Friday, May 27, 2011

This Home is Not Broken

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.



  1. This is such a powerful post, Mick. Welcome back. I think that seeing through the stories is absolutely vital. It was something I certainly had to do in order to overcome my own trauma. I can't even begin to describe how liberating it was to discover that it was a fucking STORY I'd been carrying around all those years, and that it was completely within my power to change that story.

    You will teach your beautiful daughter how to create her own stories, about that I have no doubt.

  2. You are a warrior! You are telling me that you have awareness of your stories, and the power to live beyond them. I am sorry for what has been lost for you, and I am thrilled to read that you have that much personal power to be aware that you are not trapped! Yes!

  3. Thanks, Karl. Good to have your voice on here!

  4. Sara Press, like many others, had trouble posting here at blogspot. But her response must be read, so I'm posting it myself:

    Mick, I'm glad to know what is going on with you and to read your fantastic perspective. It sounds like you are doing the best thing and in the healthiest way.
    My parents separated/divorced when I was 5 or 6, and in retrospect it was a great thing for all of us. I've seen it that way since I was a teenager. They too kept it civil and supportive. I feel passionately that watching parents suffer in an unhappy marriage is more traumatic and more damaging to a child than divorce. I got to watch my mom flourish and grow in new directions, I got to spend more quality time with my dad than I would have, and watched him grow from distant into a nurturer, and I eventually ended up with two wonderful step-parents who enriched my life.
    I think your decision to put E first is what is defining this situation as beneficial for her. Meanness, hatred and incivility is damaging to a kid whether a couple is married or split. Mutual respect is a fantastic model whether between married parents, divorced parents, or total strangers.
    At the risk of ranting even longer than your blog post, I'd like to say that in spite of being a child of divorce, I have been able to form many lifelong relationships of all different varieties, including a happy marriage, and these relationships are my highest priority in life. What my parents taught me, by doing what was best for themselves, was not to settle for being unhappy in *any* relationship.

  5. well well well... to ms. wallerstein i say this: my parents stayed together, unhappily, for 25 years, for the sake of the children. the only thing is everyone, including the children, KNEW they were miserable. the message it gave to my brother and me was "endure your pain and don't take action towards changing it and maybe even create martyrdom out of it". they divorced just as i ended college and that was the onset of the 10 most excruciating years of my life, (yes, culminating with 911) partially BECAUSE young children adapt more easily than 20-something year olds, i believe.

    the effect this has had on my relationships is complex and not something that i would at all classify as 'healthy'. but as the very late bloomer mother (as you know) of baby twin boys (at age 41) i can say that i feel incredibly GOOD about the fact that i am NOT married, but partnered with their father, and even if this partnership does not ultimately work out i will always do my very best to live authentically in front of my children -- for the sake of helping them to learn how to make choices that will produce well-being in their lives; even if those choices canNOT be easily classified or categorized or understood.

    on an endnote, i so so so very much appreciate your discussion about trauma and the stories we may tell ourselves to perpetuate it. this resonates deeply with me; and it helps me to clarify the type of work that i want to engage with towards unraveling, as well as letting go of, some of these stories.

    thank you dear friend for sharing this beautiful nugget of insight.

  6. Thank you, Steph, for reading and, especially, responding.

  7. As a child of divorce, my mother and aunt were involved in similar abusive relationships with alcoholics while I was growing up.  My mother was strong enough to divorce my dad when I was 4-5 years old.  Unfortunately, my aunt stayed married "for the kids".  My mother IS a strong single-mother who worked hard and raised 2 children to adulthood without a dime of assistance.  My cousin and sister both get their feminine independence from my wonderful mother.  There is one difference, my cousin harbors a deep resentful hatred towards her own mother.  Nothing against my uncle, but she hates that her mother was not happy for all those years and did nothing to change that for herself.  Children will not appreciate any sacrifices made FOR them if the home environment is filled with tension, stress, and feelings that are not genuine.  What is best "for the children" is to provide a home with genuine feelings of love and happiness.  If divorce occurs, it CAN teach them independence, strength, and self-confidence; but I have always followed 4 simple truths: water's wet, the sky is blue, babies WILL cry, and I LOVE MY WIFE!  I am happily married with 2 beautiful girls, and I would do nothing to stifle that inner warrior princess in any of them.

  8. Paul Rossi wrote in to say:

    My mother is a committed "defender of marriage at all costs", and I've got all sorts of problems so what does that tell you? It's a racket that sells books and adds garnish to people's bitter lives. At least we're sacrificing! It's for the children!!!

  9. Mary Trunk wrote this:

    Hey thanks, Mick. I love your work. Already read it on FB so I'll spread the word. I must admit I did not fully read the Judith book but it came out (or the one I know about) when I was making my film "The Watershed" about my parents' horrible divorce. I got the feeling that her thesis was not that people shouldn't divorce but that they often forget all about parenting and that's where the damage and pain comes in (my family exactly). I saw her on a talk show and the host kept trying to get her to admit that divorce is a bad thing and she just wouldn't. (I'm now wondering if it's the same Judith!) Anyway, I do agree with that idea. Some couples just can't be together and some are still good parents despite the break-up. And I totally agree that there are so many factors in our lives outside of divorce/break-ups that shape our personalities. I know for a fact that I'd still be the same fucked up person I am even if my parents stayed together! One last thing, I've noticed that some kids whose parents break-up just can't understand or even wrap their head around the idea that they can love two people who no longer love each other. I have a nephew who even now more than five years after the divorce of his parents and his dad's remarriage, still wants his parents to get back together. Very interesting topic, for sure. My guess is that you are a great mother - reflective, aware and willing to learn from mistakes. I could use a lesson or two from you. Thanks, M

  10. Don't even get me started!!! Such an important article you have written. LOVE that you wrote this

  11. Kristina Robbins wrote in to say this:

    Happily married child of divorce here. Struggling through my own stories, sure, but not because my parents got divorced. Life is way too complex to identify the bogeyman of anyone's personal suffering to one cause. On the other hand, the greatest source of strength we have is our ability to become ever more present, aware and awake. When a parent can model that for a child we build in them the resilience to deal with whatever inevitable traumas they face. So good on you Mick for tackling this storytelling monster of certain doom post divorce. Your awareness is the greatest gift a mother can give. We can't shield our children from trauma but we can prepare them to handle it. Great post.