MANY AFTERNOONS during even-numbered months when he lives with his mother, Anthony, a quiet 10-year-old,, plays Dungeons and Dragons at our house. On afternoons during odd-numbered months, he stays at his father's house.
One recent February afternoon, Anthony looked drawn and was more quiet than usual. When pressed, he admitted to having a dilemma. His mother and father, who are divorced but are by his description "still friends," had told him it was his decision whether he spent the summer with his mother and her research group in the Southwest or stayed in the city with his father and dived for the swim team.
"The thing is," said Anthony, rolling a handful of dice, "I've worked hard on my diving. On the other hand, I've never been to the desert." He steadied the dice for a moment. "And no matter how much they tell me it doesn't matter what I decide, I'll hurt the other one. Then they'll start fighting again and act funny to me for a while."
Children traditionally have been the battleground for divorcing couples. As society grows more familiar with divorce and the marriage failure rate hovers just under the one-in-two mark, it has not necessarily followed that society has grown more adept at handling the attending problems. Even in this day of enlightened divorce, when partners separate amicably enough to continue to share the weekend cabin and the Cuisinart, the undercurrent of acrimony such as Anthony felt prevails.
When my parents divorced 25 years ago, no sugar coating covered the bitterness of that event. My mother never told my younger brother and me (neither did our father, but a man of his era wouldn't have been expected to) that she and my father were splitting because they were not "right" together or that they just could not develop their potential to the utmost while under the same roof.
My mother also never told us, although she did not know as we do today that double binds are the stuff schizophrenia is made of, that out father was a kind, honest, good man, just not good for her, and we were to continue to look at him in that light, even if she didn't.
It was the unspoken, naked truth that they ended their 25-year marriage because they simply couldn't stand it any longer.
At times, I look at Anthony with his month here and the next there, and see his body cut into wedges, like so many pieces of holiday pie. He and other children of modern divorce appear to have been divided nearly and judiciously along with the other goods and chattels. But I would be less than honest if I did not admit to fueling at least part of my outrage with old-fashioned envy.
My parents were the only pair in either of their families or among their acquaintances in our Illinois town to voluntarily put an end to a marriage. It was not so much "a scandal," for they weren't that kind, as "a shame." For me there existed no casual inquiries into my family situation with easy acceptance of that situation. "Oh, your parents divorced?" I've heard my boys ask a new kid. "Let's toss a football."
While my friends and their parents were too nice and probably too sophisticated and modern to ostracize me for my unconventional family arrangement, they and I, and my parents, too, felt awkward. Fourteen years old and socially self-conscious, I grew sensitive to rooms hushing when I entered, long, sad looks and too many invitations to my friends' houses for dinner.
No custody battle was waged when my parents split. Nor was there a 10-page guide to how and where and with whom my brother and I would spend New Year's, St. Patrick's Day, Groundhog Day or our birthdays. Of course we lived with our mother -- she was neither insane nor a criminal -- and our father had visiting privileges, but I never knew when they were and after a while I doubt if he did either.
I recall the incident soon after my parents' separation which pretty well set the tone for things to come. I was making a cake and, because my young sense of fair play was in bloom, I decided to divide the batter in two so that my mother, brother and I could have one for our house and my father could have one for his. My mother's unexpected fury when whe saw what I was doing prevented me from ever making such a gesture again. She was telling me, although she did not use words, that I was going to have to choose between my father and her, and, because I was living in what soon legally would be her house, it had better be her.
I did see my father over the years, but infrequently, and we were never easy together. In the first few years, he became conscientious about remembering my birthday, something he had previously left to my mother. He gave me small pieces of good jewelry which later I lost in the post-adolescent confusion of college, travel and starting a career.
Several years after his early and sad death, I wrote a magazine article about family therapy and learned about what the head people call "cutoffs," meaning losing touch with a relative. Cutoffs, to a family therapist's thinking, can make a person sick in body or mind. I think my father's life would have been prolonged had we kept more in touch. At least that's what I like to think.
Feeling this, I still question whether the gray world lived by the issue of today's civilized divorces is any healthier than the black-and-white world I lived in. Many recently divorced parents I talked to said proudly they regularly get together with their ex-spouses on holidays and birthdays "so the children will know we still love them and we are a family even if we all don't live together."
One divorced couple became such good friends after the decree that they dined together with their children on special occasions, played tennis together and once took a vacation en famille . Eventually, they stopped being quite so palsy after their kids made elaborate excuses to throw them together and became giggly from expectation.
About a year ago I attended a divorced friend's wedding and was stunned to see her ex-husband and his housemate walk into the reception. "Good God, what are Roger and his girl friend doing here," I asked the bride when I got the chance. "I invited him," she answered, jerking her head toward the man she had summarily criticized for two years leading up to the separation. "And I like his girl friend. We're just one big extended family now. It's for the kids, of course."
One Washington friend who shares my views on the perniciousness of such politeness also gets together with her former husband and grown children for holiday meals.
"My husband and I claim we do it for the kids. But frankly, I think it's bad for the kids. We aren't fond of each other. In a way we are participating in the fantasy young children have of getting their parents back together."
A former high school friend with whom I keep in touch admits (out of her child's hearing) despising her former husband. Yet, for the sake of their 10-year-old son, she remains so chummy with her ex, plus his new wife and their baby, that she regularly babysits for them. In the event of the ex's and his wife's death, she would become their child's legal guardian. Was mankind, as we know it in this culture, meant to be so civilized?
The question remains: How to make the best of a bad situation? To this day I an not comfortable mentioning my father to my mother. Still, I'm grateful my parents did not put me through the same emotional figure eights I see Anthony and other children of divorced parents go through today.
According to Washington child psychiatrist Edward Weiss, even the most fair-minded, best-intentioned divorced parent, consciously or unconsciously, asks his child over and again to select a favorite parent. The asking isn't always as overt as my mother's reaction to the separate but equal cakes or Anthony's choices for spending a summer. But subtler forms, such as glowing overly when the child says the hamburgers are bigger at your house, can communicate the same message.
Perversely, I suspect the friendlier the divorce the greater the risk of flooding the children with mixed messages which most will spend a lifetime sorting out. Sensitive creatures that they are, children feel the diffuse tension and anger behind their parent's good manners.
And children, in their consuming self-centeredness, often assume their parents' anger is directed toward them, and think if they had only kept their rooms cleaner or gotten better grades their parents would have never broken up.
As reluctant social pioneers, my mother and father handled their divorce without much finesse. But it has had its advantages. I don't remember one moment thinking I caused their marriage to sour or that their anger had much to do with me. Of course I've had my own emotional figure eights. For the first 10 years, my allegiance to my mother was complete and I blamed my father for the failure. The next 10 years I spent assigning fault to my mother.
Yet I admire today's divorced parents -- their civility, their care, their struggle for fairness. A familiar feature of school events at which parents are invited to beam approval as children perform are the divorced parents who both attend. They usually sit on opposite sides of the room, their backs straight, their chins high and their eyes fixed straight ahead lest they catch sight of one another.
I'm moved by their effort and commitment. I think I'll always be envious. I remind myself that my parents also worked hard. But their effort was before they split. And, probably, that's the way it should be.