Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Marriage Part III: For the Sake of the Kids

I heard a woman speaking recently on the subject of documenting one's family legacy. She said something that stuck with me. After immigrating to the U.S. from Cuba with her family in the 1960s, their most striking impression of America was that we are a country that has lost touch with our stories. Not our history, our stories. In her native culture, they place a great value on knowing their family stories: the life events that shaped the lives and values of their parents and grandparents. In turn, it was through story that they imparted values to their children.

I notice with my children, the best way to teach them anything is to hide it in a story. If I start a sentence with anything resembling a moral or behavioral instruction, their eyes glaze over (and they're only 3 and 7!). But start a sentence with "When I was a little girl," or "When your daddy and I were dating" and they stop whatever they are doing. I can illustrate a point about how to be kind or why we need to be careful crossing the street with a story and keep their attention, because they want to hear their aunts and uncles childhood misadventures over and over again. They beg to be told about Papa's dog Skipper who ate a whole cube of butter even though they know the story by heart. And my seven year old has just started to ask lots of questions about our first date, engagement, wedding, first apartment, and more.

I return to the Time Magazine article that reported 40% of Americans believe marriage is obsolete one final time. The Cuban American speakers's assertion got me to thinking about what effect normalizing divorce in America -- or the extinction of marriage -- will have on our children's sense of their personal heritage. What will the family stories be like for a generation of kids who have parents who are no longer a family or never were?

Jeff and I are very fortunate to be part of a long line of long marriages. All four sets of our grandparents were or are married over 50 years. His parents celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary this year, and mine their 39th. None of these marriages are perfect, but they are solid and committed. Our parents marriages are very loving; they are partners and friends. I can't tell you what kind of solidity this gives us as their children (even their grown children), and how grateful we are to have grandparents' and great-grandparents' homes to take the girls to, where they see continuity. Grandparents Gardner, who live about 60 miles away, have been together since they were teenagers! Statistically, our marriage is more likely to make it until death does us part because of our family history.

I tell my kids the stories of their grandparents on both sides: about my Grandma Arlyss, who died before they were born (we make her recipes all the time), and Jeff's Grandpa Andy who passed away before we were married (an accomplished woodworker, he made a shelf that still hangs in my daughter's room). In my heart and mind, our families' stories are intertwined because Jeff's heritage has become mine, and therefore my daughters'. What richness I have to hand down to my kids (again, lucky, lucky, lucky me).

Most people believe that kids need routines to feel safe. They need boundaries to thrive. They need clear expectations from their parents to form a good sense of self. Kids who have family dinners during the week are less likely to commit crimes and more likely to do better in school. Simply, kids need a home that is stable. I read an article in Real Simple last year quoting a sociologist whose research showed that simple family traditions, particularly at holidays -- from Christmas decorating to celebrating birthdays to family game nights -- give children higher self esteem. She said kids with traditions have a stronger sense of identity and tend to be more adaptable in social situations: qualities commonly called being "well adjusted."

There is plenty of research out there about how damaging divorce or growing up with one absent parent are for kids -- from making them at greater risk for abuse to increasing the likelihood that will drop out of school, not to mention less tangible emotional issues -- so I'm not even going to tackle that subject on any of those statistical levels. Nor is this blog an indictment of all divorce, and certainly not a personal message to the many beloved people in my life who are single parents, step-parents or considering separation in their difficult marriages.

But it's on my heart to ask just this one simple question: What kind of stories do we want this generation of children in our country to inherit? What will the cost be when their family heritage is broken, when their two parents are no longer caretakers of one anothers' histories, when the stories they tell to impart values are punctuated by the snapping branches of their family trees. So many of the next generation of kids, won't hear stories like mine, about how Grandma rode a train all night from New York City to see Grandpa where he was stationed in the South before he shipped off during World War II. Half the kids in my daughter's class won't even have fond stories of how Grandma and Grandpa met to tell their kids; their wedding pictures won't be framed objects of reverence or affection. They'll be stuck in a closet somewhere.

"Staying married for the sake of the kids" has become a negative concept, spit out of our mouths like a dirty word. For the kids' sake, let's think that through. Let's do everything we can not just to stay married, but to stay happily, healthily married. So very much is at stake. Our children's stories are at stake.


  1. Hello, dear Amanda!

    Loved this! As a teacher of nearly 20 years, I can tell you the cost of divorce to children is enormous. These poor kids have difficulty with focus, organization (try living "part-time" in two households which frequently have a revolving door for the latest boyfriend/girlfriend. I had one mom, who had just told me she and her husband were divorcing actually say to me, "I don't want my girls seeing me unhappy." I wanted to scream at her, "Do you think they give a fig about whether or not YOUR happy????" Children just want their mommy and daddy together, because children are very self-centered. They could not care less about mommy's happiness! I'm not talking about abusive marriages. This gal was just bored with her husband - and she had another guy waiting in the wings!

    You are so right that children LOVE hearing stories about their family - and truly using them is such a great way to impart values - to help them learn from your mistakes and from your successes.

    Love you!

  2. Love, love, love this post, Amanda. One of your best.

  3. I'm not FOR divorce, or anything (and as you know, also come from a long line of blissful couples on both sides), but I do think that there's something to the your-parents-need-to-be-whole concern. A friend once told me that she tells her divorcing clients, "It's like being on an airplane. You have to be able to breathe or you can't put on someone else's oxygen mask."

    So there's that.

    But also, I would say, if a couple DOES have to separate, they can make sure that their family stories are still solid. They can still have stories about having been in love...they can still tell caring stories about their ex--even recent ones. They can even encourage their children to learn from their missteps (not calling them "mistakes"). They can support their child in their love of the co-parent.

    I guess that makes me a supporter--if not exactly a proponent--of the phenomenon of collaborative divorce: people who are able to work together to make sure that their family functions, even apart. I think that takes a lot of courage.