Sunday, July 10, 2011

Children of Divorce

If we want to understand American culture we will need to understand the Vietnam era counterculture and the wave of feminism that followed it.

If the counterculture was an earthquake, the ensuing feminist wave was, for many families, a tsunami.

The counterculture taught a generation of young people the virtues of empty self-esteem,  blind self-indulgence, and useless self-actualization.

Under normal circumstances teenagers are susceptible to such siren songs. At a time when Vietnam threatened their comfortable, free-wheeling lives, they were putty in the hands of the cultural left.

America had vanquished enemies and created extraordinary prosperity by following an ethic of hard work and social harmony. Against that ethic, the counterculture promoted individual gratification.

Following fast upon the counterculture, a feminist tsunami hit the country in the early 1970s. While it too addressed itself to students, especially those of the female gender, it targeted housewives and the American family.  

Feminists convinced large numbers of women that marriage was a form of domestic servitude. Thus, it induced them to believe that their husbands were treating them like chattel slaves.

According to feminist ideology, women had been consigned the roles of wife and mother because the patriarchy wanted to keep them out of the workplace. Men feared empowered women because these morally superior beings would prevent men from engaging in violent military adventures.

As everyone knows now, the feminist tsunami drowned a significant number of marriages.

Feminism brought the war home. It brought ideology into the kitchen. For many families domestic harmony was the primary casualty, even before the spike in the number of divorces.

In some cases domestic disharmony pushed husbands to seek solace in the arms and beds of other women. In other cases men failed to comply with feminist demands and this led wives to seek divorce.

How bad was it? It was far worse than most people have been willing to admit. If anyone dares suggest that children are hurt by divorce, feminist apologists will tell you that a bad marriage is worse for children.

We still read essays and even supposedly scientific studies that tell that it was all for the best, and if it wasn’t for the best, the fault lies with men.

Lately, feminists have been trying to rationalize the destruction they caused by saying that the children of this wave of divorces now have better marriages.

After all, today’s young people have been indoctrinated in feminism, so women have fulfilling careers while men wash dishes and change diapers.

I have expressed doubt about this rosy scenario before, so I will not repeat my opinions. Surely, when feminists sow these theories they are primarily concerned with avoiding responsibility for the sociocultural havoc that they visited on American families.

Instead I want to draw attention to a compelling and beautifully written article by Susan Gregory Thomas. In these paragraphs Thomas describes what life was like for the children of this wave of divorce:  “For much of my generation—Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980—there is only one question: ‘When did your parents get divorced?’ Our lives have been framed by the answer. Ask us. We remember everything.

“When my dad left in the spring of 1981 and moved five states away with his executive assistant and her four kids, the world as I had known it came to an end. In my 12-year-old eyes, my mother, formerly a regal, erudite figure, was transformed into a phantom in a sweaty nightgown and matted hair, howling on the floor of our gray-carpeted playroom. My brother, a sweet, goofy boy, grew into a sad, glowering giant, barricaded in his room with dark graphic novels and computer games.
“I spent the rest of middle and high school getting into trouble in suburban Philadelphia: chain-smoking, doing drugs, getting kicked out of schools, spending a good part of my senior year in a psychiatric ward. Whenever I saw my father, which was rarely, he grew more and more to embody Darth Vader: a brutal machine encasing raw human guts.”

Somehow this picture does not conjure up gauzy visions of the goodness that befell a woman liberated from marriage.
Lest you think that hers was a unique condition, Thomas describes how it was for other children in her neighborhood: “Growing up, my brother and I were often left to our own devices, members of the giant flock of migrant latchkey kids in the 1970s and '80s. Our suburb was littered with sad-eyed, bruised nomads, who wandered back and forth between used-record shops to the sheds behind the train station where they got high and then trudged off, back and forth from their mothers' houses during the week to their fathers' apartments every other weekend.”
Thomas’s article focuses on her efforts to clean up the mess that her parents’ divorce. She remarks, as others have, the children who paid the high price for this ideological folly resolved, when they married, never to submit their own children to the same horrors.

In her words: “To allow our own marriages to end in divorce is to live out our worst childhood fears. More horrifying, it is to inflict the unthinkable on what we most love and want to protect: our children. It is like slashing open our own wounds and turning the knife on our babies. To consider it is unbearable.”

So, Thomas’s story raises a question: Is a strong resolve sufficient to keep a couple married? Will the right state of mind suffice to keep a marriage together?

Thomas resolved that she would not make her parents' mistakes. She swore to herself that she would never hurt her children as her parents hurt her. And then she discovered that her most firm resolution was simply not enough.

It’s a sobering lesson, and one that is well worth making.
But, how do you avoid repeating a trauma? How do you ensure that you do not turn out like your parents.

Beyond her firm resolution, Gregory thought that it would be a good thing not to follow her parents’ example. Considering where it got them, her decision makes some sense.

In her words: “Like many of my cohort, the circumstances of my upbringing led me to believe that I had made exactly the right choices by doing everything differently from my parents.”

Why doesn’t this work? Simply because it is an anti-ethic. It does not tell you want to do; it tells you what not to do.

Also, it assumes, without much evidence, that the choices her parents made leading up to their divorce were necessarily wrong choices.

This, I contend, is wrong.

Look at it this way. Imagine that a healthy person catches a disease. Surely, you would not conclude that you should avoid healthy habits because they lead you to catch a disease.

Unfortunately, therapy has a tendency to see life in terms of a coherent narrative. If a marriage fails, therapy will induce you to think that the seeds of its failure were there from the beginning.

Yet, it is just as possible that the marriage was, for the most part, healthy and that the introduction of an extraneous ideological element caused it to disintegrate. If you convince a woman that her making meals and washing dinners makes her marriage a sham, this will certainly not contribute to conjugal bliss.

If you look at the number of marriages that disintegrated in a relatively short period of time in the 1970s, it's impossible to believe that, all of a sudden, Americans were making bad marriages and that they all deserved to end.

More significantly, far too many members of Thomas’s generation do not know what a good marriage looks like. If their parents had a good marriage before ideological influences undermined it, then the children who were traumatized by divorce will not be able to see the number of good habits that their parents practiced when their marriage was going well.

A good step for young people today would be to remove feminism from their marriages, to get it out of the kitchen. The parents parents of generation X made their greatest mistake by allowing themselves to be seduced by feminism. If the children who suffered the fallout from the feminist tsunami wise up and refuse to allow their choices to be dictated by ideology, they would be making a great leap forward.


Cane Caldo said...

By what means do you propose a person, or couple, remove feminism from their marriage? I read this talk a lot--and I agree--but I never see how one goes about it.

Anonymous said...

Cane Caldo said...
By what means do you propose a person, or couple, remove feminism from their marriage? I read this talk a lot--and I agree--but I never see how one goes about it.

isn't it this simple? :

'question authority.'

or in stuarts formulation:
'question the narrative'.

seems obvious to me.

- shoe

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, Shoe, and thanks Cane Caldo for a good question.

Since the feminist narrative sees men and women engaged in a class struggle, it would be a great thing to overcome this narrative. This means not fighting things out, not getting angry, not making petty household issues into occasions for screaming fights.

I recall a television program just after 9/11 where they interviewed some women who had lost their husbands in the terrorist attack.

One of them said she missed having someone around who always left the toilet seat up. And she added that, when her husband was alive, she used to be angry about it.

Which is better, getting angry and getting into a fight about it, or just putting the toilet seat down?

If a woman needs help around the house, it is better to ask nicely than to accuse the man of being an agent of patriarchal oppression.

And if he cannot do it, probably because his mother brought him up not to do household chores, then it's better for the woman to do it herself and not make an issue over it.

Think before going to war over whether the toilet seat is up. Do you think that this issue is worth your marriage.

How about having a little perspective?