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Mothering › Child Articles › When a Relationship Ends

When a Relationship Ends

By Joy Johnson
Issue 122 (January/February 2004)


shadow couple"Divorce takes place between mothers and fathers. You are not to blame if your parents get divorced. Parents divorce when they don't love each other or can't get along together anymore, no matter how hard they try."


Those are the first lines of the first page of Dinosaurs Divorce, the best book written for small children whose parents are separating for good (see sidebar). But just a few years ago, that book would not have been written. I was born in 1938. In my 65 years I've seen a lot of changes, many of them good. One of the good ones is how we deal with divorce in our society today, and how we regard those moms and dads who separate.


My grandmother Nellie wore long skirts and aprons, and her hair in a tight bun at the back of her neck. One of the great surprises in my young life was waking up in one of her big feather beds and looking out the window. I was six years old, my grandmother probably 70. She was standing by the well, where she had just washed her hair. Her bun had come undone, and her hair actually touched her feet. Who would have guessed it? Her bun was so small, so tight. Today, we've let down the tight bun of divorce. We've let the sun shine on individuals who need to make a major change in their lives. We've let the wind blow us new information about how to have a healthy divorce.


It was Grandmother Nellie who, in the early 1940s, called her grandson, my cousin Truman, into her small country kitchen. She sat him down without so much as a cup of coffee and said, "Your mother says you're getting a divorce. You're not. No one in our family is divorced, and you're not going to start it!" Grandma was one tough cookie.


But my cousin did get a divorce. Later, he married a wonderful woman, also divorced, who had two little boys. The boys are now my age. Truman and Flo are in their 80s-married beautifully for more than 50 years.


That doesn't mean divorce is easy. It's a death of a relationship with no corpse to mourn. When someone dies, friends surround you. You are tended and befriended. You can cry as much as you want. People bring you food. Long afterward, you can visit the cemetery or talk to the urn on the mantle.


But when you divorce, you lose some friends, some ignore you, and others criticize you. If you cry as much as you want to, you're accused of self-pity or manipulation. There's no cemetery, no urn, and no one brings food. I always thought it would be a good idea to have a national program: "Bring a Casserole to a Divorce."


Just for You A study by E. Mavis Hetherington in Child Psychology Updated (McGraw Hill, 2002) found that 75 to 80 percent of children of divorced parents are "coping reasonably well and functioning in the normal range." Parents were doing well, too. Children are resilient; they adapt and grow. However, there are some things you can to do aid their growth and development:


  • Avoid overindulgence . It's easy to try to make up for absence or to soothe your guilt by giving your child everything he or she wants. A steady flow of expensive and unnecessary gifts pours in, and fun activities take up all your time while discipline fails miserably. Parents try to buy affection by being the "good guys." Remember-love can't be bought.

  • Try for a good balance . Just as it's easy to overindulge your child, it's easy to neglect him or her as you become mired in your own legal and emotional work. Make time for constructive activities together. Strike a balance between being too demanding and too permissive. These goals are not easy to reach even in the best of times; they'll require more concentration now.

  • Let the child be a child . Sometimes a child tries to become a substitute adult or surrogate partner. But your child is not your lover-companion-confessor-spouse, and cannot and should not replace your absent mate. Your child's job is to be a kid, with the privilege of

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