I'd like to file an informal complaint about Judith Wallerstein. For those of you who don’t know who Judith Wallerstein is, she has been the preeminent talking head in the US since the 1970s on the effect of divorce on children. And the answer as to why I am filing said complaint will also answer another question recently asked by badmommyla readers: “Where the hell have you been for the last nine months?”
The short reply would be: in the last nine months, I separated from my husband. I have my daughter with me five days per week; he has her for two. We are getting along as well as can possibly be expected, and I mean that literally-- we are kind to one another and we put our daughter first in all our choices and actions. She is doing well, as far as we can tell. Still, as you can imagine, there has been plenty of grist for the bad mommy mill—more reasons to feel bad!
And if you want to feel bad about divorce, Judith Wallerstein would like to help you feel even worse. She speaks with authority, and gets loads of airtime in our popular media. She has credentials and a New York Times Best Seller. This is the case in spite of the fact that her research is seriously flawed. Wallerstein strongly discourages people from considering divorce, except in extreme cases, and she burdens those who have already made the decision to divorce with the following narrative: you have now traumatized your children and condemned them to a lifetime of suffering--trust issues; broken relationships; an inability to commit. And this is where I have a problem with her work and her confidence in the story she tells based on her—let me say it again—flawed research.
I don't doubt that some children of divorce do struggle with the aforementioned issues, but I struggle with those issues and my parents have been married for over forty years. I see many of my clients and friends and family members, whose parents' marriages are intact, struggling with those same issues. And, conversely, I have seen others who, even as the product of divorced parents, somehow maintain satisfying and committed marriages. And yes, my evidence is anecdotal. Still, I can't ignore my own experience and the fact that it highlights the possibility of another story about divorce and the children of divorce.
And that possibility is: there is no predetermined story--no absolute truth--about any of it. The Greek philosopher Epictetus proclaimed that "we are disturbed not by what happens to us but by our thoughts about what happens." In light of this, when I feel myself in a negative emotional state, I stop and ask myself, what story am I telling myself right now? And I find that there always is a story. Sometimes it’s my own story; sometimes it’s Judith Wallerstein’s; sometimes it’s off the news or from the annals of my own family history. “I am ruining my daughter’s life,” for example. “I am traumatizing my daughter.” This is the kind of thought that makes my blood run cold. It makes me feel physically sick.
I am indebted to Byron Katie for her simple, direct process of inquiry, called The Work. Now I know how to find the thought I’m thinking--or the story Judith Wallerstein is spinning--and question it, hard. I take a really good look at it. Is the story--the thought, the belief--true? Can I absolutely know that it's true? No. I can’t. And so, why on earth accept it, especially if it causes me pain and hampers my ability to think straight, and be a good mother? Because the truth--which is both scary and liberating--is that I have no idea how any of this plays out, or ends up, and neither does Judith Wallerstein, or anyone else.
Trauma has been a fact of existence for living things since things started living. Things that don't tell stories about it, like animals and plants, and enlightened masters, recover relatively quickly from trauma. We humans, on the other hand, tell ourselves stories that keep the synapses in our brains firing along the same miserable pathways, reliving the past event and re-traumatizing ourselves long after the source of the trauma has passed. Mental health means stopping that. Continually replaying a tape--in your own head or via listening to a talking head--about how traumatized you and your children are is dangerous.
And yet, it’s challenging to let go of our stories, even our sad ones. Having a story is reassuring. At least then we know what support group to join and exactly how to flagellate ourselves, or who to blame. We know how to explain why we’re so fucked up, or why everyone else is. We can define ourselves as victims, or perpetrators, and have an identity. We humans like having an identity. I know I do, although in this current scenario I find it burdensome and limiting to think I know what’s going on and who I am in relation to it.
If I listen to the scary stories out there, I am the single mother of a traumatized child living in a broken home. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! I could trip on that story for hours. I have tripped on that story for hours, and yet even the most cursory inquiry into it reveals it as fiction, in no uncertain terms. I am not a single mother because my daughter's father is still a daily presence in our lives, and I am surrounded by people who love me and my daughter and want to help. My home is not broken. My daughter's father and I have two homes now, both of which are whole, so long as we believe they are. The bonds of a family are not always visible, but my experience is that they are always intact. Our family is not broken, although it is non-traditional.
If I l believe the thought that I, my home, my family, are broken, I feel awful--hopeless and exhausted—and that’s how I come off to my daughter. When I am able to let go of that thought, and just be open to what is actually happening--a transition, a transformation, a shift from the known to the unknown--I can breathe. I have room to create something new; or to let something new unfold.
If you find yourself in my position, do yourself a favor and watch your thoughts, and be very careful about what you let yourself believe. Question everything you hear, everything anyone tells you, about divorce. What you believe, and how your perceive yourself in the midst of this change is one hundred times more powerful--and more real--than statistics and research and stories concocted by talking heads will ever be.