a voice in the movie. There was a whole generation of kids just like him.
Avery Corman wrote the novel the movie was based on. Corman remembers attending a screening for the film, and when the lights came up at the end, he noticed teenagers all around him, slumped in their seats.
“And I knew exactly who they were,” said Corman.
Corman himself was a child of divorce. Growing up in a middle-class neighborhood in the Bronx in the 1940s, Corman remembers being virtually the only kid on his block and in his school whose parents were divorced. His father left when he was 5, and he never saw him again.
By the time he wrote “Kramer vs. Kramer” in the mid-1970s, divorce was much more commonplace and the stigma was rapidly disappearing.
In 1969, California became the first state to pass “no-fault” divorce, which meant you didn’t have to prove infidelity or abandonment. You could just be fed up and call it quits. In the ’70s, no-fault laws spread to other states and the divorce rate ticked up.
But Corman still guarded his own secret.
Then, a school girl from the Midwest wrote to him and asked, “Were your parents divorced?” Corman was fascinated. Most people responded to the adult side of the equation. It took a child to see right through.
MY HOME’S NOT BROKEN
My brother Joel (left) and I shortly before our parents’ divorce.
I was 10 when my parents separated. My parents stayed on good terms, and my mom moved two blocks away. My little brother and I piled our clothes into laundry baskets and went back and forth, spending two weeks with mom and two weeks with dad.
“I have two bedrooms!” I’d brag to other kids. I didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for me. I bristled at hearing the term “broken home.” I was fine. My home wasn’t broken. I just had two of them.
It wasn’t until much later — in adulthood — that I let down my guard a little bit. How had the divorce affected me? I mean, I noticed I wasn’t off to a great start with my own relationships. I began reading, and asking other people about their experiences.
I looked around my book group one night and realized we were almost all children of the 1970s divorce boom. I persuaded a few of my friends to let me interview them. They hesitated at first and didn’t want their last names used.
“Why dredge it up again?” they asked. “It’s ancient history.” But their childhood memories of their families breaking up are vivid.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie ‘The Ice Storm,’” began my friend Elizabeth, “but when I saw that it completely reminded me of my parents.”
Elizabeth’s parents were “swingers” — partner-swapping with another couple.
“My mother ended up marrying the man, who became my stepfather. They later divorced. My dad was engaged to the woman he was ‘swinging’ with, but they never got married,” Elizabeth explained.
She learned the story behind her parents’ divorce when she was in her 20s. “The divorce just kind of quietly melted our family,” she remembered.
Elizabeth and her little sister blamed themselves. Elizabeth was a first-grader.
Amy came across this photo she and her little sister took of their Barbies around the time of their parents’ divorce.
My friend Amy was 8 when her parents separated. My favorite story she tells is about finding a bunch of photographs she and her little sister took of their Barbie dolls around the time of their parents’ divorce. All the Barbies are nicely dressed and lined up in a row. In the bottom of the shot, dangling by one foot, is Ken. Amy’s dad had just split.
“I thought it was like teams,” said Amy. “And we were part of the losing team. And we got dumped by the captain.”
The “captain” would return on Sundays to take his daughters for rides on his boat. Amy resented the much lower standard of living she had at her mom’s house, where grapes and milk had suddenly become expensive.
Stephanie from book group was 11 when her dad began to stay away for long periods of time. Stephanie remembered her mother was often teary, and would rush to answer the phone privately in her bedroom in case Stephanie’s father might be calling.
Finally, her mom told Stephanie and her 5-year-old little brother that their dad was coming home to take them to the mall.
“My brother and I were so excited. We thought we were going to go shopping. And she kept telling us over and over, it’s not a surprise. It’s not a surprise. It’s not going to be fun,” Stephanie recalled.
When their dad came to pick them up, he didn’t get out of the car. He drove the children to McDonalds.
“Our mother gave us — had given me — a letter to give to him. He read it in McDonalds before he told us,” Stephanie recounted. “And threw it in the garbage.”
Stephanie went home and cried with her mother. Then her mother asked if he had kept the letter.
“I somehow knew that was an important thing. And I said, ‘Yes he did.’ And my brother, who was 5, said ‘No, he didn’t, no he didn’t, he threw it in the garbage.’ And I said, ‘No, he kept it,’ and my brother kept, like a 5-year-old would, just kept pounding away, ‘No, he threw it away.’”
Elizabeth, Amy and Stephanie are all married and mothers themselves now. They’re successful in their jobs. You could argue they have turned out fine. But the effects of divorce can be hard to see.
For Elizabeth, whose parents were the swingers, it took a long time for her to notice how their divorce affected her.
“I grew up always trying to put a positive spin on the divorce for other people,” said Elizabeth. “If people said, ‘What’s your greatest strength?’ I would always say, ‘I’m really adaptable’ because I moved so much, changed schools so often, and always was able to roll with it. I realized that was fiction I told myself for years.”
Elizabeth wanted everything to be fine, and the culture was giving her that message. Divorce was becoming more common, and there wasn’t the same stigma as in previous decades. But people really didn’t know how divorce would affect kids over the long term.
A SOCIAL REVOLUTION
Judith Wallerstein at her home in Belvedere, CA. (Photo/Sasha Aslanian)
Judith Wallerstein has sat on many a television studio couch, advising the nation on children and divorce. She’s a pioneer in the field. When she started, it was a barren landscape.
Back in the early 1970s, Wallerstein was teaching at the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley. She taught a class on working with troubled children. She began getting calls from teachers and parents asking for help. Children of divorcing parents were acting out and having behavior problems.
“So I took myself to the Berkeley library, which is one of the greatest libraries in America, and I found that there was no research, there was absolutely no study. We had embarked on this major social revolution without any knowledge about how it might affect children,” said Wallerstein.
So she launched her own study, with 131 kids in Marin County whose parents got divorced in 1971. Wallerstein interviewed them about their feelings and experiences. She kept following them for decades and wrote bestselling books about her findings.
The prevailing wisdom at the time was that if the parents were better off getting out of the marriage, the kids would be better off, too.
Wallerstein’s young study subjects didn’t agree. Eventually, other researchers would confirm what the kids were saying — they struggled more with mental health problems, trouble in school and relationships.
“It’s one of the few issues in a society where what’s best for the parents is not necessarily best for the children,” said Wallerstein.
After divorce, Wallerstein noticed different trajectories for parents and kids. For grownups, the divorce was the low point. But within three years, they tended to recover and move on with their lives.
For children, it wasn’t so linear. They felt the aftershocks during adolescence when they defined who they were, and again in early adulthood as they created their own relationships.
Other researchers contend Wallerstein’s findings are too full of doom and gloom. But Wallerstein wanted parents to see divorce from a child’s point of view. What the kids told her was tough to hear.
“They said, ‘The day they divorced was the day my childhood ended,’” said Wallerstein.
ON THE FRONT LINES
Dad, Joel, mom and me in the early days in Seattle, Washington.
It felt like the sky was falling when my parents gathered my little brother and me in the living room and told us they were separating.
It was a bummer day for my parents as well. My dad told me what it was like the day he went down to Family Court to finalize the divorce.
“There was a part of me that thought the earth was going to stop spinning for just a little nanosecond in recognition of this earth-shattering event, where my marriage was going to be formally bombed,” he said.
Instead, my dad said he felt like a Ford Ranger pick-up truck moving down the assembly line. The court referee didn’t look up.
“He asked if this marriage was irreconcilably over or damaged or something, I can’t remember exactly. And I started to answer with this long flowery answer.”
Dad got about four words into what he joked was his 40-page speech, and the referee grabbed the gavel and said “Granted!”
“And I thought, is that it? Is it over? And it was,” said my dad.
That court referee my dad saw that day was Gerald Rutman. He’s retired now to Scottsdale, Ariz., but he’s happy to chat.
I mailed him a copy of the divorce decree ahead of time. I’m not surprised he doesn’t remember my parents. I tell him the story of my dad getting the gavel during his divorce speech.
“Oops. Sorry!” said Rutman with a friendly laugh. “But that doesn’t sound like me. I must have been in a hurry.”
Rutman must have been in a hurry a lot in those days. He worked as a divorce referee from 1970 to 1986 when the divorce rate was surging. A St. Paul Dispatch reporter wrote a “day in the life” piece about Rutman in 1978. The headline was “Divorce Referee Faces Human Drama Daily — and Lots of It.”
Rutman gave me a copy of this article published about him in The Saint Paul Dispatch back in 1978.
Rutman can tell tales. He remembers when there was no guidance for deciding things like child support, so he priced out various living expenses and made up his own formulas for what families needed to get by.
Rutman never met my brother or me the day our dad passed through his courtroom because our parents agreed on our custody. But Rutman did meet with lots of kids who were caught in the middle of horrible custody disputes.
He’d meet with them one-on-one in his office. There, kids would confide secrets they were carrying, like they knew about their parents’ affairs. Or they worried about a parent who was sad. And they’d ask him questions.
Rutman remembers one little boy in particular. He was about 11. His dad had been taking him on fancy weekend boat trips while his mom struggled to get by. The boy wanted to move in with his dad. Rutman decided to keep him with his mom so he’d learn the right values of hard work.
“And by golly, I got a call at home in the evening from him, the little boy,” said Rutman. The boy said he just couldn’t go back to his mom, so Rutman agreed to revise the custody plan.
“They know more than the parent.” said Rutman.
In 1979, 20 middle-schoolers at the Fayerweather Street School, a private school in Cambridge, Mass., wrote “The Kids’ Book of Divorce: By, For & About Kids,” as a class project. Their teacher, Eric Rofes, got it published in 1981. It was dedicated “to the past, present and future children of divorce.”
The book is slim and upbeat, with chapters like, “Separation: It’s not the end of the world,” and sometimes wry — there’s a chapter on “Weekend Santa.” A scrapbook shows they were media darlings for a time, interviewed by Newsweek, The New York Times and 20/20.
The student authors of “The Kids’ Book of Divorce” were interviewed by numerous media outlets after their book was published in 1981. Louis Crosier is at right. (Photo courtesy of Crispin Hollings)
“All of a sudden we were on Donahue, and Today’s 4 [on WBZ-TV Boston] as experts, and we were 12 years old,” said Louis Crosier, one of the writers.
Crosier and two of his classmates, Hannah Gittleman and Jon Tupta, agreed to come back to the Fayerweather Street School to revisit “The Kids’ Book of Divorce.”
“What I remember is that halfway through the year, some parent noticed by looking through the Fayerweather phone book that 14 of 20 kids in our class had two households, or some were from single-parent households,” said Hannah Gittleman.
Eric Rofes, their teacher, started discussions about different kinds of families, and the project of writing “The Kids Book of Divorce” took off, replacing the regular curriculum for the rest of the year.
They interviewed adults, like a rabbi who performed “divorce ceremonies.” They interviewed other kids about divorce. And they were candid about their own experiences.
Jon Tupta’s parents told him they were getting divorced on this 10th birthday. He ended up moving with his mom and two younger brothers far away from all his childhood friends.
Tupta says “The Kids’ Book of Divorce” project gave him a place to talk about his family’s situation, since there wasn’t much opportunity at home. His mom was too busy raising three boys by herself.
Hannah Gittleman and her brother rotated every two months between her mother’s house and her father’s house. The cast of characters in her life included her mother’s boyfriend, stepsisters and boarders.
Hannah Gittleman being interviewed by a local television station after “The Kids’ Book of Divorce” was published in 1981. (Photo courtesy of Crispin Hollings)
Louis Crosier lived with his single mom. He watched her struggle to balance work and parenting, and said that hectic time made a lifelong impression on him.
The main point of “The Kids’ Book of Divorce” is that it’s OK for families to change and be different.
There’s practical advice about how life will be different. There are explanations about custody and courts. And there’s some surprising wisdom. “Things around the house will probably get lost” is my favorite.
The book concludes that kids of divorce will probably be more careful starting their own relationships. And that prediction seems to have been borne out by this group.
Louis Crosier says when he was younger, he established a pattern of quitting things when life got stressful. It was something he saw his single mom doing — she was quitting boyfriends and moving apartments every year.
As an adult, Crosier said he made a commitment to hang in there and communicate through the tough times.
“Now with two kids, I’m highly, highly motivated to stay in our marriage. Both because it’s a wonderful marriage, but also because I felt very directly the implication of single-parent raising,” said Crosier.
The Fayerweather Street School kids wrote in their last chapter: “Another side effect is the pain. Sure, most of the pain is gone by the time a kid is an adult (or a little younger), but some pain is still there. It will always be there.”
The Fayerweather Street School class of 1979. Jon Tupta is in the middle of the front row wearing a dark shirt and headband.
For Jon Tupta, most of the pain wasn’t gone by early adulthood. He was angry.
“It wasn’t until I was about 20 that I confronted both my mother and my father about the divorce and what had actually taken place, because I wanted to put it behind me more than anything else so I could go and live my own life without that cloud over my head all the time.”
It was a relief for Tupta. He could say to himself, “I don’t want to make those mistakes, and I can move on from here because I don’t have to repeat their life. I can do something different.”
Tupta and his girlfriend have chosen not to marry. They have a son together.
Hannah Gittleman, who had the elaborate two-month rotation with stepsisters and boarders and her mother’s boyfriend and the like, kept things simple. A long-term relationship in her 30s that didn’t lead to marriage. Then, a first marriage at age 40. No kids.
Gittleman isn’t sure how the divorce changed her, and she jokes that it’s hard to know how much of their personalities they can blame on their parents’ divorces.
Researchers have been studying that question.
UNDERSTANDING THE DIVORCE CYCLE
In the 1970s, people weren’t sure how divorce would affect kids. Thirty years later, the children of divorce have left a long paper trail.
Nick Wolfinger is a demographer from the University of Utah who pores over giant data sets from the National Survey of Families and Households, tracking children of divorce.
“The bad news is that you really are much more likely to get divorced as an adult if your parents divorced, and parental divorce really does affect almost every aspect of your behavior in your own relationships,” said Wolfinger.
Wolfinger’s academic book has the ominous title: “Understanding the Divorce Cycle: The Children of Divorce in their Own Marriages.”
When I told Wolfinger the cover of his book was scary, he said, “You should have seen the first version.”
Reading his book is like reading a mathematical proof that you’re doomed. “This is why I’m so much fun at weddings,” Wolfinger quipped.
When people ask what the bride and groom’s chances are, Wolfinger said he cherrypicks the most optimistic data for the happy couple. He does have some advice for the rest of us.
“If you want to stay married, marry someone just like you. Except if you’re from a divorced family, marry someone from an intact family,” said Wolfinger.
That’s because Wolfinger found when either the husband or wife was a child of divorce, those marriages were almost twice as likely to dissolve as marriages where neither spouse came from a divorced family.
Marriages between two spouses from divorced families were more than three times as likely to fail. Wolfinger finds children of divorce are more likely to cut and run.
“If you experience relationships as transitory while growing up, that’s what you’ll do as an adult,” he said.
Wolfinger finds children of divorce are about 50 percent more likely to end their own marriages. He breaks down the risk factors that many children of divorce bring into their marriages — marrying young, not finishing their education, living together first.
The age the child experiences divorce also matters. Wolfinger gives an example of a 4-year-old whose parents divorce.
“Most people remarry, so a couple years later that kid is going to pick up a stepparent,” said Wolfinger. “And as you probably know, second marriages have even higher rates of divorce than first marriages, so that kid may experience a second divorce.”
By contrast, if a 17-year-old’s parents divorce, chances are by the time there’s a remarriage, the child is out of the house.
“The age the child initially experiences divorce simply determines exposure to additional family structure transitions,” Wolfinger concluded.
Wolfinger looked at how having a stepparent affected kids. Remarriage may make a parent happy, and the family looks nuclear again, but it doesn’t undo the damage to kids from divorce.
“You would expect to see good benefits from a stepparent,” said Wolfinger.
After all, a stepparent may restore family income to two-parent levels. A stepparent is another adult in the home to provide social control and nurturing. The stepparent might be a role model for a good relationship.
But the bottom line, according to Wolfinger, is having a stepparent makes a kid even more likely to divorce later in life.
Wolfinger thinks having a stepparent shows spouses are replaceable if things don’t work out.
America has learned some lessons from the 1970s divorce boom. Ugly divorces certainly damage kids. And that’s given way to a new movement: Good Divorces.
Continue to Part 2: Perfecting Divorce