The pain of divorce and a previous column still lingers

October 02, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

There is great pain in divorce. I know because that pain has been heaped upon me like cord wood on a bonfire -- the bonfire divorced women and their children would like to light around my bound ankles.

A few weeks ago, I wrote that if parents, tortured by vague disaffections, walk away from their marriages, it will devastate their children. I quoted studies begun in the 1960s that followed children for many years and found -- in contradiction to what many had thought -- that most suffer wounds from which they do not recover even as adults.

"Children of divorce are usually thrown immediately into a lesser standard of living, if not into poverty. They are neglected emotionally by their overwrought parents. They have difficulty at school because they are distracted and upset. . . . Long into their own adulthood, children of divorce are found to be depressed, troubled, drifting and underachieving. They have difficulty making emotional commitments, forming a marriage, holding a job," I wrote, summarizing those studies.

"How dare you!" "I have never been so infuriated in my life." "You are living totally in the dark ages." "I have seldom been as angry or as taken aback." "Gee, thanks for letting me know I permanently screwed up my kid's life by divorcing her father." "What a shallow, unfeeling, smug little column."

The shock, anger and bitterness poured into my mailbox. Some would not wait for the U.S. mail. They hand-delivered letters to The Sun's offices.

The letter-writers fit one of two profiles: A wife who had been abandoned or who had fled an abusive or a dead marriage; or the child of divorce, who wrote of the relief when bitter parents split up.

I did not hear from the people to whom the column was addressed: the parent who walks away in search of a more pleasant or fulfilling life.

"It is far more important for [children] to have parents who are loving, attentive and honest than it is for them to have parents who share the same bed forever," wrote Annette Lepore of Baltimore.

Reading the letters was like watching someone flinch and cry out when an open wound is probed. The bitterness of the women was equaled only by their ferocious defense of their children and all they had done to protect their children and sanctify their lives.

"I worked two jobs to make sure that they were able to stay in their home, that they had all the nice things that a two-parent family could afford," wrote Mary Rosenfeld of Baltimore. "Every spare second I had was devoted to their needs.

"I feel Ms. Reimer owes every hard-working, caring and giving mother a written apology," she wrote.

Others were angered by my suggestion that society has more financial institutions and folkways in place to sustain a child whose parent had died than one whose parent had moved out. The pages of these letters were stained with tears of grief -- in some cases, grief decades old.

"Obviously you did not lose a parent at an early age," wrote Mary Ellen Wogan of Albany, N.Y. She was 7 when her mother died.

"If you had, you would have been more sensitive and compassionate. . . . As if monetary compensation . . . can replace the primary emotional care-giver . . . or assist the child who will now never experience the shared joy and support of the person who brought them into the world."

Though I said that abused women or children were exempt from my archaic notion of "staying together for the sake of the kids," abused women and abused daughters wrote of a husband's or father's reign of terror and asked how I could suggest that they might be better off in such a family.

And a few wrote to warn me.

Though I wrote that I knew how lucky I was to be married to a great guy, women said that they had thought their husbands were great guys, too. Until they left.

And others wrote that there was no guarantee that my own two children would turn out OK, even if my husband and I kept our family intact. They have you for a mother, these writers warned.

"I pray that this storybook existence continues because [your] -- naivete and ignorance make [you] incapable of coping with any real life challenges," wrote Bettina Scott of Baltimore.

I wrote that even if parents divorce gently, even if divorce is, for the children, a welcome end to fighting, the pain lasts a very long time.

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