I've made a children's picture book about what it can feel like to go through a divorce or separation. Mine doesn't try to convince kids that the divorce is for the best. Instead, it cuts to the chase about how empty and unhelpful that phrase is to kids.
My title, Divorce Is the Worst, has provoked criticism from parents who resent any negative language around their divorce. Even recently divorced friends have told me they are reluctant to share it with their child because "he's doing so well." They don't want to introduce the idea that divorce is a big deal.
Meanwhile, the book has been welcomed by kids, counselors, teachers, lawyers and librarians. In presentations to groups of kids, some yell when they hear the title: "That's for sure!" and "You can say that again!"
Just as sex education doesn't "give" young people the idea to have sex, acknowledging that divorce is disruptive, life-changing and often hard isn't what makes it so.
I was 14 years old when my parents told me and my four siblings about their decision to divorce. They said it was for the best, and it was, for them. For me, it was the worst thing that could happen to our family other than a death.
My parents portrayed their divorce as a positive thing: a solution to the problem, not the problem. They told us not to let it affect us. It was a bump in the road, that's all.
Though they claimed to also be fine with it, my mother had an edge of meanness in her voice now that was brand new; she sang along to Patti LaBelle's "New Attitude" and discussed our father's flaws with us. We saw Dad for dinner on Wednesdays -- an awkward event we dubbed "broken home night" from which I always returned hungry (not for food, just more of him).
Though the messages from both of them were mixed, they were clearly suffering a loss. I concluded that my pain was trivial next to theirs. No one had died and I should be grateful I still had two parents. And then, God help me, I chose a side: theirs.
For the next 25 years, the two sides battled it out inside me: my parents' need for a divorce vs. my attachment to our original family, the one that still smiles at me from childhood photos.
Lisa Spiegel, Soho Parenting cofounder and director, describes the impulse to minimize the impact of a divorce on kids as protective in its intention. "There's this idea that to address or mention any negative feelings may make the child feel worse," says Spiegel, who works with parents and children. "But that is not in tune with a child's reality. Acknowledging the impact does not create the impact -- it was already there."
When children's lives and homes unravel, people are quick to wave it away (usually as a way of comforting worried parents), saying: "Oh, kids are resilient -- they'll get over it." Cartoonist Lynda Barry describes "the resiliency of children" in her book 100 Demons as "the ability to exist in pieces" and she calls it what it is: "a hope adults have about a child's inner life, that it's simple, that what can be forgotten can no longer affect us."
"A child needs explicit permission from the adult to have their own feelings," says Terry Real, a family therapist, best-selling author and founder of the Relational Life Institute. "Taking care of the parent implicitly or explicitly by not sharing feelings and not burdening the parent is a really bad idea for the child. The parent needs to step in and make it clear the child's feelings are not a burden."
Here's my view, born of experience and supported by child therapists and divorce mediators today: until we stop telling kids the divorce is for the best (as if that is a comfort), they may continue to experience it as the worst, long after the initial announcement that rocked their world. You can't get over something you never went through in the first place.
Real resilience is earned, by going through stuff and seeing it for what it is. In the meantime, kids aren't resilient so much as dependent. Life comes at them. They take it in and keep going -- but not because they're so Zen. What choice do they have? Our children will love us and remain loyal to us through almost anything. That's what kids do to survive. They will even join us in pretending.
"When there is support, processing, narrative and comfort around trauma, we tend to be able to feel our feelings and experience our pain," Spiegel assures. "We recognize that there are other loving figures around us and move through it."
Parents don't have to feel guilty for their divorce or stay in an unworkable relationship. But we have to recognize that our experiences are separate from our children's. That backpack they haul from place to place each week? It holds way more than anyone can see.