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- May 29, 1989
- Vol. 31
- No. 21
Millions of Americans Whose Parents Were Divorced Struggle to Escape a Lingering Shadow That Darkens Their Own Search for Love
In the 1950s, divorce was relatively uncommon. That changed drastically in the next decades. By 1962 one out of every three marriages would end in divorce. By 1977 the rate shot up to one of two and held there. Marriage, it would seem, now has at best an even chance of success.
Twenty years ago many Americans were alarmed by the spread of divorce, but they took comfort in the conviction of most psychologists that kids would bounce back quickly after a family breakup. After two or three years of grieving, it was believed, the sons and daughters of divorce would be almost as good as new.
Millions of people have since learned, through experience, that that comfortable supposition was false. In her recent book, Second Chances: Men, Women & Children a Decade After Divorce, psychologist Judith Wallerstein has confirmed what many already felt: However long it lasted for parents, the pain of divorce was not transient for children—the trauma could haunt them into adulthood. After a 10-year study of 60 divorced families, Wallerstein has written of the adolescents she interviewed, "...we were able to see clearly that we weren't dealing simply with the routine angst of young people going through transition but rather that, for most of them, divorce was the single most important cause of enduring pain and anomie in their lives." Even more troubling, she found that the dislocation visited upon children by their parents' divorce, far from disappearing after adolescence, may even turn out to be permanent.
Wallerstein's book does offer the children of divorce some solace. It attaches a name to their suffering and suggests that their problems are neither freakish nor unexpected. Nevertheless, the book's message is grim. Is it possible, for instance, that the "sleeper effect," a fear of romantic commitment that, according to Wallerstein, "seriously derailed" half of her female subjects between the ages of 19 and 23, could plague them forever? Or that the lack of direction and "sense of having little control over their lives" that she found in young men could permanently cripple them emotionally?
Since the oldest child Wallerstein discusses in Second Chances is 29, answers to those questions await further study. (For her advice to children of divorce—and their parents—see page 87.) Clearly, though, the parental divorce will continue to affect the emotional lives of their children, no matter how successfully they cope with the aftershocks. With that in mind, PEOPLE has profiled seven people from broken families: men and women whose only common bond is that they are children of divorce. Their experiences speak volumes—about how they have dealt with the trauma and failed to deal with it, about how they have repeated the mistakes of their parents and, sometimes, learned from them.
A LITTLE BOY'S WISH
Ryan Berdan misses the crumb buns. They were fresh from the bakery and fragrant with apples. "Every Sunday me and my father used to go down to the store and get them, and I liked that," he says wistfully. "We don't do that now. I miss that."
Ryan does still see his father. Alternate weekends and Wednesday nights have become Chuck Berdan's visitation days. But somehow the crumb buns have been forgotten—though obviously not by Ryan.
Chuck and Soo Berdan's divorce came through just last month, the result of what Soo calls "a total lack of communication and a very different value system and lifestyle." But Ryan, 9, had seen the split coming for what seems like forever. "On Thanksgiving," he says, "my sister and I were watching television. Mom and Dad were upstairs talking. They came down and said they were gonna get a divorce. I remember thinking, 'Are you crazy?' but I didn't say that. I just asked them why. They said they couldn't live together anymore. They told me it wasn't my fault."
Staring out a window in his mother's house in Newtown, Conn., Ryan says, "They've been fighting since they got married. I remember when I was very little, hearing them fight in their bedroom every night. I don't think my sister heard them." Ryan wishes his sister, Lindsey, were older than he instead of being only 7. Then they could talk about what has happened to their family. "But she's too young to understand," he says. As it is, "I think about it a lot, but I don't say too much. I wish they had figured out a way to stay together."
He was always a quiet child anyway, and meticulous. When he first learned that the divorce would call for him to spend some holidays with his mother in Newtown and others at his father's place in nearby Shelton, Conn., he took some precautions. "I didn't tell anyone," he says, "but I went through the calendar and all the holidays and figured out where I'll be so I know ahead of time." The best part is Christmas, which he and Lindsey get to celebrate twice. "We had Christmas presents here with Mom in the morning," he says, "and then Dad picked us up and we went to his house for more presents."
The bad part about planning ahead is when his father, who is vice president of a data processing company, can't make one of his scheduled visits. "That happens," says Ryan, "and it kind of hurts."
Nor is he happy with the extra work he has to do around his mother's house. "I have to take out the garbage and mow the lawn," he says. "Big things, and I don't like them." He seems to understand only vaguely that his mother is unable to do them because she is taking court-stenography courses to prepare for a job that will help supplement her child-support payments. Ryan does understand one of the general principles of the situation in which he now finds himself. "Divorce makes you have to be more grown-up," he says. "You have to do more grown-up things, and you have more grown-up feelings. It was easier when my dad was here."
Wednesday nights he can forget about the new responsibilities because that is when his dad takes him and Lindsey to the local mall for dinner and all the video games they can play. Ryan eats hot dogs and has a cream soda; Lindsey orders pizza. Then they go to the Time Out video arcade and play Skee Ball. But even in the artificial paradise of the mall, Ryan concedes, he and Lindsey have found a way to commemorate their family's fall from grace. There is a wishing well there. "We always throw a penny in," he says. "We wish that Mom and Dad would get back together."
ADRIFT IN CALIFORNIA
Blake Davis's first premonition of disaster was very West Coast. His dad took him river rafting. Father and son headed off—along with the woman who was 10-year-old Blake's dental hygienist. "I couldn't understand why we weren't going with Mother," says Blake, now 20. "My father wasn't real good about explaining that one."
A month later, Blake's father, a medical-equipment designer, had to explain. Blake's mother had left for New York "to get her head together," and someone had to sketch the terms of the divorce to the only child. The terms, Blake would learn, involved joint custody. "The divorce was like the marriage," says Blake. "They didn't fight. They just split everything down the middle. Including me."
Blake wears his blond hair wiffle-cut, pseudopunk. His baggy shorts and Babar T-shirt are appropriately California rad. But beneath an air of studied detachment, he exudes a confused melancholy.
He guesses that his parents' marriage foundered from a lack of communication. "When something came up, they wouldn't try to work it out or fight it out." he recalls. "My mom would get quiet, and my dad would get kind of gruffy. If they had fought, they might have stayed together." He shrugs.
When the split was completed, Blake's mother moved to New London, N.H., to make a new start in her teaching career. Half a year later, Blake joined her. The dislocation was social as well as physical. "I totally freaked out there," he says. "Before I left, I was skateboarding and relaxing and hanging around with my friends. I had never been in a winter before. I was totally alienated from the whole scene. I felt unwanted by my friends at school."
Alarmed by her son's profound unhappiness, his mother decided after a year to move back to Santa Monica, where his father still lived. But a year can be an eon on the adolescent social clock. "When I came back, my old friends wouldn't call me," says Blake. "They were doing things I wasn't into anymore, like playing video games. I was more of a loner." The fact that he could now split his time between his parents' homes had its good points but posed some unforeseen hazards. "I remember there was one time when my mom was dropping me off and she met my dad's girlfriend," Blake recalls. "My mom was in tears and threw up when she went home. It was bad."
During Blake's junior high school years, things began to look up for him. "I got into a band and started making new friends," he says. "I got out of my shell a bit." His father supported his son's interest in the guitar and drove him to performances; when he was 18, Blake enrolled at Berkeley as a film major.
But a few months ago, midway into his sophomore year, he took a leave of absence. "I'm not dying to learn anything in school," he says. Instead he has taken "a real nice job" checking shopping bags and backpacks at a record store near campus. He makes extra money playing guitar and remixing music for local bands. He has girlfriends; three, in fact, in the last six months. "I get tired of them," he says. "I'm very passive. If there's a problem, I feel like they are unreasonable, and I don't feel much like seeing it their way. I don't feel much like fighting it out. I'd just rather leave and forget the whole thing." Just like his parents, he thinks. "Maybe it's inherited," he says with a smile.
Neither of his parents has remarried, and Blake experiences occasional moments of painful nostalgia. "I sometimes have those feelings that I would like my parents to get back together," he concedes. "Last night, for example, I went over to my mom's and talked to her for a while. Then my dad picked me up for dinner with him and his date....I picked the restaurant that I always go to with Mom."
But for the most part Blake is adapting, for better or worse, to a world in which nothing good can be expected to last. "Things change," he says offhandedly. "I was committed to going to school, and I'm not doing that anymore. If you say you are going to do something, and people are depending on you, then, yes, do it. But if it's something that can be flexible, like school or marriage..."
TWO RINGS, FEW ANSWERS
In the summer of 1983, Tracy Tilin was wandering through her hometown of San Francisco with her boyfriend, Steven. He suddenly pulled her into Tiffany & Co. and had a saleswoman slip a $20,000 ring onto her finger. In many ways, Tracy and Steven seemed a perfect match. Steven was a scion of San Francisco's old-money Jewish elite. Her upper-middle class parents were thrilled: "They loved him. He was included in everything."
But standing there at the jewelry counter, surrounded by all those sparkling rocks, Tracy grew queasy, swept by a flood of conflicting emotions.
Mostly, she thought about her own broken family. She had lived a blissful early childhood, assuming her parents were as happy as she was. Then two weeks before she turned 10, she found her father in the living room, his face in his hands, crying. The next day he told her he was leaving. "I asked if he would stay for my birthday," she remembers. "He said no."
Though she wanted to believe in marriage, in romance, in couples that lived happily ever after, her own experience made that difficult. "Steven seemed ideal," she says. "It was like a scene out of a movie. But I had seen what was supposedly the ideal marriage crumble. My parents did what they were supposed to do, and look what happened to them." Within a year, she had dropped Steven.
In 1986 Tracy met Anthony. This time, she says, without irony, "I wasn't worried about repeating history." That was understandable. Anthony was black, from the Bronx and worked for a moving company. They moved in together; her parents objected. Two years later, when the Tilin clan gathered at a swank hotel to celebrate her father's birthday, Anthony was pointedly not invited. A couple of days after that, Tilin remembers sitting at her desk at a computer software firm and realizing, "I was ready." That night she proposed to Anthony. He danced her around the kitchen table of their funky Victorian apartment singing love songs from Broadway musicals.
This time the ring was a custom-made single diamond; Anthony had bought it on a four-year installment. "It was so symbolic," says Tilin. "I felt that I really belonged somewhere, with someone who would love me forever. I thought I was going to have what my parents didn't. I gave myself the freedom to love whoever I wanted and not limit myself to the 'appropriate' type of man." She and Anthony announced their engagement, set a wedding date and found a rabbi who was willing to marry them. During the next three months, Anthony began to have second thoughts. One Friday night they had what she considered a petty argument; he told her to take off the ring. She was frightened and didn't reply. Nevertheless they had a wonderful weekend, and for Sunday dinner she cooked him a favorite Cajun dish. That night she mock-casually asked whether he still wanted her to remove the ring. "I was half afraid to ask," she says. "But I didn't really believe that he'd say yes." They were lying in the dark; she was looking at his broad back. "Yes," he said. He had not changed his mind by morning. "When I took off that ring," she says now, "I should have taken off" my finger with it."
At the time, Tilin's father was dying of encephalitis. And so when Tilin came to his hospital room to tell him that the wedding was off, she wasn't sure he understood. She repeated the news. Her father stirred himself. "Yes," he said, "I understand. I just don't know what to say."
LESSONS IN STANDING ALONE
"I learned a lot from my mom," says Beth Harris, 29. One thing she learned was how to make a man the center of her life. She also learned how to survive without a man.
Her father had been a golf pro in Vero Beach, Fla. He kept a nice house near the course. He kept a customized MG. But he didn't keep his wife. Beth, who was 8 at the time, remembers that after the divorce her father left and headed for New England. Her mother, four children in tow, had to settle for a place in the shabbier quarter of Vero Beach. She found herself in a world of occasional clerical work, unemployment checks and bread-butter-and-sugar sandwiches. She sought refuge in drinking. And men. And silence. "She would come home and sit in a chair, not talking," says Beth, who felt responsible for everything. "There was never much touching."
Beth fled home at 17 to live with her boyfriend, Ted. They were married five years later, became parents soon after and divorced after only three years. "It was the wav I knew how to cope with problems," she says. "It was easier for me to do because my parents had done it." Like her mother, she had no job; Ted, a computer programmer, had preferred it that way and she made no objection. Beth found herself duplicating her mother's downward spiral: From a comfortable three-bedroom house in Florida she moved to a tiny San Francisco apartment.
Harris is in therapy now, trying to learn to be more assertive. She works at her daughter Morgan's preschool, takes care of an elderly woman and has just landed a summer job teaching swimming. As her mother did, she accepts public assistance—$511 a month, of which $483 goes to pay rent. "I think Ted is embarrassed that I'm on welfare," she says. "He thinks I can work and make a living. Right now I can't. I know that. I feel [Aid for Families with Dependent Children] is an important tool so I can become self-sufficient. I feel like It's a wonderful gift that I deserve."
Sometimes the assertiveness training seems to be working. "I think that there is something really wrong with our system," says Harris. "The man, he goes on to do just fine, and the woman, she just falls into poverty. I forfeited my career [as a cartographer]. I raised the child. I stood by my husband. I didn't take care of myself. I'm not going to make that mistake again. I'm going to be a self-supporting person." And there are other times when the bleakness of her routine simply disheartens her. "No fun, no joy, no relaxation, no relationship, nothing except go to school and take care of the kid," she says. "It slowly eats away at you."
There is, however, one consolation: She doesn't depend on men or on booze. "I'm not my mother," she says.
Nor is Morgan, though that too is a hard-won achievement. "It's an ongoing joke," says Beth. "I ask her, 'Is it your fault that we got divorced?' and she'll laugh and say, 'Naah.' She's about the same age I was when my parents split up. We're working hard to change the pattern. I'm talking to the little kid in me too."
FINALLY LEARNING TO CONNECT
A month after Sam turned 16, his parents asked him into the living room....
"I've rented a small apartment 20 minutes from here, "his mother said softly. "We've thought about this for a while. We've been waiting for you to grow up. "She fell silent, except for her breathing, which seemed to rub against something as she exhaled. The buttons on the recliner bit into Sam's legs.
His father closed his eyes, and the vein that sometimes would plunge down his forehead looked as though it might burst. Finally, his father turned to Sam and asked, "Do you know what this means?"
"Yeah, "Sam said, in a voice meant to betray as little as possible. "It means you're splitting up."
—from "Keeping House"
by Paul Mandelbaum
"I borrowed my father's vein from a friend of mine," says Paul Mandelbaum, 29. "But the conversation, is, I think, true to life." Shortly thereafter, however, the protagonist in the story, which Mandelbaum wrote at the Writers' Workshop of the University of Iowa in 1988, goes on to get mixed up with a cult. Nothing so dramatic happened to the author. Rather, in high school and later at the University of Maryland, Mandelbaum discovered he had "developed this pattern of getting into relationships that stood a good chance of not working out. I would embark on short-term relationships, with someone who was leaving town at the end of the summer, or relationships with women who were attached to other men." Or with more than one woman. He recalls the sinking realization midway through one unfortunate phone conversation that he had been saying the right thing to the wrong girl.
That sort of personal drama was fun for a while but after a few years Mandelbaum found it exhausting. One morning, at age 23, he awoke from a dream in which he was trapped in a "sort of a theme park"—the theme being that all the people he met were "people I had hurt in one way or another."
The first thing Mandelbaum did was "write down as much as I could—a good solid two pages, single-spaced." The second thing was to go into therapy. He discovered his problem might be tied to his pain resulting from his parents' divorce and his mother's departure. "I had made some kind of decision along the way about how I felt about love—I basically decided it was the last thing in the world that a boy ought to get involved with," he says.
Change was not instantaneous. In time Mandelbaum left his job in journalism and moved to Iowa after being accepted in the prestigious workshop. All the while he engaged in the same sort of dead-end relationships, albeit seeing them in a slightly different light. Then, 18 months ago, he met Alice Daya, a graduate student in English literature. Here, obviously, was another inappropriate woman, one who came complete with an 11-year-old child, the very sort of encumbrance that one would expect to discourage a young man with commitment problems.
Yet that didn't happen. Earlier this month Alice and her daughter, Nicole, moved in with Mandelbaum. This is the first time since his parents divorced that he has lived with a woman as part of a family.
The full meaning of his new domesticity was brought home to him the other day when he was in a hardware store to rent a lawn mower and found himself called to the phone. Nicole was sick and needed to be brought home from school.
"It was strange," he confesses. "I was pretty grubby, worried about the impression I was making on the school receptionist. And as I was coming home I had to make a special effort to drive slowly, so she wouldn't throw up. That feels pretty paternal. It's all so sudden and new....But pleasant."
LET MOTHER STAY GONE
The two things Anna Richburg remembers about her mother are that she was rich and she was pretty. God gave her pretty, and she got rich by abandoning Anna. Anna is not rich, insists she is not pretty, and has mixed feelings about wanting to see her mama again. Her husband, J.W., thinks she should try finding her mother. The two sit in the kitchen of their trailer home in Pelion, S.C.
"Sometimes she gets in a mood," says J.W., a steel fitter by vocation and a hunter and fisherman by abiding passion. "And I think if she had a mammy maybe she wouldn't be so aggravated."
Anna shakes her head furiously. "He doesn't know why I'm the way I am," she says, glancing bitterly at J.W., "because he doesn't really know me. We've been married 26 years, and if you ask him what color my eyes are, he'd have to look."
But this is old material, much rehearsed. What is new is Anna's decision to try locating her younger brother, Danny, whom her mother took away before she divorced Anna's father in 1952. Anna long ago lost track of her mother and Danny. Now, though, she believes he might comfort their father, who is battling manic depression in a Florida hospital. "Finding Danny without having contact with her would be fine."
Anna's father left Anniston, Ala., in the mid-1940s and settled in Baltimore, where he met his future wife. They had two children, Anna, now 41, and Danny. Eventually, the limits of life as the wife of a shoe salesman became too confining for Anna's mother. "She met this wealthy man," says Anna. That was when her mother left, taking Danny but leaving Anna behind. "I used to wonder what I did wrong to make my mother go away and take my brother," says Anna. "But then I'd think, 'How bad can you be when you've 3 years old?' "
When her father moved to Washington, D.C., and remarried, Anna's paternal grandmother took her back to Alabama. By now, human contact had come to seem so tenuous to Anna that she would hover nearby whenever the old woman took a nap. "To make sure she was breathing," she says. "I was afraid she'd die—or go away. My mother went away. My daddy went away, and I didn't want my grandmom to go away."
It was in the same spirit that she married J.W. He was 20; she 15. He was involved in a minor scrape with the law, and his lawyer told him he might get off if he were married. Anna didn't mind all that: "I just wanted a home and family and kids. I told him to begin with that I didn't intend to ever get divorced."
J.W. tested that promise to the limit. While Anna raised four boys, her husband went hunting and fishing on weekends and vacations, with Anna not invited. The marriage almost did fall apart twice, they agree: Once, she says, "because you can't take but so much [verbal] abuse," and later because "J.W. decided he'd find somebody else and leave because he thought I didn't care anymore."
She does care, and he has begun to spend more time at home. They agree they will stay together until their youngest, 12-year-old Brian, is old enough to leave home. What will happen then, neither can say. Anna is now focusing on the hope that she might find Danny. And, J.W. insists, her mother as well.
The debate continues in the kitchen. J.W. presses his point. "I still can't understand why you don't wanna know who your mama is. You should find her and find out what you don't know."
"It isn't that you don't wanna know," Anna replies. "I would like to know some things. I'd like some medical information." She pauses and begins to wipe her glasses. "And maybe it's scary," she says, her voice quavering. "Maybe I'm afraid. Maybe I don't want to be rejected again." Suddenly she is sobbing. "What is she going to look at?" she asks. "You know, I'm not this terrific..." She cannot finish the sentence. A visitor says something neutral, trying to soothe her. She shakes her head. "I just cry easily," she says.
SCIENCE PROVIDES NO ANSWERS
"I tend to think over things too hard and not come to any conclusions," says John Maling, 57, a college physics instructor and president of a manufacturing firm in Palo Alto, Calif. His life, he says, has had its moments. But after a childhood spent mostly with relatives other than his parents, he feels "apart" from people, even his family.
Maling's parents were divorced in 1937, when he was 5. "I vaguely recall a house with a long set of stairs in Portland, Ore.," he says. "My aunt and uncle and their two daughters lived there. And there I was on the doorstep. There was a conversation in the living room between my mother and my father and my aunt.
I remember, because I knew I was the subject of the conversation. Then I remember my parents in a car driving off."
For the next five years, Maling was raised by various relatives; his parents lived elsewhere. "I haven't been a real member of any family, even with all these aunts and uncles," he says. "I was raised by everybody. That's an exaggeration, but that's how I feel."
When Maling was 9, his mother reappeared. She had remarried, and reclaimed young John. It was not the idyll he hoped for. "Life changed," he says. "I remember confronting another family in another house. One effect was that I didn't know who I was. I had four possible combinations of names. First of all, I was nicknamed Jack, but my real name was John. My mother's second married name was Smith. Who did I belong to? That was the problem. When you're a kid you belong to someone. It came out, "Who the hell is John, alias Jack, Smith, alias Maling?' "
Maling went on to college and then to graduate school, where he became involved in what he describes as a "very simple" progression: "I grew up and I was attracted to young women and found one that was attracted to me. A year later, I think, we decided to get married." But marriage turned out to be no simpler than anything else in his life. "I realized that I was getting mad at her all the time," he says. "I just wasn't adult enough to handle it. The marriage lasted seven years, and then getting free of it, financially and emotionally, took three more."
Maling came to realize that his past was circumscribing his future. "The overall impact of my early life really got in the way," he says. "Commitment was a major problem. I'm always very careful about making a commitment. If I do, and I'm yours, I'm vulnerable."
In 1973 Maling met his second wife, Judith Briles, an author with three children. "My wife is a very powerful person, and I admire her thoroughly," he says. "Although we've had our ups and downs, name one marriage that hasn't. I wouldn't give her up for the world." And for reasons that, for once, he is able to articulate unequivocally, he hasn't had to. "I've gained an ability to see the good with the bad and work out long-term difficulties," he says. "I knew that I had to work hard if I wanted to stay in this thing." Maling halts; it isn't in his nature to dwell on the triumph in his life. "[Her] children were a great strain on me," he says. "I didn't know how to handle them. I adapted, all right, but I was not a strong enough father."
Aside from his marriage to Briles, Mating also takes enormous satisfaction in knowing that none of this could have come about if, years ago, he hadn't thought things over and, for once, come to a conclusion. That, oddly enough, was when he opted to go through with the divorce from his first wife. "I served myself then, rather than something outside myself," he says. "For once, I tried not to listen to the voices of dead parents, to the ghosts."
- S. Avery Brown,
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November 23, 2015
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