Thursday, October 15, 2009

On Divorce

Much is said about doing what is in the best interest of the children.  I used to like the famous line "it takes a village to raise a family" and still believe it is true to an extent.   A village provides the infrastructure that makes raising a family possible.  The schools, the libraries, the cub scouts, and book sales. Friends are important for that emergency pickup when you can't make it to get your child from her karate lesson, but it is the nuclear family that raises the children and it takes two people to do that.

There are many instances where a second person is needed.  As mundane as washing dishes is, it occupies a parent while the kids are unsupervised.  It would be better to have a second parent read to the children or supervise their independent play.  All too often the kids get an electronic parent like the television, ipod, or internet to keep them busy while the single parent is busy.  At the end of the day, a single parent is exhausted and has had no time to do the things a person needs to do to remain happy, and it should be a right to pursue happiness.  When there are two parents, either parent can disappear for some private time, to read a book, take a piano lesson, or mow the lawn.  For a single parent, each of these tasks becomes a juggling feat and the children pay for the juggler. 

I don't understand opposition to gay couples adopting.  Any child would be lucky to have two loving parents, even if they were from another planet.  With a 50% divorce rate I don't think it really matters what sex the parents are, but that they stay together. 

In her book Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, Meg Meeker, MD makes several points about what is good for children.  She makes it clear that there is good evidence that divorce damages children.  Her advice is to stay married if at all possible, that it is better to divorce when the children are 20 than when they are 14.  My inference is that divorce is essentially a selfish act when there are children involved.  Once you have children, you have committed yourself to their lives, their happiness and not your own.  To go chasing something better is not right, unless there is abuse, etc.  Marriage is difficult and there is value in making it through the hard times, even if they last years.

Part of my divorce was a required "course" on divorce, in my opinion after the horse was out of the barn, but required nonetheless.  It repeatedly mentioned that kids are resilient and do fine after a divorce.  I believe this is the wrong message.  I think it should be difficult to get a divorce, and perhaps even difficult to get a marriage.  I think the course should be given early in the marriage, before there are kids, and should discuss the damage that divorce does to children.  Earlier loss of virginity,  out of wedlock pregnancy, learning disorders, emotional disabilities, behavior problems, and shorter lives among others.

Our ideas on what is best for kids change over the years, proof that we never did know and probably never will know, what is important in raising healthy, happy, well-adjusted children. 

In divorce, it used to be that the mother was felt to be the most important influence, and fathers had to fight hard to maintain time with the children.  Usually it was a small number of days and this did not allow the father to feel involved.  Many fathers just tossed in the towel and gave up.

Now it is recognized that a father is also important and the courts tend to make sure the father gets significant time with the children, but there are many other variables involved and the court should not pretend it knows the answers to these parenting issues. 

A lot of emphasis is placed on maintaining things as they were during the marriage, mostly on "living in the style one has become accustomed to", but a divorce changes the marriage and the lives we had become accustomed to.  When a parent decides to leave, there is no reason why they should continue to be supported.  The children deserve to be supported and this should be looked at by the court, but the onus need not be on the same person who played the support role in the marriage, since the marriage is now over.  A better way to look at it would be as two single parents, each of whom has to make a life for their children without the redundant luxury that a marriage provides. 

Just because during the marriage one partner could stay home and enjoy raising children while the other parent worked does not mean this should be the case when a parent has decided to leave.  Both parents should be prepared to give up their own needs in order to provide for the kids, even if that means working at Walmart instead of going to school to further oneself.  Of course arrangements and deals can be made.  "I'll pay for you to go to school since that will provide you a better future".  This way you won't have to spend your life working for minimum wage to provide for the kids."  This is OK but it should be a deal between the parents, not a court mandated distribution of money.  If one parent worked hard to provide money, he/she gave up something precious to do that-time with the children.  That parent should be able to keep what they made and the other parent gets to keep the bonds they were allowed to make with the kids while their partner worked.

If anything, there is an incentive for divorce in many cases, from a financial perspective.  The above would change that and perhaps make people think more seriously before ending their marriage. 

At most, the financial situation should be returned as closely as possible to the pre-marital status.  If the father leaves the marriage wealthy and the mother poor, that is only addressing the money.  I would gladly have handed over half of my money  if I thought I could get half of the time with the kids that I gave up when I slunk out of the house each morning before the sun rose, and before the children were awake.

This deal should be understood when a couple decides to have children.  The mother may be giving up a career to raise the children while the father works, but this is a conscious decision made by an adult, and it has repercussions that the mother must live with.  That's being an adult.  Staying with a marriage that has difficulties (don't they all?) to pursue a happier life should not carry with it the right to live as if one were still married.

Marriage should not be portrayed as a romantic, live happily ever after, fairy tale to our children as long as we live in a country where half of the marriages fail.  Anyone planning to get married should have more work to do than picking out the best font for the invitations.  They should be required to take a marriage course, just as they will be required to take a divorce course.   A more realistic picture of marriage, and a better and earlier preparation for dealing with marital difficulty would help solve our epidemic of failed marriages.  A prenuptial agreement should be mandatory, not just to preserve the wealth of one partner, but to have a plan for a reasonable separation made while the partners are still being reasonable with each other.  After a divorce, the wedding gifts should go to a thrift shop that serves the community.

There are exceptions for abusive relationships, but the solution really should focus on removing the abuser from the abused and trying to help both people.  In these cases people generally come from backgrounds that are abusive and it is the time to stop the cycle.

In a society that worries so much about threats from abroad, I wish we spent more time fixing the problems we create ourselves.

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