1970s, avery corman, california, catholic, communication, cooking, court, custody, divorce, divorce rate, divorced kid, documentary, dr. phil, family secret, household chores, kramer vs. kramer, marriage, minnesota public radio, mpr, no-fault divorce, oprah, pathetic fallacy, sasha aslanian, siblings, visitation, wedded bliss
MPR is running a four-part series called Divorced Kid: Stories from the 1970s Divorce Revolution. According to the documentary, 1979 was the year that saw the divorce rate reach a historic peak. A decade earlier, in 1969, California had passed a law allowing no-fault divorce, which meant that people could get divorced without having to prove the other party had seriously wronged them in some way. Other states soon adopted the same law and divorce rates rose throughout the ’70s because of it.
During the first part of the series, Sasha Aslanian, the host of the series, talks about the movie Kramer vs. Kramer and how ground-breaking the movie was for its time. The author of the novel the movie was based on, Avery Corman, was a child of divorce and he discussed how the divorce was a family secret. He simply didn’t talk about it. Neither did other children of 1970s divorces.
I was one of those kids. My parents divorced when I was 11, which was in the late ’70s. Listening to the MPR series, I was surprised to find that our family was within the peak of the divorce movement. It certainly didn’t feel that way to me at the time. Living in a small town, it felt like our family was rare for having gone through a divorce. Like the other children of divorce from the series, we didn’t talk about it.
I felt like a pariah, in no small part because the parents of the large Catholic family across the alley from us forbade us from playing with their children after the divorce. Apparently, we were now unclean.
I remember the specific day of the divorce, not for its date, which I don’t remember, but for my feeling of abandonment. Our parents, at least one of them, were supposed to retrieve us from school that day. It was a sunny day, so no pathetic fallacy going on there, but we waited and waited and waited in front of the school. Soon, no one was left at the school and still we waited. Eventually, someone retrieved us. I don’t remember who. All I remember was the waiting and the sense that we had been forgotten in our parents’ drama.
Before my parents separated, we knew that something was amiss because of all the arguing. My sister and I shared a bedroom upstairs, above the den, which is where at least some of the arguments took place. We were sent to bed by 8 or 9 p.m. at that time – while it was still light out in the summer. The daylight and the arguing conspired to keep us awake. On at least one occasion, I rallied my sister and brothers, who shared the other upstairs bedroom, and we went downstairs to try to stop our parents from arguing. I have no idea what they thought of us, but obviously our intervention didn’t work.
My mom told us they were getting divorced in advance of the actual court day and she prepared us for taking over the household chores when she was gone. She showed us how to do laundry. Each of us was assigned certain recipes from her repetoire of family meals. We were taught how to properly do the dishes and clean the house. It was indicated to me that as the oldest daughter, I’d have to take charge of much of this, and I do remember being the one who was left with the dishes and the cooking most often. (Perhaps my siblings remember this differently.)
What was highly unusual about our parents’ divorce for the time was that my dad got custody of us. Most of the time, the mother got custody and the father dealt with the child support payments. We stayed in the house with Dad and Mom moved into an apartment. There didn’t seem to be any sort of visitation agreement. We just biked or walked over to Mom’s to see her whenever we felt like it. For stretches of time, we might visit every day.
The MPR series dredges up all kinds of memories about the divorce and what life was like after the divorce. (Sasha mentions that bringing up divorce among children of divorce produces raw feelings. Yep. It does.) It was a pivotal point in my life, where family life was ducky before and had many moments of lousiness afterwards. Mind you, it wasn’t all lousy because we did reach a certain equlibrium following the divorce, but the family cohesiveness was gone.
Looking back, I think that the biggest reason for my parents’ divorce was a lack of proper communication between the two of them. My dad was and remains a fairly non-communicative person. My mom needed more communication in general and, specifically, more assurances about her value as a person. If they’d had Dr. Phil or Oprah at the time, perhaps they could’ve figured this out.
While many children of divorce grow to become adults who get divorced, I was determined not to add to this statistic. I’m not sure when this became a conscious decision on my part, but I knew that when I got married, it was going to be for life. After two decades of wedded bliss, Hubby and I are well on our way to this goal. (And we’re going to be living a looooooong time, so we’ll have many more decades together. Because I said so.)