makes such good friends that I sometimes think I should just
keep adopting them. They are all bright and funny and soulful.
I like to think she learned about the value of friendship
by knowing my close friends—who are all bright and funny and
Of course, Madeleine’s friends all have their own mothers,
so I can’t really adopt any of them. But I’m willing to be
their Mother-at-Large, provided that is not prophetic of what
will happen to my body if I am.
The first of the three to whom I became the self-appointed
Mother-at-Large is, like Madeleine, a child of divorced parents.
Like Madeleine, there is a fair amount of complaining and
joking about parental peregrinations and the impact that it
has on them.
They aren’t interested in commiserating with either parent’s
difficulty. They are more interested in the lousy ways that
divorce affects them.
So when Madeleine showed me a story my first surrogate daughter
wrote, I was struck by its bittersweetness. “Smiles and Pine:
The Legacy” is a super-short journey of a couple through courting,
marriage and life after divorce. They discover “why marriage
is so great. After, you live happily.”
every other weekend,” she writes, “they nodded to each other
as the switching of the children took place. Elaine became
president of the PTA. David picked up a hot new chick. You
might say they moved on.”
It’s a barbed and witty little story, and Madeleine showed
it to me because she was proud of her friend.
I was, too. But I was also sad that she had the perspective
from which to write it, and my daughter to read it, so knowingly.
And I felt worry: What do kids of divorced parents think is
actually possible in intimate partnerships?
Women of my generation, raised in the “can-do” era, which
claimed a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, tend
to trumpet an independence that sounds not only sometimes
shrill, but also defensive.
And the feminist backlash that fuels so many radio airwaves
is full of misogyny masked as humor.
The genders seem never to have been less kind to one another
than we are now.
That doesn’t bode well for our kids’ relationships and marriages,
particularly for kids who have seen their parents’ mutual
anger or alienation or heartbreak or hatred.
How will kids of divorced parents learn to craft sustaining
relationships? How will my daughter, who once claimed that
some men should come with expiration dates stamped on their
butts, enter into a trusting partnership? How can anything
seem other than ad hoc when so many of our marriages and partnerships
appear to operate in exactly that way?
Let me be very clear: I am not trumpeting so-called “family
values.” I am not lining up behind our president’s ending-poverty-through-marriage
My point is simply that most of us end up wanting to be in
close and reliable relationships. The desire for companionship,
for affection, for sexual love isn’t something cynicism easily
But I’m not sure kids of divorced parents gain either much
confidence or skill in how to cultivate that area of their
lives. Largely because their parents haven’t done such a hot
job of cultivating that area of their lives.
I went to graduate school with a woman who now lives in Argentina,
where she and her husband are Southern Baptist missionaries.
Because they are from such a conservative Christian tradition,
when Mark proposed to Karen, he made it clear to her that
divorce would never be an option.
A chill went through me when she told me that. Especially
since I knew their first couple of years had been rocky and
the relocation from Virginia to Argentina had been a struggle
I always thought it a little creepy that she would go into
a marriage knowing that, on some level, this was life without
On the other hand, she never thought of her marriage as a
prison, which may be part of the reason why hers didn’t devolve
into a prison. But some can and do. And partners can and do
sometimes ossify into alienated or resentment-driven robots.
If it takes a village to raise a child, it sure as hell takes
more than one person to make a go of marriage.
And an awful lot of people would rather live in denial about
who they really are and how they handle intimacy, than risk
discovery in full view of their partner.
So we are in no danger of doing away with divorce.
But how do we show our kids that it doesn’t have to be the
way it was for us? That intimacy can be a journey of safety
and growth, rather than a snake-filled path of briers?
I don’t know. Because we learn what we see.
But in spite of my own two failed marriages, I have seen plenty
of happiness in other partnerships. Plenty of respect and
love. Enough to believe such things are possible, enough to
quell my bitterness, enough to believe in the power of love
to last and be sustaining.
Enough to know that the warrior stands ground and the retreatant
flees. The Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan sees true weakness
as “shrinking from all the sorrows, pains, troubles and difficulties
that come in the path of love.”
I don’t know how to embody for my daughters a trust in the
journey of intimacy. I’m a broken traveler. But I know I show
them valor in my willingness to keep on walking.
D.H. Lawrence writes, “Whoever wants life must go softly toward
life, softly as one would go towards a deer and a fawn that
was nestling under a tree. One gesture of violence, one violent
assertion of self-will and life is gone. . . . But with quietness,
with an abandon of self-assertion and a fullness of the deep,
true self one can approach another human being, and know the
delicate best of life, the touch.”