A Time to Divorce and a Time Not To

By Sharon Zarozny

It’s been said, timing is everything. And with divorce season upon us, it’s a good time to consider how kids, at different stages including adulthood, experience their parents breaking up. You might be surprised by what the experts report.

Young Children
My family fell apart when our daughters were only 3 and 6 years old. The timing wasn’t up to me and I remember tearfully struggling — taking one step forward, and 20 backwards— to put my divorce-ducks-in-a-row.

It was a difficult time for all of us, but my girls were so young and innocent that putting them first, and protecting them from the situation, happened naturally despite how distraught I was. When a new challenge arose, we had our comforting rituals to fall back on. We’d grab blankets and cuddle around a “fire-in-our-place” as my little one called it, or we’d pile into “my big-bed” for a group cry, eventually dissolving into giggles (yes, with a bit of tickling) and tiredly drifting off to sleep.

Their school embraced us, once I made the leap and shared the news. Teachers watched out for my daughters, letting me know how they were doing. The guidance counselor was wonderful, getting each child into an age-appropriate “lunch bunch” and meeting with my girls and me together — and individually.

When I finally got myself to an attorney, I told him I was just gathering information and not ready to divorce. After describing my situation, he looked me in the eye and firmly said, “Get this done before your oldest turns 13. If you wait, from what I’ve seen, it will be too hard on her — and that will make it even harder on you.”

I was stunned. My plan was to do whatever I could to keep the marriage going until our daughters were launched — which, to me, meant off to college.

Now I know I was wrong on two accounts.

  • First, staying in a turbulent marriage is one of the worst things you can do for a child. Despite our culture’s emphasis on “happily-ever-after” and keeping a marriage going for “the kids’ sake,” studies (and now even the Pope) report a chaotic, highly volatile home life takes a huge toll on a child. Simply put, experts say it’s parental conflict and being caught in the middle— not divorce — that hurts kids the most. Having two separate homes, with at least one being peaceful, is much better for kids and it gives them a better chance of a healthy romantic relationship down the road.
  • Second — and this may surprise you — one of the worst times to spring divorce on a child is shortly after he/she leaves for college. The first Monday after Labor Day (on September 14 this year), family law attorneys expect to be deluged with calls from potential clients ready to learn about, or start, the divorce process. It’s speculated the phenomenon, called D-Day, is partially fueled by parents dropping their last (or only) child off at college.

Teens and Beyond

Thinking (as I initially did) their child is now launched, parents who’ve selflessly stayed married “for the kids’ sake” finally feel free to start the divorce process. The rationale? With the last child away, creating his/her own world, their job is practically done and a divorce won’t be as difficult for their child. Turns out, that’s not necessarily the case.

Several years ago, spurred by Tipper and Al Gore’s divorce, there was such an increase in what’s been coined “grey divorce” that college counselors were slammed with students grappling with the news their parents were divorcing. It created so much havoc, colleges started sending freshman parents letters asking them to hold off any divorce plans, at least until their child was well-settled at college. One overworked, exasperated college counselor was known to admonish parents, “You’ve managed it for 18 years. Would another couple of months kill you?”

Why is waiting so important? Although your college student may look like an adult, s/he is actually more like a toddler needing Mom and Dad’s reassurance and the security of home as an anchor while testing his/her newly found independence. News of a divorce throws the student totally off-balance. Rather than focusing on school and new relationships, s/he worries about Mom and Dad and how badly the divorce could turn the entire family’s life upside down.

In her book, Calling It Quits, Deirdre Bair (a NY Times bestselling author and winner of the National Book Award) interviewed children of all ages whose parents had divorced. She was surprised to find 8 year-olds had an easier time than 30 year-olds whose parents were divorcing. Young kids have grown up with divorce around them and they are more accepting of it. Plus, when they tell another kid on the playground their parents are divorcing, they are likely to hear, “You so are lucky! Now you’ll have two birthdays, two Christmases, and your parents will buy you lots of new things!”

It’s a very different story for older children. Instead of extra presents, older children get extra worries — especially if they didn’t see the divorce coming. Older kids worry about why they are having such a hard time coping, how their parents are doing, if they’ll be able to finish college, and if they, too, are doomed to divorce. It creates huge trust issues. Then there’s the fact we don’t coddle them as we would a little child. Instead, we are inclined to see them as “friends,” turning to them for comfort and even sharing details we shouldn’t.

To help you understand the enormity of divorce’s impact on an adult child, I leave you with this. A mom I was coaching told me, for her, the most difficult part of separating was how devastated her 25-year-old (successfully living independently miles away) was by the news. I asked her why her daughter was having such a hard time. The answer, in her daughter’s words:

“I feel like my whole life was a lie. I thought we were a family and we all loved each other. Now, everything I believed the past 25 years probably wasn’t true.”

I was stunned. It never would have occurred to me that’s how an adult child might experience her parents’ divorce.

Later that day Pete Seeger’s song Turn, Turn, Turn (To Everything There is a Season)became stuck in my head. I plan to call the mom and suggest she listen to it with her daughter and then talk about how even parents have seasons and families change. Yes, the love and memories are real, the breaking apart is hard, but happy times will come again. It’s how life works.