I used to believe that divorce is a terrible thing, particularly when children are involved. Growing up, I absorbed cultural tropes about absent fathers in efficiency apartments, mothers struggling to support themselves, and awful stepparents and unwanted stepsiblings. To this day, divorce is portrayed as precarious and grim. Parents whose marriages break apart are made to feel they have failed catastrophically. Divorce is shameful, traumatic and Bad For The Kids.
But I’ve learned that divorce can also be an act of radical self-love that leaves the whole family better off. My divorce nearly seven years ago freed me from a relationship that was crushing my spirit. It freed my children, then 5 and 3, from growing up in a profoundly unhealthy environment.
There was no emotional or physical abuse in our home. There was no absence of love. I was in love with my husband when we got divorced. Part of me is in love with him still. I suspect that will always be the case. Even now, after everything, when he walks into the room my stomach drops the same way it does before the roller coaster comes down. I divorced my husband not because I didn’t love him. I divorced him because I loved myself more.
There are many reasons we did not make it. But the main one is that we had incompatible visions of our roles as partners and parents. Having children did not transform me. In fact, it didn’t change me much at all. I love our children beyond reason. I know I am lucky to have them.
But after I became a mother, I was still the same striving, work-obsessed, domestically challenged person I had always been. I made choice after choice to prioritize my career because I believed fervently in the importance of the work I was doing, providing legal representation to wrongfully convicted men and women. It gave me an identity, a purpose and the comfort of knowing I could support myself.
My ex-husband was not unreasonable in wanting me to change — not to give up working, but to stop chasing after bigger, harder projects. He works hard but not when he is at home. He rarely travels and actively engages with nearly every aspect of our children’s lives no matter how mundane. I fell short of his standards. “You are not present” was a phrase I heard a lot. Sometimes it was literal: For years, I traveled frequently for work. Sometimes it was metaphorical: My mind consumed by a case or a piece of writing, I would retreat to an inner world that made it hard to focus on the people right in front of me.
Sometimes during the final months of my marriage, I wavered. Maybe if I quit my long-distance job and found a position closer to home even if I did not particularly care for it, we could hold on. Perhaps I could work part time, join the P.T.A. at my son’s school and start cooking dinner. I fervently wanted to save my marriage and give my children an intact family. And I had been taught that divorce was a terrible thing, to be avoided at all costs.
But deep inside, I knew that trying to force myself to subordinate my ambitions and always put our children first would have been impossible without lopping off a vital part of myself. I would picture myself, a few decades into the future, sitting next to my husband at our daughter’s wedding. One of the guests, well-meaning, would raise a glass to toast our own happy marriage — what footsteps the bride was following in! And there I would be, skinny and sunken in my sea-foam mother-of-the-bride dress, the smile on my face freezing the resentment beneath it, a third vodka tonic sweating in my hand. Our daughter would know the truth — that it had not been a happy marriage at all. She would know, and my son would know.
“We stayed together for the kids” is a common refrain reflecting an ingrained belief that anything is better than a “broken family.” To which I silently reply, you aren’t fooling anyone. Children know on an intuitive level what their parents are thinking and feeling. Long frosty silences, screaming matches and unrelenting tension between parents can inflict damage to the well-being of their children.
I have spent much of the pandemic interviewing working women who are diverse across race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, geography, class, age and profession for a book I am writing about ambitious mothers and the benefits to their children when they prioritize their careers.
Talking to the subset who are divorced, I found a common theme, even a sisterhood: Divorce is painful and heartbreaking. But it can also be liberating, pointing the way toward a different life that leaves everyone better off, including the children.
One 38-year-old newly single mother who works full time and attends graduate school at night told me with pride that for the first time, she is living with her 9-year-old in an apartment she picked out, decorated and paid for on her own.
“Everything is my choice and I am in charge,” she said, adding that her former husband is an involved co-parent. “The relationship changed, but no one disappeared.”
That has certainly been my family’s experience: We split custody and finances down the middle, and I try to keep my longest working hours to the days I am alone. My ex-husband and I make a point of spending time together with our children, having regular dinners, watching sports and going for bike rides as a foursome. We strive to be collaborative and cooperative, even when we aren’t getting along. Our parenting styles remain very different, but we do not snipe at or undermine each other. We bite our tongues.
Recently I asked my daughter, now 10, how she felt. She told me: “Some of my friends spend more time with their parents, but I have to give you a lot of credit because those kids are in two-parent families. Our criminal justice system is horrible and messed up, and you are trying to help it get fixed.” She added, “I want to have a big career and try to get somewhere and have an impact.”
I would say that I am the happiest divorced person I know, but there is stiff competition. Divorce can, of course, be a miserable and rancorous experience, and one that leaves one or both former partners financially or emotionally broken. But for unhappily married women who are able to support themselves and their children, breaking free can also be like plunging into a cold ocean: a shock to the system that is at once brutal and cleansing. They can emerge stronger and clearer-eyed. Their children benefit because happier mothers are better parents.
I no longer think of divorce as shameful or feel sorry for people who tell me that they have decided to end their marriages. There are many ways a family can be broken. Sometimes, the healthiest decision is to remove the cracking shell of the nuclear family before the shards embed themselves in the precious little people nestled inside. My divorce spared my children that pain and let me live the life I was meant to. I view that as an accomplishment.
Lara Bazelon is a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law and the author of the forthcoming book “Ambitious Like A Mother.”
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