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November 9, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Everyone knows the pain divorce causes children. Everyone understands how that seismic change can upset everything in a child’s life and result in confusion, self-blame and acting out sometimes for years to come. But our understanding of those things can be abstract; we know, but we don’t feel it on a visceral level. That’s why this article is so important (Upworthy, 11/7/14).

It’s a short memoir of childhood by Brianna Wolfson that was first published in Medium. The funny thing about it is that it’s not about divorce at all. That is, writing about divorce wasn’t Wolfson’s intention and she never mentions the word. No, her intention was to write an apology for her own behavior as a girl. She wanted to purge herself of the guilt for what she did, said, failed to do and failed to say.

And she succeeds. The events she recounts are so well chosen that they almost magically let her readers know just what kind of a child Wolfson was at the time the events occurred and who she is now. She’s someone who wants to atone and, by about the third sentence, my guess is that every person reading her piece has already forgiven her.

Wolfson’s piece is an “if I could do it all over again, I’d do it differently” sort of article in which she recounts again and again little tidbits from her childhood. In so doing, she lets us know that she now understands the error of her ways, which was part of her reason for writing. She’s now an adult and sees that much of what she did was wrong.

But in the process, she accomplishes much more. Her recollections understood in adulthood, open a door on a childhood that was marred by a drug-addicted mother and the divorce her father knew to be necessary. Fortunately, much of the charm of the piece stems from the fact that nothing Wolfson recounts was really serious. But taken together they give us an understanding of a child’s suffering that is altogether more vital than all the studies of children coping with divorce put together.

Much of what Wolfson says is a chronicle of a child caught between her loyalties and forced to choose between parents by an adult world she can’t understand.

If I could do it over, I would love Dad as much as I love Mom. I wouldn’t decide Mom is the better parent because she lets us eat Pixie Sticks for breakfast while Dad yells when I leave my toys in the living room. I would know there is more to love than skipping school and sneaking candy.

I would tell the social worker the truth, even if it meant Mom might not get custody. I wouldn’t lie and say I’m scared Dad might hit me.

I would tell Dad about everything happening at Mom’s. I wouldn’t feel betrayed when I found out he’d been listening in on Mom’s phone calls, searching for clues. I would know Dad could help Mom if I just told him she passed out behind the wheel again.

Yes, she’d have done all those things if she’d only had an adult’s understanding of what was going on, but Wolfson’s refusal to say that very thing – that she wasn’t an adult and couldn’t understand either what was going on or why she acted the way she did – forces her readers to do it for her. With every new revelation, her readers instinctively think “but you were a child, you didn’t understand.” And in that way, she’s forgiven, which is as it should be.

Since there was a divorce, it’s no surprise there was a stepmother. And she of course provided yet another source of conflict in Wolfson’s little soul. As much as Marla tried to love little Brianna, the child was suffering the agonies of losing her family and couldn’t accept what her stepmother had to offer her.

I would hug my soon-to-be stepmother instead of hiding her shoes. I wouldn’t tape a long list of ways to get rid of her to the wall of my tree house. I would appreciate that Marla would cook dinner for me when Mom was in rehab and Dad didn’t know how.

I would tell my mother it isn’t fair for her to demand that I never call Marla “Mom.” I wouldn’t hide my cheek with a pillow when Marla tries to kiss me goodnight. I would know Marla would be the only one listening to me when Mom and Dad were too distracted to parent.

How does a little girl, who bonded with her mother in the first weeks of life, bonded in the most elemental of ways, suddenly replace her mother with another woman she barely knows? She doesn’t. She can’t see that Mom is a drug addict, unable to care properly for her daughter. She can’t understand that her stepmother really was the better parent. Those concepts don’t enter the picture. What matters is the loss. And yes, Wolfson would change her behavior if she could, but of course she can’t. That’s the kicker; children see the world through children’s eyes, experience life as children, suffer as children, not adults. There’s no going back to make things better, to make things right.

If there were, divorce wouldn’t be so bad. Children would deal with it as adults. They’d know that it’s not their fault, that no pain lasts forever, that time heals. But, as Wolfson shows all too clearly, divorce does hurt kids and they show it. And eventually, everyone around them feels their pain.

I would circle ‘yes’ on the ‘will you go out with me?’ note Greg Warren passes to Lana (her stepsister) in Mrs. Iraggi’s fifth class. I wouldn’t start the rumor that Lana smells bad when I hear Greg likes her. I would know that when I have my first break-up at sixteen, Lana will build a roaring fire in our backyard for me to burn all of Marc Flynn’s pictures in.

And of course one of the people to feel the wrath of a child torn by divorce is the child herself. She must make herself suffer.

I would listen to Marla when she tells me gently how to be a better daughter to her and a better sister to Lana. I wouldn’t tell her you’re not my mother or I don’t care about you or your kids. I would know how lucky I am to have her.

I would let Dad console me when he tells me Mom’s drug addiction is what really killed her. I wouldn’t lock myself in my room and cry alone. I would know how good a hug from him would feel.

But she could do none of those things because to do so would have meant she deserved love and a child of divorce often can’t accept that about themselves. So, in the words of Leonard Cohen, “like a beast with his horn, I have torn everyone who reached out to me.”

I would tell Dad, and Marla, and Lana that I love them the second I am ready. I wouldn’t let my pride deprive them of that. I would know that they are the ones lifting me up all this time.

But a child of divorce can’t know that, can’t feel the love that’s given her. She can’t because she’d internalized her own pain. Deep down, she believes she was the author of her parents’ divorce, that had she been a better person, it wouldn’t have happened, her world would never have been rocked and her family would still be together.

Children don’t understand adult things. The divorce that looks to have been one that any adult would say was necessary and right, brought Brianna Wolfson’s world down around her. Her memoir of that time allows us to see, through her need to atone for misdeeds those same adults understand and forgive, how that adult world can scar a child.

It’s one every parent who’s contemplating divorce should read.

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National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

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