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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

September 30, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

We talk a lot about divorce. The papers are full of divorce and separation news and scandal. Mentally, and sometimes physically, parents, judges, mental health professionals and commenters move children around like pieces on a chess board. Often the kids are too young to offer an opinion about what’s going on, so no one asks them. Legally, before a certain age, they’ve got no say, and the assumption is to “let the adults handle this.”

So, although child custody cases are invariably decided based on “the best interests of the child,” often the child is left out of the process, deemed to be some interchangeable part to which a child custody formula can be applied and his/her “best interests” miraculously served. The child plays the curious role of the voiceless star of a drama that is vitally important to him/her.

So it’s nice that the BBC gave children of divorce a voice in its documentary on the effects of divorce on children. Here’s an article on it (Daily Mail, 9/4/13). It’s been said many times before that often adults are too self-absorbed to notice how their behavior affects their kids. For decades now divorce has become such an unquestioned part of life that parents leap too quickly to that “solution” to family problems. The very term “no fault divorce” says more than it was ever meant to, strongly suggesting “no harm, no foul,” that everyone walks away unscathed.

But of course, for the most part no one avoids injury in divorce and that’s never more true than when it comes to the kids.

I can still recall the sight of my boy dissolving, sobbing, still not believing that his parents would no longer live together.

I remember the message he recorded on his little cassette player, how he begged his dad to come back…

The children in this documentary seemed like castaways, hungry and thirsty, dying to speak to someone about what happened to them and ask their parents questions still left unanswered…

Although Edward remembers nothing of the family unit that existed so briefly, nevertheless he is acutely aware of the gaping hole in his life left behind by his father's departure.

Touchingly, he is passionate on the subject of the importance of fathers: 'You need a dad, an actual figure in the chain of life,' he insists.

Growing up without a father made him angry and self-destructive, he says. He acted up in school, turned to crime, nearly wrecked his future. He always knew when he was in serious trouble, because his dad showed up. 'Crisis fatherhood', let's call it, can't have been much use.

At least in Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s retelling of the documentary, the parents who break up their families seem to be at best imperfectly aware of just what they’re doing to their children. They seem to split up for some pretty weak reasons. They seem not to notice that, when a child is 15 or 16, just a few more years – not long in an adult’s life – would be enough to see the child safely out of the nest.

…like Tasha, I will not forget the day, 23 years ago, when my ex-husband announced he was leaving me and our ten-year-old son.

Her mother Julia describes how she and Glen fell in love and settled down to family life. Then one day he suddenly upped and left…

Now an attractive young girl of 14, [Natasha] was nine when her mother, Sue, whisked her away from her dad, Terry, a building site manager, without explanation.

The documentary is full of parents just “up and leaving,” which is rarely how it is. Parents may be too casual about marriage and divorce, but they seldom simply wake up one day in a foul temper and decide to divorce and let the child suffer. That said, the “upped and left” take on things is probably an accurate representation of how divorce seems to children. One day things are fine (whatever conflict exists in the household is just normal life to the child) and the next day, it’s chaos and heartache.

So, since the BBC program is about children and their response to divorce, I think that’s a fair way to approach how the announcement is handled by the parents and how it seems to the children. And of course it’s vitally important to give children a voice, to let everyone know just how divorce affects them. A million studies, almost all of which show the emotional, psychological, educational damage to children, can never replace the voices of children of divorce. Divorce hurts children. Adults with kids should divorce only as a last resort. We should teach people from an early age that, if you choose to have children, you place an enormous extra burden on yourself to remain married or partnered with the other parent. You really must do that for the children.

Predictably, the documentary so wants to blame adults for being careless about the impact of divorce on children, it neglects to mention any of the many incentives our system gives to parents (particularly mothers) to divorce. In so doing, it misplaces blame. I’ve been researching and studying child custody matters since 1998, and I don’t remember a single instance in which a parent was truly cavalier about the prospect of divorce. A few probably were, but it’s very, very far from the rule. Overwhelmingly, the reason people divorce (and therefore the reason they harm children), is because so much in our culture and legal system encourages it.

The BBC documentary and the Daily Mail article on it want to keep it a secret, but the parents filing for divorce are usually women. Some 70% of divorces are filed by women and researchers Margaret Brinig and Douglas Allen tell us why. According to Brinig, the “variable that swamped all others” is the fact that mothers know they won’t lose custody of their children if they divorce. Given the fact that they’ll keep a complete relationship with the children, mothers see little downside to splitting up their family. That, plus the fact that they’ll receive child support and alimony, mean there’s little reason to remain with a husband with whom they’re even a bit dissatisfied.

Of course they might want to consult the BBC documentary and learn what their decision does to their kids, but I suspect they already know. Whatever the case, the documentary is at pains to obscure just who it is who’s damaging all those children. The article recounts nine sets of parents who split up; in three, it was the father who left, in four it’s impossible to tell and in two, it was the mother. But in one of those in which the mother left, she did so “rightly” because the father was a drunk and an abuser.

In short, those examples of parental splits utterly misrepresent the facts of the matter. It’s not callous, immature fathers who “up and leave” children, it’s mothers who know that they – but not their kids – will come through the divorce relatively unscathed.

It’s fine to bring the public face to face with the anguish of the children of divorce. But to pretend that it’s mostly uncaring fathers who cause that pain is just flat wrong. And to ignore why mothers ditch their husbands just ensures that the heartbreak will go on. There are reasons why this is happening and one of the big ones is the set of incentives the legal system offers mothers to walk away. Another is a popular culture that has long cared more about adults’ freedom than about children’s well-being.

Laws encouraging equal parenting post-divorce would go a long way toward ending the increasingly dysfunctional state of what we once called our families.

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