This story originally appeared on Role Reboot.
Unhappily partnered parents: Please don’t stay together “for the kids.”
I’m not married and I’m not a parent. Granted, should I eventually be married and have children with that partner and be contemplating separation, I may feel differently. I may feel, at that time, that making the relationship work, or appear to work, is vitally important to my child or children.
I’m writing this from the perspective of a “child of divorce.” In other words, I’m an expert on “the kids” whom some couples stay together for.
The day my parents split up, 17 years ago, I wrote in my diary about how happy I was, how relieved I was, that it was over. Unlike some kids my age, I was not surprised. My mom and dad never had to take me aside and explain it, about how they loved me but Dad was moving out. I was never shielded from the arguing and yelling. I was there, in the thick of it, the whole time.
At age 10, I was already reflecting on the fact that some of my earliest, definitive memories were of my parents fighting.
Sure, going from a two-parent household to a single-parent household was turbulent in many ways, not least of all financially. I recall the possibility that we were going to have to move out of our surburan house, with a wonderful huge back yard and a view of the bay, into an apartment or my grandmother’s basement. We had just moved to this community two years before, so I had just recently changed schools. I was terrified of what moving again would mean. I didn’t want my life to change.
Yet, I accepted and welcomed the separation and, eventually, the divorce.
I’m writing this because even with divorce as prevalent as it is, and single parents and nontraditional families increasingly accepted, I still come across this attitude that the worst thing that can happen to a kid is their parents divorcing. That the absence of a two-parent household — usually constructed as consisting of one (cisgender, straight) man and one (cisgender, straight) woman — will mess up the kid.
“He needs a male role model.”
“A child needs a mother.”
“Kids need two parents.”
But in a couple of big ways, my life actually improved through experiencing my parents’ divorce:
I have informed and realistic expectations about romance, relationships and marriage.
Yeah, I’m sure it sounds like I grew up too fast and had a crappy childhood, but my parents’ divorce taught me a lot of useful lessons.
They married pretty young, and my dad was my mom’s first boyfriend. If the whole high-school sweetheart thing worked for you, great, but it didn’t for them. So I learned that you 1) don’t “settle down” with your first partner and 2) don’t rush to get married at 19 (as my mom did). Sure, the 1970s were a different time, but seeing, up close, a poorly matched marriage not work out taught me something about self-reliance.
I admit, when I was younger I often felt deeply cynical about marriage. Now, with a long-term partner whom I could conceivably marry someday, I am much more optimistic that, for many, it’s a wonderful thing. Still, my lifelong engagement with my parents’ break-up has led me not to valorize marriage as more than it is and, thus, not to condemn divorce.
I have a deeper appreciation of my parents as people.
When my parents separated, my mother had a full-time job, an at-home “second shift” of cleaning, cooking and child care, and a 10-year-old (me) and a 4-year-old (my brother) with autism. There was nothing easy about doing it alone.
But when I was 12, she started dating again. I began to see and value my mother as more than just my mom.
As I experienced my parents’ new relationships over the years, including my mother’s remarriage three years ago and my father’s current long-term relationship, I increasingly came to value my parents as much more than parents, but as people — with needs, desires, regrets and dreams. Understanding them as people first and parents second only served to reinforce my support of their decision to separate, and I couldn’t be happier for their new relationships.
On a more lighthearted note — I now have four parents. And that’s awesome.
You may think you’re doing your kids a favor by keeping the family together. The words that surround divorce — such as “broken home” — reinforce an idea of single parenting or, more appropriately in some cases, separate parenting, as a terrible social ill that will hurt the children. I can say from experience it’s much more poisonous to exist in a home with constant tension, fighting and unhappiness.
Or even if the conflict is suppressed or hidden, do you want to teach your kid that marriage, as an institution, is more important than love, happiness and true cooperation?
Trust me, kids can survive divorce. I did. And I think I turned out alright.