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D-I-V-O-R-C-E // About the kids


How Divorce Became an Entitlement and How It Is Blighting the Lives of Our Children

By Barbara Dafoe Whitehead

Knopf, $24


The subtitle is meant to shock and to sell books, but it also served to warn me that this would not be an easy book to read. Scholarly and dense, troubling and right on the mark some of the time, its central point is that divorce has become too easy, has far-reaching social implications and is particularly devastating to children. Divorce, says Barbara Whitehead, "involves a radical redistribution of hardship, from adults to children, and therefore cannot be viewed as a morally neutral act."

Originally an article in the Atlantic Monthly called "Dan Quayle Was Right," which drew fire from readers of both political persuasions, the piece was reworked into a book that expands Whitehead's argument.

How did the American social landscape change so fast from a place where divorce was stigmatized to one where about 45 percent of children under 18 will experience divorce firsthand? The pendulum has swung from rare divorce to casual divorce in a scant 50 years, says Whitehead. What she finds most disturbing is that children are the big losers in the rush to make divorce easy in our culture.

Here is what often happens, she says, when a couple divorces. Assuming that the father moves out, the household income declines an average of 50 percent. The economic safety net of two working parents is lost. "The incentive structure for male investment in children has been profoundly damaged," she writes. (Statistics show that about 40 percent of children eligible for child support have none awarded by the court.)

The divorced mother, now having to do double duty as parent and breadwinner, has less time for the kids. One study showed that even after five years, a third of the children of divorce are moderately to severely depressed. Other studies found that children do not achieve as well in school and become cynical about long-term commitments.

As a mother who was divorced from the father of my two sons early in their lives, I have been monitoring the effects of this event on them for a long time. We were divorced in the early '70s, just as divorce was beginning to be seen as an "expressive, liberating" act. I found no social services designed to help me and my husband sort out our issues and determine if they were resolvable. And most of what I saw in the media suggested that kids were far better off in a family where parents were not fighting. That was the conventional wisdom of the day.

I was lucky enough to have an extended family and I later remarried and created a step-family. Whitehead sees flaws in both of these alternatives. Nothing works quite the same as two doting parents, she asserts. She examines what she calls the Love Family, one that is constructed of caring adults, not necessarily relatives, who live together voluntarily. The problem with this new variant, she contends, is that it has a feel of transience and impermanence.

Whitehead also is critical of the therapy profession. Counselors tend to treat a child who wants to keep a family intact, with both a mom and a dad, as the problem to be fixed, rather than the disintegrating marriage. "The parental role," she writes, "carries an obligation to sacrifice one's own interests and defer or even limit satisfactions in pursuit of children's well-being."

Whitehead cites an impressive body of major studies of post-divorce families, with special attention to work done by sociologists. She fails to include, however, any substantial discussion of fathers who raise children alone _ surely an important and growing segment of the population.

Nor does she pay much attention to success stories. In my circle of divorced friends, I have seen courage and love and creative ways of coping. I don't claim that my kids weren't hurt in many ways by divorce, but I do know that damage control is possible, and I hate to see that kind of effort get lost in the sea of impersonal data that dominates social and psychological theory. We cannot lose sight of real people and their enormous capacity to adapt.

Whitehead's work is important because it brings the needs of children into public debate. But it is also dangerous. When she cites how far the pendulum has swung toward easy divorce, she fails to appreciate the untenable conditions that precipitated that swing. I don't want to see a return to the days when who got a divorce was determined by males in power and women _ especially poor ones _ were stuck in abusive marriages. Reactionary public policy that ignores history is likely to limit or prohibit divorce without providing the support services so necessary for the people it will affect. And once again, children will be the losers.

Susan Fernandez edits the Journal of Social Philosophy, Ethics Center, University of South Florida, St. Petersburg.