Perfecting divorce, part 3: A new familyby Sasha Aslanian, Minnesota Public Radio
Bloomington, Minn. — 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.
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 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."
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'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.
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 also found children of divorce coped more alone, where kids in intact families were more likely to turn to a parent for help.
A lot of Marquardt's work challenges the concept of the good divorce -- the idea that it's not divorce that hurts kids, it's how parents divorce.
Marquardt doesn't buy it. Her parents were a great example. They didn't fight and cooperated well in her custody. But she says she still had to manage those separate worlds on her own.
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."