Only everything, if you ask a certain class of divorce lawyers. Which the Wall Street Journal did. I’m finding the whole thing infuriating over on Never Say Diet today, and it’s not just because it’s offensive to fat people — and thus, to everyone with a body. To be honest, I’ve been riled up ever since I read Susan Gregory Thomas’s piece in the Sunday New York Times about whether “The Good Divorce” is really all that good for kids. She ultimately concludes that it can be, but along the way she cites research finding “children of divorce score worse in math and social skills, and suffer from lower self-esteem than those from non-divorce households, period.” And if you check out the comments over on Peggy Orenstein’s Motherlode post on the story, it’s clear that plenty of readers are skeptical of the concept as well.
As it just so happens, I come from a Good Divorce — my parents share holidays and vacations, welcomed each other’s new spouses and children to the family, and never, ever fought in front of me or undermined each other’s authority. So confidential to those researchers: I scored 700 on my math SATs. And my social skills and self-esteem are generally through the goddamn roof.
There are exactly three things about me that will tell you I come from a “broken home:” I’m really organized, after 18 years of joint custody. (It’s great to live with both your parents. It is not great to forget half your science homework at the other parent’s house.) I over-worry about where my husband and I will spend the holidays now because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
And I will become irate quite quickly when you try to tell me how much divorce messes with kids’ heads.
I’m not saying that doesn’t happen. For every Good Divorce, there are thousands of terrible, heartbreaking divorces where parents won’t or can’t put their differences aside for the collective family good. But what really messed with my head as a kid wasn’t anything my parents did. (I mean: They made me organized. And considerate of other people’s feelings. Quel horreur!) It was the cultural perception of my family as fractured and dysfunctional. Teachers, friends’ parents, and unsolicited strangers often shook their heads and tsked that my cruel parents made me spend half the week at each of their homes so they could play equally important roles in my life. Everybody assumed I must hate my step-parents or new half-siblings (nope, they’re cool). One school secretary told me it was so sad that I had a hyphenated last name, “because it shows you’re secretly hoping your parents will get back together.” I had a lot of feelings about her.
Fortunately, since my family is pretty kick-*ss, these experiences didn’t leave many lasting scars. I’ve long assumed all that early cultural confusion was a sign of how trailblazing my parents were, since they more or less invented the Good Divorce back in the early 1980s. After all, as Thomas notes in her article, 30 years ago, only three states upheld joint custody arrangements at all — now they all do. I didn’t even know what to call it back then — I’d just have to say, “my parents are divorced — but no, really, they like each other.” We’ve made so much progress, right?
But when I read about trumped up custody battle tactics like “you’re too fat to be a mom,” and shoddy, stereotype-perpetuating research like “divorced kids suck at math,” I realize that the Good Divorce is still depressingly rare. And this traps families in unhappy marriages because there’s a default assumption that anyone getting divorced is screwing up. When in fact, getting divorced is very often an act of great courage — and of love.