There probably is no more difficult group of people to interview than children, who seem to land on earth with a gift for brief, guarded answers, particularly to personal questions. This is what made photographer Jill Krementz's books on how children feel about being adopted and about the death of a parent remarkable journalistic achievements that allow parents to penetrate the minds of children in ways they might never be able to do otherwise.
Krementz's latest book in this series takes on divorce, a subject many parents find difficult to discuss with their children. "How It Feels When Parents Divorce" is a beautifully photographed volume containing 19 interviews with children ages 7 to 16 who have gone through a wide variety of experiences, ranging from abduction by noncustodial parents to cordial joint custody.
Each child's circumstance is different: some moved around a lot following the separation, many had parents who fought bitterly before and after, some have parents who have remarried and they have had to adjust to stepparents and the births of half brothers and sisters. The children speak frankly about their reactions to this sea change in their lives, and what they say offers valuable insights to parents on how to go about divorce with the least possible damage to their children.
Roberta, age 14, was 5 or 6 when her parents divorced. Her parents live in the same neighborhood and "are friendly and polite to each other." She and her brother, Alex, spend one week at their mother's home, and the next at their father's. When the children were younger, the parents moved in and out of the family home each week. "We lived like this for a year or two, and, looking back, I think it made my brother and me feel very secure. I mean, they made it as easy as possible for us kids and I'm grateful to them for doing that.
"The other thing that's made it easy for us is that they've never made us deliver messages back and forth. Neither of them has ever asked us to tell anything to the other parent unless it had to do with an appointment or something like that. It's possible I love them even more because of the divorce and the way they've worked things out without hurting Alex and me."
Contrast this with the experience of Nancy, 15, who was 10 when her parents moved into separate bedrooms. "They were arguing so much that I kind of wanted them to get it over with as long as we could all be happy, and I figured we'd all be happier if they were apart. In fact, everything was fine for a while -- until they started involving me, and then it was terrible. My mother would say, 'Go tell your father this or that,' and then he'd give me some message to give to her, and it seemed like they were putting all their problems . . . on me.
"I think that if parents are going to divorce and not scar their children for life, they should keep them out of what's going on as much as possible . . . . One of the reasons I may have bad feelings now toward my mother is that I feel she tried to turn me against my father." Her parents, she says, "were only using me. It got to the point where I was so unhappy I couldn't study."
Tracy, age 16, the youngest of six children when her parents divorced, sees her father about once a year. "I always feel that I have to be on my best behavior . . . . Sometimes he tries to manipulate me by making me feel guilty about always siding with my Mom . . . . The other thing he'll do that will hurt feelings is he'll say something like 'you're just like your mother' when he's being negative."
For the first few years, she says, the divorce made her physically and emotionally ill. She lost two months of school because of stomach problems her doctor blamed on tension. Both parents have remarried, but Tracy eloquently voices a complaint shared by other children: "The worst thing by far about my parents' divorce is that it's still going on. I mean, my parents don't talk. If they have to talk, it's like screaming . . . . I think that the fighting will never stop."
Some of the parents of the children interviewed were clearly thoughtless; others buried the hatchet and concentrated their energies on giving their children two nourishing homes, either alone or with new partners and children. As diverse as the children's experiences were, most shared common threads of loss, disorientation, sadness and hope that their parents would reunite. Their stories speak volumes to the point that how children feel when parents divorce depends very much on how the parents behave.