My mother left my father when I was 5 years old.
I make no harsh judgment of my parents, who have many wonderful qualities. But from that moment I began my personal journey, a struggle that has so far lasted a lifetime – getting over the fear and anger that resulted from that one single decision. And there are millions of other Americans coming up behind me with the same demons.
We are not just a social problem, but also a growing political force. In fact, America’s ability to maintain her freedoms may ultimately depend on there being some kind of massive national healing, which, let’s face it, can only begin with massive national honesty. We don’t get much of that from the secular culture.
So let me start here with myself.
I have only two real memories of home life before my parents separated: my father practicing scales on his flute (he was a professional musician) and, of course, the sound of angry voices – coming from the next room.
I don’t remember any arguing in my presence. After all, this was the 1950s, an era when most parents did their level best not to fight in front of the children. Back then, it was still generally recognized that children are “impressionable,” and therefore adults made every effort to protect us, both in their homes and in the public square – including the culture.
Those days are gone. Society just doesn’t care about the innocence of children anymore. The “separation of church and state” decision officially rendered us soulless beings in the eyes of government. That didn’t happen in a vacuum. Even in the idealized 1940s and ’50s, the atheist view that people are mere animals dominated liberal intellectual circles, especially in places like Manhattan where I was born and raised.
The feminist “no-fault” divorce movement also did not happen in a vacuum. It was the culmination of a long, furious cry by secular men and women who didn’t see any reason why they should submit to the “ancient superstitions” of Judeo-Christian America when it came to their private lives. The floodgates of nihilism were opening.
By the 1970s (the “anything goes” era that brought us “no-fault” divorce), this secular view had taken almost complete control of American culture, especially in the arts and social sciences. Concepts of childhood innocence were dropped for much more convenient beliefs. Children were now considered “resilient.” Secular science had declared us all “animals,” and thus, it only made sense that the younger we exposed children to life’s realities, the better the lessons took. Although a decent and remarkable person, my mother had long since been influenced by this worldview.
A French immigrant from a secular family, she was ahead of her time, as were so many of her New York City peers. They were a foreshadowing of what was to come with the final stages of the sexual revolution. Mom was a “free thinker” who rejected outright what she called “bourgeois middle-class values.” At the time, I did not understand this speech code. “Free thinker” meant secularist. And “middle-class values” meant Christianity.
It took me years to realize that my mother was an atheist socialist of the classic 19th century variety, embracing the philosophy that caused so much horror later on. Thinking back, there was nothing surprising about her beliefs. My mother had grown up in Paris, the daughter of two Russian immigrants whose attitudes were greatly influenced by the “anything goes” Bohemian era – a movement known for its rebellion against “all of society’s standards, values and restraints.”
My grandmother F?e Helles (her professional name) had studied with the famous avant-garde dancer Isadora Duncan and later taught her own formulation of dance exercises in Paris, practically in the shadow of the city’s famous Arc de Triomphe. As a teenager, I visited her there and was surprised to find that my grandmother (I called her Mamine) slept on the floor of her Champs Elysee studio, using a hot plate to cook and a folding oriental screen to give herself some privacy – a very Bohemian way of life.
And yet, despite Mamine’s unusual social attitudes (or perhaps because of them), she was at the center of a very glamorous, almost storybook, Parisian world. When she set me up on a date with one of her students, it turned out to be Pablo Picasso’s daughter, Paloma. My grandmother’s studio was a popular and busy place, and on top of that there were movie rehearsals going on that summer. One of France’s most celebrated film directors was planning a documentary about Mamine, who as I remember was later given a medal for her cultural contributions. I took all this for granted – and there’s more.
My Zionist grandfather, a concert pianist from age 8, had long since moved to Israel to teach at the Jerusalem Conservatory. The two would meet in Switzerland for their vacations. Needless to say, I have an odd and exotic family – with the emphasis on odd. Even my father (who was incredibly normal considering his father abandoned the family) rose to the highest levels of his profession and ended up playing for the Metropolitan Opera.
Adventure runs on both sides of my family, and my father was no exception. He hitchhiked to New York during the depression to study on scholarship at Juilliard. In a profession where people are happy to have any paying job, my father was never without solid work. He played under great conductors, from Toscanini to Bernstein and with most of the opera stars of his day. Between jobs of that stature, he played in the original Broadway production of “The Sound of Music” and I would often, after a date or a party, meet Dad at the theater to ride home with him, waiting in the wings until the performance was done.
Why do I tell you this? Because the privileged New York City life I lived did not make up for the reality of my parent’s divorce. Despite all this “glory,” despite an elite education at two famous Manhattan private schools, despite my parents’ many good points, I grew up a frightened, deeply angry young man – a “rebel without a cause.”
Of course, I didn’t understand my own reality. On the outside, I was a confident teenager running around New York City as if I owned it. (Nobody needs a car in the city, so kids have a scary kind of freedom to come and go as they please.) The parties, school dances, the theater openings, great museums and the famous restaurants were only a small part of an urban environment that seemed to be on the cutting edge of everything – wealth, intellectual and political influence, and raw international power.
All very glamorous! In fact, just like America herself. Let’s face it: The world has never seen a richer, more powerful nation than the United States. We are not only wealthy, we are an emblem of freedom to the world. Our language is spoken everywhere. Our technology and our culture are influential worldwide. Our military is second to none.
But that won’t save us from our own angry children, generated by millions of broken homes, of every race, color, creed and socio-economic background. America may look strong, but her foundation has been severely damaged. I was comparatively lucky. Many children of divorce suffer additional hardships, making things far worse. But whatever their backgrounds, these “children” – now on their own dysfunctional adult journey – are my brothers and sisters, and I can tell you all about them.
First, remember we are not talking about a few hundred thousand Americans. We are not even talking about a few million Americans. Considering what we all know about the divorce rate, it is not hard to predict that a huge, if not dominant, portion of this country’s electorate will soon be “adult children of divorce” (ACDs). Politicians who can push our many emotional buttons may well be able to control the elections of the future. Why? Because unless we ACDs go through a powerful personal recovery, our problems are likely to get worse as we get older, and more vulnerable.
Our fear, our anger, our sense of betrayal, our self-loathing, fear of failure, fear of success (as something undeserved), and our often deeply depressive nature may cause us to harken to the angry demagogue politicians who outwardly echo our internal pain. In that sense, we are a “mob,” full of dark emotions and looking for a leader.
A political tsunami is coming. My parents’ divorce preceded by two decades the arrival of “no-fault” divorce in the 1970s. That generation of ACDs will hit the shores soon – the sons and daughters of the “I’m-not-happy-so-I’m-leaving” generation of parents. (Add to this group other adults who were born out of wedlock and never experienced an intact family, and it’s clear that we have a serious social problem on our hands, perhaps even a nation-killing problem.)
People like me are just the early warning waves of this tsunami. But a wall of water is speeding our way as the aging no-faulters enter their 40s and 50s. The gathering force of their pain and disillusionment is a socio-political reality.
Who are we? We are often ready to believe the worst about America and about our fellow Americans because our experience with “family” is not good. After all, a nation is a family. We don’t just “question authority,” we often distrust, even hate authority. (Look for us at all those angry demonstrations.) Why do you think politicians get such resonance by crying “victim”? What child of divorce doesn’t feel like a victim? What else would you call us? The disaster that befell us was completely out of our control. I was blessed to have great stepparents, and some stability in my high school years at a wonderful all-boy Episcopal school, and yet I was still furious and disoriented. My reality was split down the middle when I was five years old, and there was no putting me back together with a quick patch job. Time was necessary, as well as the essential process of learning to forgive.
The battle lines
A New York friend of mine is going through a very painful recovery since his wife left, taking the children with her. (I can’t imagine how people survive such a thing.) He was broken-hearted recently over a surprise visit he made to his children. When he walked up to the house, his young son saw him coming and smiled. Daddy’s back! But the delighted look quickly faded, and suddenly his son turned and ran away.
I can only imagine what the father felt (or mother if the situation was reversed). But I know exactly what the little boy was going through. He had figured out in the months succeeding the separation that to be loyal to dad was somehow to be disloyal to mom – to love father was to betray mother. This is the true hell of divorce where the battle lines are drawn right through the child’s heart. It’s a no-win situation during holidays and at special events. One way or another, you are always choosing between your parents. As I said, superficial solutions are not helpful, nor are platitudes about resiliency. Only national mourning will do, rooted in genuine honesty. This will not come easily.
“This is a social policy problem that is located in the heart of the white middle class,” said Bill Galston, a former Clinton deputy assistant for domestic policy. “People don’t want to hear that their quest for personal fulfillment may come at the expense of their children.”
There are a growing number of books that deal with the reality of “no-fault” divorce and its impact on children, starting most famously with Barbara Dafoe Whitehead’s 1997 book, “The Divorce Culture.” At the time, Ms. Whitehead rightly railed against the culture’s dishonesty on the subject, especially the media’s dishonesty. Until we can get past the resilience myth, and get to the heart of the matter we will be an accident happening in slow motion, with a potentially catastrophic outcome.
By the dawn of the 21st century, Judith Wallerstein’s “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce” was published, a 25-year landmark study of adult children of divorce. Parental denial was becoming more difficult.
“The delayed impact of divorce in adulthood is a revolutionary finding and a stunning surprise,” announced Dr. Wallerstein, along with the two other women who authored the book. “We thought that children would be able to work through issues related to divorce by the time they reached late adolescence or left home. We advised parents that if they refrained from fighting and arranged their schedules so that the children could see both of them often, the children would do well. But these policies were based on adult needs and perceptions of divorce. We failed to realize that living in a post-divorce family is an entirely different experience for children as opposed to adults. The story of divorce is far more complex and the impact more far-reaching than we had ever imagined.”
The study showed that ACDs have to overcome many emotional problems: expectations of failure; fear of loss; fear of change; fear of conflict; fear of betrayal; and fear of loneliness. (Read that list again and ask yourself which political party – and which special interest groups – cry out more to these impulses.) These are deep wounds and cannot be superficially treated. And blaming one parent or the other is not usually the point.
For me, healing was a long journey begun with the sudden realization that my parents are just people who make mistakes and who, like so many others today, were propagandized by a secular culture that knows nothing about men, women or children – and especially knows nothing about marriage and divorce. This ignorance goes back many decades. Our grandparents and even great grandparents came under its influence.
When Hollywood started the mass drumbeat for easy divorce, their message was simple: “Marriage is about happiness, and so if you are not happy, you are in a bad marriage. Bad marriages waste lives and hurt children, and so it’s better to divorce your spouse and seek a good marriage, because then you’ll be happy. And if you are happy then your very resilient children (who are really your pals) will be happy too. Because they want nothing more than your happiness. …”
That about sums it up. For how many decades have we seen movies involving divorced parents where the son or daughter is a wisecracking, well-adjusted kid who acts more like your best buddy at the office? More likely than not, the child is comforting the adult. Since we adults go to these movies, it’s not surprising that the plots are rooted in the notion that parental “happiness” is at the center of everything.
Of course, children have not been entirely forgotten. Part of this devastating cultural message is that your newly found “happy marriage” (however many you go through to find it) will set an example to your children that they, too, can be happy if only they can find the ideal person. There are only two problems with this: no spouse is ideal, and marriage is not really about happiness.
I made the latter statement on HBO’s Bill Maher show and practically got booed out of the studio by the shocked audience. Many decades of lies about marriage made my statement too hard to hear. After all, says the pop culture, if marriage is not about your spouse making you happy, why get married?
It’s actually a great question, if only we dared to really ask it. I believe the traditional culture has the answer. You get married to learn what real love is (by way of your spouse, and your children if you have them). But – and here’s the clincher – if and when you do discover what real love for your spouse is, you also find real happiness and joy inside yourself, the kind no one can take away from you.
Remember, most 25-year-olds don’t yet know what love is. Until young marrieds learn that lesson, relationships can be hell because each spouse brings any number of flaws and even serious faults into the marriage. That is the real battle line – facing up to your spouse’s faults and still loving. And facing up to your own faults.
Marriage is not about being loved. It is about loving. Of course, with mutual love comes a special joy, but since it takes time to learn what real love is (it certainly did for me), commitment is the only real answer. It’s the vice grip that holds the two pieces together while the glue bonds.
If this were not true, no marriage would last because all marriages go through tunnels of unhappiness, whether from financial stress, personal doubt, sexual problems or whatever. But as the saying goes, there is light at the end of the tunnel. This is the essential wisdom of traditional “under-God” marriages – that there’s a higher right than our own wants. Without that understanding, nothing works.
Unfortunately, in the name of freedom and self-realization, society has increasingly rejected this worldview. After all, from a secularist’s point of view, physical life is the only “heaven” there is. There is nothing else to hope for, or work for, or long for. What you get in this life is all you are ever going to get. Thus, to give up your personal happiness is to turn your heaven into hell.
As I said, my mother is a decent person. Often secularists are not bad people, but they are deeply confused, and their confusion can be deadly when it comes to their children. This confusion has even affected the religious community. The pop culture’s propaganda is everywhere and has been for most of the last century. Not surprisingly, massive numbers of Christian families are blown apart by the “happiness myth.” This is especially ironic considering the Christian call to “take up your cross,” in other words, always to sacrifice yourself for the highest good – which paradoxically leads to the greatest and truest happiness.
I once counseled a Christian friend in Los Angeles who admitted to me that he’d been unfaithful to his wife. She found out – and he was distraught. I warned him that the pain he was feeling had a very dangerous other dimension to it. Instead of facing up to what he’d done to his family, he might start to deny it – by rationalizing that the “other woman” was his true love – and that his children were resilient and would understand.
He then admitted to me that he didn’t feel loved by his wife, and that he felt he deserved to experience this happiness. Of course, it is wonderful to be loved, but as I said above, the object of marriage is to love, not to be loved. Which is what I told him. Sadly for his wife and children, the call to being “loved” and being “happy” was too strong for him, and so were the culture’s lies about resilient children.
My friend turned a bad situation into a family disaster. He couldn’t see the truth of what he was doing, putting his own wants first – the exact opposite of what parents must do, which is to deny themselves. Good husbands and wives must follow the same principle. Otherwise, the marriage descends into I-me-mine-ism. And the first thing to go is genuine family unity.
Thus, marriage is about commitment – in the same way that having children is about commitment. Hold tight until the glue has solidified. In the context of a tight-knit family, children grow strong and secure. As I tell my friends who grew up with two loving parents under the same roof, they can’t even grasp how different they are from people like me. It’s just a plain fact.
The heroic parent
One of my favorite examples of “family” (although they had no children) is the story of newlyweds John and Mary Scully. They were both attorneys in San Francisco, victims of that terrible law firm shooting in the mid-1990s. A gunman found his way in and started killing people. The Scullys sought each other in the chaos, as the madman went from office to office. Cries of anguish could be heard down the hallway as loud shots rang out. The Scullys hid behind a desk, but the killer found them. As he raised his gun to shoot them both, John quickly threw his body over Mary’s. Most of the bullets found John. Mary was wounded in the arm. Her 28-year-old husband died that she might live. Later she remarried, and now has the children they never had together. In a way, of course, they are John’s children too.
John is a hero. He did the fatherly and manly thing, but this is no negative reflection on Mary. Men are expected to make that sacrifice and women are expected to let them. Does that make women cowards? Not at all. If Mary had been there with a young son, we would all expect her to do the same thing to save the life of her child. Denying “self” is the essence of parenting (and the essence of responsibility). Imagine Mary hiding behind her child in such a situation. Imagine John hiding behind Mary, and letting her take the bullets. The very thought makes us cringe.
This indicates not only the proper order of gender responsibility, it’s also a statement of genuine love – the only real kind – self-sacrificial. Yes, there is an order to sacrifice. Children expect you to sacrifice for them, and not the other way around. Like it or not, it comes with the territory of parenting – “women and children first,” as the saying goes. Of course, this attitude would put divorce lawyers pretty much out of business, except in the most extreme cases.
So our forefathers and mothers weren’t so stupid after all. The great wisdom of building a family is that you stay together for the sake of the children if for no other reason. And yet, there is another very precious reason, another wisdom that results in a fulfilling life.
Marriage forces us to face ourselves. I say this as an adult child of divorce who has had a great deal to face. My wife is also from a divorced (and glamorous) family, with additional troubles brought on by parental alcoholism. We both lived the youthful lie – and we are both finding our way out of it. Thankfully, the truth is revealed to us in doses we can tolerate, each of which gives us strength for future revelations.
If we are to learn to love each other, we must deal honestly with the battle going on within us all. Marriages are not perfect. Parents are not perfect, and they don’t create perfect children. These imperfect children become troubled adults and inevitably they bring their troubles into their marriages. That’s the way it is. Sorry. Nobody ever said life was easy, and nobody intelligent ever said marriage was about happiness. I don’t know anyone who thinks it’s a happy experience to stay up all night with a cranky baby while you’re worried about job stresses and paying the bills. A great movie line from “The Princess Bride” sums it up for me: Life is pain and anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something.
The entire question is how we handle that pain. The foolish media culture is out there telling us we deserve to be “happy,” and that if we are not, we must make changes or life will pass us by. My heart breaks for the 30-year-olds who don’t know enough not to listen to these old lies – young people who don’t know that life is a wonderful yet painful battle. And that engaging in “the good fight” (as the Bible calls it) with a lifetime spouse is not only what we are called to do for each other’s sake, but is ultimately the only path that creates healthy children, whose mothers and fathers may argue in the next room, but who never give up on each other or on the sanctity of their marriage vows.
Still, I can’t say it enough: We must reject judgment in all of this. We must never give up our right to say divorce is wrong, but we must avoid condemning the people involved.
I have learned not only to forgive my parents, but also to genuinely love and honor them. It wasn’t an easy path. I was the classic “angry young man.” In truth, I actually hated life (something it me took years to realize). After my parents’ divorce, life seemed like a huge bear trap, with jaws ready to close on me at any moment. But now I’ve changed. Now, even in the midst of life’s inevitable pain, I am so glad to be alive and to be the son of my parents – all five of them – and to be the grandson of their parents on both sides of my family. I do not judge any of them, especially as I understand the confusing power of the false things they believed.
I have also grown to know my own faults, which helps to put the mistakes of my parents, including my stepparents, in a very soft light. I am grateful for their myriad good qualities, and for the many ways in which they blessed me. But more simply and fundamentally I honor them for giving me the incredible gift of life, and for making the many and varied sacrifices necessary to help fulfill that original gift.
Still and finally, it must be said: The real heroes of the family struggle are those that reject divorce. Let us honor especially those parents, the ones who stayed together for the sake of the children. Let children rejoice in such parents, and honor them to the end of their days. And let the whole country – even the secular culture – honor them as well.
Something worth earnest prayer.
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