Thirty years after the movie “Kramer vs. Kramer,” the experience of divorce has changed for kids. Courts, mediation, special classes for kids and a “good divorce” movement have all tried to reduce the harm to children.
IT’S ALL OK
A few years ago, my daughters were playing in their bedroom. They were listening to a tape of Barney, the purple dinosaur from public television. The lyrics Barney and his little friends were singing caught my ear.
“There’s a girl I know who lives with her mom, her dad lives far away. Although she sees her parents just one at a time, they both love her every day!”
I thought, “Huh. When I was little, I don’t remember any songs like this, about how all families are terrific no matter what they look like. I’m glad kids have that nowadays.”
That’s one big difference between 1979 and today. There are a lot more kids whose families aren’t the traditional nuclear family with mom and dad and the kids. And Barney’s singing on TV that it’s all OK.
Kids today have “Banana Splits” groups. These are peer support groups for kids whose parents are getting separated or divorced.
If you search “kids and divorce” on Amazon books, you’ll get more than 2,000 hits for self-help books or children’s books that explain divorce. There are a lot of good intentions to make divorce easier on kids. But no matter what, it’s an enormous change for most kids.
TAKING KIDS OUT OF THE MIDDLE
Children in this divorce class play a game with string to illustrate how everyone’s affected if one person pulls away from the group. (MPR Photo/Elizabeth Tannen)
Hennepin County in Minnesota has taken aggressive steps to improve how divorce is done.
Judge James Swenson joined the family court bench in Minneapolis in 1995. Back then, by the time a divorce case made it to his chambers, it was already 12 to 18 months old.
“The cases I got were ones that seemed to be unsettle-able, with quite a bit of animosity and rancor, which led to unpleasant experiences as a judicial officer,” said Swenson.
It was like getting in the middle and refereeing a fight. The pain for the kids involved was readily apparent. They were stuck in the middle while the legal process dragged on and the court costs drained precious family resources, adding to the stress level.
“We wanted to get kids out of middle of messy custody fights,” said Swenson.
So in 2000, Hennepin Country tried something different. What if judges acted more like triage nurses and intervened quickly, before things got a chance to fester?
They would try a completely different tone. At the first meeting with the judge right after filing for divorce, there would be no motions. No judicial robes. And the attorneys would sit on the sidelines.
Hennepin County Chief Judge James Swenson. (MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian)
“The judge would sit down with the parties and talk to them about such things as childhood development. What they could do to help their kids. What would send their kids’ mental health south real fast,” said Swenson.
He offered parents a devilish choice. Would they rather spend their money on their children’s extracurricular activities or college, or on their attorneys’ children’s extracurricular activities and college?
After the initial meeting, the couple would come back a few weeks later and meet with a male and a female custody evaluator. They would try to come up with a reasonable custody plan that everyone could buy into. A separate meeting dealt with the financial part of divorce.
An astonishing thing happened — 65 percent of divorce cases settled within 30 days.
Swenson jokes that it was an absolute boon for judges. His days in trial went down by 35 percent. Even the cases he did have to try seemed to have benefited.
“The number of cases where it was highly vitriolic, with ugly testimony and warring by the lawyers, dropped off the edge of a cliff,” said Swenson.
In 2009, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government cited Hennepin County’s Early Neutral Evaluation program as one of the top 50 innovations in government.
Annika pictured with her divorce class workbook. (MPR Photo/Elizabeth Tannen)
Courts have tried to improve how the legal system handles divorce. But policy efforts have not stopped there. Most states require parent education for divorcing parents. Sometimes kids have to take classes too.
Hennepin County used to require a three-hour session for those kids who were stuck in the middle.
In 2005, I visit one run by the nonprofit The Storefront Group. Storefront groups kids by age — 6-8 year olds, 9-12 year olds, and teenagers. I want to see the 9-12 year olds because that was the age I was when my parents split up. There were no divorce classes for kids back in the 1970s.
When I go to Storefront, parents are dropping off their kids. They’ll come back for the final moments of the class.
The kids are given workbooks. One page shows cartoon faces with different emotions — sad, mad, worried, happy. The kids are asked to circle how they felt when they found out about their parents’ divorces, and put boxes around how they feel about being in class today.
Tess marks how she felt about her parents’ divorce and how she feels about being in class. (MPR Photo/Elizabeth Tannen)
“I put circles around the sad faces because I felt kind of sad my mom and dad were going to get a divorce,” said Nate. “And I put squares around some of the happy ones because I was kind of happy I was going to come here.”
A girl named Halee selects a happy face about being in class today, but she concedes she was also worried that she’d be the only girl, or that the other kids wouldn’t like her.
“I put a few scared faces because I was a little bit scared,” said Brooke. As for how she felt about her parents’ divorce, Brooke circled every emotion on the page, “because I had a lot of feelings when my parents were going to get a divorce.”
Two Storefront instructors, Shawn Neel and Rachel Gustin, gently lead the children through a discussion of feelings and how they’re all normal, and what to do if you feel angry. They emphasize kids aren’t responsible for adult problems.
Instructor Shawn Neel copies down reasons the kids suggest for why people get divorced. (MPR Photo/Elizabeth Tannen)
“Is it ever really a kid’s fault that adults can’t solve their problems?” Neel asks. A chorus of kids shouts “No!”
But these fourth and fifth-graders have had plenty of exposure to adult problems. The stories start to flow.
“My mom has a friend named Brad and we go over there a lot, and my mom doesn’t want my dad to know,” said Halee, “but I tell my dad anyways because I think he should know, because they’re still technically married.”
Several of the children have witnessed violence in their homes. Annika describes how her dad knocked over the Christmas tree, and broke a lamp and the window.
“There was glass all over the floor and my mom told me to be careful, and they just started fighting and stuff,” said Annika.
These kids seem to know they are out of their depth dealing with unhappy parents, but they don’t know what to do about it.
“It’s like when you watch a grown-up movie, you don’t want to know about this stuff yet,” said Lizzy.
Halee, the girl sitting next to Lizzy, nods in agreement. Then she says, “That’s why they have cartoons.”
Lizzy, as she was called then, in a 2005 “divorce class.” (MPR Photo/Elizabeth Tannen)
The children learn about four divorce traps kids can fall into.
They practice what to do when a parent asks them to play messenger, or spy on the other parent. “Substitute” is when a parent treats a kid like another adult, maybe leaning on them too much for support, which is a confusing role for a kid.
Annika volunteers to be the child in the poison game. The children pretending to be her parents fill her ears with poisonous words about each other.
“What do you think you could you do?” Neel asks Annika.
“I’ll tell both of them secrets about getting back together,” she replies with evident satisfaction.
Whoops. Not quite. Annika has responded to the poison game with a game of her own — trying to “Parent Trap” her folks back together.
The instructor suggests a different strategy — that she be honest, and say it hurts her feelings when her parents say bad things about each other.
For the final exercise, the children write a joint letter to their parents that the instructor will read aloud at the end of class.
The parents file into the room and take their places behind their sons and daughters. Neel reads the letter.
“When you told me about the divorce, I felt mad, scared, ashamed, disappointed, sad, bad, like it was my fault, worried, stuck in the middle, shocked and surprised.”
Parents listen to the letter the kids have composed together. (MPR Photo/Elizabeth Tannen)
The parents’ faces remain blank. One dad drinks a Coke. I had been expecting this to be the most emotional part of the class. Instead, it feels vacant.
In 2008, Hennepin County stopped requiring these classes, citing lack of money to enforce the mandate and a reluctance to intrude on family privacy. Once the classes weren’t required any more, enrollment dwindled and the nonprofits were forced to cancel them.
There’s not a lot of good data on how well these classes work for kids anyway. I wondered if what the kids learned in three hours would stick with them, or was it like passing out paper tents to people in a thunderstorm?
A NEW FAMILY
Over the next three years, I try to follow the kids I met in the divorce class. Nearly all their families have moved, changed phone numbers, or they don’t respond.
The only family that welcomes me back is Lizzy’s. Only now that she’s 12, she goes by “Ellie.”
Ellie’s pretty typical of a divorced kid. Not too many years have passed, but she and her brother Ben have gained a stepmom, a stepbrother, and now, a half-brother who’s a year and half old when I visit.
Ellie and her brothers in their backyard in 2008. (MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian)
It’s a lively household, with a white pet rat named Sugar in a cage in the living room and a big trampoline out back. Two weekends a month and on Tuesday evenings, Ellie and her first brother Ben spend time with their mom.
Ellie seems chipper about life in both households. I ask her what she remembers from the divorce class.
“I remember doing a lot of activities, and the teacher was really funny. He would tell us, ‘It’s all your fault! Just kidding!’” recalled Ellie. “But I remember mostly drawing pictures, and telling the teacher what we think about our parents and how they yell and stuff.”
Ellie said it felt good to meet the other kids at Storefront and talk about their experiences, even if she never saw them again. The class is a positive, if hazy, memory for Ellie.
In that class, Ellie had described divorce as watching a grown-up movie she wasn’t old enough to understand.
She says that movie is still playing in her head, only now with a slightly different cast.
“My stepmom and my dad were actually fighting and I just felt like, is this a rewinding movie? Like did it rewind? I mean it felt exactly how my parents fought.”
FRIENDSHIP AFTER DIVORCE
A year later, I make one last visit so I can interview Ellie’s parents. Ellie’s now 13 and she’s going by “Liz.”
Liz, who went by the nickname Ellie a year earlier, as she looks today. (MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian)
It’s a Sunday morning, and her mother drops by so I can interview her mom, dad and stepmother all together.
Liz stretches out on a couch across the living room and offers her own commentary. The tone is comfortable. Her parents, Jim and Shelly, say they think things are much better for their kids now than they were four years ago when they divorced.
“I knew it would be tough on them, but I also knew it would be tougher if we hadn’t,” said Jim. “So in the end, I think it was better for us to do what we did.”
He and Shelly agree they are better friends now than they were when they were married to each other.
Shelly thinks the children have adapted to the divorce pretty well.
“We did try to keep the kids in mind as much as we could. I know for myself I wasn’t prepared, really, with the reaction, because I probably wasn’t prepared with my own reaction,” said Shelly.
Liz, (second from left) poses between her mom, Shelly, and her dad, Jim. Carrie, her stepmom, is on the far right. (MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian)
Liz’s mom, dad and stepmom say they’re in touch on a daily basis to talk about the kids and to present a united front. Shelly says she’s grateful to Jim’s new wife, Carrie, for doing what’s best for her kids.
Carrie says this friendly cooperation didn’t happen overnight, but came about because everyone kept an open mind and was able to move beyond things that happened in the past.
Liz’s dad concedes there’s pain and sadness that come with a blended family, but there are also more people to love the kids. Liz pipes up from across the room, “That’s probably the best line you’ve said all week.”
Four years on, Liz is growing up inside what’s known today as “a good divorce.” The adults in her life get along and work constructively for the sake of the kids. You can feel the relief in the room.
BETWEEN TWO WORLDS
The 1970s divorce boom did offer some lessons on how to do divorce better. There are still plenty of ugly ones, but there are also more tools to help families. There are Web sites where parents can log on and keep joint calendars. Their kids don’t have to overhear long negotiating phone calls.
Measuring how divorce affects kids has also gotten more refined. Back in the ’70s, the measurements were rather crude — kids of divorce were judged on whether they’d be more likely to drop out of school or do drugs. So kids who didn’t show up in juvenile court or a shrink’s office were probably fine. Weren’t they?
“Just because your parents divorce reasonably well, and you turn out reasonably well, doesn’t mean the divorce wasn’t a big deal,” according to Elizabeth Marquardt, a child of divorce who now directs the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values, a think tank in New York.
Author Elizabeth Marquardt (submitted photo)
Marquardt dug into the subtler effects of divorce on kids. She surveyed 1,500 adults. Half were children of divorce, half grew up in intact families. In 2005, she published “Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce.” Marquardt’s key finding is children of divorce have an entirely different job than kids growing up in intact families.
“In a marriage, it’s the parent’s job first to make sense of their different worlds, their different beliefs and values and ways of living. It’s a hard job. Anybody who’s married will tell you that,” Marquardt explained.
For some parents, the job proves too difficult. They get divorced. But if they have a child, the job of making sense of those differences between their two worlds doesn’t go away.
“It’s handed to the child alone,” said Marquardt. “And this job is passed on with very little recognition or awareness on the part of anybody. So it’s not only a big job, but it’s a very lonely job. Because people don’t even realize that the kid’s having to do it.”
Marquardt found children of divorce coped more alone, where kids in intact families were more likely to turn to a parent for help.
Marquardt’s a tough critic of divorce, she’s not out to end the practice. She’d rather see people do more work on the front-end of marriage—getting into and maintaining good marriages. Like all the experts I talked with, Marquardt is clear there are some very good reasons why some people need to end their marriages.
“Some marriages are just abusive and awful. Thank goodness we have divorce, I support it, I’m glad. I think it’s a safety valve for very bad marriages. But most marriages that end in divorce do not look like that.”
Marquardt cites statistics that two-thirds of divorces end low-conflict marriages like her parents’. The kids might not have known there was much trouble. It’s the “we grew apart” explanation. The question adults always wonder is, which is worse for the kids — getting divorced, or staying in a loveless marriage?
“What do children learn from a loveless marriage?” asks Marquardt. “They learn about commitment, about loyalty, about putting other people’s needs first.”
Marquardt says she’s certainly not advocating for loveless marriages.
“But it’s also the case that marriage doesn’t make us happy every day, no marriage does,” she said. “But your marriage does so much more than serving as a vehicle to meet individual adult needs. It makes one world for your child. Children will tell you that that means everything to them.”
My parents on their wedding day, June 10, 1963 in Seattle, Washington.
A few years ago I was helping my mom clean out her basement. She handed me a box of unlabeled reel-to-reel tapes. She wasn’t sure what was on them. I took them home and discovered that one of them was a recording of my parents’ 1963 wedding ceremony.
It’s pretty overwhelming for a divorced kid to hear your parents taking their wedding vows. Their voices sound so young, and it’s such an idealistic moment.
I decided to make a CD and play it for them as a surprise. They were dating each other again, so it’s not quite as bad an idea as it sounds.
I cued it up on the CD player in my mom’s living room and hit the play button.
Right out of the chute, it’s a disaster. I had underestimated the emotional wallop of hearing this again. It makes my mom cry. My dad starts cracking jokes to help her regain her equilibrium.
My mom’s 19-year-old voice quavers as she takes her vows. My dad teases her, “She was only 11!”
My parents’ marriage blew up at a time in the late ’70s when a lot of families were falling apart.
“Somehow that contract — that sacred contract that we entered into…” my dad teases.
“For me to be a slave?” my mom interjects, then scolds, “Paul, don’t make yourself worse than you were!”
We can laugh about things now. And there were funny parts, like dad telling telemarketers who asked for my mom, “She ran away,” just to see how they’d react.
My brother Joel and I still laugh about our dad’s bad cooking — we had macaroni and cheese for a year straight — and how he stored a canoe in the living room and rebuilt his favorite British motorcycle in our dining room.
It’s harder to acknowledge the pain. Theirs and ours. My mom says she feels badly about what my brother and I went through in the divorce.
“I don’t think so,” said my dad. “I doubt very much if either you or Joel ever went to sleep at night wondering if you had a dad or a mom who loved you.”
I knew my parents loved me. But the divorce still hurt. And I knew I didn’t want to go through it ever again.
When I talked to my friends at book group, we talked a lot about our mothers and the example they set for us. Marriage didn’t look that appealing to me.
I reminded them that it took me 12 years of dating to make it to the altar.
When my friend Amy from book group called to tell me she was getting married, I flat-out asked her, “Why?”
“That was the first word out of your mouth!” remembered Amy.
“I think I didn’t associate it with any upside,” I said. “That must have been it.”
“Yeah,” Amy said softly.
But I eventually did see the upside. I decided to trust the happiness I felt. I booked the church. I even tempted fate and wore my mother’s wedding dress. I was 31. She had been 19. I wanted to be absolutely sure of what I was doing.
Dancing at my wedding in 1999. (Photo/Liz Banfield Photography)
Growing up, I thought I turned out fine after the divorce. I looked good on paper. But inside, I held myself back, afraid of breaking my own kids’ hearts someday.
Each year, about a million kids in America experience their parents’ divorce. The high water mark was set in 1979, but the record didn’t hold for long. America reached the same divorce rate again in 1981. It’s been falling since then, but that probably has more to do with couples deciding not to get married in the first place.
I worked on this program on and off for five years. At first I thought it would be a show about how divorced kids aren’t all messed up.
But the more I read, and the more interviews I did, the more I became convinced that the real story is how deep this stuff cuts. Sure, divorced kids can be successful in life and relationships, but the past stays with us, as a cautionary tale.
Still, I’ve decided, I still believe in love.
Even for divorced kids.
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