JILL KREMENTZ interviewed and photographed 19 children for her fascinating new book, How It Feels When Parents Divorce. They look just like normal kids. They're clean and well fed with just a hint of punk or trace of prep here or there -- a bit too thoughtful looking, maybe. But their soft smiles and straightforward gazes belie the one thing they all have in common: they were changed forever when their parents divorced.
These kids represent every extreme of parental mismarriage. We are presented with the angelic looking victims of screaming, crying mothers and fathers, children who've seen their parents assault each other and call the police on each other. There are parents who kidnap children, fathers who promise to write once a month but don't, mothers who promise to visit but don't.
It's scarcely surprising that these children feel hurt and betrayed. But so do the survivors of the most genteel and civilized marital breakups. Seven- year-old Caleb has parents who were sensitive and tactful when their marriage fell apart. When they first separated, Caleb's father moved next door, and Caleb saw him every day. When Caleb was 5, though, his father decided to move to Chicago, and, as Caleb told Krementz, "I started crying then and there, and ever since then I've been hoping every single second that he'd move back to New York and we'd all live together again. I don't cry much any more because I hold it back, but I feel sad all the time."
These children have a lot of other things in common: They like joint custody arrangements, but they find the weekly or monthly moving days an ordeal. With a few exceptions, they were surprised by the news that their parents were divorcing, and they'd like them back together again. They're all envious of children from two-parent homes and most of them hate the idea of their parents remarrying and producing more children, further diminishing the sliver of pie they're getting.
Here's what they all hate: Listening to their parents fight ("Don't sit there and listen," advises 16- year-old Nelson. "Leave! Go to a different room or leave the house altogether. Go anywhere.") They also despise acting as go-betweens for feuding parents; broken promises; and switching houses or apartments to share time with both parents. But they're also generous, affectionate toward siblings, grateful for sports programs and good schools that give them a structure their home lives sometimes lack. They also all love their parents, and in a poignant reversal of roles are compassionate and sympathetic to their feelings; the children worry about their parents' futures and feel responsible for the families' well-being.
"Now that I'm older, I do think it would be good for my mother to find someone," reports Corinne who is 16. "I mean I feel sorry for her, because I'm always going out on week-ends and she hardly ever goes out."
How It Feels When Parents Divorce represents a third wave in the recent popular wisdom about children and divorce. The first was that when parents are happy, kids are happy, and if mother and father had to live apart to thrive, well, so be it; surely the kids would be better off. The second wave, which superseded this sunny view, was exemplified by Linda Bird Francke's wrenching Growing Up Divorced, which showed the temporary or permanent suffering that divorce inevitably caused. Here we have the third wave, proof -- in the children's own words -- that they suffer, but proof also of how individual their pain is. These children have managed to grow up well, a little faster or tougher than they might have otherwise, but to thrive nonetheless, depending on the extent to which they've been told the ruth or lied to, protected, dismissed, or manipulated. Most of them are even optimistic about their own future marriages.
But as 8-year-old Lulu, whose parents divorced when she was a baby, put it, "I suppose they needed a divorce to be happy, but there are times when I think it was stupid and unfair and mean to me." So do all the other kids in this book. And children and parents who read How It Feels When Parents Divorce will find kindred spirits here.