One thing that I have been more or less constantly aware of for the last two years is the effect that E and I splitting up has had, and will have, on our children.
I grew up in the 70s/80s, a time when children of divorced parents were seen as coming from a ‘broken home’ and where we all ‘just knew’ that children of divorced parents were more likely to struggle academically, psychologically and even physically, as a result of their parents’ actions. It was accepted that marriages and relationships didn’t ‘end’, they ‘failed’ and the children of these failed relationships would suffer because of this.
This article pretty much sums up the bleak view we had of the prospects for children of divorce. It quotes research from the late 80s/early 90s suggesting that:
- children with divorced parents are more likely to experience injury, asthma, headaches and speech impediments than children with married ones.
- kids from single parents families are 50% more likely to develop health problems that kids from nuclear families
- children living with both parents were 20 to 35 percent more physically healthy than their single parent home peers.
- teenagers in single-parent families are twice as likely to drop out of school and 300% more likely to need psychological help than teenagers from ‘normal’ families.
- children of divorce experience more psychological problems than children who have lost a parent to DEATH (!).
- kids from who come from ‘broken homes’ were almost twice as likely to attempt suicide.
- if these poor fuckers manage to make it through their teens intact, they’re still doomed – with research showing that children of divorce tend to have lower paying jobs than their parents as well as a history of vulnerability to drugs and alcohol in adolescence, and fear of commitment (entering relationships doomed to fail themselves).
Just as I was hoping things had changed, this little piece of research popped up – blaming working mothers for childhood obesity (fuck knows what they thought the fathers were doing?). Unsurprisingly single mothers got an extra special bit of blame/shame – with this research suggesting that their kids are 25% more likely to suffer from obesity than their peers.
I mean. Fuck. Where’s the fucking point? I might as well just sink into alcoholism and watch my fat, unhealthy, mentally ill kids slide into their inevitable obesity-plagued failures of lives and just not bother…
Seriously, though, I do think attitudes have improved over the years – it’s now generally accepted that children are better off growing up with two happy, single, or remarried, parents, rather than two deeply unhappy ones, and that – gasp – children of divorced parents can have perfectly balanced, well-adjusted lives. But there is still a general acceptance that kids from divorced families are worse off than those from two parent families.
E even tapped into received wisdom re the damage divorce can do to kids – one lie that E told each and every woman that he was seeing, was that we ‘were only together for the sake of the children’. That probably made his lies sound plausible – after all, isn’t that what responsible parents should do? Surely, good parents stay together to avoid their kids suffering all of the dreadful consequences above? Not for E the old ‘my wife doesn’t understand me’ line, instead, using the excuse of staying in a loveless relationship for ‘the sake of the kids’ made him look thoroughly decent and was instantly understandable – after all, who wants to deliberately throw their kids over the psychological and physical cliff edge of divorcing?
Of course, in an ideal world, all kids would have two parents at home, just as in an ideal world most parents would be grateful for the day-to-day support of a co-parent. Of course kids of a divorced relationship will have to grieve the end of their parents’ relationship, and, inevitably, they will experience problems – as a result of seeing one parent at the weekend, or changes in circumstance – but is this really any worse than one parent dying? Is it worse than living with parents who loathe each other, growing up watching a verbally or physically abusive relationship, or even growing up living with redundancy, poverty or other social problems that can make life tough for kids? Surely there are times when parents being separated are better for kids than them staying together?
Having said that, one thing I never ever intended to do was to bring my children up in a single-parent household. Although I would never have stayed in a relationship where I was desperately unhappy just to make sure the kids had both parents – apart from anything else, I think that’s a far more toxic relationship example to set for children than divorce. In fact, when I discovered E’s relationship with K, back in 2008, one thing that I was absolutely clear about was that I didn’t want to be with him, if he didn’t want to be with me. I told him that if he was in love with her, he was welcome to go. The last thing I wanted was to stay together ‘for the sake of the kids’. I was with E because I thought I was in a happy, stable relationship (the kind that would produce super-academic, slim, kids with no mental, physical, social or relationship difficulties), so when my relationship with E ended, it was a huge shock for all of us (well not for E, I’m guessing he’d been thinking about it for around 10 years).
So. How are my kids? Are they ok? Have they started on the path to clinical obesity (I am a single, working mother after all)? Are they mentally and physically well? Have E and I launched them into adult lives that are doomed to failure?
The answer is difficult, because, obviously, the split has affected them all. There are areas where they very definitely have been affected mentally and possibly physically by what’s happened, but there are also places where, whilst they haven’t exactly benefited, they’ve certainly gained in strength and resilience.
It’s not all E’s fault (not quite), in the early days after he’d left, I was very distressed and the kids frequently saw me upset and occasionally saw me drunk. I know I should have handled things better in front of them, and I think for the last 18 months or so I’ve been quite good. I’m very careful not to be abusive about him, I never put the kids in the middle, or use them to send messages to E. I’ve also always been careful to emphasise with all of them that, no matter what has happened, or happens, he’s their Dad and he loves them. But, I’m well aware that my behaviour in the early days after the split, made what was a deeply distressing and difficult time for them even harder.
The most obvious thing that comes to mind when thinking about the impact of the split is Youngest Daughter’s overdose attempt. There is not a shadow of doubt in my mind that this would not have happened if E hadn’t left (or, more accurately, left and then got married without telling his children). Youngest Daughter would doubtless have struggled with her mental health if he had stayed (not least because her relationship with him was particularly rocky), but E’s leaving hurt her deeply and made her very angry. I’m not saying it was E’s fault (I was the parent at home, I should have spotted the warning signs), but it was the final factor in a series of events that tipped her over the precipice.
I think it also affected Youngest Daughter academically. When E left she was just starting her GCSE year. She got the triple whammy, of the new ‘more rigorous’ GCSEs, a surge in teenage hormones, and the confusion and pain caused by her Dad leaving. Because of these three things, I watched her predicted grades decline, from 5s and 6s at the end of 2016, to 3s and 4s in her final school report before she took her exams. In the end, given what she was going through mentally (her exams were just a few months after her overdose attempt), it was a bloody miracle that she took the exams, let alone pass six of them.
Oldest Daughter, on the other hand, was certainly not affected academically. In fact she excelled at her A Levels. She has said that she focused on her work as a way of escaping what was happening with her Dad – so, in a perverse way, I guess she benefited from E leaving. However, she has suffered with her mental health as a result of what’s happened. She always was a perfectionist who was very hard on herself. She has high standards and her Dad has let her down very badly. She really struggles to understand and accept his behaviour – he’s her Dad, she loves him, but increasingly she is struggling to like him (especially over the last few months). She’s the first port of call, after me, for her siblings to talk to, which means that she has a lot more on her shoulders than she would have done if E and I were together. She’s also been hit harder by E’s withholding Child Maintenance much earlier than any of the children. Not only, has this meant that I’ve had to stop paying her the money I was sending her every month to top up her loan, but she is facing the fact that the only way for her to get the financial maintenance she is legally due from E, is to take him to court herself – which is a massively stressful thing for her, especially because all she wants is for her Dad to the decent thing.
Strangely, it’s harder to tell how E leaving has affected the boys – even though in some ways, the shape of their lives have changed the most as a result of E’s departure. They are reminded of what has happened every single time they see their Dad (which was originally fairly regularly, and for a whole day, but now seems to be fortnightly, or less, and only for an afternoon). They spend all week wondering if they’ll see their Dad (E rarely lets them know if he’s seeing them until a day or so, sometimes the night, before), so there’s a level of constant uncertainty for them, which must constantly inform their consciousnesses. Then, on the days when they do see him, they don’t say anything (nor do I), but the tension in the air (especially if Youngest Daughter is around threatening to confront him) is palpable.
In some ways I feel sorriest for Oldest Son. Whilst the other three have all acknowledged that they’re unhappy with the way their Dad has behaved and are either hurt and angry (Youngest Daughter), or hurt and disappointed (Oldest Daughter and Youngest Son), Oldest Son has steadfastly tried to remain as loyal as he can to his Dad. I catch him doing what I used to do, and trying to makes excuses for his Dad (when he initially stopped paying maintenance, Oldest Son spent two months trying to convince everyone that his Dad had ‘just forgotten’). The others are aware of this, and are careful what they say about E in front of Oldest Son – they don’t want to hurt him, or put him in a difficult position. It’s a lovely kind of compromise, that makes me proud of all of them – the one thing I didn’t want was them falling out because of their feelings about their Dad.
Oldest Son is the quietest of my children and the one that can be hardest to read, so I know there could be all sorts of things rumbling beneath the surface, but to be honest, he generally seems fine. Whilst he’s the kind of kid that questions everything intensely (religion, science, politics, ethics, morality), by contrast, when it comes to the people that surround him, he tends to be quite accepting of their foibles and I think this has helped him in the aftermath of the split.
I think Youngest Son struggles the most with what’s happened. He literally adored his Dad. He worshiped the ground he walked on. When E was in Singapore for a year without us (conducting his relationship with O), Youngest Son was the most notably affected – he was desperate for a ‘father figure’ and any male relatives or friends that visited were immediately latched onto. He frequently cried because he missed his Dad, and when E came home, I can still see him launch himself at his Dad, in a moment of the purest joy I’ve ever seen. By contrast, when I told the kids that E had left, Youngest Son’s reaction was a moment of the purest pain – I can still him, white faced, and curled up into a ball, needing an hour of cuddling just to get him to talk to me.
Youngest Son still needs his Dad in a fairly fundamental way. He deeply dislikes the way E has behaved, and he frequently uses his wicked sense of humour to point out E’s faults (physical and personal), but underlying all of this is a 12 year old kid that loves his Dad and just wants to see him. The fact that E is so unreliable re seeing him really upsets him (in fact, just last night, he was in tears, because he was so upset that his Dad had texted him to say he couldn’t see him for another two weeks). When he gets upset I hug him and explain that his Dad loves him, but that this job means he sometimes just isn’t free at weekends, but whilst Youngest Son understands this, thinking rationally doesn’t fill the massive hole in his life caused by his Dad’s departure. He doesn’t like the way his Dad has behaved, but he needs him and needs to see him for more than a few hours once a month.
The thing is, all four of my kids have been affected negatively by E leaving, and I can’t underestimate that – it’s had a massive impact on their lives. But will it affect their long-term physical and mental health? Will it affect their future career and relationship prospects? I really don’t think so. Whilst I wouldn’t recommend divorce as a way of encouraging closeness among siblings, E’s leaving has certainly created a bond between my children that will last for the rest of their lives. I’m hoping that far from ending up in unsatisfactory relationships, that the example of E’s behaviour has helped wise them all up to the effect that infidelity has on people’s lives and feelings. It’s forced them to grow up quickly and accept things that many people don’t even consider until they’re adults, but all of this has made them more resilient, not weakened them.
Would it have been better for them if E and I had stayed together? Of course it would – but only if E had been the decent, loyal, caring, supportive partner I thought he was. Sadly, he wasn’t. He was who he was, and staying with someone like that wasn’t good for me, and it certainly wasn’t good for my children.
I know that children suffer when their parents spit up, but, in the end, I think asking their Dad to leave because of his endless infidelities was possibly the best example of how to respect yourself, and conduct yourself in an adult relationship, I could ever have set my children.