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Love Shock

Madeleine 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 soulful.

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.”

“Twice 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 stratagem.

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 overcomes.

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 for her.

I always thought it a little creepy that she would go into a marriage knowing that, on some level, this was life without parole.

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.”

—Jo Page

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