Opinion | A ‘Broken Home’ Didn’t Break Me, or My Kids

At the time my first husband and I parted — 1989, in our 30s, after 12 years of marriage — a hugely popular book about the negative impact of divorce on children was going the rounds on the talk show circuit. Its author — a psychologist who’d conducted a study on the children of divorced couples from Marin County, Calif. — suggested that for children whose parents split up, the damage could endure for decades. No terror I could have imagined at the time held more power than the psychologist’s dire prediction, that children deprived of the opportunity to grow up in “an intact family” would suffer low performance in school, difficulty in making commitments and forming healthy relationships, and a high incidence of divorce.

More than 30 years later — with both of us deep into our sixties and all three of our children older, now, than their father and I were when we parted — I mark what would have been my 44th wedding anniversary solo and with wistful acceptance. I spend it reflecting on the legacy of my divorce — not only for the two of us, but for the children our marriage produced. Some of these lessons took a few decades to reach me.

I was 23 on my wedding day; my husband, 25. What did I know of marriage? My parents had divorced five years before, and still, the bitterness between them was so great that when they met up at my wedding they could not speak to each other.

I was 24 when our daughter was born. By the time I was 30, we had three children under age 6. Falling in love hadn’t proved difficult. Parenthood never daunted me. It was the part about being a couple and building a life together that did us in. My ideas of love came from the lyrics of popular songs and television: Donna Reed, standing in the doorway looking troubled, after seeing her husband head off to work with his leather briefcase. A moment later he’s back. He forgot to kiss her goodbye.

The seams that bound my husband and me together began unraveling early on. There was a time when I would have blamed him for much of what went wrong, but what I’d say now is that we were both too young to even know ourselves, much less each other. We knew how to meet a child’s needs but not so well those of our partner.

I can no longer remember much of what we fought about. Who washed the dishes, probably. On a deeper level, though, we were simply two enormously different people incapable of offering our partner what that person most needed — for me, connection. For him, space.

Our children were 5, 7 and 11 when we told them we were getting a divorce. Even now the picture haunts me, of the three of them lined up along the couch — the place where we’d wept over “Old Yeller” or snuggled under a blanket reading stacks of library books. That night we told them all the things parents do at these moments: We’ll always love you. We’ll always care for each other.

I can still see their faces, not buying it.

All those years I’d spent up until then, trying to protect my children from small sorrows and losses — the disappointment of not getting invited to a birthday party, the heartbreak of a lost barrette, a broken truck. Now their father and I hadn’t simply failed to protect them from grief; we’d caused it. We were sending them into a life of weekend visits — paper bags filled with baseball gloves and homework assignments, a calendar on the refrigerator with the dates marked for when they’d go to one house, when they’d go to the other.

Children from a broken home. That would be them now.

If there is such a thing as a good divorce, ours wasn’t one. My bitterness hung on for way too long. Fights about money, fights about who got which vacation. And about none of those things. When you have loved a person and made a family with him and pinned on that family your largest and most hopeful dreams for the future — and it falls apart — there’s likely to be a mountain of grief, also anger. Sometimes I succeeded in concealing mine. Often, I did not.

I also carried guilt and worry with me. How would my children’s lives be different if their father and I had stayed together? And, a separate and different question: How would their lives be different if we had not simply stayed together for their sake as some unhappy couples do, but actually managed to keep loving each other well? By failing to provide my beloved children the model of a happy marriage between their parents, perhaps I had deprived them of the essential element that they needed to make strong marriages of their own.

What we both did was to make good lives for ourselves, true to who we were, while loving our children with our whole hearts. Despite the dire predictions that haunted me long ago, all three have made loving and committed relationships that have produced two grandchildren so far. Our children may be tougher in certain ways than those who grew up in the safe embrace of two parents loving each other well, under the same roof. More cynical, maybe. Having recognized long ago that their parents were capable of terrible mistakes, they’re less inclined to view either their father or me as the source of ultimate comfort or stability.

They witnessed, firsthand, our greatest failure, and they love us anyway. There is sadness in this, but it laid the groundwork for a different kind of gift: self-reliance.

Their father remarried, had another child, whom my three love greatly and call simply their brother. I remarried too, but lost my second husband to cancer five years ago. Now here we all are — hardly unscathed, but that’s true of just about any family I know.

If, at age 67, I could speak to the woman I was, at 35, on the day of my 12th wedding anniversary, what would I tell her?

I would urge my younger self to be more accepting, more forgiving — to let small grievances fall away. Talk less, listen more, I would tell her. Admit your mistakes before accusing anyone of his.

And I would have said this to that young woman I once was: As much as you need to forgive your partner, you need to forgive yourself as well. No parent shoulders full responsibility for her child’s future sorrows or pain. To suppose that my divorce could set my children’s future in stone was an exaggeration of my powers as a parent. In the end, each of us charts our own path.

When I was visiting my daughter recently, her father and his wife stopped by. Thirty-two years ago, I could not have imagined this, but we embraced for a moment. I could still see, in the face of the 69-year-old man, the 25-year-old husband of my youth.

“Do you realize we’ve known each other fifty years now?” I asked him, indulging in a momentary nostalgia. Only a couple of other people exist who can say that to either of us.

The man I used to be married to registered this in the same inscrutable fashion that used to make me feel so alone — a nod — but his silence no longer bothered me. We function differently, that’s all. That’s one of the ten thousand reasons we couldn’t stay married.

Our daughter, witnessing this moment between the two of us, knowing us well, loving and accepting us, just smiled.

Joyce Maynard’s newest novel, “Count the Ways” — the story of a marriage and a divorce and the children who survived it — will be published this month.

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