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The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce

Judith S. Wallerstein
The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study
(Hyperion, 2000)

At a 25th wedding anniversary party last summer, I sat next to Katha Pollitt and found myself defending her divorce. Pollitt, a smart, volatile columnist for The Nation, had just read The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, the latest installment of Judith Wallerstein’s study of children whose parents split up in the 70s, but had not yet written her damning critiques of it. Though I hadn’t seen the book yet, I had been drawn to news stories citing its alarming reports: members of my peer group seem to marry more slowly, and to divorce faster, than kids from what she calls homes, trends she links to a particular fascination with marriage. She concludes that many of these children would have been better served by parents who remained in unhappy marriages.

Pollitt said she bristled at Wallerstein’s suggestion that divorce was necessarily harmful to children. Then she added that her political reaction was linked to a personal one. “I resist the notion that she’s right, that I did the wrong thing, that I hurt Sophie.” Feeling awkwardly obliged to testify that both Sophies—her daughter and I, who coincidentally share a name—were fine, I said that while I hadn’t enjoyed my parents divorce, I would probably be sorrier now if they had stayed in a bad marriage for my sake. I wasn’t lying, but my feelings were tugging at my politics, too. That Wallerstein was an enemy of Pollitt’s suggested that I probably wouldn’t like her politics; on the other hand, that she opposed my parents’ decision to divorce made me curious what she had to say.

I was six when my parents separated, and would certainly have preferred that my mother stay and live perhaps less-than-happily ever after with my father. Instead, she and I moved in with her mother, and then, several years later, to my new stepfather’s. Wallerstein guesses my rarely-told secret: sometimes I still wish that my parents would get back together, to take each other off my hands and consolidate my holidays. That childish daydream of reconstructing my nuclear family shows willful blindness (would I go back to an ex?); destructiveness (what do we do with my stepfamily?); and frighteningly antifeminist politics (would I really want to ground my mother’s ambitions).

For those with different demons—hating their own intact nuclear families, coming of age in a way that makes family seem irrelevant, being kidnapped by aliens)—or no acknowledged demons, or just no interest in meeting mine, Wallerstein appears either bothersome or irrelevant. “Just deal with it,” said one realist. A kinder friend elaborated: “I feel like she’s saying kids whose parents get divorced are more special, or something.” Aye, and I’m a sucker for that.

When I finally got a copy of the book, I disliked the writing, which is full of uncomfortable prose and careless thought, demonstrated in copy problems such as “the worried sick,” and absurd recreated dialogue like “Doctor, you’re crying!” I disliked the parts of it that weren’t about me, skimming and skipping chapter on abuse, court–ordered visiting, and loss of educational opportunity, to reach the good parts—descriptions of the slights I hold grudges for: decreased coddling and disruptive travel, with attendant emotional and social wretchedness.

I wallowed. It was laughably comforting to hear that others had been through the same mill. (Aren’t there better ways? Don’t I have friends for this?) Many of Wallerstein’s kids got less attention and wondered when things would go back to normal, until the arrival of stepparents made things clear. As adults spoke very little about their parents’ interaction, having mourned—in relative isolation—a loss that seems to occur “because of the parent’s failure. Parents may see it otherwise…but a child sees failure.” She makes sense of commonplace details like my irrational displeasure over the eventual sale of my childhood home to the aunt and uncle whose anniversary we celebrated last summer. “The family home is a symbol for both children of divorce and children raised in intact families.” In the case of a split, it’s “a symbol of what’s been lost.” Ha! How totally obvious! But it got me.

Even through my ego-massaged haze, the book’s problems were clear. Wallerstein and her researchers collect data from a Marin County sample—approximately two-thirds of her original group—in interviews her kind critics call “anthropological.” She concludes, from the correlation of divorce with unhappiness, that divorce causes unhappiness, when it could be the other way around—she herself used to argue that most of her subjects were unstable before their marital troubles. But her juicy composite stories pull you in. Responsible Karen is her mother’s only support. Lonely Paula lies on the floor outside the bathroom, where her mother has locked herself to study, and listens to textbook pages turn. Vulnerable Billy loses his mother’s attention to an affectionate new husband. Fathers make occasional cameo appearances.

Wallerstein’s stories hit a nerve in the growing demographic she studies. The book got a lot of first person reviews, ad a sharp rebuke for its “social pseudoscience” from Pollitt, who became its most visible opponent, fighting Wallerstein up and down the media in Time, Salon, and The Nation. One reader described  The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce as a “book designed for purposes other than reading,” and it did carry on purposefully, sparking and influencing debate, reminding readers of conflicts of interest between parents’ personal growth and their responsibility for childcare, suggesting that mothers belong at home whether they like it or not, and striking blows—every time its findings were cited—for a hollow-eyed Stepford motherhood that I would be loathe to inherit.

Nevertheless, because I think that my parents, like Pollitt, wouldn’t enjoy it, I cannot resist the stern tone Wallerstein takes in a practical concluding section addressed to divorced parents. Her oft-quoted “I think you should seriously consider staying together for the sake of the children, giving them extra support…This means you won’t have time to look for the new lover you may have dreamed about or to begin a new marriage right away…Your children may well be more demanding, more symptomatic, angrier, and harder to handle than ever before.” It’s a satisfying reversal to hear her punish parents with their own best weapon, suffocating, I’m-going-to-speak-slowly-and-clearly guilt-ramming, it’s-your-choice-so-do-what’s right logic that stifles children so much.

Her much more solicitous advice to kids includes “Some people find that it helps to sit down and talk candidly to their parents. You may not believe or like the answers.” I had already begun to ask my mother about the divorce. From a few tooth-pulling sessions over the last few years, I understood that she had pressed for the marriage—a little post-college rebellion was no match for sixteen years of nuns—and that eight years later, when she was crying at the dinner table and he was asking to spend some time apart, she had pressed for divorce. I believe that story, and, imagining some less pleasant scenarios, sometimes I like it.

When I asked most recently, she said “Haven’t we been over this?” And then she said, among other things, that she still wonders about her decision to leave. Though I was probably projecting incredulity that she ever considered her parallel lives, and guilt for stirring trouble, I tried some disingenuous parent-protecting—like what I’d said to Pollitt. “No, Mom, you were wise to go.”

But I remain concerned with her judgment, and mine. Wallerstein, noting her subjects’ intense interest in marriage, adds that it comes with a lack of know-how. Stephanie Staal, the young author of a book of interviews with children of divorce in their 20s and 30s called The Love They Lost, offers one terribly deadpan description of a second generation divorcee as duly enlightened by the downfall of her marriage: “In the process of having her worst fear come true, Emily mastered some important skills.” While I’d love to master them beforehand, if I don’t, I expect I’ll feel entitled to divorce.

Describing the pathos she nurtures, Wallerstein writes, “Some children have loving, attentive grandparents, family friends, and neighbors who are happy to spend time with them because they are so appealing. Others sit alone and brood because they are not as outgoing and pleasant.” Later they become writers. A few years ago I found an essay I’d done in grade school on the divorce, one that had seemed when I wrote it to really get to the root of my sorrow, and one it surely helped me to write. It was melodramatic dreck, in the distinctive round and puffy handwriting of the age, and it left me unsure of my memory, and of the stories I tell. Did my mother and I pull out of the driveway in a VW Bug? More likely a Toyota Tercel. Did my father cry? I doubt it. Will I hate this piece later? Yes.


Sophie Fels


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