EVERY GENERATION HAS its life-defining moments. If you want to find out what it was for a member of the Greatest Generation, you ask, "Where were you on D-Day?" For baby boomers, the questions are "Where were you when Kennedy was shot?" or "What were you doing when Nixon resigned?"
For most of my generation — Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980 — there is only one question: "When did your parents get divorced?"
Our lives have been framed by the answer. Ask us. We remember everything.
When my dad left in the spring of 1981 and moved five states away with his executive assistant and her four kids, the world as I had known it came to an end. My mother, formerly a regal, erudite figure, was transformed into a phantom in a sweaty nightgown and matted hair, howling on the floor of our gray-carpeted playroom. My brother, a sweet, goofy boy, grew into a sad, glowering giant, barricaded in his room with dark graphic novels and computer games.
I spent the rest of middle and high school getting into trouble in suburban Philadelphia: chain-smoking, doing drugs, getting kicked out of schools, spending a good part of my senior year in a psychiatric ward. Whenever I saw my father, which was rarely, per his preference, he grew more and more to embody Darth Vader: a brutal machine encasing raw human guts.
Growing up, my brother and I were often left to our own devices, members of the giant flock of 1970s- and ’80s-era migrant latchkey kids. Our suburb was littered with sad-eyed, bruised nomads who wandered back and forth from used record shops to the sheds behind the train station where they got high and then trudged off, back and forth, from their mothers’ houses during the week to their fathers’ apartments every other weekend.
The divorced parents of a boy I knew in high school installed him in his own apartment because neither wanted him at home. Naturally, we all descended on his place after school — sometimes during school — to drink and do drugs. He was always wasted, no matter what time we arrived. A few years ago, a friend told me that she had learned that he had drunk himself to death by age 30.
WHATEVER HAPPENS, WE’RE never going to get divorced." Over the course of 16 years, I said that often to my husband, especially after our children were born. Apparently, much of my generation feels at least roughly the same way: Divorce rates, which peaked in 1980, are now at their lowest level since 1970. In fact, the often-cited statistic that half of all marriages end in divorce was true only in the 1970s — in other words, our parents’ marriages. My generation is marrying later, often living together. We need to know: Are we best friends, good roommates?
I believed that I had married my best friend as fervently as I believed that I’d never get divorced. No marital scenario, I told myself, could become so bleak as to compel me to embed my children in the torture of a split family. I wasn’t the only one. According to a 2004 study, Generation X "went through its all-important, formative years as one of the least parented, least nurtured generations in U.S. history." Census data show that almost half of us come from split families; 40 percent were latchkey kids.
People my parents’ age say things like, "Of course you’d feel devastated by divorce, honey! But sometimes everyone is happier." Such sentiments bring to mind a set of statistics in Generations, by William Strauss and Neil Howe, that has stuck with me: In 1962, half of all adult women believed that parents in bad marriages should stay together for the children’s sake; by 1980, only one in five felt that way. "Four fifths of [those] divorced adults profess to being happier afterward," the authors write, "but a majority of their children feel otherwise."
But a majority of their children feel otherwise. There is something intolerable about that clause. I can’t help feeling that every divorce, in its way, is a re-enactment of Medea: the wailing, murderously bereft mother; the cold father protecting his pristine new family; the children, dead.
It wasn’t until my daughter was a few months old that it dawned on me that when the pediatricians and child-care books referred to "separation anxiety," they were referring to the baby’s psyche, not mine. It occurred to me that perhaps my own origins had something to do with what a freak show I was. After hearing about my background, a distinguished therapist said to me, "You are a war orphan."
Makes sense. Having grown up without stable homes, we pour everything that we have into giving our children just that. Indeed, Gen X’s quest for perfect nests drove us to take out more home equity loans and spend more on house remodeling, per capita, than any generation before, according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. Marketing surveys reveal that we don’t seek parenting advice from our moms. Instead, says the research, we depend on the people who actually raised us, albeit wolf-pack style: our friends.
To allow our own marriages to end in divorce is to live out our worst childhood fears. More horrifying, it is to inflict the unthinkable on what we most love and want to protect: our children. It is like slashing open our own wounds and turning the knife on our babies. To consider it is unbearable.
MY HUSBAND AND I were as obvious as points on a graph in a Generation X marriage study. We were together for nearly eight years before we got married, and even though statistics show that divorce rates are 48 percent higher for cohabitants, we paid no heed. We also paid no heed to his Catholic parents, who composed one of the rare reassuringly unified couples I’ve ever met, when they warned us that we should wait until we were married to live together. As they put it, being pals and roommates is different from being husband and wife. How bizarrely old-fashioned and sexist! We didn’t need anything so naïve or retro as "marriage." Please. We were best friends.
Sociologists, anthropologists, and other manner of cultural observers tell us that members of Generation X are more emotionally invested in our spouses than previous generations were to theirs. We are best friends; our marriages are genuine partnerships. Hell, yes, we’re helicopter parents. Those of us who survived the wreckage of split families were determined never to inflict such wounds on our children. We knew better. We were doing everything differently, and the fundamental premise was simple: The principle that "kids come first" meant no divorce.
But marriages do dissolve, even among those determined never to let it happen. By the end of my marriage, my husband and I had become wretched, passive-aggressive roommates. I had not washed a dish in a year. My husband had not been able to "find time" to read the book I had written. We rarely spoke, except about logistics. We hadn’t slept in the same room for at least two years, a side effect of the nighttime musical-bed routine that parents of so many young children play in semi-consciousness. Yet I never considered divorce. It never even entered my mind. I was grateful that my babies had a perfect father, for our family meals, for the stability of our home, for neighborhood play dates.
But then, one evening, I found myself where I vowed I’d never be: miserable, in tears, telling my husband that we were like siblings who couldn’t stand each other rather than a couple, and listening as my husband said he felt as though we had never really been a couple and regretted that we hadn’t split up a decade earlier. "I’m done," he said. The awful finality of it roared in like an enormous black cloud blotting out the sky. It was done.
THAT WAS FOUR years ago — and I wonder every day if there was something I, we, could have done differently. I thought I’d made exactly the right choices by doing everything differently from my parents — everything. I had married the kindest, most stable person I’d ever known. I nursed, loved, read to, and lolled about with my babies — restructured and reimagined my career — so that they would be secure, happy, attended to. My husband and I made the happiest, most comfy nest possible. We worked as a team; we loved our kids; we did everything right, better than right. And yet divorce came. In spite of everything, I don’t know what makes a good marriage. I am inclined to think Mark Twain was right when he wrote in an 1894 journal, "No man or woman really knows what perfect love is until they have been married a quarter of a century." But I did know something about divorce, and I wanted — and my former husband wanted — to do it as "well" as possible.
Many of us do. The phrase "friendly divorce" may strike some as an oxymoron, but it is increasingly a trend and a real possibility. Relatively inexpensive and nonadversarial divorce mediation, rather than pricey, contentious litigation, is now more common than ever. Many of us are all too familiar with the brutal court fights of our parents, and we’re not doing it to our kids too. According to a recent study, couples who decide to mediate their divorce are more likely than those who go to court to talk regularly about the children’s needs and problems, to participate in school and special events, daily activities, holidays, and vacations.
We may not make it in marriage, but we still want to make it as parents. In the ’70s, only nine states permitted joint custody. Today, every state has adopted it. It was once typical for dads to recede from family life, or drop out altogether, in the wake of a divorce. But dads are critical in helping kids to develop self-esteem and constructive habits of behavior. A 2009 study published in the journal Child Development found, for example, that teenagers with involved fathers are less likely to engage in risky sexual activities.
Joint custody also reduces familial strife. Couples with such arrangements report less conflict with their former spouses than sole-custody parents do — an important finding, since judges have worried, historically, that joint custody exposes children to ongoing parental fighting. Some divorced couples have even decided to continue living together in different parts of the home, or to "swap out" each week, in order to maintain some measure of stability for their kids.
I have yet to meet the divorced mother or father who feels like a good parent, who professes to feeling happier with how their children are now being raised. Many of us ended up inflicting pain on our children, which we’d done everything to avoid.
But we have not had our parents’ divorces either. We can only hope that in this, we have done it differently in the right way.
From In Spite of Everything, by Susan Gregory Thomas. ©2011 by Susan Gregory Thomas, reprinted by permission of Random House.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why all drugs should be legal. (Yes, even heroin.)
- How to trim $500 from your monthly spending
- Comic-Con 2014: Everything we learned about Avengers 2, Batman v. Superman, and more
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- Are there too many good shows on television?
- 7 ideas from ancient thinkers that will improve your modern life
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- The big, gaping hole in the liberal policy arsenal
- Blame Obama and U.S. evangelicals for the persecution of Iraqi Christians
- The weird obsession that's ruining the GOP
Subscribe to the Week